We Will Be Strong in our Weakness!

by tobybee

Exciting times blogreaders! We have a special guest post from Ben, who is a fellow melbourne Jew, an academic and general man-about-town…


I went last weekend, along with tobybee, to see ‘… and Europe will be stunned’, Yael Bartana’s provocative film trilogy, which meditates on the difficulty of living in the world. Imagining and inventing a Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, she explores the complexities of finding and making a home amidst others, playing with and discarding both a destructively facile Zionist liberation ideology and the reductive ease of liberal multiculturalism.

Her first film in the trilogy, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), introduces us to the charismatic leader of the movement: scriptwriter and Polish activist Slawomir Sierakowski. Evoking and twisting Leni Riefenstahl’s fascist aesthetic, he stands in a decayed and almost entirely abandoned stadium. An almost absurd man in an absurd situation, he speaks before only a small number of Polish children and calls for the return of 3 million Jews to their Polish homeland.

Reprising Riefenstahl’s framing of the great leader, Sierakowski pronounces on post-Holocaust Polish lack in a language obliquely referring to the problem of return—whether Jewish or Palestinian—elsewhere:

Today we are fed up looking at our similar faces. On the streets of our great cities, we are on the lookout for strangers and listening intently when they speak. Yes! Today we know that we cannot live alone. We need the other, and there’s no closer other for us than you! Return!

Sierakowski’s call is as much for a Polish renaissance as it is a Jewish one, crying out for self-knowledge through the return of the other. We need you, he seems to be crying, to save and renew Poland. Bartana’s implicit critique, here, evokes Derrida’s explication of the logic of the supplement. The supplement, he suggests, is something enriching that is added. But it is also a sign of absence:

It adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void. If it represents and makes an image, it is by the anterior default of a presence. Compensatory [suppléant] and vicarious, the supplement is an adjunct, a subaltern instance which takes-(the)-place [tient-lieu]. As a substitute, it is not simply added to the positivity of a presence, it produces no relief, its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness.

The supplement, in other words, is something external, introduced to fill a lacking absence in the original structure itself, but which can never be more than a proxy. The three million Jews of Sierakowski’s dream are not the same three million who lived precariously in Poland in 1939. 70 years have changed us, one can never fully go back.

But Slawomir Sierakowski is not only speaking to the children in front of him, and some who have left do ‘return’. Bartana’s second film, Mur i wieża (Wall and Tower), imagines his cry as it is heard by Jews around the world who, inspired, band together to form the semi-fictional Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland. Evoking the Zionist pioneering aesthetic, this film traces the building, in a single day, of a kibbutz in Warsaw (repeating scenes from the 1939 JNF propaganda film Collective Adventure). But the optimistic spirit is compromised, over a soundtrack of Hatikvah played backwards, almost as soon as it begins. Located opposite the Warsaw Ghetto memorial and presumably on the site of the ghetto itself, the Movement’s uncanny construction includes surrounding barbed wire fences and an immense guard tower, suggesting both the concentration camp of Europe and the wall that runs along and through the West Bank, each looming inescapably over life itself.

This debilitating securitised existence, life behind a wall, is certainly no hopeful utopia. The JRMiP Manifesto is at times ambivalent, questioning its very purpose of existence:

Perhaps this return will not always be distinguished and victorious. We are filled with doubt, lack of confidence, hesitation. We do not plan an invasion. This will be more of a return of ghosts of the neighbours haunting you in your dreams – the neighbours you never expected to see again or those you have never had the chance to meet.

The uncertainty of ghostly existence, hidden away behind a wall and tower, is that of an embodied sense of embattlement, one that can be expunged neither by the ‘Zionist phantasmagoria’ nor by a return to an ambivalent Polish home. It is haunted by the violence of the 1930s and 40s in Europe, and today in Israel/Palestine. And the movement is ultimately forged in the blood of the assassinated Slawomir Sierakowski. Bartana’s third and final film, Zamach (Assassination), is set at his public funeral, as various speakers—from his contemplative widow, to a grotesque Israeli anti-diasporist, to the hopefulness of two children of the movement—speak to an assembled crowd in a large square in Warsaw. The movement comes together before its icon, fragmenting into factions even in the moment of its performative unification.

It is in this third film that Rifke, a Jewish escapee mentioned in Mary Koszmary, returns to bear witness. The ‘ghost of return,’ she has been repressed but not forgotten by Poland. But her return, both symbolic and embodied, is undetermined. What would a return really look like? To this question, Bartana gives us little.

Where does this leave us? Is there nowhere between existing for someone else, and failing at doing so, and a securitised precariousness, living as a permanently embattled minority? Perhaps this is her post-emancipatory point. ‘My recent works,’ Bartana has said, ‘are not just stories about two nations — Poles and Jews. This is a universal presentation of the impossibility of living together.’ As the JRMiP declares:

We direct our appeal not only to Jews. We will welcome all those for whom there is no place in their homelands – the expelled and the persecuted. There will be no discrimination in our movement. We will not dig in your life stories, we will not check your residence cards or verify your refugee status. We shall be strong in our weakness.

There is a noble dignity in such a position. To paraphrase Vinay Lal in a different context, the ontology of the dominated always has room for the dominator; the same cannot be said for the latter. Insisting on a position of weakness is not a simple move. There is a strength in that weakness, a commitment to existing with others even while acknowledging the impossibility of that dream.

What would a truly plural Europe look like? How is its possibility repressed even today, always there to return, to speak against its denial? As racist and Islamophobic movements grow both in our current homes and across that continent, evoking the anti-Semitic tropes of a not yet distant age, this remains an urgent question.

With one religion, we cannot listen.
With one colour, we cannot see.
With one culture, we cannot feel.
without you we cannot even remember.
Join us, and Europe will be stunned!

The films are screening at ACCA until Sunday. And for those more internationally inclined, they’re apparently in Venice until 27 November. So go see them!