dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y




dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, 1997

Supermarket History
An interview with Johan Grimonprez
by Catherine Bernard



Catherine Bernard: Paul Virilio once said, "To invent the ship is to invent the shipwreck, the train the derailment, and so on." In your film dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, the opening line, "Shouldn't death be a swan dive, graceful, white-winged, and smooth, leaving the surface undisturbed?", also seems to relate speed and death, history and speed.

Johan Grimonprez: I'd like to quote Nixon from dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, who, while speaking to an audience of scientists, paraphrased Virilio. He said something like: "If it wouldn't have been for science, there would be no airplane, and if there was no airplane there wouldn't have been any hijackings, so we could make the argument that it would be better not to have science at all." True, every technology invents its own catastrophe. TV technology has reinvented a way to look at the world and to think about death. That is, in fact, what the film is about. It analyses how the media participates in the construction of reality. We could say that with the reinventing of reality, a culture of catastrophe is also being invented, and with it a new way to look at death. The acceleration of history is also related to technology: the film shows both how TV news has been historically presented, and how it has been accelerated by the new technological means of recording reality. The film ends with the camcorder revolution: honeymooners who inadvertently taped a hijacked, crashing plane, and were immediately invited onto CNN to host Larry King's talk show. It reveals how the distance between spectator and history has entirely dissolved. The spectator has become the hero; now the "Best of Home-video" programmes even urge us to send in our own little catastrophes.


C.B.: The title refers to the multiple choice of automated voice-mail systems. How is the relation of hijacking to history presented in your film?


J.G.: History conflates with hijacking. The plane is a metaphor for history. It is transgressive, always on the move between several countries, between several homes. Nowadays, home is a nomadic place. The Palestinians didn't have a country so the airplane became for them a sort of home. At the end of the sixties and seventies, the political implication of home became very clear. Leila Khaled stated in an interview that because there was no Palestinian territory, war had to be fought in planes; the plane claimed as the home, in a state of nowhere. Hence, the recurring image of the flying house, appropriated from The Wizard of Oz. The twister which carries Dorothy's house over the rainbow into the land of Oz parallels the hijacking of a plane across a violent border towards a political utopia.

dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is like supermarket history: there is so much available and history cannot be understood as singular. It tells of how history is recorded and catalogued, and how these techniques accelerate and accumulate memory, almost as an excess of history. If you punch the word "hijacking" on the internet, or look for footage, you get so much information that you don't know where to start. You are already lost in push-button history, so you have to zoom in on specific aspects. In focusing on hijacking, I chose one detail which revealed history in another way. Looking at details is much more concrete because history, after all, is the conflation of the personal with the global.


dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, 1997


C.B.: Hijacking takes place between spaces, political and physical. It has the possibility to literally explode historical dialectics: bombs explode rationality. So could terrorism represent a moment outside of historical determinism?


J.G.: History is always on the move, one step ahead. It is not fixed or in place, so hijacking is very much part of history. History is always happening between places, right? It is only afterwards that the structures of power consolidate it into a text, an image, a TV series, a narrative. History is read differently by different people—for example, the Palestinians and the Israelis. Vincent Alexandre, the assistant editor, was doing research at the TV archives in Cairo and was looking for images from the colonial period tracing Palestinian history, but all of them had been removed by the Israelis, either destroyed or stored somewhere else. So, if Palestinians have been written out of history, then by hijacking they can re-inscribe themselves into it.

Abstract statements about terrorism are hard to make. The whole terrorist spectacle has been absorbed by a game of political masquerade: Right is playing on the icon of the Left—government is playing terrorist. It is more perverse than simple dialectics or a destructive bomb: when interviewing Carlos for his book Carlos the Jackal, David Yallop realized in it that he was not dealing with the real Carlos. There were two or three versions of Carlos or, in the end, maybe Carlos didn't exist at all; maybe he was just an invention of the counter-terrorist movement or the power structures in place.


C.B.: As we watch the film, the story of hijacking unfolds as a way of telling the story of the media, how it engineers drama and fiction as forms of control. I am thinking, for example, of the sequence which collages the generic music of Westerns and frontier myths with images of a congressman, Reagan, rockets and missiles.


J.G.: I traced the history of hijacking from the first passenger flights onwards, and how it has changed through the course of history, but this is just a cover under which to talk about the story of the media and of the (mis)representation of hijacking itself. For example, if a hijacked plane explodes mid-air in Africa it is turned into a thirty-second news byte. If there are a few Americans on board and no deaths, then there is a narrative, a suspense involved: the suspense of a postponed death. A narrative can easily be constructed, so the media takes it on. So, it's actually all about narrative and the narrator telling the story, not transparency.

The story of hijacking is inextricably linked to the Cold War, and its playing field largely defined by the ideological divide between communism and capitalism: for instance, Cuba aligned to Russia; the Japanese Red Army and the Palestinian Liberation Front aligned to Mao; Israel aligned to the US "Skyjacking", as it was called, was somehow written into the romantic idea of the revolution during the sixties and seventies. East and West were, more or less, clearly defined and the hijackers had names: Leila Khaled, Ulrike Meinhoff, Kozo Okamoto, Rima Tannous Eissa, Mouna Abdel Majid... But towards the eighties the utopian project has imploded; the former dividing lines disappear, hijackers are killed, cynicism is put in place. The media is more and more implicated as a key player; the image of the individual is substituted by a flow of crowds; hijacking is replaced by anonymous suitcase bombs. The image of the hijacker has vanished: TWA Flight 800 can be explained as an accident or a missile or an extraterrestrial attack; the Lockerbie bombing got woven into several political rhetorics, each legitimizing a global power game. Since the eighties, the Reagan Administration started to accommodate the terrorist spectacle to veil its own dirty game in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Terrorism became a superficial game played through the media to hide the big shit underneath. It might be premature to invent subliminal narratives, but the fact that anonymous parcel bombs have replaced hijackers might very well reflect the dynamics of abstract capitalism, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the US trying to redefine itself in terms of its imaginary Other: no longer James Bond against Russia, but Mickey Mouse versus ET.


C.B: The idea of catastrophe is constantly highlighted in the film through the editing and the musical score. In doing so, is your intention also to deconstruct the language of TV docudramas, news, and talk shows?


J.G.: I mimic what is going on in the media, rather than deconstructing it. In choosing to do so, I think that criticism is more implicit than explicit. The news has turned into a soap opera, as in the Clinton–Lewinsky affair. A lot of it was inspired indirectly by the Gulf War reportage, which reduced history to a video game, the sights mounted on top of a missile. It catapulted the camera's proximity to destruction right into our living room. As we saw with the O.J. Simpson trial and, more recently, with Princess Diana's death, catchy logos and soundbites are put in place immediately; the news adapts Hollywood's aesthetic codes or styles itself after MTV. Only the applause and laugh tracks are missing. At one point Hollywood even ran ahead of reality. The invention of a war to divert attention from the president's sexual escapades—as portrayed in the film Wag the Dog—preceded the recent Gulf crisis. It made the whole Clinton–Lewinsky affair look like a poor soap-opera adaptation. Saddam Hussein took the story one step further by broadcasting Wag the Dog on national cable in Iraq: Hollywood goes political on a global scale.


dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, 1997


C.B.: Zapping is a strong syntactical element in the film, done with fast editing and syncopated rhythm. Is this form of collage related to the narrative—the history of media and media techniques?


J.G.: The ideology of zapping could be defined as a new sort of Brechtian rupture. It can be an extreme form of poetry, going much further than collage. It reflects the television vocabulary that was online during the Gulf War: Reporting was all mixed up—baby diapers and politics, ketchup and smart missiles, commercials between images. If one could transpose a videotape of the Gulf War reportage into the Vietnam War period, it would immediately reveal how the news industry has transformed itself into a surrealistic shopping zone. In the former, the distance between the event and the camera, mounted on top of a missile, seemed as close to death as it could be. This spectacle replaced critical distance and obscured the fact that the war was launched to sell 'surgical war' technology, boosting the US economy. What the media is selling is history itself. Zapping, then, is a new way of looking at reality. It can't be denied and it's everywhere: walking through a city, we are bombarded with impressions. It's like Walter Benjamin's "walk through the city", but in fast-forward mode. Soon we will mistake hard reality for a commercial break.


C.B.: The way you juxtapose the images—colour and black-and-white, accelerated and slow motion, circular motion, fast-paced editing—creates a poetics of space in which they sometimes barely touch and sometimes permeate each other. Is the idea of flux between spaces and narratives one of your concerns?


J.G.: The juxtaposition shows how memory works: domestic banality coexists with TV; intimate, domestic stuff is also part of history. Like I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the Gulf War started: drinking a cup of coffee over a household quarrel. It was like watching Star Trek in pyjamas as a kid in the seventies. Both worlds are colliding all the time. This is what history is all about. The hijackers in the film are also mostly portrayed in a banal manner: Rima Eissa washing her face behind bars; Kozo Okamoto falling asleep in the courtroom; Minichiello smoking a cigarette; the Shiite hijackers drinking Pepsi; Leila Khaled in close-up after her facelift.


C.B.: The idea of a fluid structure is also enhanced by the use of precisely dated and identified sequences, organized not necessarily chronologically but in strata. This would seem to refer to the dynamics of desire in the way we apprehend reality. Can it be read also as a critique of linear history and of the rationalization of sociopolitical space?


J.G.: There is a specific structure in the tape—the story of hijacking—but the way I approached it was empirical. I was dealing with something which was outside myself, but very much part of my memory. While I was researching and collecting images, exploring the relationships between camera and event, I would find connections in a non-chronological way. The film starts with the first live hijacking to be broadcast on Japanese TV, and goes on to depict a sort of voyeurism of voyeurism. The image of the camera pervades the film and, indirectly, it becomes an account of how reality is mediated. But initially I wanted to make a tape about people saying goodbye in airports, to trace how that has changed in just thirty years. It was to be something more autobiographical, a recollection of memories in relation to my little daughter who was at that time living on the other side of the Atlantic; reunions always happened in airports. Marc Augé has called the airport a "non-space", where everything is in flux, the whole world transforming into one big airport with the accompanying feeling of homelessness. The film reflects this loss of home, conflating desire and politics, public history and personal memory.


C.B.: dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is about the transgression of borders and state, arguing against the old dichotomies of fiction and reality, movies and documentary.


J.G.: Whereas traditional documentaries are tied to epistemological limitations to describe reality, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y plays with the presupposed notions of structure and chronology. For that reason I choose to depict a double narrative that sets the television timeline against the backdrop of a story. In the classical documentary, chronology and structure are logical and a specific vocabulary is used to describe reality, whereas in my film, the chronology of hijacking is underscored by a fictionalized storyline based on a novel by Don DeLillo, which plays with how these notions collide. The film also tries to trace intimate politics to point to historical alternatives. Reality is always co-constructed; it is not only the news, the political forces beyond us, but it is also inside us, part of our desire. I criticize certain notions or structures of the state, but I feel that I am also implicated in them. On an emotional level, one feels several things at the same time: revulsion and desire, seduction and repulsion; the disco beat of Do The Hustle accompanies the final sequence of planes crashlanding, urging on the ultimate disaster.


dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, 1997


C.B.: In the political arena, women are represented in the media in a few distinct ways: the passive faire-valoir figure who enhances humanitarian causes and other charities through her presence; the threatening figure with an appropriate nickname, like Margaret Thatcher's "Iron Lady"; the spokesperson. In the history of terrorism, women are almost absent: the media have all but obliterated their role. One of the reasons for this disappearance is that they actually were not accorded any important role besides that of companion. Obviously war is seen as a man's affair. I would like to suggest a parallel here with the emphasis placed in the official history of terrorism on whatever served the Cold-War cause (Cuba, Israel/Palestine, Libya/Eastern bloc), where Third World countries were featured only when it directly affected the principal power structures. Can you comment about such frame presences which translate into visual lacunae?


J.G.: History is definitely selective. While researching at ABC News, I realized that there were so many images of hijackings! I knew that in choosing some, I was eliminating lots of others. Walter Benjamin said something like, "History is written by the guys who went to war",...right? You realize how much is never written down, recorded, or even taped. It also has to do with power and money: CNN can afford to send news crews everywhere. So history is always related to power, to the narrator who tells the story. In the film I make fun of Dr David Hubbard, the American psychiatrist who specializes in hijackers. He focused on the Freudian principle, trying to analyse the plane as a big Freudian machine: pilot, stewardess and hijacker caught in an oedipal triangle, and so on; so skyjacking—the "flight of fantasy", as he calls it—is reduced to a mere sexual impulse. But then where does that leave Leila Khaled, the Palestinian hijacker? She could embody the phallic woman. It was pretty smart on the part of the Palestinians to introduce Leila Khaled: seduction as part of guerrilla strategy. For her second hijacking, she went even further, undergoing a facelift and dressing herself up as a tourist.


C.B.: The film's narration consists of excerpts of Don DeLillo's novels, Mao II and White Noise which establish a relation between hijacking, terrorism and writing.1 Are they really even comparable?


J.G.: In Mao II, a relation is spun between the terrorists and the novelist. It questions the status of the artist versus the status of the TV image. What is the role of the artist today? "Novelists and terrorists play a zero-sum game, what terrorists gain, novelists lose," says Don DeLillo in Mao II. The book contends that the terrorist has taken the writer's role in society, because he is able to play the media. In White Noise, catastrophe is a member of the family. TV stages the clash between the little world of domestic bliss and the bigger political picture that surrounds it. Nowadays even the terrorist is hijacked by this global political spectacle staged through the media.


C.B.: The text also affirms the precedence of media drama in plotting the narrative of the contemporary world while the fiction writer is assigned the role of dinosaur. How do you see your own situation as an artist making films? Is any definite place possible?


J.G.: Yes, the reason why I chose the writer-versus-terrorist narrative is to speak about the artist versus the media. The situation is, in a sense, also contradictory: the film declares the death of the novel, but at the same time is based on a novel. It presupposes the necessity of writing while it proclaims the impact of the suicidal die-hard. "Get killed, and maybe they will notice you," runs a line in the film. Thus the game played out between terrorist and novelist becomes an autobiographical story, a metaphor for the role of the filmmaker within a media-saturated world. Nobody can deny television; as a filmmaker, it certainly cannot be denied. This dilemma is very much part of my life. The world is full of meanings, an abundance of meanings, all scrambling for attention, says DeLillo. On TV, imagery becomes more and more extreme and the accumulation of images more rapid: the TV set has swallowed the world. Reality has lost credibility: even when confronted with real death one feels detached, as if the violin strings are missing in the crucial scene.

A lot of sixties and seventies films and videos about countermovements situated themselves in a dialectical process against TV or in the avant-garde. Nowadays the situation is much more inclusive, like contemporary criticism. Mellencamp points out that the dream of the global village to invent "counter-TV" has already materialized, but in an inverted sense: the sitcom.2 dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y situates itself precisely in this sort of everyday schizophrenia in which shock and catharsis happen at the same time: it is inclusive and critical at the same time. It is about both seduction and the displacement of desire. Commercials can become a metaphor for very intimate things.


dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, 1997


C.B.: During the seventies, hijacking and terrorism played an important role in the construct of a sociocultural imaginary in Europe. Fear, bomb scares, and "terrorist chic" went hand-in-hand, especially among intellectuals. Is this aspect interesting to you?


J.G.: "Terrorist chic" captures very well the failure of what happened with the romanticized ideas of revolution in the narratives of the sixties and seventies. Consumerism has absorbed the revolutionary impulse. The utopian project has imploded, and in the end there is not one projected dream or idea left. When we look at images now, we realize how much everything has been absorbed by the seduction principle. When, back in the seventies, Baader and Meinhoff went off to training camps in Palestine, it was very much like Duchamp's urinal. The urinal shocked because it was displaced inside the boundaries of a bourgeois world. Recently someone peed in Duchamp's urinal at an exhibition: back to start.

"Terrorism" has become an empty term, just like "democracy", a fig leaf to disguise whatever ideology lies underneath. Just as the Wizard of Oz turns out to be a big fake! Terrorism is such a vast concept that it has to be contextualized, geographically and historically. If it happens in a country in South America, it is totally different from what happened in the seventies in Europe or what is going on with recent extreme-right bombings in the United States. Ideologies also have to be localized; you can't generalize unless you're speaking from Hollywood. The end of dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, set in St Petersburg in 1994, portrays a Russian terrorist, a bullet in his stomach, a microphone pushed in his face, dying on camera. No longer capable of answering why he took hostages, he dies on the set with TV's full complicity. Final declaration: silence. The media is left alone with itself.


C.B.: More recent hijackings and terrorist actions have turned into bloodbaths (Lockerbie, Marseilles), and the state has also adopted guerrilla tactics. Could this be a form of victory, or the complete absorption of terrorist dynamics within the state? Take the Unabomber story: danger and disaster become ubiquitous yet impossible to locate. Perhaps it also points to technological warfare as a last frontier?


J.G.: Maybe the state wants precisely to claim terrorism's ubiquity, to further entrench its police control. Didn't we used to wave goodbye to our loved ones from the observation deck, watching the take-off? Now our bon voyage ritual involves security gates, X-rays, surveillance, lasting-lipstick billboards, a little bit of shopping. The intimate body has become totally controlled. Terrorism and hijackings were followed by counter-measures. Every time a terrorist would invent something, the state adopted a strategy of mimicry. It has gotten to be an extreme situation. All the recording security systems in today's airports is a result of seventies hijackings. Paradoxically, there is so much security in place now but bombs pose a bigger threat than hijackers. Take Lockerbie, for example. 270 people died and we're left with a suitcase bomb: no terrorist anymore. The terrorist is absent. It's a total masquerade of the structures of state.




First published as: Bernard, C. & Grimonprez, J., "Supermarket History: Interview with Johan Grimonprez", in Parkett, no. 53 (1998), 6–18.