A Happy Man - Tunisia, 2011

People-image_jpg-

The following excerpt contains an analysis of a video filmed in Tunisia and posted to YouTube on January 17, 2011
 

—No one helped us! We won our freedom for ourselves! The Tunisian people made their own freedom! The Tunisian people made their own freedom!
—He is so brave! So brave . . .
—How great are the Tunisian people! Long live the Tunisian people! Long live free Tunisia! Long live Tunisia the great!

-Avenue Bourguiba, Tunis, Tunisia, January 14, 2011

You Have No Idea What This Feels Like
In this short clip, we hear more than we see a man walking up and down along a main artery (“the avenue,” as he calls it) of a North African city. As he walks, he improvises a poetic panegyric in honor of the people of his country and the freedom they have won for themselves. Yet the people of whom and to whom he speaks are nowhere to be seen. Indeed, as the clip progresses, it may seem that he is less assuming their existence than trying to conjure them into being. His entire performance seems designed either to make appear that which does not yet exist or to prevent or defer the disappearance of that which had briefly and provisionally emerged—or perhaps some combination of the two.

Nowhere is this hesitation between the actual, the potential, and the past more poignantly felt than in the complex use of alternating pronouns to figure “the people” whom he celebrates. Sometimes he identifies with or includes himself in “the people” (“We won our freedom ourselves!”); sometimes he excludes himself from the people by objectifying them as independent of himself or any other external party (“The Tunisian people made their own freedom!”); and sometimes he addresses himself directly to the Tunisian people despite their apparent absence. The fact that when he does so for the first time, he resorts to a kind of tautology (“O free men of Tunisia, you are free!”) suggests not only an elation that at times outruns the spontaneous verbal imagination, but also a real, if disguised, uncertainty as to whether those who are already free really are free, or whether they do not need to claim their freedom again (and again) in order to be sure of it. 

Read in this way, the performance that lies at the heart of this video could be seen as less an act of certainty and completion than as a sign of the people’s persistent failure to emerge fully, even in this the hour of their hour of triumph. The apparent emptiness of the street around this improvised orator would thus function as an ironic counterpoint to his triumphant words: as if the Tunisian people had chosen the moment of their greatest victory simply to disappear under cover of darkness. Yet, as he tries to populate the night with the shadows of a people whose existence he has glimpsed only for it to escape him, his solitude is both underscored and disrupted by the presence of the camerawoman who made this video and her companions, and in particular by their complex reactions of withdrawal from and participation in the drama unfolding below their window. 

This distance between the people at the window and the man in the street who proclaims the people is underscored by the interjections from the audience to which we, the viewers of the video, are party, but of which its protagonist knows nothing (as yet). As the man in the street below invokes the people of Tunisia, one of the women watching tells a friend over her cell phone: “There are three guys out on Avenue Bourguiba . . . .” And a few moments later, she both singularizes and amplifies her claim: “There’s a happy man talking in the street. You have no idea what that feels like!” This scene is received as, in some sense, a miracle—but one that initially moves the women at the window as spectators rather than participants.

Yet, while the happy man’s performance of his happiness may be more complex and ambivalent than it first appears, it nevertheless remains a moment of great joy. It is not undermined by the apparent absence of the people it invokes, to which it lays claim, and which it seeks to encourage into a more permanent existence than the fulgurations of that day’s events might in themselves seem capable of sustaining.

If this is so, perhaps it is because there are more people present in this video than just the three men in the street and the three women watching them from their window. (An alternative take of this scene makes it evident that the street is not as deserted as it might appear to us from the high-angle shot that defines this particular video. Still, for the purposes of the present analysis, the people who matter are those we can or cannot see in these shots, not those that would have been visible had the camerawoman run downstairs and out into the night.) And we are given a clue to the nature of this multiple presence very early on, when the first woman murmurs: “How many people died that this day might come!” The people who make it true that the people exist are not exclusively, or even primarily, the living people who are or are not out in the street tonight. They are the people who have given their lives, not just over the past weeks but over the many preceding decades—who have paid the price of refusing to submit to the sequence of authoritarian regimes that have ruled the country since before it ceased to be a French colony. The really existing people of Tunisia, those who are most obviously and most irreversibly free, are not those who are sheltering indoors, watching emotionally and nervously from their windows: they are the martyrs of the pre- and post-independence regimes and of the uprising that had begun three weeks earlier, on December 18, 2010.

Switch off the Camera!

Of course, there is a very simple and pragmatic explanation for why the (living) people of Tunisia are absent from this video. This clip was shot on the evening of January 14, 2011, the night that President Zineddine Ben Ali first dissolved his government and then fled the country. After a day of demonstrations and clashes with riot police outside the Ministry of the Interior (also situated on “the avenue” — that is, Avenue Bourguiba in the capital Tunis—only a stone’s throw away from this scene), the news that the regime had fallen began to spread. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi was named interim President in line with article 56 of the constitution and with the support of the army. While Ben Ali himself succeeded in leaving the country, many members of his family were arrested as they attempted to flee. A nationwide state of emergency was declared, which included a curfew from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m., a ban on all public assemblies and demonstrations, and instructions to the police to open fire on anyone suspected of contravening these orders. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that very few people are out on the streets. The mood of that night must have been a bizarre mixture of elation, confusion, and deep anxiety. This also explains the very specific resonance of the first woman’s opening remarks in French: “How brave he is! How brave!” The man celebrating freedom in the avenue—to give him his full name in “civilian life”, the barrister Mohammed Abdennacer Aouini—was doing so in open defiance of the curfew, within earshot of the Ministry of the Interior, and thus at some real risk to his own life (1). 

The event recorded in this video was one of the first to emerge from these revolutions through the YouTube ecosystem and capture the wider popular imagination not only in Tunisia, but across the region and beyond. I am phrasing this carefully, because anecdotal evidence suggests that it was not this particular video but in fact that alternative take of the same event referenced above, which was shot by Abdennacer’s friend who was beside him in the street (one of the three men referred to by the woman at the window in her commentary), which actually went “viral” in January 2011. In fact, it did not so much go viral as mainstream: extracts from it were shown on a quasi-permanent loop on many Arab satellite channels over the weeks following the fall of the Ben Ali regime. But the emotional power of the video discussed here seems to me incomparably greater than that of its better known companion piece. Whereas the street-level video simply records Abdennacer’s performance somewhat flatly, this video shot from a window high-up on Avenue Bourguiba dramatizes it in a way that reinforces and deepens the complexity and ambivalence of the scene.

It achieves this, I would argue, in three main ways:

1. By filming Abdennacer from such a distance that he is barely a figure—indeed, we can hardly see him most of the time, and when we can see him, he is just a small dot of white—it emphasizes both the fact that it is his voice which is important to us, not his physical appearance, and the “fact” of his solitude, despite his repeated invocations to the people. Framing a large fragment of basically empty street, reducing the three people in it to almost indiscernible marks, this video thus, by its “choice” of camera position, opens up a huge gap between the people whom Abdennacer invokes and his own situation as he strides up and down the avenue, isolated and vulnerable.

2. By placing the viewer not just at a distance, but with and among the three women in their apartment (whom we also hardly ever see, but whose very different voices and bodies we can hear and sense, as they comment, relate, discuss, weep and celebrate), it reinforces the sense of distance that separates those who have obediently stayed at home from Abdennacer, who has risked his life to go out into the street. The women’s reactions also dramatize before us and so allow us to recognize, a number of different possible reactions to Abdennacer’s act of bravery. One senses that one of the women (the oldest of the three?) is more diffident, more cautious, in her response, whereas the younger ones are more impulsive and more easily swept up on the wave of their emotions. In this way, we not only experience Abdennacer’s words through the effect they have on the women (their effect on both their words and on their bodies as they move about excitedly or shake as they shed tears). We also experience the possibility of a range of reactions to what he is saying, reflecting the differences between people’s individual temperaments. There may be no “people” down in the avenue, but there is already the microcosm of a people up here in this room with us. And that people is not a unified mass, but a choreography of singular bodies that is also a series of embodied points of view, which, while they coexist, do not necessarily coincide.

3. The form of the video itself further reinforces this sense of dramatization or even theatricalization. It opens with the curtain at the window being swept aside and closes with the window being closed again, on the insistence of the senior of the three women. Within the body of the video, there are basically only two shots: a near-vertical top shot down onto the sidewalk below and another at a slightly shallower angle taking in the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, and also—when it pulls back—allowing us to see in silhouette the woman who has gone to the window to recount the events to a friend with whom she is on the phone. However, the way in which the clip moves back and forward between these two camera angles, and the way in which the cuts (presumably done in camera) model our perception of time and space, are tantamount to a conscious manipulation of effect. Together, they work to produce a mounting sense of tension. First, we witness the scene going on in the street below. Then we withdraw a little to consider the effect it is having on the three women as viewers and thus by analogy on us, the audience of the film. Then we go back to a more direct engagement. And it is at this moment that the women emerge suddenly from their reserve and break down the invisible barrier that separates the scene outside from its audience, to provide a collective response to Abdennacer’s individual call. Then, just as suddenly (or so it seems), the police appear out of nowhere (in fact, from out of an ellipsis that separates the last two shots), and everything is closed down: the window must be shut, the camera must be switched off.

Tunisia Belongs to Us!

The progression I have just described embodies two separate but related movements that are central to the nature of the videos of the Arab revolutions (what I call, the “vernacular anarchive”) as a whole. We see the audience of the unfolding drama move from passive spectatorship to active participation as, unable to resist the call of Abdennacer’s voice, they take the risk of speaking out, of transgressing the boundary between private and public space. And in doing so, the people whom he invokes cease to be an absent phantom (as when they were present “only” as the ghosts of the martyrs), a mere projection, whether past memory or future potential (what Canetti in Crowds and Power (1960) called an “invisible crowd”). The Tunisian people are suddenly embodied there in the night air with him, in the three women’s voices as they ring out in response to his call. With their impulsive, self-certain first-person claim on all this land (“Tunisia belongs to us!”)—not just the small fragment imprecisely lit up under the sodium lamps here, tonight—their response answers his invocation with a confidence that is partly a function of the fact that it is a sudden irruption, and not a lengthy litany whose repetitions may seem to betray an underlying doubt. It is enough for the women to state it once, and its truth shines through, self-evident. The people are no longer absent or lacking. They are here. And we—the viewers—we are not looking at them. We are among them, we are one of them.

Of course, the video does not end on this note of supreme certainty. With the benefit (or obstacle) of hindsight, it is all too tempting to read the final intervention of the police—closing down the party, insisting that the windows be shut, declaring that “there is nothing to see”—as an anticipation of the counterrevolution that was to follow even those of the Arab revolutions that seemed, for a while, the most successful in translating social insurrection into political change. And it would be possible to construct an interpretation of these three minutes that casts these events in an almost wholly negative light. In such a reading, while the curtains open to reveal a scene of celebration, the one man who is celebrating is deluding himself. The people he invokes are nowhere to be seen, they are dead, or they have chosen out of cowardice to stay home. And when the police appear, those who had at one moment dared to think they might rebel simply submit once again and do as they are told.

Still, I am not sure that this reading is correct. Remember how the clip ends—with the third woman’s self-deprecating reference to her film as “only a bit of video.” This remark can be read on a number of levels. On the one hand, it is an ironic attempt to deny her own artistry, which only serves to highlight the formal complexity of the short film she has made and suggests that she is at least the equal in her own “art” of the (professional) orator Abdennacer. On the other hand, it is also an act of implicit resistance to her elder relative’s insistence that she stop filming, that she stop taking risks for the revolution. Denying that what she is doing is a “film” is a way of suggesting that she doesn’t need to stop filming, because she never started (though it is exactly at that moment that she does in fact switch her camera off). Thus, she ends her film by marking her persistent, and unrepentant, insubordination, even as she complies not with the police’s orders but with her relative’s plea for her to play it safe.

The Subject of the People

In The Time Image (1985), Gilles Deleuze famously adopted a phrase he attributed to Paul Klee: “The people are missing.” For Deleuze, these words encapsulate what he saw as the strength of the best political films produced since World War II. While mainstream cinema in both the United States and Europe continued to present an increasingly wooden and unconvincing image of the people as a single unified mass, directors such as Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, or Alain Resnais, showed us instead the absence of the people as a possible subject of any contemporary (Western) history. At the same time, though, Deleuze pointed to an alternative mode of political subjectivity that he glimpsed outside, or on the internal margins of, the West. In both the direct cinema of Pierre Perrault and Jean Rouch and the Third Cinema of Glauber Rocha, Lino Brocka, Yilmaz Güney, and Ousmane Sembene, the people are not so much missing (or lacking) as they are “yet to come.” In the context of the nation-building projects that accompanied the Third World independence struggles in particular, the possibility of a people could not be relegated to a rapidly receding past. The people that was emerging through these struggles belonged rather to a future that was perceived as both imminent and increasingly inevitable. If they were absent, it was not because they had been retired from history but because they were still in the process of being born. 

Deleuze’s binary oppositions in his Cinéma books, and his division of film history into two distinct periods characterized by phenomenologically distinct forms of image, have been criticized, notably by Jacques Rancière. In a seminal article later collected in La fable cinématographique (2001), Rancière uses a close reading of Bresson’s Au hasard Balthasar (1966) to demonstrate how the very possibility of the time-image in fact requires the persistence of the movement-image of the classical cinema that had preceded it within those works that are most characteristic of cinematographic “modernity.” However, we should perhaps also remember that Deleuze opened his Cinema diptych on the first page of The Movement Image (1983) by asserting that these volumes constitute not a history but a natural history, a vast essay in classification. And Dork Zabunyan, in Les cinémas de Gilles Deleuze (2011), has argued that the transition between the movement-image and the time-image should in fact be understood as nonlinear in nature, in line with the priority Deleuze accorded to processes of becoming over any merely chronological history.

Deleuze’s writings on “the people who are missing” would appear to depend particularly heavily on the prior division of film history into two successive blocks and so to be susceptible to Rancière’s critique. Yet again, it is clear that for Deleuze himself, the absence of the people was never an absolute historical caesura, something given once and for all. In his 1987 lecture on the act of creation at the Fémis, the French film school, he qualified his position in The Time Image in these terms:

What is the relationship between the struggles of men and the work of art? For me, their relationship is at once the closest possible kind of relationship, and also the most mysterious. This is exactly what Paul Klee meant when he said, “You know, the people are missing.” The people are missing, and at the same time, they are not missing.

In maintaining this paradox, Deleuze anticipates Georges Didi-Huberman’s recent proposal toward the end of Survival of the Fireflies (2009), his meditation on (and against) a celebrated essay by Pasolini, that while the people themselves may indeed exist only as an alternation, an intermittence (figured here by the gleams given off by fireflies in the Mediterranean night), yet there is still something that is constant, indestructible even: and that is the desire that the people should exist (2). 

It is hard to imagine a film that more aptly fits this conception of the people as intermittence, as that which is simultaneously present and absent and that exists only through our desire for it, than this short fragment from Tunisia. These three minutes that are “not” a film, that are “just a bit of video,” provide a statement about the Arab revolutions, their emancipatory potential, and the almost overwhelming obstacles that they have faced, that is as complex, as ironic, and as poignant as any feature-length movie that I know. And they do this, not from the point of view of the individual artist—not, that is, from the point of view of the orator Abdennacer Aouini down in the avenue, who remains oblivious right until the last moment of the presence of the women who are watching him from their window—but from the point of view of the people themselves

From down in the avenue, the people remain invisible. Cloaked in darkness or hidden behind closed doors, they are resolutely hors champ. Yet despite this absence, in this video shot from the window of these women’s apartment, the people do in fact appear. And they do so in such a way that we know that they are not just “yet to come” but were in some sense there all along, even before they take voice and declare themselves in public. But when they appear to us they do so not as a figure or an object seen from a safe distance that can be identified, represented, and reified, but as a multiplicity of voices, bodies, points of view, which yet seem to be traversed by a single subject—a presence, in short, that is too close to us, too complex, too physical, too real, too irrevocable, for us to see it or ever pin it down. 
 

Footnotes

1. Abdennaceur Aouini is identified in the titles given to a number of the YouTube re-ups of the two videos that immortalize his performance. He has since continued (as one might imagine) to be a thorn in the side of successive postrevolutionary governments (see his “official” Facebook page).

2. “So in the end, this is the infinite reservoir on which the fireflies draw: their withdrawal, in so far as it is not a retreat but ‘a diagonal force’; their clandestine community of ‘scraps of humanity,’ these signals that they give off intermittently; their essential freedom of movement; their faculty to make desire appear as the very paragon of that which is indestructible . . . ” Georges Didi-Huberman, Survivance des lucioles, Paris: Editions de Minuit, 2009, 132–33 (my translation). For Pasolini, the disappearance of the fireflies—which for him, in 1975, seemed inevitable, and which for Didi-Huberman is never decided once and for all, and thus “depends on us”—was a metaphor for the “anthropological catastrophe” that had overtaken the people of Italy (epitomized by the subproletariat of the Roman borgate whom he had known in his youth), and who, like the fireflies who had fallen victim to the destruction of their natural habitats, seemed to be vanishing as their vernacular culture was bulldozed to make way for the mass-individualistic consumer society. Pier Paolo Pasolini, “L’articolo delle lucciole”, in Scritti corsari, Milano: Garzanti, 2001, 128-34.

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