Of course, in the past few days, we have been presented with a more sinister example of how new technology is creating a ‘digital revolution’. The official film of Saddam Hussein’s hanging was undermined by alternative footage, videoed on a mobile phone.
The BBC report on how these cheap and portable cameras are being used as a key weapon in the propaganda war is not news to me – I had to watch several hours of insurgent-filmed shootings and bombings in order to find suitable footage for inclusion in the Black Watch video design. To watch unsuspecting marines wander haplessly into a sniper’s cross-hair is chilling. When they are hit, they fall quickly.
Despite the unpalatable subject matter, I think there is an interesting point to be made about how film and video is used here, which is the importance of the sound-track to moving images. In the case of Saddam’s hanging, notice how a particular audio track totally changes the tone of what we see, and the emotions evoked. Film makers and TV producers constantly manipulate us in this way.
An interesting aspect of the commentary that has surrounded the emergence of this bootleg video, is the ‘winner-takes-all’ conception of truth, and history. When the official video of Saddam’s demise was released, it was considered an accurate historical record. How can the camera lie? When the grainy bootleg emerged later, it replaced the official video as the definitive ‘truth’ of the event.
We would do well to consider the possibility that this video is unreliable too. The footage is grainy and shot from a distance. We do not hear the more muted of Saddam’s mutterings, nor the words of those standing right beside him at the moment before death. I have not watched the video all the way through to its grim finale, but I understand that there are cuts in the timeline. What was missed? It is essential that we remember that the footage has been released by someone who wishes to foist a particular historical narrative upon us, one obviously informed by a different agenda to the Iraqi Government. With this in mind, other questions arise.
- Might not Saddam’s pious recitations at his moment of death – the invocations of Mohammed that we did not hear on the ‘official’ recording – actually enhance his image, rather than humiliate him?
- We do not witness what happened immediately before the footage was shot. Perhaps Saddam or others provoked the abuse, and the now-famous taunts were more out of anguish than vindictiveness
- Are we sure that the audio was not doctored or enhanced before its release? Were the names of other leaders chanted, in addition to Moqtadr Al-Sadr?
These new fangled technologies, generating their subversive, low-resolution footage, have become the thorn in the side of those wishing to control a political situation. There may never be another time where a government can control the media as it did during previous conflicts. But the new technologies are just as suceptible to abuse by the purveyors of propaganda as the old.
Primary sources can be illuminating, but they can also be decieving. This historical constant remains true.