‘Absence’ makes Mroué’s ghostly work even stronger

by Mika Eglinton

Special To The Japan Times

Rabih Mroué is an internationally renowned Lebanese actor, director and playwright whose work often probes into representations of the real in an age of digital narratives — particularly in the context of conflict and revolution in the Middle East. His work is marked by its continual reworking of the technologies and structures involved in the production and reception of media today.

He returns to Festival/Tokyo next week with three provocative new pieces, all radically different in their presentation, but connected through the theme of “absence.”

The works comprise “33rpm and a Few Seconds,” created in collaboration with his partner and fellow Lebanese artist Lina Saneh, on the life of an Arab Spring activist; “The Pixelated Revolution,” which dissects a scene from citizen-journalist video footage of the war in Syria to question the act of looking; and finally “Riding on a Cloud,” a semi-autobiographical piece performed by and about his younger brother, Yasser Mroué.

In “33rpm,” we watch a stream of updates on an enlarged Facebook page while — simultaneously — a woman leaves messages on a regular phone and someone else sends SMS messages to a mobile phone. Gradually it becomes clear that the Facebook page belongs to the room’s resident, who is in fact the absent protagonist of the piece.

From this mixed-media display, we learn about the life of a young, charismatic Lebanese thinker and activist named Diyaa Yamout — a fictional name that translates as “Light Dies.” Diyaa appears to have committed suicide and yet this online ghost continues to receive messages of anger, sorrow, prayer and praise. The onscreen narrative is punctuated by local TV video coverage of Diyaa’s role as a “fighter” in the Arab Spring.

This frenzy of disembodied, virtual communications ends with an enigmatic Facebook update from “Nour” — the same name as that of a Lebanese activist who did kill himself, in 2011, saying “Sleep well, beautiful child.”

The performance raises fundamental questions about the state of media today. How should the death of a fellow human be represented and received in this multi-media age? And does that representation belong to the public or private sphere?

Mroué opens “The Pixelated Revolution” by stating: “The Syrian protesters are recording their own deaths. This sentence really struck me.” From there, he develops a series of profound reflections on the notion of “double-shooting.” On the one hand, Syrian protesters shoot their own lives and deaths with cameras for the world to see, while snipers also shoot to maintain their lives and support their regimes.

After analyzing YouTube footage from the Syrian war, Mroué picks out a moment when the gazes of two “shooters” seem to connect. On screen we see a blurry, pixelated sniper aiming his gun at the person behind the camera. That person is shot dead by the sniper, leaving the camera to serve as the “witnessing eye.”

In this “exchange” of gazes, we see neither protagonist to the full extent, only that indistinct image of the shooter and the imagined presence of the person behind the camera.

What remains are fragmented records curated and interpreted by Mroué, who lends these absent voices a continuity with the present. Such unofficial, uncataloged “documents” produce an entirely new reality of conflict; a theater of war whose physical and psychological consequences have been replaced by a game of virtual gazes.

In “Riding on a Cloud,” Mroué works with his younger brother, Yasser, to retell the story of the latter, who was shot at age 17 during the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war and left with aphasia and paralysis of the right side of his body.

In this one-man-show, Yasser pieces together his life through virtual and physical memorabilia. Old photos, letters and school report cards bring the audience closer to his personal life, while at the same time opening up a larger, missing dimension — the presence of absence. What is actually being staged here? Is it the life of a person, told through objects and memories; or is it just one instance of the great abyss of history — undocumented, unheard and unseen?

All three of these works ask us to face this tension between the seen and the unseen, between presence and absence, and to read absence into the narratives we produce.

How fitting these three works are for Festival/Tokyo 2013, whose chosen theme this year places storytelling at the heart of its project under the slogan: “Travels in Narratives.”

The Rabih Mroué Series runs at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Ikebukuro from Nov. 14-17. “33rpm and a Few Seconds” will show on Nov. 14 and 15 and “Riding on a Cloud” on Nov. 16 and 17. Tickets are ¥2,500. “The Pixelated Revolution” will be screened free 10 times from Nov. 14-17, though reservations are required. For more details, go to www.festival-tokyo.jp/en/.