Dialogue with Nina Wexler

Susan Sontag in 1966 (WIkipedia CC BY 4.0)
Susan Sontag in 1966 (WIkipedia CC BY 4.0)

9/11 is the symptom of an autoimmune crisis occurring within the system that should have predicted it. Autoimmune conditions consist in the spontaneous suicide of the very defensive mechanism supposed to protect the organism from external aggression. (Philosophy in a Time of Terror:Dialogues with J. Habermas and J. Derrida, 2003)

Nina Wexler, art historian and philosopher, is also a specialist in documentary cinema at Tel Aviv University. 

Can you tell us about your Jewish origins and your aliyah?

Nina Wexler: I grew up in a half-French, half-Israeli Jewish family. I always wanted to see what life in Israel was like, so I decided to do a semester exchange during my third year of Philosophy studies at Tel Aviv University, and eventually, I stayed there to pursue a master’s degree in documentary cinema.

Can you also tell us about your philosophical studies at the Sorbonne?

Nina Wexler: After two years in literary preparatory classes, I chose to study Philosophy. In preparatory classes, philosophical education focuses on two or three concepts, such as “truth,” “animals,” “art,” or “technology.” The level is demanding, and you feel like you’re thoroughly exploring a subject, examining different perspectives on a question, which is very enriching. At the university, the education is more general, and you choose several courses per period and theme. What’s great is that you simultaneously approach very different issues and subjects. I was particularly drawn to Aesthetics, so I chose a Master’s program that combined Art History and Philosophy.

Why were you interested in aesthetics?

Nina Wexler: Aesthetics is the most obvious bridge between Philosophy and Art History. In general, I believe that Philosophy is an interesting lens through which to view the world. Like other disciplines such as Economics, Physics, or History, it allows us to question and gain insights into the events that punctuate our history and the origin and nature of the objects that make up our world. I wanted to learn how to approach works of art from a philosophical perspective, and specifically, to learn more about cinema as an object.

What influence did philosophers Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag have on you?

Nina Wexler: I was deeply influenced by the writings of Benjamin and Sontag. Pauline Nadrigny, a philosophy professor at the Sorbonne, taught a remarkable course when I was in my master’s program on recording.

Recording encompasses many things; it can be a civil registry (from birth, individuals are recorded as part of society), a technical tool (there are different types of musical recordings, for example, monophonic or stereophonic), or even an art object (a recorded concerto, a photograph, or a film). During this course, I discovered fabulous texts such as Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Susan Sontag’s “On Photography,” or Roland Barthes‘s “Camera Lucida,” which I think about very often.

In “On Photography,” for example, Sontag questions the anthropological gesture of popular photography. She interprets the enthusiasm of vacationers for photography as a device allowing workers, the day after their paid vacations, not to abandon the perpetual movement of their worker condition. The photographic activity keeps them in a biased position regarding their lives. I also think a lot about Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which is a fascinating work for understanding the changes that technical evolution has brought to the nature of an artwork. According to him, the reproducibility of an artwork, i.e., the fact that it is no longer the “appearance of a distant unique, however close it may be,” leads to the loss of the aura of an artwork. If a Greek statue embodying a god exists in only one copy, the photograph of the same sculpture printed in thousands of copies will not have the same function. The sculpture is created as a tribute to the god for the god, and the photograph exists only for the public. Technical reproducibility shifts what Benjamin calls the cult value of an artwork to its exhibition value. These analyses are very valuable today to understand the nature of the images to which we are so exposed.

How have film students reacted since the tragic events of October 7th?

Nina Wexler: I was among the first students to return to the university because my program is international. The university administration waited for the situation to calm down a bit and for fewer students to be called up for reserve duty before starting the semester. In the end, the size of the contingent was never reduced, and the semester started two months later on December 31st. So, it has only been two weeks since there are now 800 students instead of the usual 20 in the building.

The beginning of my classes was extremely strange; no one could play their role, neither the professors nor the students. My professors confided in us that they had to gather all their strength to get up in the morning and talk to us about the seventh art. And as students, it was almost impossible for us to concentrate on Russian experimental films from the early 20th century or on abstract theory while the country was on fire and in ashes, the future was more than uncertain, and our classes were interrupted by bomb alerts.

You also participate in volunteer operations; can you tell us about that?

Nina Wexler: I arrived in Israel two weeks after the start of the war with my cousin. What struck us was first the speed with which citizens set up powerful national mutual aid. The day after the war, hundreds of high-tech experts, for example, converted their offices into organization centers to manage the country’s requests and needs using organizational software, particularly Monday; many restaurants turned into a national canteen for soldiers and displaced people; people offered their wedding dresses, cars, and homes. Private property gave way to solidarity. It may sound embellished, but that’s what happened.

We wanted to help in different sectors. One day we would cook for soldiers and refugees from the South and North of the country, the next day we would help farmers finish their harvest or prepare their fields after the mass departure of Thai workers (constituting the majority of agricultural workers in Israel), traumatized by the kidnappings and murders of other Thai workers on October 7th. We frequently visited displaced people from the moshav (1) Ofakim temporarily housed in a hotel in Tel Aviv. In this “five-star hotel turned refugee camp” (2), a community emerged despite all the sadness and anxiety. The children stayed together for almost three months, pacing back and forth in the hotel without even going outside initially for fear of being outside during a bomb alert. Parents and the elderly, completely disoriented, wandered like ghosts from the room to the courtyard without privacy, without a home, without belongings, and without any certainty about their future. National solidarity was the only bright spot in this collective nightmare, the only positive thing we heard about every day. And this exceptional collective organization reminded many Israelis and foreigners of the beauty and uniqueness of this country.

Do you think there is a precedent for filming “war crimes”?

Nina Wexler: It is essential to consider the evolution of war film practices in relation to technological progress. That is, since the appearance of the first camera in the early 20th century, images adapt to the channels of dissemination, the technical device, and the collective relationship to images. Thus, war photographs and films have evolved over the past century.

In 1941, for example, Hitler demanded images of the atrocities committed by Einsatzgruppen commandos out of a desire to see how the massacres were unfolding, and then Nazi images and films were gradually banned as they tried to erase the traces of their actions. According to the historian and filmmaker Michael Prazan, images of war crimes have three functions: enjoyment, trophy, and recruitment. In the first half of the 20th century, recruitment did not yet come into play. Japanese soldiers, for example, exchanged photographs of mutilated Chinese victims during the Sino-Japanese War, which lasted from 1937 until 1945. What motivates this gesture? What turn makes the unbearable desirable? Most certainly a morbid scopophilic impulse, but it’s not just that. The Other being dehumanized, the harm done to them becomes a benefit in the service of a goal, belief, or cause. And showing the inhumanity committed against a group conveys the message that this group does not belong to the same community.

The advent of television and the Internet marks the beginning of the recruitment phase through crime films. Filmed images of the persecuted Other attract the sympathy of radicalized or potentially radicalized individuals and reach them effortlessly within their homes.

A turning point occurs in the consideration of such images; if the Nazis were afraid that people would identify with the victims, terrorist groups disseminating films of their atrocities understand that viewers “identify with the perpetrators more than the victims” (3). The dissemination of the beheading of Daniel Pearl in Karachi, for example, encouraged many radicalized individuals to join Al Qaeda, as Prazan recalls. These practices continue and intensify with social networks, which offer terrorists the opportunity to disseminate and reach their audience more easily. The images from October 7th follow the same logic.

Even if it seems obvious, it is important to keep in mind that images of terror are not only directed at sympathizers; if that were the case, they would only be broadcast on encrypted channels. Filming and disseminating war crimes today in an era where it is extremely difficult to shield oneself from the sight of images of extreme violence inevitably aims to traumatize and terrorize Western populations. The image forever marks the viewer, who can never forget it afterward. In the current war, these images are undoubtedly used as psychological weapons. This is also why they are not broadcast in Israel, and the state does not know what to do with the videos found on the terrorists.

(1) Village communautaire.

(2) «Où nous étions, c’était infernal» : des réfugiés des kibboutz fuient vers des hôtels de Tel-Aviv

(3) Guerre des images. Filmer le crime : des Einsatzgruppen au Hamas.

About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery.