Film: Television terrorism

Chris Darke sees a documentary film that explores the idea of atrocity as entertainment
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"Horror has a face and a name" mumbles Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now. "You must make a friend of horror." Through its coverage of famine and genocide, TV has made of horror a familiar, if not quite a friendly, domestic presence. And it's television as the contemporary hearth of darkness that dominates Johan Grimonprez's Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. The video constructs a tapestry of catastrophe, taking an askance look at 30 years of airborne terrorism, from the romantic revolutionary hijackers of the 1960s to the anonymous parcel bombs of the present day.

In its unofficial chronicle of the atrocity as media-spectacle, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is uncomfortable, gut-wrenching and deliberately provocative viewing, but only if one forgets how TV routinely immunises our eyes against the horrors it presents either as entertainment - "reality TV", for example - or as another image-bite between commercial breaks.

When the film was shown at this year's Rotterdam Film Festival, Grimonprez was accused of having made a film that simply conflates terrorism and makes no distinction between specific politics. But the Belgian artist/film- maker is uneasy with the idea that his film could be taken merely as a catalogue of atrocities rather than as an attempt at explanation. "The first time you see the film you're seduced by all the violence," he concedes. "By the second time you start to explore the narrative. I'm happy with that but a lot of people are disgusted. People are so immune to TV nowadays that, as soon as you decontextualise TV images, suddenly a certain ideology is displayed." It's true to say, if uncomfortable to admit, that there's something queasily seductive in the footage of airliners bellyflopping into vast canopies of flame as engine-fuel combusts on impact. One such montage is accompanied by the disco classic "Do the Hustle". It's a moment that could be taken as the last word in affectless post-modern irony, as too-cool-to-be-moved cynicism. "That's over the top, I know," Grimonprez admits, "but it's beyond cynicism, it's definitely provocation."

Provocation in the name of what? One answer comes in Grimonprez's choice of texts that provide the commentary. Excerpts from Don Delillo's novels White Noise and Mao 2 punctuate the carnage, and the American author's tone helps create a distance from the images. It a crucial presence in the film. Grimonprez places one telling passage from Mao 2 over some particularly disturbing footage. "Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture," muses the voice-over. "Gunmen have taken over that territory. They make raids on human consciousness."

"I wanted to do something about terrorism and the mass media and how you position yourself against or within it," Grimonprez says. "In 'Mao 2' the writer trying to position himself in relation to the terrorist is similar to how a film-maker positions himself against TV."

Grimonprez searches for meaning through juxtaposition. Sometimes it's a matter of laying almost indecently banal music over horrific images. For example, in an airport terminal awash with blood lies a woman's red boot. Generic muzak seeps over the image.

There emerges across the film a virtual history of TV "generations", in the sense that historical generations identify their iconic images in part through the property of the images' "grain". This breaks down as 60s and 70s TV using film and the 80s and 90s video. The continuity across these generations that Grimonprez identifies is the most disturbing aspect of the film, that of the mass-media's collusion with terrorism. In Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, the media scrum trains its long lenses on Revolution Airstrip in Jordan, waiting for the planes to explode, as though the event were another sudden-death penalty shoot-out or Grand Prix pile-up. By playing fast and loose between these generations of images and by explicity focusing on the murderous reciprocity of the media/ terrorist relationship, Grimonprez takes us further into the image-world where reality is inseparable from its image - Delillo again: "Nothing happens until it's consumed."

The place where images nest is the home. And, for all its irony, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y secretes a sense of deep disturbance at this state of affairs.

'Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y' screens at the Lux Cinema, in Hoxton, London, on Wednesday 13 May at 6.30pm (0171-684 0201).

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