Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Now the Story Can Be Told and Baader-Meinhof: Pictures on the Run 67-77

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Two older books offer a look (and strong opinion) of two groups that have resorted to violent means in order to shake off oppression - Now the Story Can Be Told: The PLO and Baader Meinhof: Pictures on the Run 67-77.

Since Israel is now deep into Gaza I will start with the PLO book. Distributed by the World Zionist Organization in 1982 and edited by Eliyahu Tal, Now the Story Can Be Told: The PLO is a condemnation of Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization. From the first page, this book does its best through texts and bold graphic design to portray the PLO as little more than bloodthirsty monsters on par with Hitler (that association is actually made by page 6).

The PLO's record of actually helping the cause of Palestinians is shaky at best (I will not try to defend it) and is mostly remembered for its terrorism and internal corruption but the expose format of Now the Story reaches heights with propagandistic rhetoric. One spread features a scratchy and grainy film still (credited to PLO film archive) of two uniformed and armed men, one of which is holding something blurry and white, this is surrounded by the text "PLO: Trainee dismembers a live chicken and drinks its blood as part of his training." Under the photo, of which little can be made out clearly, is the word BLOODTHIRSTY? just in case you need everything spelled out for you.

If it was possible to view this book aside from whether its content is factual or not, it displays all of the tell-tale methods of propaganda. The fear factor is huge. Every photo and just about every page is designed to instill fear and the lowest common denominator of understanding. It displays the usual concern for 'the children' both Israeli and Palestinian although it is clear there is a hierarchy (across from the BLOODTHIRSTY? page is one which asks the question, "a generation lost to peace?" and shows what is purported to be a Palestinian child aiming an automatic weapon (supposedly another PLO film archive credit). Red is used through out to not only remind you of blood but creating visual tension on the page.

In all, Israel is portrayed as the peace loving nation under attack. There is no mention of the major issues which have led to terrorism; land rights, water rights, housing rights, travel rights, right of return for refugees, Israeli aggression, economic suppression, horrendous conditions of the refugee camps, or any issue that have inspired the terrorist tactics of groups like the PLO, Fateh or Hamas. In its way, Now the Story is almost equally horrifying and laughable in its overt tactics.

Divided into chapters which break the organization down into its important factors: Organization, Arms, Funding, Tactics, PLO in Lebanon, International, Aims and Means (terror acts in Israel and in the diaspora), and last but not least, a chapter on Palestinian propaganda, of which the first example is an Arabic translation of Hitler's Mein Kampf.

The cover design is an immediate draw with actual holes punched through the black cardstock material (as if with a pencil) meant to represent bullet holes. I have seen two copies of this book and the holes were intentional and in the same place on both copies. In listings book sellers seem confused as to whether this was intentional. This opens to bright red endpapers with a huge black and ominous PLO letter graphic. Much of the design has a piecemeal sensibility which adds to the feeling of something assembled in rapid response to impending waves of terror. It is low-fi in quality and makes use of archival news photos and supposed PLO film footage as illustrations.

Even though this book is very dated, it is a little troubling to discuss something which would do its best to justify recent incursions into Gaza against Hamas. What it fails to address, as is probably the case with the major players as well, is the matter of recognizing the human condition and why there is resistance in the first place. This book is yet another example of lessening, rather than deepening the level of understanding.

Palestinian involvement in terrorism links the next book as one of the demands from the PLO splinter group Black September while holding members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich was to call for the release of Andreas Baader and
Ulrike Meinhof from Stammheim prison. Baader Meinhof: Pictures on the Run 67-77 by Astrid Proll presents a look at the goings on of the Rote Armee Fraktion of West Germany.

Proll who was a member of the RAF and friend of Andreas Bader and
Ulrike Meinhof as well as other major players was also a part-time photographer. Pictures on the Run 67-77 released in 1998 is part personal history and part mythology of the first wave of this short-lived group that used violence as their means.

Proll contributes an introductory text of the events and only about 1/5 of the photos, the bulk are archive pictures which were the public face of the Baader-Meinhof group. Her images center mostly around her days within the student movement and anti-authoritarian subculture which was building, as well as her brother Thorwald Proll who was arrested for arson of department stores in Frankfurt in 1968. Astrid Proll's own arrest came in 1971 due to RAF wanted posters that appeared all over the country.

Pictures on the Run 67-77 has an underlying tone of romanticism that seems to permeate reflection on all 60s youth/student revolt. The Baader-Meinhof group may not resemble Godard's privileged young radicals from La Chinoise who used Moaist spoutings in order to bed each other but there is a similar self-important celebration and cliquishness felt in Proll's photos.

Interestingly, the designer uses bold graphic design and liberal use of the color red to different means than the PLO book above. Used both to represent blood and communism it comes to contradict the platform of violent uprising that the group represented. A page spread of photos of hand-grenades is struck through with a thick red slash. In another, a young man is shown in a photo with a huge communist flag in one hand and Moa's little red book in the other. The designer splits this photo with a red rectangle placed over the flag side that creates a metaphoric divide between the young man and the seriousness of the ideology he seems to be learning on the fly. Perhaps not intended but this image with its red overlay in particular gets to the righteousness of radicalized youth groups - rigid and arrogant.

Pictures on the Run 67-77 was one of the many good offerings from the now defunct SCALO and it is now getting a little pricey. Highly recommended but watch out for the poor binding. Like the Baader-Meinhof group, this also falls apart foundation first.