“Koudelka: Shooting Holy Land”

A Creative Genius

Amos Lassen

Josef Koudelka is a Magnum genius photographer who journeyed all over Israel and Palestine looking for what would make a perfect photograph. Director Gilad Baram followed him on the search.

Septuagenarian Koudelka is known for unmerciful photographs and his ironic humor. His black and white photos have a real sense of loneliness, of desolation, of disconsolation. They are quite merciless and that mercilessness and ironic humor is what we see in Baram’s film, a documentary is which nothing really happens. For about an hour, nothing happens, hardly anything is discussed, scenes shift abruptly and, after about an hour, the film just sort of ends. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, however, “Shooting Holy Land” is immensely successful, enjoyable and instructive film.

Koudelka simply photographs Israel and the West Bank, with particular attention on the security wall. Despite the subject matter, “Shooting Holy Land” is not overtly political. Both Baram and Koudelka are clearly against the existence of the wall – Koudelka, at a couple points, even compares it to the “Iron Curtain” that he lived behind in communist Czechoslovakia and Baram’s editing choices clearly focus on the wall’s negative aspects, with particular attention paid to Hebron, one of Israel’s most obviously terrible situations.

The wall is concrete, imposing, foreboding, gray and ugly with all of the markers of authoritarian oppression. This ugliness seems to be Koudelka’s main objection to the wall. He really makes no comments on the political situation and instead has something to say the ecological problems of the wall and the violence done to the landscape. In “WALL”, the book that is made up of the pictures in “Shooting Holy Land,” the wall seems to be a wound upon the land. Many of the compositions show the wall splitting the landscape, the earth itself, in two. The focus, is on the land, not its people. It is about Koudelka and his process, about photography and about a way of seeing. The film follows a strict formula; static shots show Koudelka moving and fidgeting around a landscape looking for the perfect shot. We watch him, and wait for the sound of the camera’s shutter. Then, more often than not, we are given a look at the resulting image.

We are forced to be patient before the shot and to take everything in before we hear the click. Eventually, we start to look at the scenes from a photographer’s point of view, composing our own images and we see the scenes from yet another degree of remove – first, removed by the temporal and physical distance of film, and then again, the scenes on the film become potential photographs that they belong to us as much as the director who created them and the photographer who inhabits them. We are not given much insight into Koudelka’s method, we simply look at the care with which he takes his photographs. Missing are the contact sheets, the missed takes. The film shows us that, in addition to a good eye and good timing, photographers are totally dedicated to their craft.

Baram is also a photographer and we see this in the film’s photographic compositions and the static nature of the camera. Baram’s film is a collection of “moving photographs.” He sets up beautifully composed shots – which, due to the static nature of the camera, initially appear like photographs – and simply allows Koudelka to move around and become part of the process.

We come to see the wall as aesthetic violence and here political violence often takes the form of aesthetics. We see the relationship between Baram and Koudelka as well as the ecological destruction, the terrible blankness of the concrete that points to deeper issues that separate the land and its people, from each other and from themselves.

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