Sunday,21 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)
Sunday,21 April, 2019
Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Moskobiya Experiment

Hani Mustafa is impressed with Raed Andoni’s complex attempt at catharsis

Andoni in a still of Ghost Hunting
Andoni in a still of Ghost Hunting

In 1971 at Stanford University in California, a group of psychologists headed by Philip Zimbaro conducted what would become known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. A newspaper ad called for student volunteers who were paid $15 each to take part in the week-long experiment. The students were divided into prisoners and prison officers, and their behaviour observed with a view to investigating the effects of preconceived power. 

The dramatic results inspired world cinema on a number of occasions, with Paul Scheuring’s 2010 The Experiment starring Academy Award winners Forest Whitaker and Adrien Brody (the latter among those honoured at the closing ceremony of the Cairo International Film Festival – CIFF last week) and Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s 2015 The Stanford Prison Experiment, which won the Alfred P Sloan Feature Film Prize at the Sundance Film Festivals.

Raed Andoni’s Ghost Hunting, which won the Best Arab Film Award at CIFF’s Arab Cinema Horizons as well as the Berlin Film Festival Panorama’s Best Documentary Award relies on a similar premise. The object, however, is not a psychological investigation but the artistic project of rebuilding the Moskobiya Prison in Jerusalem, managed by the Israel Security Agency which is the division of Israeli security that deals with Palestinian political prisoners; at Moskobiya various kinds of psychological and physical torture are practised against Palestinians fighting the occupation.

The film relies on the personal experience of an artist named Mohamed Khattab. Andoni himself was detained and interrogated in Moskobiya at the age of 18. “This film means more to me to than this, however,” Andoni told me over email: “the deep inner need to make it. I too am a former prisoner, which happened to me when I was young. Later you discover that prison does not leave you as soon as you leave it; part of it continues to live with you; and for me as a filmmaker things thing needed to be expressed and shared.”

The film opens with an animation of a detainee tied to a chair with a hood over his head. The next shot is of the director being made up. Such a juxtaposition introduces the constant mixing of what is being reenacted and what was/is real. And so the scene shifts to the basement of a storage space – the same space depicted in the animation drawing. The director enters accompanied by a tied-up man (who later turns out to be Khattab). 

Andoni unties him and begins to ask about the details of the place they are setting up. Khattab describes the interrogation room, how the interrogator would sit with a picture of Herzl above him, always the same – and the only – picture. In a later scene the director meets a number of those applying to take part in the film, one precondition being to have been imprisoned whether in Moskobiya or elsewhere. Some applicants explain they were held in Gaza, one in Jenin.

In this way the film proceeds simultaneously on two fronts: that of the experience it seeks to reproduce, and that of the actual reproduction. 

Andoni’s aim is to have a team of people around Khattab (including himself) recreate their experience of being held – starting with the space itself – documenting not only the process but also its emotional effect on them. “The space is definitely akin to one of the characters in the film, it has its own presence and its appearance develops as the film progresses. That’s why it was important to find a place that suits the general sense of the project, and that is what I found in this underground garage in Ramallah.

“I knew my story,” Andoni goes on, “or the subject of my story, but what required a long time, nearly three years, is finding out how to tell it. Between research and writing and meeting former detainees, the project shifted from a narrative film to what you see now, and the reason behind this change is that every time I met with a former prisoner I felt the depth of emotion he had was something that surpassed any possible script. That is why I decided to find an innovative way to bring these real feelings into the film. And so I decided to work with former prisoners rather than actors, whether in the narrative or the documentary side of the work. Filming took place continuously over a period of seven weeks.”

The mixing of narrative and documentary is so intense it can be disorienting when, for example, Khattab’s character  (played by Ramzi Maqdisi in the narrative scenes) is taken into the interrogation room while it is still being built. Eventually the prisoner, who is denied being taken to the toilet to urinate, ends up soiling himself. The officers then use his body as a mop to clean the floor. This is no doubt one of the cruellest scenes in any film, but it is quickly ameliorated when the viewer is reminded, again, that this is a documentary project in the process of being made.

Powerful acting and spontaneous responses and relations make for an immersive experience, however, in the course of which an admirable sense of honesty comes through. “Film is the art of storytelling,” Andoni says, “and I think the most important innovation in this project is that all the different cinematic techniques combine to tell a story in it. The narrative scenes derive their energy and echo from the documentary scenes and completes the story, and that is why the scenes are in harmony and integrated to the extent that the viewer can abandon the question of whether a given scene is fictional or documentary, so taken can they be with the characters and their stories.”

The director films members of the crew trying to lock themselves into the cells they have built, asking them how they feel. Some of them break down in tears, having remembered his experience in a rare moment of catharsis. The last sequence is the narrative story of Khattab (played by Maqdisi) protecting the prison officer who lit a cigarette for him when the head officer asks him who gave him the light. 

“This scene is based on the real story of Mohamed Khattab,” Andoni says, “some of whose experiences we acted out again. In the first place the prisoners insistence on not providing the interrogators with any information at all on principle prevents him from informing on his prison officer. But at deeper levels, maybe the light is the inner subliminal and sensual light that remains with a human being in the midst of the cell’s darkness. The viewer might come up with other meanings too…”

Transforming the reality of prison into outstanding art is something that has been done before, notably by Vittorio and Paolo Taviani in their film Caesar Must Die, in which they staged a play with actual criminal as opposed to political prisoners, which won the Berlinale’s Golden Bear in 2012. But Andoni’s achievement is unique in that it reveals how detainees can fight the defeat encroaching on their psyches in a context of occupation and oppression.

For Andoni himself, “It is in short the transformation of a cruel experience into a work of art, transforming a prison into a space of freedom and the deep pain of the participants into pride and accomplishment. This is what the project achieves in my view, because building the prison is rebuilding the participating characters and it is tearing down the inner prison that lives inside us.”

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