Culture

Reblazing the trail of a pioneering Lebanese video artist

Interview

BEIRUT: Three men pose on an asphalt playground in Paris, each bent over with his hands on his knees. Situated in the background, mid-ground and foreground, the staggered figures give depth to the otherwise shallow video image shot through Lebanese filmmaker Mahmoud Hojeij's camera.

The opening scene for Hojeij's 2006 short film, "We Will Win: The Arab-Israeli Conflict in Eight Minutes," establishes the work's structure - the seemingly Sysiphean task of getting three men, two Israeli and one Lebanese, to play a simple round in the childhood game of leapfrog. In theory, the third man vaults over the second and then the first. If he does, they win. If either of the two refuses to hunch and chooses to stand, they lose. In ever more obvious allegorical terms, no one wins in "We Will Win."

The Israeli actors, Uval and Amir, do their best to make nice with Ziad, played by Lebanese video artist Ziad Antar, who often collaborates with Hojeij both on and off screen. But all three degenerate into boyish foolishness and adolescent provocation, alternately insulting each other's manhood and engaging in group hugs. More than once, the director abandons his post behind a tripod-mounted camera to intervene.

"Please behave," Hojeij shouts before stepping into the frame to illustrate the actions he wants his three characters to execute. The sun, meanwhile, sinks more and more deeply into the right-hand corner of the rolling image. As the sound of the characters' voices recedes in the distance, the noise of the playground's chirping birds takes over.

Though he shot it several years ago, Hojeij shelved the footage for "We Will Win" for more than a year before editing it down into a film. This came after a four-year hiatus. Most of Hojeij's videos date back the period between 1998 and 2002, when the local scene for such works first began percolating.

Over the past 10 years, the narrative of Beirut's contemporary art renaissance in the mid-1990s, with pioneering video makers such as Mohamed Soueid and Akram Zaatari, has acquired near-mythic status. The television industry, not your average instigator of the avant-garde, provided infrastructure and resources  - Soueid worked for Tele Liban and Zaatari for Future Television. Lebanese universities began offering audio-visual courses. Artists Jayce Salloum and Walid Raad returned from abroad with multiple editing suites to share and master. Associations like Ashkal Alwan, the Ayloul Festival and Beirut DC took shape and nurtured the production of new, non-commercial work.

All of this happened, however, within relatively small circles, and to this day none of Beirut's video artists have a sustained public profile. Their videos are screened in local festivals and then gone. Only the associations that remain - Ashkal Alwan, Beirut DC, plus a few others that have emerged since - have amassed archives that are available to the public but require a degree of initiative to seek out.

Ten years later, some of the artists who made Beirut's contemporary art scene a tangible subject with which one can meaningfully engage are putting their work out again and in more accessible formats, with the help of key organizations who believe in what they've done. Ten years later, the process of critical reflection may benefit a wider audience.

"We Will Win" is Hojeij's most recent piece, currently making the rounds of international film festivals and screening most recently in Rotterdam last month. Hojeij planned to include it on a new DVD compilation of his work - five short videos and a sampling of advertising assignments - released Tuesday by the independent film, music and book distributor Incognito. But after another war with Israel last summer, he backed off "We Will Win" and replaced it with the first video he ever made, called "Once," while he was a student at the Lebanese American University in 1996.

The timing wasn't right anymore, Hojeij suggests, and he didn't want to answer any questions about how he found and worked with two Israeli actors in Paris. Plus, what he filmed as farcical playground high jinks took a weird turn toward actual events on July 12.

"Sissy people," Ziad spits at the camera with more humor than venom. "Each did three years of army and their hands are cold. Look at these," he says, displaying his own mits and cracking up in laughter. "This is Arab. This is man."

"Ziad, do you trust them?" asks Hojeij. "No, I don't trust them," he answers. "I never trust Israelis. It's" - more cracks of laughter. "It's in my culture. We don't trust Israelis. We kill Israelis."

At this point Uval interjects and Hojeij rushes onscreen to diffuse the mock tension, leaving Ziad alone with the camera. "No, I can't kill them," he confesses solemnly. A beat passes and his eyes light up. "But I can sell them."

Hojeij returns. "Let's invite them and sell them," Ziad tells him. "To whom?" Hojeij asks. "To Hizbullah," Ziad replies. He turns to ask Uval and Amir to come play this game in Lebanon. They squeal in horror. "You see? This is the end of Israel," Ziad says.

In many ways, it's a shame not to see "We Will Win" on Hojeij's compilation, entitled "Mahmoud Hojeij in Short." It crystallizes all of the element that surface here and there is his earlier films - the use of games, an emphasis on vernacular street talk, a yearning for childhood, the strange and humbling sensation of success as failure and an atmosphere of playfulness that makes political critique more palatable, even as it risks being misread. (Is Ziad seriously saying it's in his culture or is he recycling - and by doing so critiquing - a piece of rhetoric that serves the interests of both Arab leaders who want to shore up their power and Israeli leaders who want to justify their military might?)

Looking back at Hojeij's films - such as "Once," "Beirut Palermo Beirut" and "Shameless Transmission for Desired Transformations per Day" - one grasps the remarkable level of intuition that fuels his artistic practice. He insists he cares little for technology or production values and argues: "I am a storyteller at the end of the day and I need to tell [viewers] my stories, or theirs."

Several of Hojeij's films deal with the camera as physically present - in "Sa Carapace," how his niece as archetypal child throws a royal tantrum when she first seems the camera but slowly warms to and eventually falls in love with the device; in "Once," how little kids indulge their curiosity in front of the camera when they are alone but perform rigidly for it when their parents are around.

Others explore the material texture of video (and digitally shot images of grainy television screens). "Beirut Palermo Beirut" opens with a quote from Tony Oursler likening video to water, and "Shameless," with its text equations and its magical visual flourishes, may be Hojeij's strongest aesthetic effort.

Both "Beirut Palermo Beirut" and "Shameless" are also, in a sense, archeological. They use role playing and re-enacted experiences to peel off layers of behavioral artifice and expose anxieties, humiliations, the truth or the self laid bare. "Beirut Palermo Beirut" is a record of endured disappointment and "Shameless" recounts the stories of people who've had their vehicular sexual experiences disrupted by the police, shedding harsh light on how people speak of women and sex thanks to a particularly loquacious vegetable vendor.

"Videos here are made solely on intuition and a lot of emotions," Hojeij says. "Out of pain we create and out of creation we understand and not vice versa. We do things because we feel that they are missing, and only later on [do] we start to understand them."

Back on the Paris playground in "We Will Win," Hojeij's camera tilts up to a sky streaked with orange, as if bored with grown men playing games and eager for an image more sublime. Hojeij misses the jump. Or does he? The last lines of dialogue to be plucked out from the actors' conversation and splashed onscreen are "the end ... the game ... the jump ... the lie ... the right."

To make Hojeij's early videos more available is a great service to those interested in the work of Beirut's often accomplished but locally underexposed contemporary artists. The more who follow his lead, the better. When and if Hojeij puts out his next compilation, hopefully "We Will Win" will get the critical attention it deserves.

 

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