German filmmaker and media artist Harun Farocki uses a combination of found and new footage of various human activities of modern culture to describe phenomenon brought on by industrial or technological advances, creating a new genre of film, in the process.
In Inextinguishable Fire (1969) one of Farocki’s earliest films to receive acclaim, he first narrates a statement written by a Vietnamese man submitted to the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal, describing the destructive power of a napalm bomb which had been dropped on his village by the US Airforce. Then to visually drive the point home Farocki burns his own arm with a cigarette which burns at 400°C, with a final remark that napalm burns at 3000°C.
The film then shifts from a narrative personal demonstration to a fictional account of what goes on inside the Dow Chemical Company, where the staff and management behave like robots, displaying little emotion in spewing out company matras, like “chemicals are the building blocks of life” while dealing with the problems that arise in the production of chemical products for their clients or consumers.
Many of these problems like how to make napalm stick on a person’s skin, so that it more effectively maims them, and how to deal with the chemists and technicians finding out that the work that they do cause so much death and suffering reveal the type of cruelty senior management had in chasing profits.
The film ends with a staff member saying that some collegues think they’re making parts for a vacuum cleaner, while others believe these parts are for a sub-machine gun, which exposes issues of ethics and morality and hence the justification for secrecy within the corporate culture. And finally, when ethics has been warped enough, the staffer thinks maybe a sub-machine gun would be a useful household gadget; a view that, some people in America and other countries hold.
In Workers Leaving The Factory (1995) scenes of workers leaving their factories from from the past century of cinema, documentary or propaganda films are shown. The narrator describes all of them showing workers hurriedly leaving, almost desparate to get away from their work places, that lovers waiting for their loved ones always happens outside the factory and that very few movies show what goes on inside, except for Michael Moore’s Where To Invade Next (2015) which aims to show how cushy an Italian factory is.
Just why did Farocki make this film, which involved tremendous amounts of time in research, at the end of the 20th century, when the industrial revolution had faded from memory and everyone is talking of globalization, workers’ rights and equality?
While ambiguity is an integral part of Farocki’s treatment of his films, with connections between sequences and parts not fully defined and left to the interpretation of the viewer, he has implied that he wanted to make a new film genre during an interview, since that there had never really been a film about ‘workers leaving the factory’.
Thus Farocki’s themes almost always revolve around a reaction against mainstream media and how there’s ‘always another side of the story’ to the prevailing one an image seems to be portraying. This is evident in Interface (1995), a film about the last mass rally of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, with one image showing Ceausescu in power and giving a speech to the masses, and the other masses of people leaving the square during his speech.
Farocki has found that the latest computer animations are so realistic that a line has been crossed; they collectively have somehow affected our reality itself and have ‘fooled’ us into thinking this alternate reality actually exists. This is most evident in the Serious Games I-IV (2009-10) series of films which depicts a US Army training facility where soldiers train to fight a war in the Middle East using computer animation where the real terrain or built urban topography data is incorporated in the photo-realistic simulation.
As the soldiers travel around carrying out their missions, an instructor places various obstacles and/or carries out attacks against them on the fly, choosing a customized ‘look’ for the enemy from a suite of outfit options.
So effective is this virtual environment in training our brains to prepare for fighting in an unfamiliar environment, that they have found it could also be used to treat returning soldiers who have been psychologically traumatized from fighting in the front. Here a returning soldier describes the events that happened and experiences an emotional breakdown upon returning to the exact location, in virtual reality, where his fellow soldier was blown to bits from the knees up during a mission one day.
In fact in contemporary warfare, one side of the conflict, the one with the height advantage, never even sees or nor experiences reality anymore. As shown in War At A Distance (Erkennen und Verfolgen) (2003) with imagery from military radar, missile and other weapons guidance systems, the real has been removed and replaced by the virtual.
From fighter aircraft pilots to guided missile and unmanned drone operators, advanced military personnel nowadays can only see virtualized imagery or sometimes local imagery that’s been augmented with vital information.
So not only are wars planned somewhere far removed from the front, and weapons created in laboratories far away, with its effectiveness judged from what’s shown on TV, but now the soldiers who fight with these weapons also sit somewhere far removed and can only see the frontlines through virtual or augmented camera images.
The advancements in communication technology that have enabled this type of globalization in contemporary warfare has a de-territorizing effect. It has de-boundaried national boundaries; what happens in the frontlines, now forms only part of the picture in this fractal field of perception, enabled by the speed of communication, which is becoming instantaneous, traveling at the speed of light.
Just what does digging up 100 years of films of factory workers leaving their factories, virtual reality simulations and surveillance footage from fighter jets, guided missiles and the like have to do with contemporary art?
It is obvious that Farocki is more concerned about the meaning behind the image, rather than the image itself, which is used as a metaphor to illustrate a facet of our existence. That we need these prosthetic devices, surveillance technologies for our perception denotes an abstract existence; it abstracts life to ‘vital information’ or ‘meta information’, turning these films into a sort of ‘meta cinema’.
Like someone chanting a mantra, the film shows various missile on-board cameras in-flight, decimating a target, and finally the video static after detonation, over and over again.
The use of repetition, of repeating scenes, once reminiscent of the mechanized nature of mass production during the industrial revolution, now denotes another facet of contemporary life; the system that puts different industries to work together to invent technologies first for military use then for civilian applications, which operates silently, behind the scenes, systematically, tirelessly.
Seen collectively these films depict cold, mechanical world, one where we are being made obsolete by our own creations, but at the same time they also celebrate the power of the cinematic image to liberate, to expose what was wrong. At the core, they are a critique of what it means to be human and on the other hand, a kind of portrait of Farocki’s mind, his world view.