In the context of Photography, Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida writes: “Photography cannot signify except by assuming a mask.” (Barthes, pg. 34) This mask is the meaning that goes beyond that which is depicted. It goes beyond the face and the expression. In the context of film, it is perhaps the meaning that exceeds not only the aesthetics of the composition, but one that surpasses different layers of narrative; a meaning that lays within the form.
Or (2004, Keren Yedaya) is a film, where its impact is mainly due to the meaning that resides under the layers of the narrative, and signified through the form. The film is empty of any camera movement. The camera never follows anyone. It is always there, but passive. The characters walk freely regardless of the framing. In many times there heads are cut off by the frame. Sometimes all we get is a frame empty of any person, only the off-screen sound. For Yedaya, it’s not so much about the face or the characters, rather how the camera by its mere presence within their everyday life can create meaning.
As in Avedon’s photograph of William Casby, it is not Casby’s face that is affective but what it signifies: the essence of slavery that is laid bare. In the same sense Or is not so much about Or or even her mother. The meaning and the significance even go beyond the issue of prostitution. Or is rather signifier of complex sociopolitical dynamics.
Qouting Barthes: “Society,[…] mistrusts pure meaning, It wants meaning but at the same time it wants this meaning to be surrounded by noise, which will make it less acute. Hence the photograph whose meaning (not its effect) is too impressive is quickly deflected; we consume it aesthetically, not politically.” (Barthes, pg.36) Or rather than a political film is a film that is “made politically.” It is perhaps for this very reason that Yadeya finds camera movement excessive. Her minimalism and discount for glorification (what Barthes calls “noise”) is what makes the film more than an aesthetically pleasing and satisfying image. Yadeya does not want her picture to be less acute. She is neither interested in oversimplifying a politic nor reassuring our already existing political beliefs, but rather in creating a context for us to question them.
Barthes writes: “Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.” (Barthes, pg. 38) Perhaps it is its simple aesthetics, treatment of the form and open politics that create the room for self-reflection. It induces a curiosity to seek the suggested meaning which is different than the literal one, to move beyond the narrative of Or and/or her mother. Or is consumed politically for it speaks, and induce us to think; for it thinks.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang 1981.