Élevage de poussière / Dust Breeding
16, 17, 18, 19/05 – 19:00
EN > FR / NL
What is the value of images as objective testimonies of a conflict? Can we believe what we see? In her new work, Sarah Vanagt turns her attention to an important chapter in recent European history: the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The artist examines obstacles to reconstructing a war that is nevertheless well documented. She has started from a simple movement of the hand – a pencil being rubbed on a sheet of paper placed over an object – and adapted this “revelatory” rubbing process to the courtroom. The film Élevage de poussière / Dust Breeding offers a penetrating account of her exploration. Measuring the gap between the facts, the material proof of these facts, the images that represent them and their interpretation, she attempts to decipher the secret language formed by traces of war. Sharpening her eye until it becomes a microscope lens, Vanagt reveals a landscape of details inviting us to look at things differently.
Directed & filmed by
Sarah Vanagt (Balthasar)
Cyril Bibas (Centre Vidéo de Bruxelles)
Additional sound recording
Translations & subtitling
Courtroom footage provided with the courtesy of
Balthasar vzw (Brussels)
Kunstenfestivaldesarts, deBuren (Brussels), WIELS (Brussels), Argos (Brussels), Centre Vidéo de Bruxelles
Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds, Centre du Cinéma de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie
"Bringing war criminals to justice was our mandate, the triumph of justice is our legacy."
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague is clear about its own role in the history of international criminal law. The temporary tribunal was established by the United Nations in 1993 and is currently preparing its exit, sparing no effort to communicate its achievements and so secure its judicial legacy. On the Tribunal's website, one reads that the institution has irreversibly transformed humanitarian law by giving victims a voice, by letting the truth prevail, and by demonstrating that no one can escape the law - not even heads of state and military leaders. On a specially designed postcard, the mission of the Tribunal is stated in block letters in two languages: 'Bringing war criminals to justice and justice to the victims / Les criminels de guerre devant la justice, la justice pour les victimes.' This text is visually supported by two contrasting images: one, a piece of weathered cloth in the form of a primitive pair of handcuffs (caption: Exhibit No. P16/6 - Piece à conviction n° P16/6 (Srebrenica)'); the other, a sophisticated-looking pair of steel handcuffs (caption: 'UN-ICTY handcuffs - Menottes ONU-TPIY'). The message is clear: the Yugoslavia Tribunal responds to primitive Balkan extrajudicial violence with the hard but civilized hand of 'the rule of law'. In a promo film entitled Inside the Tribunal. A look at the work of a groundbreaking institution, everything is more explicitly articulated. Madeleine Albright, the ambassador for the United States at the UN at the time of the establishment of the Tribunal, transmits the following message: "This will be no victor's tribunal, the only victor that will prevail in this endeavour is the truth."The message is emphasized further in the film by the Registrar of the Tribunal. He stresses that the mission of the Tribunal is not confined to judgement, but that the tens of thousands of hours of footage and the millions of pages of text produced in court also provide an 'undeniable and positive legacy' for generations of students, scientists and ordinary citizens. This way the 'factual findings' of the Tribunal contribute to the historiography of the former Yugoslavia.
It is not common for judges to distribute films and postcards, but then the judges of the Tribunal have an unusual mission and thus good reason to widely communicate that mission. The ICTY indeed has a pioneering role. With the exception of the Nuremberg Tribunal following WWII and the 'Junta Trials' in Greece (1975) and Argentina (1985) there are few precedents to be found of large-scale trials of war crimes and crimes against humanity prior to those by the Yugoslavia Tribunal. Therefore, the founders of the Tribunal themselves had to partially design the legal instruments with which the defendants could be tried - a work which they emphasize was and is invaluable to sister institutions such as the (permanent) International Criminal Court and the (temporary) Special Court for Sierra Leone. However, the Tribunal, just like these sister institutions, does not remain uncontested and its work is the subject of intense debate. Often critics have strong, politically inspired motives or are opportunistic. Slobodan Milošević (Serbian nationalist and president of Yugoslavia during the conflict), for example, refused to recognize the Tribunal's authority during his trial and spoke about an illegitimate and politically motivated violation of the national sovereignty of small nations by the ruling powers. This vision is shared by a large part of the population of the former Yugoslavia (mainly in Serbia and Croatia) and ensures, along with several other factors, that the Tribunal has a bad image in the region. Especially among the Serbs, who claim that the Tribunal tackled them extra hard because the majority of the defendants belong to their population, but the plaintiffs insist that they have operated fairly and that the high number of Serb defendants reflects their dominant share in the crimes. Conversely, many victims seem to feel a sense of disillusionment about the Tribunal's clout and about the often relatively mild penalties for the most inhumane crimes. Proponents of alternative forms of justice express an entirely different criticism, namely that the focus on retributive justice threatens to perpetuate the conflict and comes at the expense of a stable form of peace. These critics prefer the formula of a truth commission or local reconciliation initiatives.
The claims of the Tribunal concerning the triumph of truth and the contribution of the law to historiography are also the subject of a keen debate. No one doubts that the archives of the Tribunal and similar institutions are of great importance to future researchers, but there is no consensus on whether the law itself contributes to a subtle form of historical consciousness. While according to some, international courts can produce innovative historical insights; others claim that history comes off badly when forced into the bodice of justice. Although judicial history, according to some, may have a positive educational effect for civil values and respect for human rights, others fear that the educational aspect can become too much a goal in itself, thus impeding a fair trial and jeopardizing the rights of the defence.
The latest film by Sarah Vanagt, Elevage de poussière / Dust Breeding, relates to each of these discussions in a highly relevant manner. Her work can be seen as an ode to the work of the Tribunal, but it also shows the more problematic, unintended, and sometimes even tragic aspects of this work. Vanagt's perspective is very different from the self-representation of the Tribunal. While in the film Inside the Tribunal we see offenders who silently accept the verdict of the court or even repentantly confess their heavy guilt, Vanagt presents a much more problematic offender. Radovan Karadžić shows no remorse - instead he thinks he should be rewarded for his good deeds - and is mature enough to defend himself, doing so with thrilling verve. Karadžić describes himself as a "mild, tolerant, and understanding man". The man who is called "the beast of Bosnia" by the victims and is referred to in the courtroom as 'mister' or 'doctor' (Karadžić is a trained psychiatrist), addresses his home crowd in the Republika Srpska as a charismatic poet, makes agile use of a sophisticated forensic discourse when he duels with court experts, and apologizes before he courteously dismisses the testifying victims as not credible or lying. Whomever looks at the Tribunal through the eyes of the filmmaker, at once feels a sense of awe for the extremely difficult task of the judges, prosecutors, and expert witnesses, and a sense of bitterness at the sometimes triumphalist claims of the Tribunal. Because Vanagt focuses on an unfinished trial, which will probably still continue long into 2014, and because one thus does not encounter the perpetrator at the moment of his conviction or public showing of repentance, as is the case in the promo film, one cannot assume that the ultimate triumph of truth and justice is guaranteed. During Karadžić's trial, due to lack of evidence, the judges found themselves forced to reject one of the genocide charges against the accused, and one can ask the question as to what opportunity the truth has in an environment where only that which is provable beyond all doubt is believed to have happened. An unchallengeable judgment requires the highest standards of proof, but that implies that many testimonies have to be rejected on often merely formal grounds, and that many witnesses are left behind with the feeling that their story is regarded as untrue. The claim that the Tribunal gives a voice to victims leaves us with an unpleasant taste as well. That the Tribunal and its stride against impunity are of great importance for victims is beyond dispute. Still, the very unreal and often emotionless simultaneous translation of the testimony seems to partially oppress the voice of the victims. The judicial framework of systematic doubt, the heavy demands of proof, and the often appalling cross-examination by the accused to which the victims are subjected, must be a very painful experience for many of them. Vanagt shows how, with other weapons, but not necessarily less violent ones, the war continues on in the courtroom. There is no place for catharsis and closure here, just as the victims are also rarely awarded.
Dust Breeding is not a correction of Inside the Tribunal, in the sense that the film does not pretend to offer a more objective or truthful look at what really happens 'inside' the Tribunal. Just like Inside the Tribunal, Dust Breeding is the product of a conscious selection and articulation of images and narrative fragments that are at the service of a specific interpretation and representation. Yet Vanagt gives us a richer and more complex picture. An important part of that wealth is due to her choice not merely to focus on what happens inside the courtroom, but also to thematize the problematic relationship between 'inside' and 'outside'. She does not achieve this by pointing her camera at the former Yugoslavia. Actually, the only images from outside the Tribunal reach the viewer through the screen of her laptop or the computer screens in the courtroom. Yet, it is precisely that fact that makes the viewer aware of the tension between inside and outside, of how far removed the strange ritualized world of the Tribunal is from the world of armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The reality of war crime and genocide seems only to reach the judicial reality of the Tribunal in the form of traces (in Dust Breeding this is mainly through aerial photos of 'disturbed earth') and can seemingly only be retrieved (if at all) in the form of archived transcripts and images. Sarah Vanagt brings this world of traces, trace searchers, and trace archivists into the picture by printing - using the frottage technique - various objects in and outside the courtroom, such as the judges' table, the chairs of the witnesses and accused, and the glass panel between the courtroom and the public space. The technique is reminiscent of the forensic technique of dactyloscopy whereby, using brushed powder, latent fingerprints are made visible. Her frottages, however, seem to turn against the trace fetishism of the judges, prosecutors, and defence by showing that the creators of the traces are right in front of them, that they are surrounded by traces and that they themselves form part of them. With her fixed traces, Vanagt establishes a parallel archive: she archives the archive fever of one of the largest archive producers of our time. This meta-perspective is critical because it raises the question as to the effect of all that archiving. Does the ICTY, with its epic archiving battle indeed create an 'undeniable and positive legacy' for future generations or a giant limbo in which the voices of both victims and perpetrators threaten to become extinct? Jacques Derrida warned, during a visit to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that archiving can be a form of organized forgetting. With her film, Vanagt seems to further substantiate this warning. However, the film, based on large quantities of archival material, shows that we do not have to be fatalistic. Dust Breeding does in no way feed forgetfulness, but through its meta-perspective powerfully recalls a past that is not past, not even in the most material sense.
Berber Bevernage, April 2013
Translated by Jodie Hruby
Sarah Vanagt (b. 1976) lives in Brussels. She studied history at the universities of Antwerp, Sussex and Groningen, and film at the National Film and Television School in the UK. She makes documentaries and video installations and takes photographs in which she combines her interest in history with her interest in (the origins of) cinema. Her graduation film After Years of Walking (2003) looks at the rewriting of Rwandan history after the 1994 genocide. In Little Figures (2003), a short experimental documentary film, three immigrant children in Brussels play the role of three historical statues. The documentary film Begin Began Begun (2005) and the video installation Les Mouchoirs de Kabila (2005) both focus on the play world of children growing up in the war-torn border zone between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and look at the way in which children deal with death, the recent wars and elections. The short film First Elections (2006) is a single-screen version of Les Mouchoirs De Kabila. In 2007 Vanagt first presented Power Cut at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels. The installation consists of short videos and photos made by three Congolese street children and voice recordings by two young soldiers who took part in the recent wars in Congo and Rwanda. The single-channel version of this installation is called Silent Elections (2009). In Head(2007), the installation Vanagt made for the Young Belgian Painters Award, she combined super 8 footage of the ancient city of Pompeii with images of new-born babies. The video installation Ash Tree(2007) is based on Mary Shelley’s childhood. A five-year old girl wanders around a graveyard in London, spelling out the letters on the graves; the child’s first contact with the alphabet is also her first contact with death. Since 2006 Vanagt has been working on a series of photographs of special graveyards and monuments in Europe. The photo series Solar Cemetery (2009), about solar panels on a Spanish cemetery, was made with a camera obscura and is presented on solar-powered light boxes. Boulevard d’Ypres/Ieperlaan (2010) is an experimental documentary shot in the street where Vanagt lives. She turned an empty storehouse into a film studio and invited her neighbours – a mix of refugees, shopkeepers and newcomers – to come and tell a story, a fairy tale. Her short piece The Corridor (2010) focuses on the mute encounter between a donkey and an old man in an English nursing home. In October 2011 Katrien Vermeire and Sarah Vanagt filmed the exhumation of a mass grave of Franco’s victims in Spain. Based on the material they brought home from Spain, they made a twenty-minute film, a photo series and two wrapped flipbooks entitled The Wave.Back to top