On The Fourth Stage, Landscapes and Image-Making

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Merve Ünsal

The Fourth Stage (2015), a 37-minute film by Ahmad Ghossein, is a visually lavish, minimally narrated work that sits restlessly on the assumed border between documentary and fiction. The film features three interwoven narratives: the first and the most present section is Ghossein following a magician who performs tricks at events including kids’ birthday parties; the second is a visual essay on representations of identity in Southern Lebanon such as sculptures in public spaces; and the third layer is the panning images of the landscape of Southern Lebanon, taken from an aerial perspective. Ghossein takes on visual language as it is construed in cinema and the trope of the monument, weaving the two together to talk about construction of identity and ideology. The question that emerges after watching this film is, can images be about their own making as well as the making of ideology without compromising either premise?

The panning shots of landscapes in Southern Lebanon[1] are entrenched in the visual language of national self-promotion. The panoptical perspective, the alluring beauty of the expansive land, the idyllic lush greenery are all elements that give a nod to a visual narrative of pride that we recognize from contemporary Ministry of Tourism commercials from around the world. This brand of national self-promotion is related to the notion of the homeland, a place of belonging, the heimat[2]. The relationship between self-promotion and nationhood is two-way: the more a nation “defines” themselves, the more likely that they will have a specified notion of space and vice versa. This beautifying tendency in the film in building the “national” is dangerous in that if self and/or nation relate to and stems from the space, then, that space becomes charged with the task of “holding” the essence, justifying “defensive” measures of protecting it. Thus, the visual affinity between this familiar language of national self-promotion and Ghossein’s images are problematic—the film does not appear to take a critical distance from this mode of image-making and thus remains as an ally to and a version of this form of self-identification.

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While landscape images are useful in drawing the framework of narratives, Ghossein’s visual language—the perspective, the panning, the rhythm—is euphemistic, failing to directly address the specifics of the landscape that he is working with. Through the free-flowing associations, the images are transformed into a musing, a recollection that leans on the aesthetic value of the imagery too comfortably. In the Hezbollah-controlled Southern Lebanon, is it appropriate to utilize the language of surveillance? Is this perspective even available to image-makers any more? Can you only make images in Southern Lebanon?

This particular type of landscape images remind me of Emmet Gowin’s photographs of nuclear testing and military sites in the US—another example beautifying image-making of the politically charged. Gowin started in the 80s to photograph manmade “scars” on the landscape, including the nuclear bomb test site in Nevada. His black and white photographs tread on abstract image-making, while the indexical quality of what he is making images of, taking a step “up” to have an aerial perspective, charge the images with an ambiguity that is politically potent. We do not know what we are looking at, drawn by the allure of the beautiful abstract images and the “context” revealed with the captions are anything but what we could traditionally see as “beautiful.” I find Gowin’s work to be a revealing point of comparison not only because of the formal choice of using the aerial perspective in describing and showing landscape, but also because both artists deal with situations and places that present “scars,” made beautiful.

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The interwoven narratives of the film further complicate the relationship between the context and the content of the images—the connection between the three narratives are never clearly presented. The potential of the images to produce a narrative of Southern Lebanon that opens up during the duration of the film is pointed to by the story of the magician and the subtext of visual illusions as a metaphor for political myth-making. The anti-hero of the magician and his wandering from place to place, performing tricks, is poetically and visually powerful as a story in and of itself and as a metaphor for other modes of making-believe. Magic tricks are sleights of hand and as long as we do not know the particularities of how things happen, we can suspend our disbelief and enjoy the show—watching a magic show requires a commitment just like political allegiances. And similarly, looking at beautiful images of a place, we might have a tendency not to remember what we are looking at and just take pleasure in the view. The pleasure derived from these images of Southern Lebanon dilutes the ability of the viewer to critically engage with what they are looking at.

The filmmaker’s awareness of the tools with which he makes images and illusions is made evident in the last shot of the film, in which a drone slowly takes off to visually hover over a monument, rising above to the bird’s eye perspective, accompanied by its diegetic sound of the drone. This shot underscores the presence of a tool that enables the act of viewing, framing the film as a self-conscious narrative of what Ghossein is doing as a filmmaker. The politically ambiguous positioning of Ghossein, his relationship to Southern Lebanon is too subtle, the images too charming. While Gowin takes on the position of an image-maker that beautifies and beautifies only, presenting us with the internal dilemma of viewers being seduced by images with a tendency to disregard the content, Ghossein’s interlacing of beautifying, narrating, and documenting all at the same time compromises all of the premises.

One of the strongest moments in the film is very much about this tension—the seemingly mythical men dressed in white, riding their white horses on the pavement, is more “real” as a construction than the landscapes, than the monuments. This scene does something only film can do—we are not sure what we are seeing, but it is an experience that envelopes and extends beyond any “real” narratives. It is only by pushing this metaphor of filmmaking as a form of illusion—if it is a metaphor for the filmmaker—that Ghossein’s politics can have the conviction that seems to be merely fleeting at the moment.

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Edited by Özge Ersoy

Merve Ünsal is a visual artist based in Istanbul. In her works, she employs text and photography, possibly beyond their form. Merve holds an MFA in Photography and Related Media from Parsons The New School of Design and a BA in Art and Archaeology from Princeton University. She was a participant at the Homework Space Program 2014-15 at Ashkal Alwan, Beirut. She has participated in artist residencies at the Delfina Foundation and at the Banff Centre. Merve is the founding editor of m-est.org.

Endnotes:

[1] Southern Lebanon is not identified as such in the film itself, but one can somewhat gather this from the bits of text and visual information in the film and the blurb provided by the film festival at which I initially saw The Fourth Stage, Beirut Cinema Days, March 12-21, 2015. The film is commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation and was also part of the Sharjah Biennial, where I saw the film for a second time as part of the exhibition.

[2] Excerpted from Wikipedia: Heimat is a German word with no English equivalent; it denotes the relationship of a human being towards a certain spatial social unit. […] It is often expressed with terms such as home or homeland.

With a nod to Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin’s Heimat-Toprak (2001).