JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Georges and Anne argue about secrecy and honesty while the television caption reads, “Iraq: torture.”

Majid being taken away due to Georgesís lie, recalled in the filmís penultimate shot.

Images from the Straub-Huillet Cinetract

The first shot of the film: "Stop! Don't risk your life."

The dead end.

The gated home.

Cut to a long shot of the building behind the gates.

The superimposed words that appear as the dog barks: "Gas chamber. Electric chair."

Reverend Jeremiah Wright delivering a sermon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But let’s rewind a moment. The film does not this time offer us the same approach to the apartment. This time when the seeming protagonist of the film, Georges, approaches the door, we are waiting for him there, more closely occupying the subject position of a resident in the apartment building, witnessing the arrival of the bourgeois white man. We actually have been prepared for what is about to unfold. We have been being prepared throughout the film—if and only if we question the expected subject position we are coyly offered at its beginning—if we hold in abeyance the whole mechanism of identification that moves the narrative forward.

This returns us to the scene of the younger Georges’ betrayal of Majid, in which he accuses Majid of threatening him. Fearing for their son’s safety, his parents deny the Algerian boy a place in Georges’ white, bourgeois family and send him away to an orphanage, to an instrument of the very state complicit in his parents’ murder. Caché implicates us in the domestic horror of France’s brutal and violent colonial oppression of Algeria by urging us to identify with the symptom of that oppression—the bourgeois family that avoids seeing its comfort as in any way linked to past colonial violence, orthat is aware of it only as a potential threat to its imagined wholeness—while hinting that this identification is not a given, an always already of narrative. It is a structuring assumption. In case we don’t get it, after Georges leaves his boyhood friend dead in his apartment he…goes to the movies. He doesn’t call for help from a neighbor. He doesn’t call the police. He just leaves. In a shot following the suicide, we see him leaving the theatre, as if we were across the street observing him. That is his response to the absolute horror he has witnessed: to go to the movies. As have we.

Witnessing the arrival of Georges at the apartment. Georges exits the movie theatre following Majidís suicide.

Much has been made of Caché’s final shot, just before the credit sequence—particularly of the shifts in racial consciousness at which it seems to hint. A static shot takes in the front steps of a high school. The shot seems clumsy, amateurish; it is taken over the roof of a car. Is it another of the videos? Children come and go. Looking closely, we spot Pierrot on the steps, talking to friends. After a few moments, someone who could be Majid’s son comes up to him and takes him aside, talks with him heatedly, but they part with a smile. Did this precede the horror we just witnessed? Or does it follow, signaling a generational shift in attitudes? But that is more of the same misdirection as the question we seemingly are asked at the film’s beginning; it’s not an answer. The ending says, in effect, “Look closely: here’s the answer you wanted, the one you need to remain whole. Take it. It’s the answer to the wrong question, which is what you really want, anyway. Go, and be satisfied in yourself: you have been re-established.”

And so we go on, in the narrative that makes sense to us, that makes sense of us.

A shot of Pierrot leaving school earlier in the film prefigures the uncertain perspective of its closing scene. Pierrot and Majidís son talking in the filmís final shot.

Cinetract: in the banlieues circa 2005

Shortly after the Parisian banlieues caught fire in 2005, a video circulated on YouTube, and in film festivals.[2][open endnotes in new window] It begins with a black screen, on which flashes the number “1,” then “Europa 2005/27 Octobre.” A static shot takes in a wall in what appears to be a European, Francophone city. We suspect it is Francophone because there is a sign on the wall, in a script like graffiti, that reads, “STOP! NE RISQUE PAS TA VIE” (“Stop! Don’t risk your life!”). The camera hesitates here. In the background, there is the sound of wind, and of traffic. The camera pans to the right, up the street, to a dead end: a large building sits behind green metal gates topped with barbed wire. Another sign on the gates, also in “graffiti” script, yells, “STOP!” Its graphics seem to warn of eletrocution. The camera pans to a gated home with high-voltage power lines running behind it. A dog barks. There is a cut to a long shot of the building behind the gates. The camera pans left, following the wall, past latticework that looks vaguely Asian. Trees bearing pink flowers line the road. The dog barks again. Superimposed over the image appear the words, “Chambre a gaz/Chaise éléctrique.” The dog barks furiously. The screen goes black. Pause. The number “2” appears. The scene repeats. This will happen three more times, and the last time the camera will stop panning right before it gets to the gated home. Everything else will be the same—except that the light appears different each time, the time of day seems to change.

The video is by Jean-Marie Straub and the (now late) Danièle Huillet. They had been commissioned by an Italian TV show to celebrate Roberto Rossellini’s 100th birthday by imagining a moment in the life or death of Ingrid Bergman’s character in Europa ‘51 (1952). In that film, Bergman’s wealthy character comes to terms with the death of her son through encounters with the poor of Rome that are facilitated by a Communist friend. Straub and Huillet’s interpretation makes no direct reference to the film, beyond the title. Instead, it commemorates the day and place where two teenage Parisians, fifteen-year-old Bouna Traoré (from a family of Mauritanian origin) and seventeen-year-old Zyed Benna (from a family of Tunisian origin), were killed in a police sweep in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.[3] The boys died attempting to hide from the police in an electrical transformer. The wall we see in the video surrounds that transformer. Many news outlets in France, Algeria, and elsewhere, would mark these young men’s deaths as the spark that triggered the riots that surged across France in the fall of 2005.

As with the video that weaves through Caché, the narrative of this piece is unspoken. To have any sense of what you are seeing, beyond its seeming mundanity, you have to know what that date means: October 27, 2005. You have to know that two young boys died that day, and that their deaths are linked to uprisings by poor youth of color across Europe, violent burning protests against an existence that at times seems hopeless and marginal. Even with that knowledge, you are faced with ambiguity. Symbolically, the boys’ death suggests the futility of confrontation with the raw power of the state, of those mechanisms that convert that raw power into something called utility: this is the mechanism of the colonial process made material, and it is lethal. But that reading is cold. Two young men died; they weren’t symbols, they were people, they had their own material reality. They were teenagers whose life experience had led them to fear the police force and to expect its officers to treat them as less than human. Run to ground like prey, they died on October 27, 2005. In a state that forswears the death penalty as barbaric, Straub and Huillet suggest, by the only words besides “October” in the video—“electric chair” and “gas chamber”—that some are still condemned by that state to die. To Europeans, the words “gas chamber” suggest the Holocaust, the systematic murder of ethnic others by people made more European through that act of savagery.[4] Then Interior Minister and now President Nicolas Sarkozy would call the youth who rioted, who identified with those who died, “scum.”

Silence. The boys who died on that night had fled the police to avoid being detained in a random search, to be forced to produce their identity papers. This, in a state that until 1999 had refused to acknowledge its colonial war on Algeria, choosing to refer to it instead as a “security operation” to “restore order.” This, in a state that still struggles to voice its own contrition, that still disenfranchises “non-native” workers. No, not silence—traffic and the sound of barking dogs. And written words punctuated by exclamation points, a wall silently shouting a warning or threat of death.

Faced with death, we return, again, and again, to the aesthetic. The dead-end street. The wall that blocks our progress. The words, done in a script that imitates tagging, that feigns a connection to a subculture even as it acts as an instrument in its regulation. The panning back and forth, up and down the street evokes the movement of a security camera. Or, mimicking the shaking of the head, it makes a gesture of mute disbelief. Or, the act of reading and re-reading the scene, an attempt to make sense of something that refuses easy reading. There is no one here with whom to identify. There seems to be no one here at all: the bodies of Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna were found only when they caused a power failure that darkened the area.

There is no one with whom to identify. The narratives available, and which inevitably unfolded as the riots were covered in the press, could only describe the youth raging across the country as a symptom of post-colonial disenfranchisement, a condition for which no cure has been articulated. They epitomized the neither here nor there: born in France but marked always as members of immigrant communities. Visible, yes; identifiable, no.

The abrupt end of the pan during the last sequence. Burnt car in a Paris suburb. Photo: November, 2005, by Alain Bachellier, http://www.flickr.com/photos/
alainbachellier/
Burnt cars in a Paris suburb. Photos November, 2005, by Francois Schnell, http://www.flickr.com/photos/frenchy/

The Reverend Wright speaks:
“The chickens come home to roost.”

On September 16, 2001, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright delivered a sermon to his congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ, in Chicago, Illinois. In that sermon, he cautioned his congregants about the rush to war, the rush to vengeance, particularly in god’s name:

"We have moved from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents….violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred, and terrrorism begets terrorism…. What should our response be? I asked the Lord that question Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday…. The Lord showed me that this is a time for self-examination…."

But he also inveighed against the hypocrisy of an U.S. population that had visited its own suffering on others, and he did so in no uncertain terms, citing the former United States Ambassador to Iraq, Edward Peck, who was himself invoking Malcolm X—on Fox News—who  had said: “America’s chickens are coming home to roost!”

Wright elaborated on this statement, arguing,

“We took this country, by terror, away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arawak, the Commanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism. We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism! We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel. We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with Stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard-working fathers. We bombed Qaddafi’s home and killed his child. ‘Blessed are those who bash your children’s head against a rock.’ “ [Here, Wright is paraphrasing Psalm 137, verse 9.]

Trinity is a megachurch—with thousands of congregants and multiple services—so it isn’t surprising that the sermons are videotaped. It is not uncommon in large churches such as Trinity that tapes are provided for shut-in congregants or as inspirational sale items. These videos went largely unremarked for over seven years until it became apparent that Senator Barack Obama, a black man and a member of the Trinity congregation who had once called Reverend Wright his mentor, might become the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. Then, a very long, very involved sermon—which linked the attacks of September 11, 2001, to U.S. involvement in the history of Black slavery and to its colonial activities both domestic and international—was mashed together with another of Wright’s sermons, from April 13, 2003, and then reduced to sound bites, the one of which most played was:

“God damn America!”

Over and over on cable news, and on broadcast, too:

“God damn America!”
“God damn America!”
“God damn America!”

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