Mark Westmoreland

Mediating Anthropology in Beirut

Mark R. Westmoreland1

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The increased accessibility of digital video has facilitated the proliferation of self-
representations and “autoethnographies,” which provide important critiques of
anthropological and postcolonial idioms.  For example, video has played an
instrumental role in the emergence of Lebanon’s independent cinema, creating many
linkages between documentary, narrative, and experimental films.  Some filmmakers
utilize conventional models to get the perspective of underrepresented populations
broadcast and screened internationally, while others use more experimental
approaches to challenge presumptions of objectivity and realism as well as the
tautology of the Orientalist critique.  This paper discusses the way these filmmakers
enhance and complicate the project of “audiovisual anthropology.”

Visual media have become a pervasive and highly desired form of cultural expression
for those dispossessed of their histories, traditions, and land. Teaming with
transformational and constraining qualities, visual mediation has not been adequately
explored in alternative, non-western settings. For this reason, I am interested in the
interface between video and the historic record in recent documentaries made in
Lebanon. Nearly 15 years since the Lebanese militias laid down their arms, the
representation of violence and trauma continues to overwhelm the national imagination,
but official amnesia continues to restrict the representation of this conflict.
In this paper I would like to introduce several Lebanese artists using video for
documentary research, not in an endeavor to establish a factual record, but to situate
“representation itself as a politicized practice” (Jayce Salloum2). Each of these artists
combines documentary filmmaking and personalized narratives to critically engage the
fantastic tendencies of media and its ability to make certain “realities” believably real. In
this way, I wish to more closely consider how the guise of documentary research allows
new critiques of representation to emerge and fosters alternative theories about the
mediation of postwar society.

In a recent conversation I had with Lebanese video-maker Mohamad Soueid, he spoke
with frustration that most debates between the West and the Middle East are unable to
even agree on the terms of this dialogue. For instance, the veil and violence dictate the
frame of reference in the West, but for those in the Middle East the issues center on the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This discrepancy proves debilitating for productive dialogue
to emerge. And yet, these videos begin to create visual arguments about this
framework, which should help audiences redefine the terms of the argument. For
instance, Introduction to the End of an Argument/Muqaddimah Li-Nihayat Jidal (1990,
45m) shows how a very redundant set of parameters structures the relationship
between the West and the Middle East. This early video by the now highly acclaimed
Palestinian filmmaker, Elia Suleiman, and Canadian artist of Lebanese ancestry, Jayce
Salloum, features an astounding array of footage pulled from western popular media to
articulate a convincing, if skewed, representational framework.
Of course, like ethnographic films, these videos enjoy only limited exhibition and those
already “in the know” tend to benefit more than the uninitiated. Having said this, the
authors of these videos do deserve the attention of those trying to comprehend the
representational frameworks in the Middle East as well as those interested in alternative
approaches to the use of documentary media in general. These filmmakers creatively
approach the problems of representation through mimicry of the dominant media, thus
“attempting to arrest the imagery and ideology, decolonizing and recontextualizing it to
provide a space for a marginalized voice consistently denied expression in the media”
(JS&ES3). Borrowing from western mass media as well as local and personal
collections, these works try to revise the images and narratives that dominate the
western imagination. In fact, video documentary in Lebanon consistently revisits and
reinterprets the visual archive, trying to recalibrate the framework for mediating the
conditions of this region.
In Up to the South/Talaeen a Junuub (1993, 60m), Salloum teams with Walid Ra’ad to
offer a documentary about the conditions in southern Lebanon under Israeli occupation.
They offer an autoethnographic account of a particular context, while simultaneously
critiquing the frames of representation that govern documentary endeavors. By joining
abstract theoretical critiques with subject interviews and quotidian experience, they
illuminate terrain typically taken for granted in western media practices. Under these
conditions, Salloum and Ra’ad address the restrictive terminology that frames every
discussion around resistance vs. terrorism dichotomy. The authors of this video
extrapolate from this context a critique of “the representation of other cultures by the
West in documentary, ethnography and anthropological practise” (JS4). This enables
the filmmakers to bring the critique of Orientalism through the eye of a needle, by
continually shuttling between the critique and practice of representation.
In Salloum’s (This Is Not Beirut)/There Was and There Was Not (1994, 49m), he
continues his critique of western representations of the Middle East, but more forcefully
problematizes his own mediated relationship to Lebanon’s capital city. As a place he
largely knows through western media, he examines the representational processes that
govern his approach to the acquisition of visual material and the way they are used to
comment on their content. This self-reflexive awareness of the processes of
representation and mediation inspires several other artists concerned with documenting
the conditions in Lebanon.

Like many other Lebanese artists and filmmakers, Walid Ra’ad began collecting
materials and chronicling his experiences during the war from a young age. He
formalized this endeavor by establishing the Atlas Group (, an
imaginary foundation created for the purpose of researching the contemporary history of
Lebanon. The fastidious nature of the Atlas Group’s projects enables Ra’ad to
convincingly combine the practices of traditional historic research with fictitious
narratives. Set within the political environment of Lebanon, these narrative excursions
allow Ra’ad to make fabulous critiques about the representational models inherited from
western modernity. In multimedia demonstrations that draws on a real archive of
images, objects, and documents, Ra’ad’s fictitious histories exploits the power of
narrative and image to present a visual approach to critical theory. In this way, Ra’ad
examines “the ways film, video, and photography function as documents of physical and
psychological violence” (WR5).
In his project entitled, Missing Lebanese Wars (1999-2001), Ra’ad presents a number
of imaginary individuals who have reputedly documented their existence during the war.
For instance, Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, who is introduced as the foremost historian of the
Lebanese civil war, has archived a series of photo finishes at the racetrack. These
documents include notes on wagers made by different historians, who were not
gambling on the race itself but the position of the winning horse at the moment the
finishing photo is snapped. The comical element of this scenario should make the
audience suspicious of its authenticity, but also works to deconstruct the way the war
has come to be represented.
The “mimicry of the archive” thus helps bring into question the authenticity of history
(Rogers 2002).  And since Ra’ad hints at his disguise, his performance becomes a self-
reflexive effort to trace the transformation of objects into documents and documents into
facts. This not only dismantles the presumed opposition between fiction and history, but
also reveals the performance of memory. This differs significantly from the traditional
use of visible evidence to establish “what really happened.” The documents and
archives serve not as “emblems of fact or scraps of evidence but traces, symptoms, and
strange structural links between history, memory, and fantasy, between what is known
and what is needed to be believed” (Wilson-Goldie 2004:20). For Ra’ad fiction offers the
opportunity to imagine the impossible – the traumatic memories of the war in the case of
Lebanon. These draw attention to unconscious fantasies and their Freudian potential to
heal if appropriately revealed.
Bringing these types of fictive histories to bear on discourses about terrorism, Hostage:
The Bachar Tapes (2000, 18m) aims to address “the western hostage crisis” from the
perspective of the subaltern Arab man. Soheil Bachar, who claims to be the sixth
hostage taken captive in Lebanon in the 1980s, is an imaginary character inspired by
Soha Bechara. This “living martyr” spent 10 years in the infamous Khiam prison in
southern Lebanon for her involvement with the Lebanese National Resistance.6 In this
way, Ra’ad pairs the narratives of the western hostages with the occupation of southern
Lebanon and the captivity of its people. So instead of trying to author a narrative that
stands in opposition to the dominant one, Ra’ad inserts an alternative story within the
master narrative. And using the guise and terminology of historical research allows
Ra’ad to cloak his fictions in fact and thus to subvert the meaning constructed in
western discourse about the Middle East.
For example, he analyzes the way the other five hostages depoliticized their captivity
narratives. Removed from the historical context, these men use their kidnapping to tell a
tale of personal transformation. Driven to the Middle East to escape social norms at
home, or as Bachar/Ra’ad say, “failed masculinity relations to heterosexual domesticity”
(Raad 2002:135), the perceived threat of homosexual desire among each other and by
their captors apparently rehabilitates each of them. Bachar thus uses his fictional
experience, as an Arab hostage among these western men, to analyze the way they
document their captivity to both emasculate Arab masculinity and strip their captivity of
social and political context.

While Ra’ad mocks the archive, he also serves as a member of the Arab Image
Foundation (Fondation Arabe pour l’Image),7 which has helped these artists to avoid
making a redundant critique of Orientalist representations of the Middle East. By
simultaneously promoting photographic practices and collecting the photographic
heritage of the Middle East and North Africa, AIF offers an alternative archive from
which to advance critiques about the visual record of the region. As one of the
masterminds behind this organization, Akram Zaatari has overseen the collection of an
extensive photographic archive from art collectors, photographic studios, and family
albums. Utilizing this emergent archive, Zaatari has produced several publications,
videos, and exhibitions. These efforts help galvanize the importance of reassessing the
western archive vis-à-vis this emergent collection.
In his efforts to chronicle the work of Middle Eastern photographers, Zaatari joins
biographical narratives about photography with an analysis of modern desires to
mediate the transformation of social identity. In this way the modern history of the
Middle East re-emerges from this alternative record of snapshots and portraits. Middle
class sensibilities showcase new acquisitions and modern lifestyles, but it is in the
semiprivate space of the photographic studio that individuals imagine an alternative self-
identity – dressing up or dressing down depending on one’s whim.
In Her+Him Van Leo (2001, 32m), Zaatari utilizes the AIF archive to explore the work of
Van Leo, a prominent Cairene studio photographer during the mid-20th century. At the
beginning of the video we are told that the filmmaker has found a Van Leo portrait of his
grandmother in his mother’s closet. This discovery of this semi-nude photo among his
family’s belongings prompts Zaatari to immediately visit Van Leo in Cairo. As the video
progresses the story about the photo of his grandmother starts to change. By
destabilizing her identity Zaatari apprehends the desires of women like his grandmother
to use these secret meetings at the studio to explore new forms of self-expression. His
conversation with Van Leo also allows Zaatari to call into question the relationship
between the photographer and his subjects, and to juxtapose the tradition of studio
photography with the practice of video art.
In his more recent video, This Day (2003, 87m), Zaatari demonstrates the various
frames from which the Middle East is seen.  A vision of the desert emerges as we see
images of a manuscript, an archive, and a windshield. Indeed, “an aesthetic sense for
the desert” emerges around certain modes of transportation – like a broken down jeep,
camels, and, of course, the nomadic Bedouin, “whole and noble.” While digitally
panning across several ethnographic photographs taken by prominent Syrian Arabist
Jabrail Jabbur, his granddaughter narrates her memories of these images and Jabbur’s
quest to document this “vanishing” culture. Zaatari’s research then leads him into the
Syrian desert in search of the participants photographed by Jabbur 50 years earlier.
Zaatari’s work fascinates me the most with his ethnographic explorations into the
archive’s history, “at once an extroverted voyage in geography and an introverted
voyage in the recording of everyday” (Zaatari 2005:162).
In This House (2005, 30m), Zaatari traces the history of a simple letter in order to
explore “the dynamics that govern image-making in situations of war.” After interviewing
a colleague about photojournalism, Zaatari discovers a back-story about this man’s
participation in the Lebanese resistance against the Israeli occupation of southern
Lebanon. But rather than sensational stories of war, the man tells the story of the house
he and his troop based their resistance. When the Taif amnesty was signed and he was
ordered to surrender his weapons, he buried a letter for the owners of the house in their
garden.  Compelled to unearth this object, Zaatari reveals the way political forces
become engaged by the search for wartime documents. Indeed, the idea of something
buried in the garden was enough to prompt several members of the police and military
to be present during excavation. By showing the way this banal object suddenly
requires surveillance, Zaatari tries to demystify the process of intelligence gathering.
Instead of claiming to uncover undisclosed images or even alternative histories, which
would privilege the status of the archive, he endeavors to map a terrain of permissible
visibility. Zaatari thus endeavors to trace the production, acquisition, and circulation of
images, by utilizing various methods and perspectives available to the digital

The video-makers in Beirut thus open an important ‘parallax’ perspective to both
western representation and national narratives. The reflexive treatment of the archive
and the acquisition of documents in these videos invigorate new ways of mediating
postwar society and analyzing the visual heritage of the Middle East. In Lebanon, where
society has undergone a “surpassing disaster,” it is important to acknowledge that not
only is justice withdrawn but also the materials of tradition (Toufic 2000). So in the
absence of legal redress, Borneman (2004a; 2004b) argues that new narratives must
emerge able to disturb ossified perspectives, situate accountability, and release future
generations from permanent liability. A reinvention of the archive in Lebanon may
provide these potentials.

Note: In my visual presentation I will combine textual documents with audiovisual media
in much the same way these artists present their visual research. This multimedia
layering will highlight some of the visual material referenced in the written portion of the
paper and demonstrate key aspects of their visual techniques.


BORNEMAN, John, ed., The Case of Ariel Sharon and the Fate of Universal
Jurisdiction. Princeton: Princeton University. 2004a Events of Closure, Rites of
Repetition: Modes of Accountability. Settling Accounts, Truth, Justice, and Redress in
Post-conflict Societies, Harvard University, MA, 2004b.
RAAD, Walid, Civilizationally, We Do Not Dig Holes To Bury Ourselves. Tamass:
Contemporary Arab Representations Beirut/Lebanon 1:122-137. 2002
ROGERS, Sarah, Forging History, Performing Memory: Walid Ra’ad’s The Atlas
Project. Parachute 108:68-79. 2002
TOUFIC, Jalal, Forthcoming. Volume 9. Berkeley: Atelos. 2000
WILSON-GOLDIE, Kaelen, The Atlas Group Opens its Archives (Profile: Walid
Raad). Bidoun: Arts and Culture from the Middle East 1(2):16-25. 2004
ZAATARI, Akram, This Day. Home Works II: A Forum on Cultural Practices:162-77.

Filmmaker and doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin,USA

Jayce Salloum features Soha Bechara in untitled part 1: everything and nothing (2002, 40m).