Landscape of crime

Still from the Depth Two

Still from the Depth Two

From the catalogue of the exhibition “Landschaft, die sich erinnert / Remembering landscape”, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Siegen, Germany, 2018.

At the beginning of his “review” of the film St. George Slays the Dragon (Sveti Georgije ubiva azdahu, 2009, dir: Srdjan Dragojevic), the film theorist Pavle Levi makes the following statement: “I have not seen this film – nor will I see it.”1 Contrary to a common-sense argument that one must pass no judgements about a film, or any work of art, or, for that matter, any act or form of representation without actually being exposed to it, Levi claims that his refusal to watch this film is exactly one of the “multiple possibilities for social engagement in the cinematic arts.” In his text Levi calls for a discussion in a “community of non-viewers” of this film, a discussion which would raise the question as to why this “historical ethno-spectacle” from WW12 was partly shot on location where the notorious Omarska camp was situated, in another – and for Serbian history very dissimilar – war. Omarska is the mining settlement near the Bosnian town of Prijedor, where Bosnian Serb forces ran a camp for Bosniaks and Croats, and where hundreds of men and women died of torture, beatings and starvation, in the period from May to August 1992.

To clarify his iconoclastic proposition Levi reminds us of an argument made by the famous French critic Serge Daney who did not want to watch the film Kapo (1960, dir: Gillo Pontecorvo) after he had read the review of this film in Cahiers du Cinéma written by Jacques Rivette.3 Daney particularly recollects the part when Rivette describes a shot when the protagonist, played by Emanuelle Riva, commits suicide by throwing herself over an electric fence. Rivette is appalled by a director who, at such a moment in the film, sets forward a tracking shot ending with a close-up of her dead body hanging on the fence. Similarly, Levi is appalled by the choice of location for St. George, which is for him an even worse directorial choice. It is not about some inappropriate cinematic manner in which a death camp is portrayed but about the denial of its existence, of not portraying it at all whilst exploiting the cinematic potentials of its location and directly intervening against the memory of the landscape. In appealing for a new practice of cinéma vérité when representing and discussing events and sites of such crimes of humanity, Levi invokes the example of the film Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard, 1955, dir: Alain Resnais), a film that operates as a dialectic montage of the shocking newsreel footage recorded by Allied forces in 1945 and of the new colour footage of the deserted Holocaust sites ten years later. Finally, the best-known film about the Holocaust, the 9-hour-long Shoah (1985, dir: Claude Lanzmann) declines any further exploitation of the images of abject suffering. These images, being already inscribed in the long-term memory of our visual cortex, happen to be in constant danger of becoming normalised. Thus the film consists only of the new footage of the sites and the testimonies of both surviving victims and the willing and unwilling perpetrators – those responsible for the Holocaust by the simple fact of their silence and inaction.

The question of the contingent spectacularisation in the representation of any abject physical crime has been treated in many discussions since the 1960s about the political, ethical and aesthetic implications of such representations. This continued to be the open issue with films depicting such events during the series of wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s – particularly when one considers that in all former Yugoslav republics the culture of memory remains very undeveloped. Indeed, we may go as far as to say that the process of institutional amnesia and overall historical revisionism is well underway in the worst possible sense. Here, in focusing on the introduced issue of the relation between profilmic physical space and the representational space inside the screen, we will discuss the method employed in the film Depth 2 (2016) directed by Ognjen Glavonic – a recent documentary about a series of massacres of Albanian civilians in Kosovo in the spring of 1999. The title of the film refers to a secret code that the Serbian police gave to the coordinated clean-up operation that attempted to erase any evidence of these crimes committed by the police or military forces. The entire film consists only of seemingly empty and eventless landscapes. These landscapes are regularly accompanied by sections of audio-recorded testimonies of one surviving victim, one forensic expert, and a few willing or unwilling executioners of the crime. The conceptual thoroughness of this approach makes this film a specific exploration of the cinematographic landscape and the significations it produces in relation to a traumatic event. It is about the radical potential of the cinematographic landscape to engage viewers with such contents beyond their visuality.

What is implied in Levi’s criticism of the film he didn’t want to see is that the very film location, or potential of a possible film location – the very contour of the landscape, its topographic configuration, its days and nights, the humidity of the soil, rustling of the leaves, and so on – structures a particular form of signification which makes a connection between the symbolic time of memory and the actual physicality of the space: two very cinematographic concepts. If we depart from the influential discussion raised by the art historian W.J.T. Mitchell on the relation of landscape and power,4 a landscape is both a framed space of a visual representation and a physical space seen from a particular point of view. Yet, this relation, the relation of the cultural frame and the physical gaze, is always an instrument of cultural power. As Mitchell argues: “Landscape naturalizes cultural and social construction as given, but makes this representation operational by interrelating its beholder in a relation that is more or less determinate.”5 How is the crime committed by the instruments of an organised state power represented beyond its documentary visuality and only by the actual visuality of the landscape?

Firstly, it is important to note that Glavonic’s film is in fact created and edited from location shots that he made when preparing for the production of his first feature film, The Load, which is to be finally released in 2018 (Belgrade premiere is on the 24th of November). This long-awaited film is based on a story about a man who on several occasions drove the truck loaded with dead bodies from Kosovo to Serbia in the spring of 1999. The publicity announcement declares it as the film about a man who “does not want to know what the load is, but his cargo slowly becomes his burden.”6 On 4 May 1999, near the town of Tekija at the Serbian north-east border with Romania, the wagon of a refrigerator truck floated to the surface of the river Danube. The truck, as was recorded by the local police that pulled it out, contained 83 corpses and three decapitated heads. From that moment on – as is described in detail in a dossier issued by the Belgrade Centre for Humanitarian Law7 – a full-scale cover-up operation was orchestrated by the top of the Serbian state and involved many willing and unwilling perpetrators – at least 110 of them according to the Centre which organised a thorough investigation, something that was never conducted by official state institutions. Corpses of children, women and men found in the truck were then secretly moved and buried in the police compound in Batajnica near Belgrade. At this training facility of the Serbian Special Anti-Terrorist Unit (SAJ), 744 bodies of the victims of massacres in Kosovo were found, including the one in Suva Reka when 48 Albanian civilians were killed on 26 March 1999, two days after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia started. It is believed that the bodies of these victims may be those that emerged from the truck that floated to the surface of Danube.

Frustrated by difficulties in securing funding for The Load, Glavonic, together with the film editor Jelena Maksimovic, returned to his location shots and realised that this footage recorded in and around Tekija, Batajnica, Pristina and Suva Reka constituted a striking body of material in its own right.8 The film Depth 2 emerged from these recorded landscapes. For the audial component, Glavonic turned to the recordings of the court testimonies from the archive of the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. So, if we use the Deleuzian notion of audio-visual image, this film structurally reveals how such an audio-visual image is created: by the separation of the visual and the audial that enter an “irrational relation” by which they are connected but never merged or unified.9 The visual of Depth 2 consists of empty, or almost empty landscapes, cityscapes and some interiors, whereas the audial is again separated into ambient sounds that belong to the “neutrality” of the image-landscape, and the aural testimonies that belong to the “density” of the documented event.

The tensions and connections produced by this separation of the visual and audial are exactly the means for Glavonic to address the impossibility of representing such a tragic and disturbing event. His film is about the limits of representation and about reaching beyond its simple binary operation, the “one-to-one correspondence between reality on the one side and the representation on the other”. These limits are always tested precisely when we are confronted with some traumatic content – the traumatic Thing, in psychoanalytic terms, the thing in its dumb reality. As George Hartley asserts, any ideological interpellation is the attempt to avoid this confrontation.10 In other words, the ideological interpellation is always the identification of the subject with the Law, with some symbolic order. What is of primary concern for Glavonic’s film is the logic of this identification that is manifested by a mode of covering up, of denial: the relation of the driver and his load. The question can be therefore posed as follows: how is one interpellated to participate in an organised criminal venture, and how can a filmmaker open up a space and time, in this case a cinematographic space-time, for the viewers to realise and reflect upon of this interpellation? This is where the landscape becomes a visual diagram of this reflection.

One may describe, in basic aesthetic terms, the landscape in this film as empty and slow, i.e., by those spatial and temporal attributes that denote a certain absence, an absence of event. The camera is either static in framing a single section of the landscape, or panning slowly over some indexical fragments denoting gradually that this absence is also the aftermath of an event. This visually missing event is on the other hand represented by voices, the observer is literally “guided by voices”. The relation between the voices and the landscape may be roughly divided into five sections of this film:

1. The film opens with majestic yet gloomy shots of the Danube river, the surrounding misty mountain forests and the entrance to a dramatic gorge. Small streams emerge from the mountains and make their last ripples as they flow into the muddy edge of the river. There are just a few indications of human presence: smoke from chimneys, a tractor passing, scattered rubbish by the river bank. This is the environment in which we learn about the truck that emerged from the water and about the human legs protruding from it as it was pulled out. Also that the acting police officers who pulled it out were ordered by their superiors to immediately paint over a sign on the truck that read: “PIK Progres slaughterhouse – Prizren”. Amongst other details from testimonies we hear, there is one about the body of a seven-year-old girl with a rucksack, a UNICEF notebook and the doll in her hands. We also hear about the order, made by the chief of the police, General Djordjevic, to “protect the public from this incident by all means”. Civilian labourers who moved the bodies to another truck that arrived from Belgrade were given 2000 dinars each and signed the receipt to a police officer. Night falls. The truck is on its way to Batajnica. We come to realise that we are observing the landscapes from an imagined viewpoint of the witnesses involved in the event. And moreover, that these scenes are not only shots of locations related to the event but also shots related to the gaze of the protagonists whose voices are slowly adding up to form a narrative.

2. A backyard in Pristina. Small family houses. Thousands of plastic bags stick onto the naked branches of a solitary tree. The camera lingers on this image for some time. Electric high-wire traverses the flatlands. Ruins of a hotel still holding on to the banality of its name printed on a signpost – Hotel Boss. For the first time we hear a female voice. She is calmly speaking about the sequence of events on 26 March in Suva Reka. The camera pans over a mouldy wall, over its cracks, its fading paint, crumbling mortar, rusty nails, with its cracks and holes and protruding reeds. Elsewhere, a bonfire of rubbish is burning. The testimony of the victim continues. We learn about how they were herded and closed in a pizzeria, and how the gunshots continued until there were no more screams. One of the executioners testifies that after the shooting he was sick and in a desperate need of a drink to calm his nerves. As we come to realise that the female voice belongs to a woman who somehow survived the massacre, the indoor landscape that the camera is slowly examining becomes actual. We are viewing the interior of the pizzeria where the killings took place. Another voice tells us that when the truck arrived it approached the main entrance in reverse. The woman explained how she was lying among the corpses pretending she was dead. We are now on the road, in the night. The headlights light the bushes by the roadside, seen from the perspective of a moving vehicle. The truck from which we are perceiving this darkness is now no longer just any truck, it becomes the truck driving the bodies of the victims of the Suva Reka massacre. Shyhrete Berisha who lived to tell the story is still on the truck. She managed to jump out as it slowed down at a bend.

3. Batajnica. The site of the mass grave. The landscape consists of man-made heaps of soil. There are tyre marks in the muddy ground. Lots of snail shells. This whole sequence is accompanied only by the voice of the forensic expert participating in the excavation and identification of the bodies in 2002. All the bodies belonged to civilians of different ages and gender. No filming of the excavation was allowed and only some photographs exist. “A huge number of people were involved in the action and there is an oath of silence,” he says. A close-up of a document with a handwritten memo saying: “President: No bodies, no crime”. After the excavation the bodies were laid in tunnels that were used for growing mushrooms. When identified they were handed to the families in Kosovo. A shot of a graveyard. The wind gets stronger.

4. The visual continuity of the film suddenly transforms. We glance through a dense grid over still photos of ripped clothing and other belongings of the victims. A pair of small shoes. The child’s drawing that becomes eerie. Cold evidence. A bullet hole in a Nike pullover. This time the camera zooms in to the whiteness of the hole. The white gaping void becomes bigger. Cut to an image that now seems almost microscopic. There is some physical process, cinematically accelerated, that occurs on the surface of some branches and leaves. It could be some devouring mould, or some time-lapse images of the process of rotting, but finally it is in fact the effect of flames turning natural forms into ash. A final shot of the film: on a blue background there is a seed, or a spore rapidly germinating. It transforms into a rhizoid, a form of a branching hypha.

The whole structure of the film, with its enigmatic counterpoint shot at the end, establishes an ideological relation between the two forces that carve a landscape. A natural force and a cultural force. It is about our inability to separate the two forces in our viewing experience of a site. The organic and the inorganic power of landscape. Landscape, as it is treated in this film, is the space where this non-separation is ideologically organised. And, as such, it is the space of power. Not only is nature being culturalised in the landscape as a cultural genre, but in the same process this culturalisation becomes naturalised.

What is in fact happening here is a transition from the factuality of the incident to the actuality of its condition. Glavonic does not simply want to isolate the horrible event from the overall structural relations demarcated by the landscape, meaning that this film is not about a certain incident as much as it is about the conspiracy occurring in the actual space. This involvement in the crime is therefore beyond the utterable and showable in the double sense – it is about the limits of representation of the crime and about its denial, its actual social non-representation. What we need to imagine in the emptiness and the slowness of these landscapes is not so much the crime itself as its organised cover-up: the cinematographic movement of this cover-up through the actual space, the space we share.

In order to find a historical reference for Glavonic’s method, one may be reminded of a certain theory that was developed regarding an issue posed in the Japanese radical cinema of the late 1960s. The debate referred to a developed cliché of political documentaries and political cinema in general that focused on radical protests, demonstrations and actions that form some kind of media event. In reflecting such a type of cinematography, a group of political filmmakers and critics, including Masao Matsuda and Masao Adachi, argued for a major reconsideration of the modes of representing the relations of power. The aim was to do away with and go beyond the focus on spectacular events that manifest this relation. This is how the notion of the landscape theory, or fukeiron, was proposed. These critics use the term fukei, or landscape, in order to refer to the “profilmic physical space as well as the representational space inside the screen”. The central concern of fukeiron is “neither the aesthetic production of picturesque scenery nor the metaphysical divide between subject and object, but rather the immanent relations of power that produce homogenised landscapes.”11

The film A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969, dir: Masao Adachi) has been particularly highlighted as an example. It is a film that explores the case of Nagayama Norio, a 19-year-old man charged with four counts of murder in Japan in 1969. As Yuriko Furuhata points out, this film is a “clear antithesis to the Griersonian12 ideal of the documentary film famously defined as ‘the creative treatment [or dramatization] of actuality’”. Nothing dramatic happens or appears in the film: “It endlessly and disjunctively strings together actuality footage of urban and rural landscapes from the tip of the northern island of Hokkaido to the southwestern cities of mainland Japan.” The film was an antithesis to documentary filmmaking which “focused upon dramatic action and the faces of student protesters and workers engaged in political resistance.” The terms like “suffocating landscapes” and “interrogating landscapes” are coined to describe the relation of power and landscape, an appropriation of the space in which the landscape becomes a mode of seeing rather than just a scenery. It is about the “immanent relation of power that produces a homogenised landscape.” The landscape is therefore a visual diagram of microphysics and social and economic relations. Masao Matsuda refers to Walter Benjamin who argued that Eugène Atget photographed the deserted landscapes of nineteenth-century Paris as if they were deserted crime scenes. Matsuda explains the making of A.K.A. Serial Killer in the essay titled “City as Landscape” (1970) in the following way: “We filmed scenes of crime just like landscape.”13

This is in fact the formula we may relate, for the purpose of our considerations here, to the method proposed by Glavonic in his film. The relation of landscape and crime in Depth 2 is perceived through its eventless everydayness, through the ongoing space-time of the everyday. The banality of the crime is emphasised by the banality of the everyday scenery – by both the beauty and the grimness of this banality. The film is about our shared involvement with this scenery of crime that is filmed just like landscape. In other words, the focus of the film is not a simple documentary revelation of the crime in order to arrive at some idealism of a self-fulfilling prophecy and its cathartic effect. It is about the actuality of the space that is inhabited by the conspiracy, and this space is therefore unsettled and uncertain. This conspiracy – running from top to bottom, from President Milosevic who came up with the coverup-operation formula, “no bodies, no crime”, to the driver who “does not want to know what the load is, but his cargo slowly becomes his burden” – is not represented by landscape, rather landscape is produced by proximity to the event and by distance from its spectacularisation. The film therefore achieves a non-subjective analytic mode of investigating the structural condition of the agency of power beyond the manifested.

And this visual mode of this landscape film is ultimately transformed into a close-up of a biological process. And here is the enigma that prevents the spectator from experiencing a catharsis from viewing this film. I argue that such a visual counterpoint at the end adds an anxious dimension to the viewing experience which cannot be resolved by a documentary achievement in fact-telling. As the director confirms, most of the reactions and questions from the viewers after the screenings of this film relate to this mysterious ending.14 The viewers provide various interpretations that mostly attempt to establish some metaphoric connotation: that this is a seed of a new life rising from the compost of the dead; that this is a spore of a mushroom growing in a tunnel in Batajnica; that this is a seed of some growing social awareness about these crimes; or that this is the evil unstoppably spreading. In any case, the attempt to construct a metaphor, or literally to plant a seed inside the symbolic order, fails to deliver an expected resolution when a spectator fully comprehends and accepts the facts and images delivered in a documentary cinematographic form. The viewer’s relation to a landscape of crime remains unsettled, unresolved and unfinished.

Remembering landscape, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Siegen 2018

Peščanik.net, 24.11.2018.

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  1. Pavle Levi, “Kapo iz Omarske”, Beton, 68 (April 2009). For the English translation see: Pavle Levi, “Kapo from Omarska” in Pavle Levi, Jolted images – Unbound analytic (Amsterdam University Press: 2017), 111-116.
  2. St. George Slays the Dragon is based on a popular play by Dusan Kovacevic set in Serbia during WWI.
  3. Jacques Rivette, “De l’Abjection”, Cahiers du Cinéma, 120 (juin 1961), 54-55.
  4. See W.J.T. Mitchell (ed.), Landscape and power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
  5. W.J.T. Mitchell, “Introduction”, Landscape and power, 2.
  6. As is summarised in the brief synopsis of the film.
  7. Dosije: Uklanjanje dokaza o zločinima tokom rata na Kosovu – Operacija skrivanja tela, (Beograd: Fond za humanitarno pravo, 2017).
  8. See the interview with Glavonic and Maksimovic.
  9. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2, L’Image-temps (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1985), cited from the Serbian edition – Zil Delez, Film 2, Slika-vreme (Beograd: Filmski centar Srbije, 2010), 319.
  10. George Hartley, The abyss of representation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 13.
  11. Yuriko Furuhata, “Returning to actuality: Fukeiron and the landscape film”, Screen, 48:3 (Autumn 2007), 345-362.
  12. Furuhata is here referring to the writing of John Grierson. See: Forsyth Hardy (ed.), Grierson on documentary (London: Faber & Faber, 1966).
  13. All quotations are from Furuhata, “Returning to actuality”.
  14. From correspondence with Ognjen Glavonic on 27 March 2018.