Mourning becomes Jerusalem

New film by French-Israeli artist Joseph Dadoune imagines a suffering female 'Zion' roaming the Louvre.

October 31, 2006 09:06
elkabetz ronit 298

elkabetz ronit 298. (photo credit: Joseph Dadoune)


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Using the low-tech yet highly evocative medium of 16-millimeter film, the French-Israeli artist Joseph Dadoune recently created and screened Zion, an allegory about Jerusalem, at the Louvre in Paris. Dadoune says his work functions as a kind of "cerebral prophecy carrying a message to the world," likening his role as artist to the Jewish concept of "tikkun olam" (fixing the world). Whatever its connection to Jewish belief, Dadoune's Zion indisputably functions as a kind of "tikkun ha'Louvre" by correcting a serious omission from the Louvre's permanent exhibition. The film is also a pleasure to watch, starring Israeli actress and film festival favorite Ronit Elkabetz in a masterful performance as the city of Jerusalem, which is personified here as the ultimate drama queen, burdened with all the emotions of the city's traumatic history. The idea for the Louvre-based film came, fittingly enough, during a visit by Dadoune to the museum. The Paris - based artist found himself in a section showcasing ancient objects from Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Levant when he noticed that no mention of a Hebrew civilization in the region had been made by the museum's computer displays, maps and chronologies. In a subsequent letter alerting Louvre officials to the oversight, Dadoune presented his idea for Zion, which he said would call attention to Jerusalem's history, something he says is often forgotten or distorted at Western institutions like the Louvre. To Dadoune's surprise, the museum proved sympathetic to his criticisms, enthusiastically granting him permission to film Zion in the museum's galleries. According to the artist, one Louvre curator in particular, Marie Laure Bernadac, "understood my vision, and was very pleased to give me the opportunity to change history" as it is documented in the museum. Formally, Zion looks like both a timeless epic and a parody, recalling silent French, Italian and Soviet movies from the Twenties and Thirties. The short film is shot in black and white, in soft focus, using evocative natural light that s o m e t i m e s hits the camera head-on to create a soft, halo-like effect around its star. The film opens in the Louvre's Mesopotamian gallery, where giant stylized lions guard either side of the entrance. The name "Zion" appears in an old-fashioned, bold Hebrew text, not what Dadoune calls "the languages of colonialism," English and French. Suddenly, Elkabetz enters the space, pensive and dressed in the copious folds of black fabric as a stately Middle Eastern matron. She carries a regal black flag and circumnavigates the gallery, calmly inspecting the rows of Assyrian soldiers marching in relief around the perimeter of the gallery. The frame jumps and the actress is seen thrashing the flag around her body. The action transforms her into a raging black silk whirlpool, visually filling the center of the gallery. It's a gorgeous yet abstract gesture of rage perfectly suited to the old-fashioned, black and white imagery. In the next scene, the camera settles on a doorway framed by an Egyptian statuary. Zion, timidly tiptoeing around the area, gazes at the foreign objects with her jaw hanging partially open. The character seems weak and disoriented, as she begins what appears to be a frantic search for her own culture. She finally collapses to the floor in a puddle of black fabric, and seen from above, stares into space as if transported into another nightmarish realm. The film's aesthetic appeal aside, Dadoune describes Zion as a critique of the very museum where it was filmed. Like other Western museums showcasing art and artifcacts from overseas, the Louvre is itself a display of the knowledge and sensibilities of its mostly Western curators. But while many of the treasures to be found at the Louvre arrived in Paris during France's colonial adventures in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, Zion reverses the perspective, looking at the museum's holdings from the view of a region that was often a bystander to the military and political activities of others. The character Zion, as she walks through the Louvre's storied halls, inspects the West's perceptions of the broader world - perceptions that have often underplayed or misrepresented her historical importance. At the same time, the film can't be reduced to a single message or interpretation. Zion is about more than colonial and post-colonial displays in Western museums, and the film can also be read through a feminist lens. Zion serves as a critique of "the violence of men through every generation: Alexander, the Turkish, the British," Dadoune says. "The woman, Zion, is repeatedly the victim." The inspiration for this feminine Jerusalem isn't modern feminism, however; Dadoune quickly points out that the image of Jerusalem as a mourning woman comes from the Babylonian Talmud. The female Jerusalem's reactions to her surroundings are a source of fascination for the camera, which at one point in the film pans over part of the Louvre's ornate ceiling, a surface rich in gold filigree and sculptures of cherubs and other nude, seemingly Christian imagery. In the context of Zion, the Louvre's beautiful ceiling seems suddenly oppressive, decadent in a way that unnerves or weighs down the viewer with its splendor. Later still in the film, Zion reappears within the stiff neo-classical architecture of a gallery of 18th and 19th century French painting. She is now dressed in a splendid, formal gown, and her eyes and lips are adorned with thick, dark color. Here, the fierce, upright geometry of the Louvre seems appropriate for the dignity of Zion, and at the same time excessively stiff and oppressive . Still a grand, proud diva, Zion slowly looks into the picture windows, most notably into Jacques Louis David's famous paintings of the Rape of the Sabine Women and the Oath of the Horatti. Both works feature Roman war themes and present women immersed in violence or weeping in the background, images Zion can identify with all too well. Zion lingers for a while in front of the Sabines, seemingly lost in an empathetic moment or in memories of her own torture at the hands of the Romans. Finally, she retreats to the floor, where her d collet rises and falls as if she sits silently sobbing, her heavy head leaning against the wall. The tragic image is a clear reference to a stock character from old films; Zion is recognizable as an abandoned woman who has been used and abused and has become only more compelling for her suffering. There was no pre-written script for the film, and Dadoune says he selected Elkabetz to play Zion because she " c o n n e c t e d with my vision, and my vision of darkness. It's a question of feeling, and she feels it deeply." The contemporary art world is often criticized for being shallow and materialistic, and Zion represents an intriguing opportunity for new works of art to be produced and seen within the art world's existing and most venerated institutions. While still a living city, Jerusalem also has elements of the timeless, a municipal feature beautifully captured in this unusual artistic tribute.

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