Videograms of a Revolution / Videogramme einer Revolution
d. Harun Farocki, Andrei Ujica / Germany / 1992 / 106 mins
Viewed at: Starr Auditorium @ Tate Modern (London, UK)

If film is possible, then history too is possible.

Audiences are mighty interesting things. What one audience finds horrific and appalling, another might read as humour. And ‘audiences’, traditionally, have not been especially kind to the starkly brilliant work of German artist and filmmaker Harun Farocki.

By way of an example, the introduction for this screening Videograms of a Revolution – Farocki’s rigorous deconstruction of the audiovisual chronicling of the Romanian Revolution of 1989 – included an anecdote about its premiere in Berlin to an audience of precisely two individuals. For that reason, and others, this is among the last of Farocki’s films to gain a sanctioned screening in a commercial theatrical environment.

Far from the two individuals in Berlin, this free screening at TATE Modern played to a packed house, albeit one which remained a curious beast indeed. While there is some justification for the fits of laughter at the incongruity of the situations portrayed in Videograms, there seemed – to me, at least – to be a much more cynical undercurrent to much of the audience reaction.

Make no mistake, this was a very middle-class audience, in an esteemed, yet populist (and very high profile) arts institution. And for an audience which one might assume should ‘know better’, I detected a hefty slice of cultural condescension in the air, where everything on screen was turned over to an ironic reading, leaving it ripe for cynical derision. Subjected to such a viewing, the bewildered confusion of the Romanian citizenry becomes the stuff of bumbling, Eastern European stereotype, a kind of ‘couldn’t organise a piss-up in a Tuica factory’ attitude which belies the very seriousness of Farocki’s material.

I was actually quite shocked by some of the moments which the audience seemed to find the most amusing, to the extent that it almost felt like they believed they were watching some kind of reality television version of Borat. Of course, there is no point denying some of the genuine tragi-comedy of it all, but the laughter emanating from large sections of the audience seemed to suggest a much different reading to my own.

Then again, of course, we are faced with Farocki’s own wry take on the constructive, destructive and contrived nature of media in general, and film in particular. Farocki, I’m sure, is more than aware of the sheer ridiculousness of some of the situations, yet he refuses to shy away from the true focus of his narrative, the inherent difficulty faced by humans in displaying (and representing) power relationships with and to each other. As always, I find it difficult to watch a Farocki film without reverting to that classic aphoristic truism, beloved of both Wolf Koenig and Jean-Luc Godard, and which seems to form the bedrock for Farocki’s investigations of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ in the media: ‘Every cut is a lie’.

In order to locate his mediation of ‘history’ and ‘truth’ in Videograms, Farocki sets out to decentralise the ‘truths’ that are constructed by the Romanian media, as well as amateur filmmakers, and provides a canny examination of the ‘realities’ which emerge from what is transmitted and what is withheld, what is shown and what is obscured. Whilst ‘truth’ is being attacked on all fronts, Farocki attempts to use his formal mediation to arrive at a higher ‘truth’ about how they are constructed, and how they are delivered to an audience of Romanian (and international) citizens seeking revelation in the midst of chaos and turmoil.

Part of an unofficial lineage of the cinematic investigation of notions of revolution, which includes such classics as Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966) and Chris Marker’s Le fond de l’air est rouge / A Grin Without a Cat (1977), Farocki’s Videograms of a Revolution also provides something of a template for more recent investigations of revolution, such as Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (a.k.a. Chavez: Inside the Coup, 2003).

Transplanted to Venezuela, this film mirrors Videograms’ structure of revolution and attempted counter-revolution, whilst applying a critical eye to the portrayal of these revolutions within a televisual media ripe for manipulation, an ultimately corruptible force for the mediation of ‘truth’ in the face of revolution. Of course, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised has sparked vigorous debate on both sides of the Hugo Chavez divide, and given that both films are themselves audiovisual constructions, there is a sense that they (like the television news services they critique) are subject to equally questionable notions of representation and ‘truth’.

Nevertheless, they provide much needed food for thought because as filmgoers, we are consistently subjected to the same unchallenging narratives. As such, we should always be thankful that institutions such as TATE Modern provide an opportunity to view ‘history’ and ‘truth’ from a different angle via films such as Videograms of a Revolution. It pays to change perspectives occasionally, to challenge our perceptions of the world, and to remain aware of our duties to the morality of representation and the validity of its ‘truths’.

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