If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Liza Béar after a dialogue between Betsy Sussler and Liza Béar
February 27th, 1982. New York City. It’s a late Saturday morning, still winterish. On the far side of the Manhattan Bridge in another land, we inspect an abandoned factory and project a future, traipsing daily across the bridge … we reject it.
February 27th, 1982. On the far side of the Atlantic Ocean in the Western Sahara, on the continent of Africa, the Polisario Front and the Sahrawis are celebrating the sixth anniversary of their country’s independence. Independent but at war, their territorial problems are of quite a different order. They have resisted the Spanish occupation and now the Moroccan invasion by guerrilla action. The US supplies arms to the aggressors, again supports an unjust war. The Sahrawis, forced to leave, have set up camps in Algeria. The desert sand is hot for the bare feet of children.
The contractor for the Brooklyn building we had seen drives us back across the bridge, returns us to our cross street. Manhattan feels like Rome, la Dolce Vita. The air is sweet. Fifteen minutes later, fast on my bike and it’s 1:00 PM, I’m at One U. I wait by the space war video machines … I’m in my head. North Africa is more remote than Central America and has a lower profile in the press … not to mention TV … who will lose votes over arms sales to Hassan? The US needs bases for its rapid deployment forces within a stone’s throw of the Persian Gulf … I push a button and make a zinging sound.
The editor of a magazine, this magazine, swings through the door, returns with cigarettes. We sit down at a two table in the empty bar. I feel uncomfortable, does she? I say so. The space floats behind me, I’m in a vacuum.
The waitress comes and goes. We change tables.
“Test onetwothree, test onetwothree …” It’s on.
My tape machine isn’t running, it isn’t even here. It’s at the repair shop. A TCM 600, I sort of miss the tiny blinking red light that follows the rise and fall of the voices. My interlocutor has a rehearsal at 3:00, I sense that time is tight … I should wait but I don’t.
“What do you want to know,” I ask.
Whoosh, too late. These initial maneuvers are critical. They set the mood and the tone for the entire discourse. A flurry of questions is unleashed. I am definitely under interrogation. Birthplace, national identity, education, previous activities. An alien successively on three continents, the interrogative mode gives rise to misgivings. A query becomes a doubt, a doubt a denial. I wish I could lie. After all, it seems my identity is in question.
“Well, what would you call yourself?”
“It’s hard to say. I’ve always disliked role …”
Sum quod cogito. I go through a quick Cartesian inversion, then I reassume my Sartrean precepts, my existential bias. My thoughts alone cannot define me, this is America, I’m in New York. Selfconsciousness is too European. I am what I do, what I make. To hell with nomenclature. The motion of verbs rather than the edifice of nouns.
In the past, long ago, I made a magazine with someone else, with other persons. Dialogue was my primary focus the form that I worked with then … it’s still important to me now though differently, I use it in another context, another way.
“People would say, watch out, it was rumoured your tape recorder was always on …”
At one time, on certain days, I would wear my sound device. It fit in the inside pocket of my jacket. A small round mike was on my vocal chords, an on/off switch at my wrist. A slight touch would activate it. The machine would seize the moments of heightened awareness, anticipate the offhand remark that might prompt a real exchange. Being equipped to record makes you hear, listen better, just as carrying a gun, I suppose, makes you more belligerent.
“What is your attitude to the documentary? Do you really think …”
“Just what I feel” said Rabbit. “What do you say, Pooh?”
Pooh opened his eyes with a jerk and said, “Extremely.”
“Extremely what?” asked Rabbit.
“What you were saying,” said Pooh.
“But how shall we do it?” asked Piglet.
“What sort of lesson, Rabbit?
“That’s the point,” said Rabbit.
The word lesson came, back to Pooh as
one he had heard before somewhere.
“There’s a thing called Twy-stymes,” he
said. “Christopher Robin tried to teach it
to me once but it didn’t.”
“What didn’t?” said Rabbit.
“Didn’t what?” said Piglet.
Pooh shook his head. “I don’t know,” he
said. “It just didn’t. What are we talking about?”
“Pooh,” said Piglet reproachfully,
“haven’t you been listening to what Rabbit was saying?”
Last summer I made a film … This is what happened as best as I can tell. I was here on the day and then I was there at dawn, three hours late, with the police signalling, “Off the autoroute!” A Frenchman and a German, defying warnings, stay on it and receive angry stones that do them in. We take the coast road instead. Confusion reigns. They argue. We lose our way and drive in circles. Machine-gun armed sentries are in look-out posts at intervals.
“The film was shot there, near Casablanca …”
About 20 miles north of the city, the Oued Nefifik flows into the Atlantic Ocean and I gave the movie its name. This year the river water has dwindled because of the drought. Because of the drought, people are hungry. At the river mouth a sandy beach, a line of broad stripe canvas tents, rocks for fishing, and, on the hill slope up above, what in the movie became Hotel La Met, a ’30s colonial-style villa with a front porch flanked by date palms, servant quarters in the back, a garden full of eucalyptus, hibiscus, zahlias, and longstemmed sunflower. When we arrive, visitors from Europe have taken refuge there, the toad blockade pre-empts access to the city. No one will lend us a car.
Reports from the French news media filter in via phone calls and word of mouth accounts. We learn that extensive riots involving thousands occurred in Casablanca the day before we landed. Demonstrations were prompted by a 100 percent hike in the price of basic food staples—oil, bread, sugar, rice, flour. The details are sketchy, we are strangers here, the issue is skirted when we’re within earshot. The opposition press has been stifled. The government paper, Le Matin du Sahara, publishes interminable transcripts of the royal locutions, moralizing editorials about the sanctity of property, the ransacked pharmacies the banks the burning cars but not the wounded the imprisoned without trial the suffocated in potato cellars the dying in the courtroom the machine guns the tanks the dead the dead the unburied the massacre of children.
I abandon plans to film in the south, life-on-the-edge-of-the-desert seen through the eyes of a small boy. For two and a half weeks we are confined to the beach and to within walking distance of Hotel La Mer. Meal-times regiment the day. A five-month-old small person counts on me for his. Gradually the character, the point of view of the movie, assumes a profile. He is a silent distanced slightly comic personage with an iconic stance—he wears pointed babouches and a pointed hat the shape of an asymmetrical triangle made from Le Monde—at lunch, at tennis, at the Roman ruins, pursuing his vacation activities. His general predicament is absurd. He knows but he cannot act, his powerlessness makes him giddy. He is distanced from the other vacationers. He doesn’t speak the language, he doesn’t speak their language. His performance in the movie has a surrealist edge, his exaggerated movements accentuate the absurdity of his situation, he has a touch of magic. On the river, his canoe spins in circles, his paddle sticks in the sand; at the ruins, a cuckoo mocks his stumblings over the Roman paving stones; at solo tennis, he leaps too high, his right arm makes too many motions during the serve, the whack of the ball is out of sync with the image.
The first part of the movie is a set-up, suspense by omission. Small clues in the soundtrack, anomalies … an old vacationer marching off to his early morning fishing haunts to the heat of the local national anthem, the slow pan across the arched ruins of a civilization, the organ ostinato accompanying the drive into the city … all point to a dénouement,
“You used the character generator to refer to the political situation behind the scenes, to literally write over the image, so to speak …”
In earlier work I used character generation as an internal commentary, as a point of improvisation, as a third track. Words mutate into other words, the swiftness of the keys, the speed of possible change, enables you almost to keep pace with the speed of your thinking … I also like the way it looks. But in Oued Nefifik the words on the screen are subtitles … they’re a translation, an English rendering of the original French dialogue. During the lunch scene, which is pivotal to the phasing of the film, there’s also a character crawl, white on black, from right to left across the bottom of the image. The text here is based on a radio speech honoring King Hassan’s 52nd birthday, his “achievements”—his army’s “presence” in the Western Sahara, the cause of his deficient budget. The hyperbole of the rhetoric flowing relentlessly across the screen is in counterpoint to the matter-of-fact, low-keyed badinage, the lunchtime pleasantries … Moving type over still type: the titles run over close-ups of the newspaper Monsieur Hue Low is reading at table, a real-life newspaper with an appropriate name for its content, L’Opinion …
Most of the dialogues were selected for their variations in tonality and recorded spontaneously, as were the intense chorales of birds at dawn, of birds at sunset, the shrill trilling of the locusts in the dead of night, the pounding of the ocean surf, and later, when we were finally able to leave, the chanting of the muezzin in the mountains, the incomprehensibly beautiful amplified chants of the devout during the nights of Ramadan. A mountain throws back the braying of a donkey the howling of a dog as it does the human vocables as it has for centuries …
When you’re making a film you are on the alert … you select what you shout or record, just as later on you structure what and how you use it, where it goes and what it’ll mean. Sometimes you know this ahead of time, you’ve decided. The spontaneously derived footage or dialogue was used narratively, with a narrative objective, but most of the scenes in Oued Nefifik involved some kind of mise-en-scène, were lightly composed and planned … talked about beforehand with the person or people in them, given a dry run. Later, the sequencing was to build up a dramatic tension, a sense of foreboding, obliquely. The Casablanca riot scene was treated symbolically, semi-abstractly because it was shot in the aftermath of the event—there are slowed down Super 8 film frames of the army on the streets overlaid with text and photographs of news reports from an African magazine published in Paris which we later tracked down … it spelled out the full extent of the massacre. The video editing process (partly done on one-inch) and the technical editors were crucial to this part of the movie.
In the final scenes I felt I had achieved a real synthesis. The dialogue was natural but provoked in an offhand kind of way by leaving certain articles with pertinent information lying around, by making some comments. The other vacationers eventually had to confront, to experience the enormity of the event in their own way and had to articulate it, and in so doing provided a soundtrack for the scenes that followed … the drive back from the city, the bridge game on the lawn. They amplify and reinforce, reiterate and analyse the impact of the riots, the way you might go over and over, muse on the details of a traumatic event after the initial shock of recognition.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.