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Iwona Kurz on the engaged gaze at the HER Docs Forum




still from the film "5 Seasons of Revolution" by Lina




The Gaze of the Engaged

Iwona Kurz



In 2013 Hito Steyerl, artist, researcher and visual activist presented quizzical video work How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.MOV File (https://www.artforum.com/video/hito-steyerl-how-not-to-be-seen-a-fucking-didactic-educational-mov-file-2013-51651). She spoke there about one of the most important subjects of her work, concerning catches and possibilities of subjective existance in a global space of digital-visual surveillance and control. Simultanously she revealed one of many paradoxes of our times – called fluent modernity by Zygmunt Bauman just because it lacks legible demarking, precise notions and practices, because everything is complex and paradoxical. On the one hand, we can fight for hiding from the ubiquitous eye of diverse cameras and surveillance systems, however, individuals as well as groups remain active in fighting to be noticed, to find their own space in a global circulation of representation.


The issue gets more complicated when we talk not only about freedom from digital pressure but also about contexts in which being in the eye of the camera can equal being in the crosshairs. On the meaningful picture by Ahmad Gharabli made in Jerusalem in 2017, an Israeli policeman photographing a Palestinian woman was photographed back by her (https://foreignpolicy.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/140review.jpg). Two smartphones aimed at each other demonstrate synchrony of vision: seeing each other and seeing everybody and being seen by everybody. This vision is not symmetrical because it does not give equal rights to everybody, however, it essentially changes the relations of power, where ruling over means of vision becomes fluent and force systems become undefined: where rulers want to see, we can hide, where rulers act in hiding, we can expose ourselves. Political demonstration, a gesture of resistance gets double meaning: social performance and representation. This question is also problematized by documentalists in the HER Docs Forum program. They film protesters in Damascus (5 Seasons of Revolution), Belarussian Minsk (Mara) or Burmese Rangun (Midwives) – but also those who film them. And who do not let to be caught filming (especially Lina, the director of a film about revolution in Syria, where we witness constant fighting about the possibility to see something by means of a camera, mostly hidden one). What beats the drum, is a remarkable similarity of violence and officials practicing it…


Because of the complexity of today's world and its additional complexity of the complexity of seeing things, engaged gaze cannot be defined directly, all the more that engagements are of different kinds. The marrow is, however, what they mean for people present in camera coverage – for protagonists but also for filmmakers and audience. Common denominator is not possible but maybe it is also not necessary: one of the important values and basic engagement dimensions is its open character, understood as maturation for facing human needs and requirements of events. Such an understanding of engagement means active reaction, being constantly in touch with others and with reality. From the word “midwife” I prefer “childbirth assistant” because it describes persons working at grassroots, outside institutions, open for people's needs and understanding those: supporting women in births and in abortions.


The beginnings of thinking about power within the domain of representation go back to the 60s and 70s of the 20th century – when it described rather unidirectional gaze. What has changed on the wave of counterculture, is thinking about identities and subjects, and about university and cultural and art institutions. Actually, it is difficult to overrate the role which the dispute about cinema and gaze in the cinema played in feminist debates and other emancipatory discussions. It was interlinked with the meaning of cinema as the main narration of the 20th century, attracting and shaping global masses, as well as with cinema's role as peculiar social laboratory – cinema served as a model in which processes more difficult to be observed in social reality were clearly seen. Thesis of Laura Mulvey from 1975 which was crucial for this discussion – about agency of male subject in cinematic narrations, expressed primarily through power of dominating male gaze – opened a broad field for consideration and creative actions. Questions on: how to make a film in a different way, how to subjectify women as characters and directors in it, were also questions about: how to influence social change and subjectify women in general by means of a representation.


This polyphonic dispute is running until today, covering different minorities – ethnic, racial, connected with sexual (un)identity. Today we can also clearly see that the feminist agenda cannot be separate from other dimensions of emancipation and that the foundation of patriarchal order is neoliberal system and undemocratic power of the state, so it is not only about widening of social field, including widening the field of representation for new groups, but also about the transition of totality of this order (several threads in this discussion are developed in the film Feminism WTF).


Mechanisms of power strike everybody but primarily the weakest, including women and other most sensitive groups, basing on breaking solidarity between individuals and groups. This is, however, the first one, also in the sense that the basic dimension of engagement present in many festival films: showing bonds, networking, cooperation and solidarity. Even when camera focuses on one person, her/his story runs in the background of events, concerning collectivity: protests, riots, violence, war, migrant crisis and climate change. This is underlined especially in films, where this single fate – due to narration or used means – becomes symbolic, as it happened in case of the protagonist of Mara whose mask recalls mythological female figures, or in oneiric Ukrainian The Bee.


However, the most important are relations and unity of fate or unity of actions: protesters in Belarus, protesters in Syria, of those who try to live in Ukraine during the war, engaged in the #metoo movement in Spain (The Yellow Ceiling), engaged in the green change worldwide (Green City Life), engaged in help for refugees at the borders of “European fortress” (Good News and Nightwatchers) or simply in medical care for residents, regardless of ethnic tensions in Myanmar (Burma). These are not always and not only women but their voice and activity moves to the foreground. In this context a gaze is rather a metaphor of attitude to life: critical, lined with disagreement for injustice and violence, but at the same time emotional, full of tenderness, care for other women and their sons or partners, sometimes the same ones who stand in uniforms against them.


These active figures as well as filmmakers presenting their lives exercise the policy of care. We can give an example of a photographer and activist, Nan Goldin, who defined it (although indirectly) in an interview for “Bomb Magazine” (https://bombmagazine.org/articles/nan-goldin/) when she spoke about her photos of trans and nonbinary persons. She spoke about the terms to look and to show with respect and admiringly. Positively. With love. Therefore, it is not a sharp “gaze” as in views of Foucault and Logan, critical towards ideology, (however, totally opposite) which takes us down or calls us out. It is neither a dominating Barthes’ punctum nor a study that sweeps the culturally defined whole, composition and background. This is visual bond, a contact made by the camera.

Camera becomes an empowerment of this emotional attitude also thanks to the possibility of “forwarding”, adding more people to the network. Cooperation and solidarity are at the same time the subject and the means of acting. Some films like Midwives or 5 Seasons of Revolution were made for many years, they required help, cooperation, sometimes risking someone's life, sometimes with necessity to show courage. There are filmmakers’ names behind it but there are also other people on and off the set. In these films time goes by differently, it is not the time of the story but the time of experience, consideration, relation and sometimes poetry. Sometimes also the time of agency in the teeth of circumstances and without asking about the final result. Sometimes the time to practice hope.

This is the time of engaged women, cooperating women supporting each other, caring about others and about the reality. Their way of thinking – based on category “our world” stays in opposition to the policy based on category my people.



Iwona Kurz – critic and cultural historian, professor in the Institute for Polish Culture at the University of Warsaw. She deals with the history of modern Polish culture in visual perspective, with visual memory and body and gender subjects. She is interested in cultural policies and cultural actions. More on: https://ikp.uw.edu.pl/dr-hab-iwona-kurz/.

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