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The Passenger or the search for identity (FW31)

Harun Farocki
Valentina Vitali meets the director of Erkennen und Verfolgen (War at a Distance) at the Locarno Film Festival
Born in Nov-Jicin (Neutitschein), in annexed Czechoslovakia, in 1944, Harun Farocki began as an agitprop director in 1966 and started working as a critic for the film journal Filmkritik in 1972. Since then, he has made over seventy films, in a wide range of formats. Many are film-essays dealing with socio-political issues from a resolutely subjective perspective, and critically interrogating the production and reception of images.
With his first full-length film, Zwischen zwei Kriegen (Between two Wars, 1978), about the support German industrialists gave to Hitler, Farocki manifested what was to become an ongoing interest in different forms of production - whether we understand this to be industrial, social or cultural - and the interconnection between them. This line of enquiry continued in 1981, with Etwas sichtbar (Before your Eyes - Vietnam), where Farocki deconstructs the production of napalm B and explores the impact of images from Vietnam on the German Left. His best known film internationally, Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Images of the World and the Inscription of War, 1988) is “a meditation on film technology, Auschwitz, surveillance, smart bombs and invisible death,” while Videogramme einer Revolution (Videogrammes of a Revolution, 1991/1992, with Andrej Ujica), screened last June at the Goethe Institute in London, “explores the use of television as a strategic weapon in the Romanian (counter-) revolution and the overthrow of Ceaucescu.”1 Farocki’s films have been the subject of a number of retrospectives, in Germany and abroad. Part of this extensive body of work was shown in London last June, at the Imperial War Museum.
Central to Farocki’s work for film and television is vision as a process of socialisation, a mode of thinking and functioning in all spheres of life. Since 1965, montage has played an important role in his films, where a wide range of material is used and reworked, from newsreel, to archive footage and film extracts. His most recent video, Erkennen und verfolgen (War at a Distance, 2003, Germany, Beta digital, colour, 58 min), presented at the Locarno International Film Festival in August this year, investigates the nature of the images broadcast during the Gulf War. Consisting primarily of technical and, for the untrained eye, highly abstract images - from the camera attached to missiles on target, from simulation films for military training, promotional material of warfare production corporations, or simply footage from scientific cameras in industrial plants - Erkennen und verfolgen invites the viewer to a demistificatory journey into the world of ‘modern’ military action. Seen from the point of view of powerful Western corporations, wars, today, are fought ‘at a distance’, mobilizing sophisticated technologies of vision for recognition, tracking, targeting and bombing. Heavily censored before 1991, it was these kind of images - generated by machines, for machines in military operations, and devoid of human beings - that began to be broadcast world-wide during, and as ‘objective reportages’ from, the Gulf War. In this way, Erkennen und verfolgen provocatively raises fundamental questions about vision - that is, about our - ‘the viewers’ - implication in the reproduction of economic and power relations as we subject ourselves to, and actively process, daily doses of visual-digital information.