Ela Bittencourt on Ghost Hunting
Palestinian filmmaker Raed Andoni’s Ghost Hunting, which won a special prize at the 2017 Berlinale, is a relatively cool and sober restaging of interrogations and tortures suffered by prisoners in the Israeli interrogation center Moskobiya. Resistance to such a film is understandable, for what viewer in her right mind could wish to see the powerless relive their moments of suffering, humiliation, and despair? More importantly, can we hope that those moments bring forth catharsis? Some of the film’s critics, such as Jay Weissberg writing from Berlin for Variety, deny such a possibility, dismissing psychodrama as an “outdated idea of therapy.” The ethical questions that Weissberg raises about documentary filmmakers addressing trauma in this way is not new—it was widely discussed when Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing premiered in 2012, though there it was the torturers who were called upon to restage their acts. Weissberg’s dismissal of psychodrama is a position that goes against ongoing therapy practices, and also discounts the power of storytelling. But as Ghost Hunting demonstrates, the transformation of a victim or a powerless bystander into a storyteller is one of the most meaningful gestures that cinema has to offer trauma survivors. And while Weissberg is right to question whether this necessarily produces a cinematic effect, the idea that cinema fails if it can’t rid humanity of its specters, after calling them up, rings unduly harsh.
Ghost Hunting starts out surreptitiously: a black-and-white animation by Luc Perez (who later in the film is shown onscreen drawing other figures) of a prisoner seated in an empty room, followed by a series of brief interviews that Andoni carries out with prospective actors. Some of the Palestinian men have been actually imprisoned in the Moskobiya center; others are technicians seeking work who saw the director’s ad placed in a Ramallah newspaper. The casting calls pass quickly. With no taping or elaborate scene work, they seem deliberately procedural. Then the building of the set begins. Two of the actors chosen to play prisoners are placed in a small cubicle while around them set builders go about their work. Suddenly one of the two men is dragged out into the open (“don’t tell them anything,” the other man calls out), a burst of violence in a prosaic setting. This rupture becomes Andoni’s method: a series of adrenaline peaks contrasted with more mundane stretches and shots of workers arguing over the details of what other areas of the “prison” still need to be built and how, or who’s in charge. In this way, the film constantly breaks down, in order to escape the trappings of straightforward melodrama.
Reenactment as method goes back to the very heart of documentary, from Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) to the powerful political films that came in the wake of censorship and repression in communist Eastern Europe (Poland’s Marcel Łoziński and Marek Piwowski come to mind), and to the political films of directors as varied as Masao Adachi (Prisoner/Terrorist, 2007) and René Vaultier (To Be Twenty in the Aures, 1972), which took on violent conflicts in Japan and Algiers, respectively. As in all of these films, Ghost Hunting’s ultimate point does not lie in merely reenacting the trauma, but rather in the nuances—the surplus of contradictory feelings, the dark humor, the contextualizing, the bodily language, and finally the words. All these make the film’s final impact far more complex than one would assume. In the end, to stick with Ghost Hunting, against one’s natural recoiling from it, is to be drawn into the mechanics of not just power but also, more importantly, of human resilience (and, in the former prisoners’ case, active resistance).
Take the moment in which Mohammed Khattab, a prisoner in real life who now plays the interrogator (with a trained theater actor, Ramzi Maqdisi, playacting as Khattab in his original situation as prisoner), demonstrates how the prisoner is kicked repeatedly in the knees, after refusing to kneel, so he has no choice but to buckle. Khattab explains how outlawed techniques—banging the prisoner’s body against the wall—and bodily humiliation are used to break him; how he was denied access to the bathroom and peed in his pants. “And then?” the filmmaker asks. Khattab replies that if you resist, a sense of strength washes over you, a “trance.” “Even with the pee covering your body?” the filmmaker asks, incredulously. “Who cares about the pee? The strength is here,” Khattab points to his head. This might seem like a cliché, if it were not counterbalanced by other sobering moments, such as one in which a young man is asked if he knew any men who committed suicide at Moskobiya and responds, “My brother,” and adds, “There are important details in the cell.” As he walks away, the camera captures the makeshift plywood erected to imitate a prison wall—reminding us how much will always be left out, how little we can do to “reconstruct” a mental landscape of terror.
Like Adachi’s in Prisoner/Terrorist, Andoni’s mise-en-scène is bare bones, although where the former resorted to visual effects that deliberately veered into the hallucinatory and maddeningly parabolic, Andoni never abandons his more simplified approach. There is no special lighting or atmospheric shots. Rather we are always in a clinical setting, which at times recalls the power of Brazil’s master documentarian Eduardo Coutinho’s understated conversational method (suffering being a recurring theme). To be sure, there are fraught moments, such as when a crew member accuses Andoni, “You want us all to be pawns in your game of chess,” a serious charge that the filmmaker denies and therefore fails to develop as a valuable, thoughtful challenge to his method. Still, parts of the film are gripping: much of the credit goes to Maqdisi, whose centered, quiet persona powerfully conveys the spirited bravery of even tiniest resistance, such as demanding to go to the bathroom. The tight framing, favoring medium shots and close-ups, draws us into a game of tense glances and gestures. In one difficult scene, someone off camera—Khattab?—instructs Maqdisi to laugh while his body is used as a mop to clean his own piss off the floor. The camera pans to the face of Khattab, whose real humiliation is being depicted—the same man who previously said that piss was nothing as long as you felt strong. Now his face breaks into a smile, but an eerie one, as if he might cry. Next he steps into the scene as director and asks Maqdisi to sing a song, “We are telling you a story here/That shows your real faces”—enigmatic lines, addressed to viewers and torturers alike, whose emphasis ultimately falls on the telling. To tell is no simple matter, Andoni thus reminds us. Sometimes it’s the bravest thing you can do.