Giovanni Vimercati on The Disappearance of Goya
The Disappearance of Goya plays January 20 as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2019.
The 1975–1990 civil war that ripped Lebanon’s social fabric apart and left the country in fragments is a recurring topic in its national cinema, almost to a monothematic extent. The reasons for this narrative fixation are many and manifold. The war and its wounds are still relatively fresh, virtually every family in Lebanon having suffered a loss or at the very least having been displaced. The internecine conflict that traumatically altered the precarious balance of Lebanon’s multi-ethnic and multi-confessional makeup was won by no one, in neither military nor political terms.
In the absence of a clear victor, nobody got to write the history of the struggle (something winners inevitably take upon themselves). Warring factions, and there were many, formally agreed to halt the fighting—with weapons at least. Maronites were stripped of some of the colonial privileges they were granted under French rule, though to reduce the Lebanese civil war to a religious conflict would be a gross (and dangerous) oversimplification. Many of the intricate dynamics at play during the long and bloody war have by no means been resolved, let alone pacified. And the sectarian divisions (institutionalized by the French) that the war exasperated and further entrenched still dominate the political life of this tiny Mediterranean nation. Lebanese schools do not adopt a unified history textbook, which means that recent national history remains a disputed territory. The first generation born after the civil war has now come of age and it is precisely to this generation that the director of The Disappearance of Goya belongs. Toni Geitani’s debut feature focuses on the evanescence of historical and national memory as experienced by the first generation that did not see corpses lying in the streets but grew up surrounded by their ghosts.
The discursive opacity and formal open-endedness of The Disappearance of Goya are the plastic outcome of a subject matter that cannot be possibly dealt with linearly. No cohesive or coherent plot can emerge from the fog of a disputed memory and none in fact unfolds from Geitani’s film, which opens with a recorded interview with the Druze leader Walid Jumblat, head of the Progressive Socialist Party. The interview, conducted by a French journalist, presumably dates back to 1982 when the Mountain War (Harb al-Jabal), one of the many subconflicts of the Civil War, broke out. This war within a war, which took place in the Chouf region southeast of Beirut, saw a coalition of leftist and Muslim-majority formations led by Jumblatt’s party pitted against the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Christian Lebanese Forces. A drone shot, possibly filmed over the very same slopes where fighting had once taken place, pans by to take us in front of an anthropomorphic figure (something in-between Nosferatu and Freddy Krueger). Endowed with a raspy robotic voice, the creature starts describing the famous painting by Francisco Goya El tre de mayo en Madrid, in which a man with his arms open is facing the firing squad, his face frozen into surprised imploration traversed by a streak of resignation at his impending death. From the way he describes the painting—“the light propagates on the initial victim and then moves on to the future martyrs”—he could almost be mistaken for its author. Later in his monologue the mysterious figure, whose name he confesses to be Ghassan, recounts an event that took place on April 3 1983, when he was tasked with staging a fake execution, by photographic means. “I had nothing to do with any of them,” Ghassan points out, referring to the various players involved in the war, meticulously listing them one by one. This mystery person was only a hired cameraman (though it remains unclear how willingly). Once he took the photograph of the fake execution after having carefully choreographed it, the actors, to his aghast surprise, were shot for real. At which point the spectator might ask herself what is the difference between a real and a staged execution. The photo of the “fake” shooting bears a striking similarity to Goya’s abovementioned painting.
From this image, which materializes later in the film in different forms, The Disappearance of Goya dissipates into a cloud of symbolic allusions and self-reflexive interludes. Notably among the former is the body of a female performer wrapped in a green screen onto which images of the conflict are projected alongside a soundscape composed by the director himself. Later in the film we see the crew discussing their second-hand memories of war, sharing their families’ stories of exile, resilience, and mourning.
The contours of these stories, very much like the staged photo at the allegorical center of the film, are hazy, as is the structure of the film, which fuses multimedia art with cinema to not always convincing results. The Disappearance of Goya at times feels like a rehearsal—albeit one permeated by potential to be sure. Then again, the film’s hypothetical form and tone are intimately connected to the speculative essence of its conjectures and spectral evocations. Nothing is ever taken or given for granted aesthetically: the line that divides verisimilitude from fiction, history from its endless versions, is not even meant to be seen. Geitani’s film solely relies on fictional testimony. The place of memory in relation to the Lebanese Civil War has been a point of cinematographic contention since filmmakers started trying to make sense of the senseless agony of fratricidal killing. Rather than something to be assembled and preserved, national and historical memory in Lebanon is a cursed apparition, a chimerical delusion at best. In a country where there are still thousands of unaccounted disappeared the ghost is more than a simple cinematographic pretext—its allegorical dimension in Lebanese cinema acquires a realistic quality.
Curious and telling in this regard is the “consultant” credit of Ghassan Salhab in The Disappearance of Goya. Salhab’s Phantom Beirut (1998), the story of a man who returns to Beirut after having faked his own death during the war, can in fact be considered the progenitor of Lebanese cinema’s hauntological strand, one now bound to be explored by a new generation that was spared the bloodshed, but not its far-reaching consequences.