A Bloody History: Will Self on Film Violence and Violent Culture

Ahead of the upcoming DocDays screening of Daniele Rugo & Abi Weaver’s About A War, Will Self, who will host a discussion following the screening, writes about his own evolving relationship to on screen violence, and its place in culture.

Humans are innately violent, so I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that humans’ films are innately violent as well. Humans also perceive the world as a series of stills – around 22 per second, in fact – which our big brains then interpret as conveying movements. Movements such as the arc of a fist-bearing arm – or a knife-wielding one for that matter. It’s a truism of contemporary discourse to observe that films are getting more violent (while some, such as the Harvard cognitive scientist, Stephen Pinker, believe that humans are becoming less so); while it’s an indubitable fact that the levels of verisimilitude film can now achieve make the violent images of the past seem positively irenic: the Wild Bunch collectively clutch their manly bosoms, and, with a slight grimace, topple bloodlessly and balletically to the ground. It may be that it’s precisely their ability to render violent acts more credible, that makes filmmakers so very keen to do so – whatever the reason, they can count me out.

When I was a young man I not only watched on screen violence – I positively revelled in it. Now that I find myself unable to contemplate the evisceration of this extra, or any other, I wonder whether it’s the medium that’s changed, its message, or me. On consideration, it occurs to me that the delight I took in my ability to ‘stomach’ film violence (never real) when I was a young man, was a function of a reasonable instinct for self-preservation: at some basal and brutal level, calculating that I might, at some numinous point in the future, have to prove whether or not I was capable of dealing it out, as well as taking it.

But with the passage of the years there’s been precious little actual violence in my life – effectively none; so what’s the point in observing its warped simulations now? Surely, to do such – let alone regard it as a form of entertainment – is to indulge in the worst sort of voyeurism: as if one were an impotent old jade watching sexual pornography. Because film violence, in the modern era, is a form of pornography (the current version of the so-called ‘money shot’ being the ejaculation of blood the camera can lovingly capture, when there’s a simulation of a bullet penetrating a human head), providing the excitations of the real thing, with none of the intimate consequences. Some believe that the prevalence of violent simulations – whether in film, or increasingly in highly-realistic computer games – reduces actual violence, and that were the web and the internet to crash, the streets would be full of adrenaline-fuelled men looking for their fix.

All of which is what makes Daniele Rugo and Abi Weaver's work such a compelling and important work: these are the testimonies of men my own age – their experiences of actual violence during the Lebanese civil war. Here we have the opportunity to engage with the impact of real violence on an evolving sensibility, and how youthful participation is regarded with the benefit of hindsight. I urge anyone who’s interested in the potential of film to investigate violence discursively – rather than portray it incontinently – to watch About a War.

[Words by Will Self]

About A War + Q&A

The Lebanese Civil War saw approximately 170,000 dead, 1 million displaced and 17,000 people still missing. During the conflict thousands of teenagers picked up arms to fight in a 15 years war that tore the nation apart.

Moving through the testimonies of Assad, a right wing Christian intelligence officer; Ahed, a Palestinian refugee fighter and Nassim, a Communist commander, About a War unpicks the personal and social motivations, trauma and regret of militiamen who picked up arms during the civil war. With no official account of the conflict, their testimonies build a multi- perspective picture of a crucial turning point in Lebanese history that radically transformed the Middle East.

Nowadays, ex-fighters Ahed, Assad and Nassim work towards breaking cycles of violence among young people in Lebanon. While their own personal confessions delve deeper into issues of violence and politics in the Middle East, they also stand as a cautionary tale for a country that continues to be marred by inequality and sectarian divide.

On Wednesday 28 November, Curzon Soho will welcome filmmakers Daniele Rugo & Abi Weaver for a screening and post-film discussion, hosted by Will Self.

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