Chroniclers of the Aftermath


On election night my friend Tahir Cambis neither cheered nor clapped.

You would expect some kind of civic jubilation from the man who considered John Howard to be a criminal and who has been saying so publicly at least since the sinking of SIEV X, most significantly in the 2004 documentary Anthem, which he co-directed with Helen Newman.

Yet that night in a room full of euphoric people my friend Tahir was in no mood to celebrate. Instead he looked around and saw his friend Julian Burnside, the only other man not clapping. "You don’t feel like clapping," he said to Julian. "I am reminded," Julian replied, "of a real-life man tortured for a long time who is finally released and told that it’s over, he can go home now. ‘It’s over?’ says the man. ‘It’s only the beginning’."

When Tahir Cambis’s name is mentioned in Australian media, he is invariably described as an award-winning film-maker, as if the first term guarantees the legitimacy of the second, as in ‘certified accountant’. The irony is that it guarantees nothing, not in this country, and certainly the Emmy Tahir won in 1997 for his documentary Exile in Sarajevo proved useless only seven years later in helping him secure a national distributor for Anthem. (And, of course, the bastions of public broadcasting were all too ready to add insult to injury. "Oh the good, old Anthem, such a powerful home-grown documentary, but unfortunately not quite our cup of tea," said the ABC and SBS wistfully, refusing to screen it. But more about Anthem later.)

"I don’t have to have an opinion," says Tahir, "it’s all here under our noses. How can a country be at war and not have war as part of its central election debate, focusing instead on economy and climate change? In the West, only Australia could pull it off."

While war was turned into a ‘boutique issue’ during the election campaign, it is everywhere in Tahir’s work. Bosnian war in Exile in Sarajevo. War on terror and its inevitable companion, war on asylum-seekers, in Anthem. War as both an historical and spiritual force in Angel of the Wind – the documentary he is working on now.

People think Tahir has an obsession with war. But then these are the people who excel at forgetting that peace is not a norm, but an exception, for most of the world most of the time. To them Tahir is a doom-sayer or a bleeding-heart, something which the man is most certainly not (he is scathing of recreational Left-wingers, has deep respect for genuine conservatives and believes that "Howardism filled a vacuum created by all parts of the political spectrum").

In Dispatches his book on reporting from the Vietnam War, Michael Herr writes: "I went to cover the war and the war covered me; an old story, unless of course you’ve never heard it. I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything. Serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn’t know – it took the war to teach it – that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did."

That sense of responsibility for everything you see is the blood flowing through the veins of Anthem. It is the kind of Australian documentary that is alien both stylistically and philosophically to the way in which questions of national identity have been traditionally explored in this country. Its examination of identity goes well outside of the nation’s geographic borders – to Afghanistan, Iraq and post-9/11 United States. It is not a polished and combed-through cinematic text pieced together from archival footage, media coverage and a carefully measured voice-over. It is reporting from the front-lines – wild and exasperated, the kind that does not hide what Primo Levi called "scars of outrage". Anthem is pitched to resonate not with the Australian loungerooms but precisely with the world that these loungerooms tend to obscure.

Despite being rejected by ABC and SBS and not finding a national distributor, the documentary has by now been seen by thousands across Australia. "Even I fell for the idea that Australians did not want to know about asylum seekers and the war," says Tahir. What a load of shit. Constant traveling to show Anthem all across the country in special screenings organised by all kinds of organisations, from advocacy groups to Rotary clubs, convinced him and Helen of the contrary. People were desperate to know. "There is no way someone will tell me again what Australian people want and do not want to know,’ says Tahir.

American journalist Philip Gourevitch, whose book on Rwanda is one of the most powerful testimonies I have read to the invisibility attained by genocide in our world, once described himself as the "writer of the aftermath". "I write", he said, not to let people’s experience "slip away".

The aftermath chroniclers like Gourevitch are not at all akin to intellectual undertakers. Their job is not wash the body, sing the body, bury the body. They do not bury but dig up, as much as they can stomach. They uncover the truth of what had happened, the names of those it happened to and the ways in which life now (and forever) will no longer be the same.

In Australia, we are funny about doing our aftermath work and about those who do it for us. And, yes, Howard is no Pol Pot, but things, says Tahir, do add up. In the last decade people died, a war was waged, enormous damage has been done to the public sector and the arts. Tahir’s list of grievances is long and it has to be long to be even remotely truthful – hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq, hundreds dead in the SIEV X disaster, death in detention. These are just some select highlights.

And then, of course, says Tahir, you have to look at the "great trauma visited upon Australian citizens", who, startled and ashamed by the government’s zero-tolerance policy on refugees, protested, wrote articles, made friends, heart-breakingly, with families about to be deported back to the war-zones and hid asylum-seekers in their homes risking imprisonment.

These are the people, says Tahir, who "jeopardised their careers and relationships to do something they should not have to do – to ask their government to consider the possibility of treating vulnerable people as human beings." Who will account for this damage? Who will account for their trauma?

You have to be very literal indeed to claim that the last ten years are over now that the new boys and girls in suits are claiming – depending on the level of their arrogance and linguistic crudeness – to be either penning new paragraphs, turning new pages or starting brand new chapters in our proverbial history books. A change of power is never a change in power, in its pathways and DNA.

Power, writes sociologist Avery Gordon, "can be invisible, it can be fantastic, it can be dull and routine. It can be obvious, it can reach you by the baton of the police, it can speak the language of your thoughts and desires. It can feel like remote control, it can exhilarate like liberation, it can travel through time, and it can drown you in the present."

"This is over?" asked the man. "This is just the beginning."

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