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Ghassan Halwani Interview (Erased,___Ascent of the Invisible)

A black and white still from the film Erased,___Ascent of the Invisible of a desolate street.

Ghassan Halwani is an animator and filmmaker whose debut feature film, Erased,___Ascent of the Invisible (2018), explores the thousands of individuals who disappeared amidst the Lebanese Civil War and the affect it has on their family, friends and the city of Beirut to this day. The film had its North American premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, where Christopher Heron talked to Ghassan about the making of the film and his relationship to the subject matter.

The Seventh Art: There are so many elements to the film, I’m curious what the order of production was, what came first?

Ghassan Halwani: At the beginning there wasn’t an idea to produce a film. What triggered all this was a poster that was put in the streets in Beirut in 2007. This poster was from an NGO that was holding an exhibition about the missing people at several locations around the city. I was walking in the street and I stumbled on the poster and it was designed with all the faces of the disappeared persons. They were small icons in a grid and it happened that I knew some of these people — a specific person let’s say — and I was struck to see his face in the street. I normally see his face in an intimate moment and it was striking to have this moment in the street.

Beside filmmaking and artistic work, I have a lot of work that I develop with the committee of the families, so I’m acquainted with the subject for more than 30 years. So, I couldn’t get this incident out of my mind for years, from 2007 when I saw the poster to 2013. I was very angry about it, so in 2013 I decided to go and search for this poster. I had to dig through six years of postering until I found the traces of one of these posters. As I was doing it, it wasn’t yet a film, but I decided to film this process, as a matter of collecting materials of something I wasn’t aware what it would be. When I found one of the faces and it happened that I also brought along the original photos of these people, I looked for his face in the images I had and I decided to heal the missing parts of his face. I couldn’t just stop there, the image was strong and I knew that I had a lot of information that I had been gathering for years. I understood that I have to step forward and say my opinion about this subject. It was the impact of this image I created.

I had a lot of baggage from this information that needed to be tackled, but I didn’t really know how to structure all this data. I was in parallel creating the archives of the missing person with the committee of the families. I went through a lot of these documents for years, so I had to start understanding what would be the possible elements that need to be tackled, because we cannot talk about everything. Let’s say that there were several chapters that needed to be tackled and I wasn’t looking into a line that would connect all these chapters. At the same time, I was thinking of the local public — not the audience, because it was not yet a film — but how to communicate this information to a public that is fed up with notions related to our civil war and unsolved cases up to now. The missing persons, there was a lot of work that was developed with films and activism, so I knew that I needed to really search for what would be the most appropriate form to communicate. Something written, like a book? I chose to do a film because I knew it was easier to communicate that way.

I knew it was complex to create an appropriate image that would answer all my requirements, such as representing missing persons. Everything started with my critique toward this form of representing them, the grid I saw on the poster. But what would be a possible image that would also trigger an interest from the public — a public that is being exposed to thousands of images every day, images of violence and related to subjects that they have been digesting, but are not digestible for years and years. I was thinking also of all the imagery they are exposed to through Facebook and videos. All the images that can be created for this subject have already been created, so it’s not a matter of creating a new image, but rather digging into the problematic images that are already done.

I started to develop each chapter I thought it was important to talk about: the representation of the missing persons in society, the problems of the mass graves, the changes of the city (its reconstruction, the booming real estate, the new shape and look of a civilised city)… I had to look in each chapter for a very specific and pertinent image. There was not a structure yet, but there were several chapters and an experiment that was running for each. I call them chapters, but they are themes. I wasn’t in control where each would lead to, I just knew what my questions were and my tools to find out. I wanted to exhibit this experiment while doing it with a possible audience. I want to go through the experiment with someone watching the film and to implicate this person with the experiment that’s running.

I spent a week in discussion with the editor before going into the images. I had a very specific, political plan that I needed to go through. During the creation, I wrote an article in a local journal and it had the political structure that I needed here. We tried to follow this structure and some of the chapters had to be taken out.

Did you always have the idea to prominently feature the off-screen interrogation over the erased image, the conversation that begins the film? Was it always the entry point, because it could be the end, the revelation.

Actually, this image came through when at an advanced point in the process. I wasn’t thinking about this image while I was working. The image, as I say in the film, was given to me by a photojournalist in 1999 and I was surprised when he gave it to me. I took it and put it in a drawer, I didn’t want to look at it, but it stayed in my mind for years, like the poster. For years, every calm moment it came back in my mind and I had the same questions. Why would this person decide to give me this image? I don’t know what to really do about it. When I was working on one of the animations in the film, the image popped up in my mind, so I took it from the drawer. The first thing I did was to erase it. I was thinking, at the same time as doing this, of the images related to Hiroshima. There were images where we could see only the shadow of the person that remained due to the heat. The shadow was the only witness of the presence of a person. When we decided where to place our image, we put the whole discussion in one block. It starts with the photojournalist trying to describe this image and then comes my thoughts on the image, why I decided to erase it. We thought it was a strong element to start with, but we couldn’t use it all, because it would be nine minutes long. It’s good to introduce the film with this complexity, an erased image that remains on screen for six minutes. I thought: this is where an audience makes the decision to stay or leave. Going nine minutes would be more adventurous, but I need to go back to this image on another term, so this was where we decided to split it into two parts.

The film is an essay film, but by starting with the erased image, it also evokes the mode of the detective, it’s an investigation. Had you thought about that mode?

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t really thinking of this démarche of the detective. When I deal with the articles and with any other element, due to the reality that there was not serious work done on these matters by the state or authorities, there is always something enigmatic in the process. Whether it’s related to what’s happening with the mass graves or the missing persons themselves, their archive and materials, there’s something that was not processed officially by the state. When you need to work on this, you’re obliged to do work that has not been done. When it looks like detective work, it’s something that’s mandatory. When the work is not done and you need to do it, it has to look like an investigation. I was trying to constantly remind myself about my status, my position: I’m not an investigator, I’m not part of the authorities or someone with responsibilities, I’m not an advocate or making an activist work, I’m not a victim… I was constantly trying to put myself in the right position. This position is someone who asks questions and has information and tools to work with without any other authority. I’m a little disoriented with the word “investigation”, I understand why you say this. I put a loop on the images and they’re on the table, I present documents — it can be an investigation, but it can also be tools for research.

At what point did you know that one of your tools would be your role as an animator? Were these portraits always part of the work or was it a response to the information you uncovered?

When we have a certain professional title, the tools that are subject to this title come immediately to our mind. I am animator, so I will do an animation. Yet, it was something that I also had to destroy with my identity — this is not required. So I completely erased the possible use of animation from the whole process, but while I was working there was this question that was constantly related to how we represent the missing persons. The family of the missing person show his portrait, his photograph, his image, his identity photo. This is a discourse, the discourse of the family. Then you have society, which tries to represent him, takes the same images and reproduces them. I had a problem with this choice of society, whether it’s NGOs or the state. I understand it as the discourse of the family, but when we are another entity, we have to produce another kind of discourse: a discourse of responsibility. How can we represent a missing person? The identity photo has specific requirements: you cannot smile, it’s an official image, and this does not represent us. When I look at my passport, I know it’s not me. I know it’s me for the official authorities, but it’s not me. I was trying to look into the moment of when this photo was taken. I didn’t want to create cyborgs, to have the representation of the missing persons go through my own imagination or my own creation. The photo was the base of everything, trying to look at it and understand the moment, I understood I wanted to shift my position from the position of having a frontal look at the person to looking to him from the side. So I had to go to the anatomy drawings and understand this shift. Yet it wasn’t about animation, it was about changing the point-of-view. If we look at the side portrait, maybe we will have a more human gaze toward the person. When I had the first finalised portrait, I was struck by the strength of the image. The portrait of this man was taken in a public garden, so I also used the space where this photo was taken. Suddenly, I realised that to get really to the person, it’s about getting a moment in time. This side portrait needed time. I didn’t want to implicate my own creation, to be restrained to what the image represents. I didn’t want to create movement in the person. The time was provided by the blow of wind, just a few seconds to feel the moment. I decided to use animation in its very simple definition, to give life to your image. I just needed to give life for a short moment that would allow us to have a more human gaze at the missing man.

Another point of view that the film has a lot is the overhead shot, when you have the poster or books on a table, the lightbox, aerial photography of the city. Was that an angle you noticed recurring a lot during the process?

It started with the situation of how I was producing the film. I was in my small room, it took several years to make the film, so I just needed very little material. I didn’t want to have a lot of things to manage, I wanted something easy to handle. It was clear that I needed a camera to be fixed, to focus on the work I was doing on the table. I didn’t want a cameraperson, I just needed to be alone. It started like this and after a while I understood that it’s creating the visual orientation of the film. Using the aerial photos was something that I didn’t calculate as relating to the position of my camera, it was also a choice of distance from the mass graves. At the beginning, I wanted to go to these places and shoot them, but I know it’s difficult to go there. In general, it’s difficult to shoot in Lebanon because you need permits and you have to submit what you’re working on to one of the military institutions that gives you this permit. You can’t just hand a script that says “I’m going to shoot mass grave areas”. Also, when I went to several of these areas, I felt that I don’t need to be here. No one needs to be here. There are some responsible people that need to be there and to do the work, but I don’t need to be here and the audience doesn’t need to be here. So I decided to create this distance by going that far with the aerial shots.

It’s also got an objectivity that helps place the space relatively for someone who hasn’t been there. The archival footage from within the dump, for instance, is harder to situate.

Yeah, I think you’ve said it, there’s a more objective perspective. It’s represented more as a study than pointing out a crime. There’s a layer that I wanted to avoid, which is to get into the discourse of guilt, that’s present, but it’s a very strong element to point towards the guilty. It will completely take the film in another direction. It might be more of a reportage. I wanted to avoid this discourse not because in general I want to avoid it, it can happen in another project. In this project, I just wanted to create a local debate before having an international debate.

Would you say that the film is the opposite of the “monument” of the waterfront re-development shown in the film, which tries to ignore everything including the debate?

Let’s say when I get into the waterfront, I get into pointing at a certain guilt — I don’t know if I’m using the right word with “guilt”. It’s clear that I have a specific statement and I claim it myself as a memorial for the missing persons, knowing that it’s the most prestigious real estate of Beirut, which is horrific. In that position, I give up the objectivity of my discourse and instead present my thought and my condemnation in a very clear way. I don’t think they are in contrast, but I want to make a separation between crimes. There are crimes that are committed during the war period and there are other crimes that are committed after the war. This was committed during a so-called democracy period where the republic is functioning as a democracy. The crimes that are perpetrated during the war were war crimes and this is where I maintain a certain objectivity and distance in relation to my discourse. As for the crimes committed after the war, during the reconstruction of the city on the basis of peace and a discourse of freedom — the free market — this is where I don’t maintain objectivity and I underline and I condemn. There’s a clear division between my two positions. I’m not saying I don’t condemn crimes committed during the war, but I have to separate the two sides of the history.

How did you know when to stop the project? You mentioned there’s room for other projects, it’s something that’s big, there are a lot aspects to it and chapters you didn’t use, so how do you determine what’s enough for one specific project?

In parallel to the film, as I said, I’m creating the archives of the missing persons that will contain the information we find during the film, but also all the other information. While I read this material, I realised the amount of narratives that come out of the documents and the amount of narratives that I can create on my own. They are there, you just need to link documents to each other to understand, let’s say, the perspective of the struggle of women (the struggle against the missing persons was mainly lead by women) during the Lebanese war. You can have this theme. Any person who is interested in the subject can weave these different themes that need to be tackled, just by consulting the archives. I know there are a lot of narratives that I have in my mind, but I say to myself, “I don’t want to create all the narratives.” I know many narratives, but now my interest is in creating this platform to let it become public and possibly be used by any person — whether doing research or writing a story. I don’t want to go and grab everything from this file in order to create projects, artistic or not.

There’s something I didn’t say at the beginning, but all the years before 2013, it was very clear to me that I will never tackle the subject of the missing persons through my professional work as a filmmaker or artist. The work with the missing person was something else that I worked with the committee of the families, but never bringing them into this professional work. In 2007, there was this image and I saw it again in 2013 and this is where I felt that I will break this decision that I made with myself and develop a work. I want to stop and now work on the archives and when I finish, I hope I can move forward to something else. I’m very much implicated with this question of the missing persons since my childhood, my very early childhood. I want to break this relationship with it because… There is the first generation of the families that have a missing person. This generation is getting old, a lot of people have died because of age. Then there is a second generation, so the problem hasn’t been solved until this day. The second generation is not obliged to live with the same struggle as their parents, they’re not obliged to inherit the struggle of their parents. It’s a very heavy struggle, it’s very dark and overwhelming. Somehow they will inherit it, but in my opinion, they don’t need to go through this struggle. The problem of the narrative of the families or their discourse is that it’s their own discourse, it has their own demands. If you don’t have a missing person, you don’t know what to do, you only feel responsible when you have a missing person in your family. Their discourse is a normal discourse, but the problem is that it isolates them. Anyone who doesn’t have a missing person will only come when they invite them for a certain event and show support, but beside this, they do not have to take responsibility. Due to this situation, the only solution for the continuity of this case is that the second generation will inherit the struggle of their parents, which is something that I refuse. I don’t wish for it to happen. Since I’m a second generation, this is something personal that I tried to avoid through the film. I didn’t make it clear how I’m related to the case of the missing persons, but since I’m someone from the second generation, I don’t wish to inherit.

This means that there is somewhere where I need to stop developing works and try to let others develop works related to the subject. This film and archive are my attempt to create a track on which we put all the elements we have, all the information, and we push on the track in order to go public. For sure, I would want to stop, after the archives, working on this specific problem, but I’m not sure if I will be able to stop. The whole project came because of my fear of inheriting. I don’t mind inheriting if I’m doing it as any other citizen from Lebanon, but just inheriting because on a biological level I’m connected, it’s just absurd. ❏

Our interview with Ghassan Halwani was conducted in September of 2018 and is part of our TIFF 2018 coverage along with an interview with Richard Billingham.

By Christopher Heron

Christopher Heron is one of the co-founders of The Seventh Art. He's conducted over 60 long-form interviews for the publication, while also writing and cutting several numerous video essays that investigate formal traits in films and filmmakers. He received his MA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto, where his work explored cinematic representations of urban space with special attention paid to the films of Pedro Costa and Tsai Ming-liang.