The thin image



In intercultural cinema there is an additional, more overtly political suspicion of the image, given that its clichés bear the weight of dominant history. For many works of intercultural cinema, then, the image is barely a beginning, and any extension into narrative must be hesitant, or suspicious. (Marks 2000: 42)



Writing on cinema in 1983, Gilles Deleuze conceptualised the ‘thin image’ as an aesthetic tool of resistance. In 2000, Laura U. Marks revisited his writing in relation to intercultural cinema. The thin image, comprising out-of-focus, grainy, or underexposed images, is the opposite of the cliché. Clichés are to be avoided, not because they are unoriginal but because they reiterate stereotypes and hegemonic ways of looking and integrating visual information. What is at stake with a cliché becomes more real the less privilege a subject can claim in society.


Decontextualising stereotypes is thus the work of the thin image. Where cinematic conventions order our ways of seeing – beyond the level of content – the decontextualised image works on the same level as deconstruction. When an image is denormalised, it has a chance of being seen beyond the references that discursively surround it. Marks (2000: 46) writes, ‘The optical image defamiliarizes the cliché by severing it from its context. The resulting image looks rarefied and abstract compared to the thickness of clichéd images. But it is really the cliché that is abstract. It perceives from the image only what is useful in the terms of causal connections.’


Experimental images that do not claim to tell ‘the whole story’ can appeal to people whose subjectivities are regularly unacknowledged in society. Documentary subjects are thus approached experimentally by film-makers who document unrecoverable histories.[7] Thin images can stand in for official images, which are often unavailable to intercultural film-makers. Marks notes that access to official documents in postcolonial countries is often more easily accessed by privileged outsiders.


In Palestine, for example, in 1948 (the year known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’), 750,000 Palestinians were forcefully expelled from their homes to make way for the formation of the State of Israel. Generations of archives and memory objects were systematically destroyed by a new Israel eager to cultivate the appearance of a ‘land without people’.[8] Edward Said (1992) makes the point that the actual conditions upon which the State of Israel was founded – that of forcefully displacing nearly one million people, and destroying their homes, villages, and belongings – has never been officially adopted into either academic or political discourse in the West. Until now, those expelled from their homes have never been allowed to return. In light of this context, my use of the thin image becomes more evident.

[7] This is the case in Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991), on her parents experience in a Japanese American internment camp, Walid Ra’ad’s Missing Lebanese Wars (1996), or John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs (1986), to name only a few (Marks 2000).


[8] The phrase ‘A land with no people, for a people without land’ is an expression associated with the early Zionist movement, referring to Palestine as an empty land for Jewish settlers. Its origins are contested, though the phrase is widely used.

In ‘Recovering the Hidden through Found-Footage Films’, Dirk de Bruyn (2012) reflects on trauma and the avant-garde cinema of the 1970s. Trauma, briefly explained here, is a disturbing experience(s) that creates a long-term negative and recurrent impact on a person or group of people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. While Bruyn’s writing is focused on the individual, trauma can also occur on collective levels in times of war, slavery, or genocide.


Bruyn (2013: 101), in part quoting Constance Penley, explains the jarring cuts and compilations of experimental materialist films as mirroring the fragmentation of traumatic memory: ‘“The first tactic of structuralist/materialist film is the emptying from the cinematic signifier of all semantic, associative, symbolic, representational significance” […]. This is what trauma does to memory.’


The importance of ‘emptying the signifier’, runs parallel to that of the thin image. For example, traditional cinema does not need to explain in detail to its audiences the concept of ‘virtue’. It simply inserts the image of that which we are enculturated to view as virtuous – a woman in a certain dress, a man in a certain suit – as a visual shortcut. Similarly, it dictates who is to be distrusted by a set of constructed images indistinguishable (hegemonically) from ‘reality’. Trauma however throws consensual ‘reality’ into question: its clichés are dislocated. The moment the emptied signifier of materialist film or the thin image enters is the moment when clichés and their shortcuts are interrupted and where something new can begin. For this reason Bruyn (2012: 98–100) quotes Peter Gidal who asserts: ‘Without a theory and practice of radically materialist experimental film, cinema would endlessly be the “natural” reproduction of capitalist and patriarchal forms’.


Emptying the signifier of all symbolic significance is best accomplished through highly abstract works. Palestinian Wildlife Series does so only partially. Where, for example, the lion’s regal associations or the hyena’s dishonesty (in human cultures) proved impossible to remove, the artwork plays with existing stereotypes in order to invert them.[9]


Bryun writes of two avant-gardes: the first is narrative and explicit about its political position; the second is non-narrative and focuses on processes of perception. Palestinian Wildlife Series works to resist this binary through a third way, which is political, perceptual, and non-representational.

[9] This is seen, for example, in chapter 10 of the film, titled ‘Can’t Tell the Lions from the Hyenas’, which is shown in the concluding section of this exposition.

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