Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Unreliable Narrator (2014)


Seeing this film, you’d want to allow a certain innocence to the terrorist gunmen who haunt our dreams here in the West. They too, it seems, are only doing their job.

In found audio, we hear onesuch maniacal footsoldier entertain doubts before taking a pair of lives. We watch another confess that he was on the mission to raise money for his dad.

The event under narration here is the 2008 siege of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. And so our unreliable account splices YouTube clips, CCTV, and fast turnaround Bollywood drama.

What came across in a recent panel discussion with the artists is that, during this operation, as in all of our own, there are Higher Ups calling the deadly shots. More than 30 were killed here.

The horror calls to mind a famous axiom from the pages of a Pynchon novel: “The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master”. Quite.

But if you accept that terror is a military strategy, however asymmetric, then we can no more blame a radicalised gunman than we can censure a freedom loving drone pilot.

With the support of that CCTV footage and a big budget feature film about the mass killing, few works of contemporary art will bring you as close to mass killers. It was called “intimate”.

Mirza/Butler also bleach the screen with primary colour tints. The basic palette recalls night vision, heat capture, satellite view: a spectrum of surveillance, but also a flag of resistance.

Question: how can you unfold a narrative when the details proliferate so deep and wide through old and new media? You’d need the whale-wrestling gifts of a Great American Novelist.

Simple stories, on the other hand, mislead. And as we ignore the latest snuff movie from IS, we should remember this: the chances it could happen to us are just a 1 in 35 million.

That vital statistic came up in a discussion which left this yellow-bellied civilian with a lasting and surely accurate impression of “global civil war” and “almost ambient emnity”.

Well, the first casualty of war is truth, as we all know. So where are the stories you can really believe? They’re back on the fiction shelves, where it’s safe to live through them.

Karen Mirza & Brad Butler held a screening and a talk at Whitechapel Gallery on 19 Feb 2015. The show can be seen at the Gallery until 6 April 2015.

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