The thing to keep in mind about video programs at art museums is that they tend to be a whole lot slower and less blatantly enticing than programs on network or cable TV. But patient viewers often are rewarded with insights and images too complex or deliberately unresolved to withstand the sound-bite mentality.
One good place to look for such insight is the Long Beach Museum of Art, a nationally known video showcase headed by recently appointed curator Carole Ann Klonarides. The core of the current video offering is perspectives about the the crises in the Middle East. Despite a preponderance of negative views of the conflict over occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the tapes are not so much pro-Arab or anti-Israel as they are reminders of the futility and agony of war, and the mindless level of political and media-created rhetoric.
"The Call: Personal Insights on the Middle East and North Africa," on view through April 19, is a mixed bag, no doubt about it. But the nine works--organized into four programs, with a total running time of slightly over three hours--steep the viewer in a strong sense of place and sustained personal insights.
The most impressive portion of the series is "Introduction to the End of an Argument: Intifada: Speaking for Oneself . . . Speaking for Others . . " (Program Three, 45 minutes), by Elia Suleiman, a Palestinian filmmaker, and Jayce Salloum, a Lebanese-Canadian artist (both of whom now live in New York).
This fast-moving tape artfully juxtaposes Arab stereotypes in commercials, cartoons and American, European and Israeli movies (the clips include Rudolph Valentino in "The Sheik," "Lawrence of Arabia" and an Elvis Presley vehicle, "Harem Scarum") with snippets of Middle East coverage on decades of American news programs as well as documentaries and contemporary live footage. In the films, Arab men are cruel, oily schemers and Arab women are seductively veiled man-pleasers.
Over footage of Jewish immigrants entering Palestine, a newsreel announcer calls the territory "a hostile land filled with swamps, snakes, scorpions and Arabs." In a clipped British accent, the narrator of a documentary remarks on the Arabs' "violent and sadistic rituals." The news coverage shrieks with alarmist catch-phrases--"The rocks are flying, the rage is flaring, the blood is flowing, and the whole world is watching.'
Suleiman and Salloum use several devices to structure and comment on their rapid-fire collage of images. For example, the words "Part One" flash on the screen at odd intervals (there is never a "Part Two") to underscore the way viewers are dependent on the media's packaging of news events as well as the sense that only part of the story is being told. The diverse images collected in the tape achieve a cumulative effect, jolting viewers awake from the Us-and-Them viewpoint embedded in our cultural outlook.
In an intimate vein, Mona Hatoum's "Measures of Distance" (Program Two, 15 minutes) looks at Middle East conflict from the viewpoint of a middle-class Arab woman in Beirut in 1981 whose life has been turned upside down because of the war. A voice-over reads an English translation of a letter to her daughter, who apparently lives abroad. The screen fills with memory-blurred views of the women's bodies and faces, on which the Arabic script of the letter is superimposed.
"How I long to feast my eyes on your beautiful face that brightens up my days," the mother writes, with a degree of feeling Western mothers rarely verbalize. The mother recalls how "happy and secure" the family felt in their village, and how, when they were forced to leave Palestine, she felt "as if I'd been stripped naked of my very soul."
In the matter-of-fact tone of legions of letter-writing mothers chronicling the small news of a household, the mother notes that the local post office has been destroyed by a car bomb, and what with all the rockets falling "even going to Aunt's for afternoon coffee" has become "quite an adventure."
"Women in Black," by Marie Helene Cousineau (27 minutes), also in Program Two, consists mostly of brief interviews with some of the Jewish women who dress in black and silently demonstrate in Israel's major cities against the effects of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip. The women are shown enduring verbal abuse from angry Zionists as well as receiving unexpected tributes, such as the roses distributed by one male supporter.
Says an elderly woman who once worked as a nurse attending to young mutilated soldiers: "We eat, we drink, we make parties . . . . How can you continue living normally, quarreling about laundry or food being too salty when children are shot at with gas or people are being closed up for periods of three or four weeks in their house? . . . . At least I'm trying to do something."