Posts Tagged 'London'

Fruit of conflict

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s easy to tell Eyal Sivan likes his craft and that he put lots of heart into it. Sipping coffee and puffing on a roll-up cigarette on top of the hotel’s roof terrace on a sunny Saturday morning, the Israeli filmmaker, a gray curly-haired man in his late forties with a heavy accent that contains traces of French, looks more like a Left Bank intellectual as he chats away about politics, philosophy and his latest project.

Not for the first time, Sivan has made a controversial film. “Jaffa, the Orange’s Clockwork,” a feature-length documentary looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the history of the fabled citrus fruit. Drawing on a huge wealth of material including archive footage, paintings, posters and poems, Sivan tries to deconstruct the history of Jaffa the orange, Jaffa the brand, Jaffa the city and, eventually, of Israel itself – a history which, he claims, is a one of expropriation.

Sivan, who these days shares his time between London and Paris, traveled to Greece for the screening of his movie at the “Middle East” section of the 13th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition, the director talked about capitalism, Stanley Kubrick and why Israel “is one of the biggest advertizing successes in the world.”

I asked a couple of colleagues “what is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘jaffa orange’? And they both said: ‘Israel’. Would you say it’s a sign of the effectiveness of Israel’s spin machine, as it were?

It’s more than a spin machine. It confirms the fact that Israeli colonialism in fact succeeded. It’s not just colonialism of the land, it is colonialism of mentalities. It is also colonialism of mentality, of image. The big success was to erase the memory of Palestine. And it’s more than spin. It’s a whole ideology, an effort, an investment on many levels to transform Palestine and the image of Palestine into what became Israel and to erase Palestine and the memory of Palestine. So, yes, it’s a big success and it’s one of the biggest advertising successes in the world maybe after Coca Cola.

You describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a ‘colonial’ conflict.

Yes, because first of all we are talking about an immigrants’ movement that comes and takes the land from an indigenous society – and it does so in order to create something that is not genuine from that place; in order to create a European country in the Middle East. And in this sense it’s a colonial conflict because the conflict is not just about how much land I will have but it’s also about the fact that we are talking about an occupation – an ongoing occupation and an ongoing process of ethnic cleansing of the land.

Your movie draws heavily on archive footage, paintings, posters, songs, even poetry which suggests a strong interest in the power of imagery and metaphor. Is politics the management of symbols?

Politics is about how you imagine transformation, how you imagine management. Image is by definition a tool of the imaginary. I think it’s interesting in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Zionism and the moving image are born basically at the same time, so there is a very tight link. If there is something that characterizes modernity it’s the moving image. Zionism is a modern movement and modern politics deals not only with symbols but also with the recreation of an image. In this sense, Israel is at the forefront.

In terms of reading and rereading the past and reconstructing it in the present?

Yes, I would say even by reading, rereading and erasing the past in order to allow the establishment of a new image that comes to erase the older one. This is what image is about. Image is about hiding; not about showing. Image has a frame, and the frame is hiding more than it is showing. It’s a permanent game about hiding, showing, hiding again and so on. This is the dynamic.

Your views do not sound very mainstream – not by Israeli standards, at least.

If you think about the history of the twentieth century, horror came from the mainstream, not from the extreme.

Did you have problems making your documentary?

I shot most of my films in the past in Israel or in Palestine but I never had any Israeli support, nor did I ask for any Israeli support. Sometimes you have to avoid what other people want to give you because of their interests. But in the case of the Jaffa project, because I was living in Israel at the time, and it’s a project that started with an Israeli producer who is a friend so we decided to apply for a grant in Israel, which I got. But it was canceled because of a campaign that was started by a journalist from a popular newspaper. More than that it was a kind of blasphemy and a campaign against me and against the project, which did not allow the Israeli people to see the film as a film but only to watch it through what was already said about it.

What was the reason you picked this specific topic?

I read an article in the 1990s about the privatization of Jaffa oranges. Until the 1990s they were controlled by the Israeli citrus board which was a government agency but after the Oslo agreements, there was a move to privatize different elements of the state and the economy. I read this article about the privatization of Jaffa and I thought that it was a fantastic metaphor about this idea of taking a national symbol and transforming it into a product. But there is one more reason. One of the key things in documentary cinema is to find the structuring device of the film. So you have a lot of films that deal with a main character or with a space and so on. I thought that the orange is a fantastic structuring device. It can play as a permanent metaphorical element.

Why did you choose to invert the title of Stanley Kubrick’s famous film “A Clockwork Orange” to provide the title for your documentary?

For years we were working on the project under the title “Jaffa, Story of a Brand.” While editing, my editor of 15 years said that the whole thing was in fact about the mechanics of the orange. In French Kubrick’s title is “Orange Mecanique” – mechanical orange, and this is what my film tries to do: to dismantle the image, watching it again, showing it to people, analyzing and dismantling the process. Meanwhile, I was also thinking about Walter Benjamin’s ideas on the mechanical duplication of the image found in his famous article about photography. So by translating it into English it became the inversion of Kubrick’s title. We are talking about the mechanics of violence using image – so I found it just perfect.

How has the movie been received so far in Israel and outside?

The movie has been beautifully received. But that does not mean that we can sell it to television networks. Even for European channels, it’s a controversial film. Sure, many films critical of Israel are shown but they usually don’t ask this deep rooted question about colonialism. Which is not an Israeli question, it’s a European question. The film is a lot about how Europe built the image of Palestine through image. The film is all over the world in festivals and in some countries, like France, Germany and Belgium, it was released in cinemas. It’s a surprise to many people of course. Jaffa is a well-known brand. People in countries like the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries are familiar with Jaffa oranges but suddenly discover that behind this innocent thing, which is the nice, sweet orange that comes from the sun, there is a history of expropriation. It can be quite a shock. Many people don’t know that Jaffa oranges are in fact Palestinian. In Israel the film got a few specific screenings, and it was shown on a cable documentary channel.

You have said that you don’t believe in “objective” films – a rather controversial statement for many documakers, at least. I mean, many may actually admit that they cannot achieve it, but this is the goal they are striving for. Can you elaborate on this?

If the goal is to make objective documentary, I don’t understand why make documentary in the first place. The only point of being a creator or an artist is to try to give a vision, your own subjective vision, of reality. The idea that we can all see the same thing is a totalitarian idea. This is exactly what totalitarian and fascist regimes have tried to do. This is television. Television news pretends to be objective. This is rubbish. The fact that there is one person with one identity, with his own story, that is doing and watching the world and deciding what to put inside the frame and what to leave outside the frame this is what makes it subjective and this is the fantastic thing about documentary; that it is subjective. I am not interested in objective documentary. Objectivity is not a notion that is linked to any form of individual creation or art. Objectivity is for science.

I guess it’s a philosophical question – whether you actually believe in truth with a capital T.

I think that it comes from the idea that objective is good and subjective is bad. But this is what capitalism is about. Capitalism is about the attempt to annihilate any subjectivity. There is no individual, no people, just segments of consumers. And here is a struggle; a struggle against this attempt for objectivity. Objectivity is simply not interesting. This festival has a program about disabled people that features some 50 films. If there are 50 films about disabled people, it’s because there are 50 different persons that are thinking they have 50 different visions. What makes plurality, what makes the richness of us all is that we are the accumulation of subjectivities. But I think that all this discussion about subjective and objective is a bad discussion. It implies that there is this idea of good and bad.

It’s Plato’s fault.

Yes, it’s Plato’s fault. Exactly.

Work. How does it work?

By Harry van Versendaal

After dissecting love, status, travel and architecture, the Swiss-born best-selling novelist and essayist Alain de Botton has returned with a photo essay on what we spend most of our lives doing: work. De Botton, visiting Athens for the launch of a Greek translation of his book “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” (Patakis), spoke to Athens Plus about his latest project.

Is giving interviews one of the sorrows of your work?

No, it’s actually one of the ways in which you get to realize what you’ve written. Often being asked to describe what you’ve written in other words can help you to focus. Sometimes I get a depressing realization, “oh that’s what I should have said”. You can capture an idea sometimes with a clarity that you were struggling for in a book.

So what are the pleasures and sorrows of working as a writer?

Writing is a very intrinsic need, it’s something that you would do just for yourself, and the idea that you can do something that is a passion as a career is a very nice feeling. That’s the pleasure. The sorrow is that it’s extremely precarious. If you’re trained to be a doctor and then you become a doctor and you have that qualification, you have it for life. Whereas as a writer you always start from zero. There is no intrinsic loyalty from your audience; and there is no intrinsic loyalty – to be pretentious – from your muse.

How did working on this book change the way you see your own work?

Most of us know one area of work, the one that we do most of the time. And so I was very familiar with the world of writing and associated industries like publishing, book-selling and the media. So this is the world I know and understand. But I was complete foreigner to lots of other worlds of work. I didn’t know anything about the world of accountancy, biscuits or satellite launches and yet was incredibly curious. I am generally very interested in other people’s jobs.

I suppose one of the things I learned was that all jobs are quite similar, if that doesn’t sound quite weird. There’s fascinating connections between all jobs. All jobs are at some level about trying to identify and then satisfy a hunger in another person whether that’s a physical hunger or a hunger for data or a hunger for biscuits or a hunger for ideas. It’s kind of structurally quite similar. The other terrible cliché generalization about work is that everything is very complicated. In order for anything to exist, this glass, this machine, this pen, an incredible number of people had to cooperate and coordinate their activities at a level that seems almost unbelievable to me outside. To get anything off the ground, it just involves so many things.  As consumers we tend to forget. You go out there and you look at tea being served. This is an incredible kind of ballet going on to get that room organized. It’s kind of monument of civilization and order. What you actually think of tea or of its ultimate purpose is another question. But it’s an impressive piece of organization; and everything tends to be.

In your book you seem to suggest that modern man is more interested in consumption than in the whole production process, meaning how stuff ends up on our plate or our living room.

I think modern man is almost not allowed to be interested in production because for whatever reason producers are not interested in letting us know about their processes of production. I did this little book about Heathrow airport and I say in the book that it’s far more interesting to look into how an airline meal is made than to eat it. Eating it is not interesting, it’s quite boring, almost horrible. But if you see how it’s made it’s absolutely awe-inspiring. And that applies to so many different jobs. It’s fascinating how tourism is always identified with leisure pursuit. If I went to the concierge now and said, “I’m in Athens and have bit of time, what shall I do?” Museum, church, monument etc. This is what the concierge would suggest. If I said I want to see how Athens works, I’d like to go to an office, they would say “you are crazy.”

Because nothing works, perhaps.

Well, yeah, even that is interesting. Even the non-working is interesting, the bizarre stalemates etc. But that is not on the tourist agenda.

You start out by describing the cargo docks in London. Why did that place intrigue you?

Partly, it was the idea that I had been living in London for 25-30 years and I’ve never actually known about this place. I just didn’t think about cargo really. I just didn’t think about where stuff came from. And there is a kind of almost childish interest and pleasure in working out where stuff come from.

What about the other occupations you describe?

They’re all areas that kind of fascinated me and it’s hard to know exactly why. They were unfamiliar, for example. A lot of them were slightly off-kilter. If you watch TV there’s quite a lot of information about being a nurse or a doctor, there’s always like hospital dramas. There’s quite a lot of information about being a lawyer or a criminal. But there’s not much information on logistics or biscuit manufacturing. So I wanted to pick things that I was kind of curious about but don’t get much media time. And each of the jobs that I chose sits on an intellectually interesting area. Take the chapter on biscuits. It could have been something else, like cheese or soap. What I wanted to look at there was the way in which in capitalist society enormous industries are built up out of selling things which will occupy only a very small moment or place in an individual’s life.

It’s something that leads to curious feelings of dislocation. Because if you’re a pretty highly-paid accountant at the biscuit company, you’ve got a company car, a nice office etc and you stand back from your life and you think “ok, what am I doing? I am accounting the Jaffa cake. That’s my job” Again, there is a kind of disconnection between the seriousness of the means and tools and the relative lack of seriousness, the lack of deeper meaning of the thing you are involved in.

You make no mention of journalists.

No, I guess I’m too close to them. I know them too well. I wanted to go on journeys, I suppose.

You’re quite disconnected from the jobs you describe.

Exactly. They are precisely the sort of jobs that people in my world are disconnected from. And I wanted to correct my ignorance. And I wanted to try and to see if I could do it, to try and describe these worlds in ways that would have any interest for other people. It was an artistic challenge.

You compare a working class view of work to a middle class view – work as a means to self-creation and self-fulfillment. The modern man was the first of its kind to see work as something you can derive pleasure from. Do you think the economic crisis is pushing us back to the earlier view? Someone is happy, I mean, just to have a job.

That’s right. The educational system is predominantly middle class. It is the promoter of a kind of bourgeois ideology. No one thinks that the mere point of work is survival. The idea is that the point of work is some kind of higher fulfillment. And that is the linchpin of a kind of bourgeois ideology. And, of course, it crushes headlong into economic reality. The classic situation now is the guy with a PhD and a masters who can’t find a job. But I think that will pass as the economic crisis eases. The deeper current is towards the bourgeois idea of work as self-realization – which remains a very difficult thing to do. People wonder, “why is it so hard to have a beautiful, creative job? Why is it hard to be Steve Jobs?” And it’s not merely because of the economic crisis but because most jobs in industrial civilization are procedural jobs, they are about making relatively routine processes more efficient. Competition is won by marginal efficiencies which require incredible disciplines of essentially accountancy and systematization. And that’s why not many people are going to be Steve Jobs.

You mention that employers used to hit people, now they are urging them to “have fun.” Surely, it’s not because they are nicer people.

That’s right. If you have the business section of a book shop most of business books are about this thing called “management.” What is management? Management is how do you incentivize people to feel engaged and excited about jobs which they might not naturally feel engaged and exited about. And a lot of jobs are essentially service jobs in one way or another. They are jobs that can very easily be destroyed by lack of motivation or even an unhelpful smile. That’s why there is an enormous investment in pseudo-happiness of employees.

(This interview was first published in Athens Plus in November 2009)

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