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Dor Guez on His Film “40 Days” and Artistically Bridging the Personal and Political

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Dor Guez’s latest video and photographic installation, “40 Days” is deceptively simple in its execution. On one side of its current showing at Berlin’s Carlier Gebauer, homemade video footage rolls by with the handheld camera being rested on a side table or kitchen countertop while Guez speaks with elder family members about the desecration of Christian Palestinian cemeteries in his home town of Lod. Located about 15 kilometers southeast of Tel Aviv (it’s also home to Israel’s Ben Gurion airport), the city is home to a little over 1000 members of this minority within a minority, or 1.5% of the city’s population, of which Guez’s family is also a member. In the adjacent room, high dynamic range scans of photographs Guez’s late grandfather Jakob took documenting one such instance of desecration are displayed as large format photographic prints, some even showing the decomposing skeletal remains, which lay beneath the shattered headstones.

Though on one hand a highly personal story — at the end of the film we see Jakob’s memorial service, which ostensibly precludes his interment in just such a cemetery — the highly affective result is much more wide reaching. “40 Days” is as much a story of repeated persecution and the blind eye cast on minority, disenfranchised issues regardless of their face, as it is of the specific conditions that Guez’s family faces in Lod. Here, Guez speaks with BLOUIN ARTINFO’s Alexander Forbes about making that leap and the project at large.

From its onset, “40 Days,” is remarkable for its ability to disrupt what might be stereotypical expectations of politically activated work by an artist from Israel without being vehemently confrontational about that break. Could you explain a bit about the persecution faced by the Christian Palestinian minority presented in the film?

Like most of my video works, 40 Days offers a deeply personal story, which relates to a larger narrative. In this case, it is the death of of an individual from a very specific minority in the middle east (The Christian Palestinians) and his memorial service, 40 days later, and at the same time, the story of the place where he is buried, the Christian cemetery in his town, which every few years is vandalized by other religious groups. The destruction of the cemetery reflects the situation of the Christians as a minority in the middle east, but the larger narrative of this work relates to a very common and basic human condition of being fragile, which we all share.

How do you navigate the line between the personal and political within your work?

Being a minority is the constitutive condition of this century. It is not only being numerically outnumbered, but a question of different contexts as well: gender, education, economic status, etc. In fact, at some point in our lives we all experience the feeling of being a minority, but for some of us this condition is suppressed. You can look at my work and reduce it to an aesthetic statement regarding my culture or the history of my region, even the art of telling a story — all are correct. But, I hope it is also about human solidarity. The term “minority within a minority” becomes a sort of metaphor in my work; in my eyes we are all Christian Palestinians. It is also your cemetery that is being repeatedly destroyed.

The entire film looks as if it’s been shot from the hip or at a child’s viewpoint. If I remember correctly, the only face we clearly see is that of the priest at the very end. What was the reason behind that?

Yes. In 40 Days you see the priest reading from a paper that is being held against his face, so he will remember the names of the deceased family. It is the only time in the video that you actually see a human face, and it is being concealed most of the time by the priest’s note, leaving his presence as a remote representation of the religious leadership of the Orthodox Church. The story is otherwise told by hand gestures, and as you described it, there are very few moments when you can actually identify a human face. There is a cultural gap between the church leaders, who are in Europe, and the congregation, and there is a gap, in a shape of a white paper, between you as a viewer and the priest’s face. The role of absence is to create a gap for you to fill as a viewer.

The photographs that Samira rips apart in the film were then scanned and are now presented in the room opposite the video. How did she feel about your taking them into an artistic context?

I sat with Samira in the living room, the camera between us, and we talked about the latest destruction of the Christian cemetery in our town. While we were talking about it, she told me that my grandfather, Jacob, took photographs to document this violent act for the police, as official evidence. It was the only documentation of the demolition, and since the police didn’t solve the case, he got them back. Samira kept them in a kitchen drawer, where they were exposed to moisture from her cooking, and she sent me to find them while we were shooting.

The ripping is the story of these images as objects, and in order to tell the full story this act “must be done”, as Samira describes it in the video. The two stories of the photograph intersect here in a poetic way: the morphological content is the documentation of destruction, and the terrible way those photographs were held and then separated, the history of the photograph as an object, is a second layer of destruction. The 40 Days video is an opportunity to watch an expedited process of interference in the original photographs.

And this is part of an ongoing archival process as well?

In 2009 I founded the Christian Palestinian Archive (CPA) project, which is the only archive today dedicated to the Christian Palestinian diaspora. In the past 5 years, the CPA has been built by individuals’ like Samira, for their community. Families from the Palestinian diaspora are contributing representations of their family albums to the archive on a daily basis. The CPA was also a turning point in my artistic practice, and it provides the basis for all of my installations: it can be one picture, or a series of 15 photographs dressed as a family album. The archive goal is to become public platform for all to look at, so an art show is a natural stage in that aspect.

[Images: Dor Guez, “40 Days”, courtesy Carlier Gebauer Berlin]

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