In Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, sound technician Jack Terry makes a film to seek the truth. By splicing together a series of photos of a political assassination, and syncing them with his own audio recordings captured on location, he reveals a disguised gunshot immediately preceding the moment of a fatal tire blowout. Terry’s detective work is often read as a metaphor for filmmaking, and how films fashion meaning from disparate sources of information. But there is another way to view him—not as a filmmaker, but a forensic specialist. A flashback reveals that Terry once worked on a government commission against police corruption, bugging agents for sting operations. His use of film technology to expose crimes has little to do with the creative process: this is filmmaking not as artistic ideation, but as applied technique. Where is the line between art and research? Between creating narratives and creating evidence?
These are questions the spatial research group Forensic Architecture (FA) tackle in their work, by employing the techniques of architectural visualization and crime scene reconstruction to investigate possible human rights abuses. International in scope, they have researched unlawful killings of Palestinians, migrants adrift in the Mediterranean Sea, ecocide in Indonesia, and the Grenfell Tower fire, to name a few cases. True to their identity as an architectural practice, FA frequently exhibits their work as physical installations in art museums and galleries. But their website is the most accessible way to view all of their investigations, each of which are presented through a documentary short. Though much has been written about FA’s exhibitions, little attention has been paid to how they operate as filmmakers through their prolific film and video work. These films are more than explanatory vehicles for their findings. They contain their own visual rhetoric which exposes the group’s uneasy mediation between art, research, and the law.
It is perhaps easiest to describe FA’s films by comparison, and if there is anyone who might lay claim to establishing a “forensic” style of documentary, it’s Harun Farocki. His films are made from the countless images which perform as much as they photograph, traces of the industrial processes of imaging that undergird regimes of surveillance, warfare, and state violence. In Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988), aerial photos of Auschwitz concentration camp appear on screen. At first glance, they look impossibly abstract: grainy black splotches on a white background. Are they buildings, paved lots, fences, or holes in the landscape? Farocki is making a point: we do not know what we are looking at, because we do not yet know what we are looking for. It follows that there are things we can be trained to see or not see, and patterns which require forensic analysis to uncover. Aerial imagery is used in many of FA’s films to the same effect. Destruction and Return in al-Araqib (2017) pans and zooms across historical and present-day aerial surveys of the Naqab desert to find evidence of Bedouin settlement and cultivation. As in Farocki’s film, scale and resolution are key determinants of what is visible. The research team is filmed launching their own makeshift balloon satellites, which take photos that are stitched together into a detailed photogrammetric map of the region. For all their ambiguity, these high-flying images confer an authoritative, militarized viewpoint over the earth below. Relationships of figure and ground undetectable at eye level become apparent, even as they are flattened onto one surface. The land becomes a canvas or palimpsest of scars fathomable only from this disembodied vantage, offered up to be read, dissected, and targeted. It possesses a strange familiarity, hovering between abstraction and figuration.
Ultimately, Farocki’s goal is only to instruct and inform, and this is where he and FA's goals diverge. Farocki’s films do not bear the scrutiny of judicial interpretation, but FA’s investigations do. Their research must be admissible in court, where it is designed to intervene on behalf of their clients, often NGOs, or individual parties seeking relief. And outside of it, their films must convince their audience of its legal effectiveness. It is not enough, for example, to simply narrate or label scenes of aerial imagery, they must be organized in a way that spatially and temporally reconstructs what “really happened,” beyond doubt. It is an architecture of film that they are after, best represented by a common structuring device: the timeline. In The Murder of Pavlos Fyssas (2018), the timeline is the master frame to which video and audio files from different sources are synchronized, not unlike what Terry constructs in Blow Out. The film argues that police failed to adequately intervene at the scene of a murder where a young Greek citizen was attacked by members of the neo-Nazi organization Golden Dawn. Whereas a true crime documentary would editorialize, mixing and matching audio and video tracks, FA has to reconstruct and choreograph the attack, as seen through pixelated CCTV footage, and the ensuing police response. The viewer is placed in the seat of the film editor, who literally arranges clips on their own timeline the way we see it on screen. That such a correspondence with reality exists between the film and the event in question is meant to provide an objective and legally defensible account of it.
FA takes great pains to be transparent about their methodology. They open-source much of the software they develop for their investigations, and their films show how maps and 3D scenes are made in software such as ArcGIS, Rhino, and Blender, at times appropriating and building on the aesthetic of desktop documentaries and narrative films to do so. In films such as Pushbacks Across the Evros/Meriç River: Situated Testimony (2020), testimony from migrant witnesses is placed in real-time in a 3D model by a researcher. We see the witness and researcher from behind, obscuring their identities and denying the viewer the direct access of eye contact taken for granted in talking-head interviews. The focus is on how their words become (virtual) reality. This is a type of re-enactment, recalling Errol Morris’ essay about his film, The Thin Blue Line (1988):
We have to go back over perceived and remembered events, in order to figure out what happened, what really happened. […] Critics don’t like re-enactments in documentary films — perhaps because they think that documentary images should come from the present, that the director should be hands-off. But a story in the past has to be re-enacted.
But where Morris finds re-enactment a valuable way to highlight the essentially subjective nature of testimony, FA instead uses it to access and bolster the truth claims of witnesses by externalizing them. It is re-enactment as immersion, rather than dramatization, to the extent that creative liberties are not taken unless they are strictly evidential.
As a public, we are fascinated by art that purports to have real-world impact. It is easy to be impressed by how FA demystifies, in a scientific and rational manner, the Rashomon-like cases they handle. But have they actually effected material change for the subjects of their films and investigations? I am not talking about the results of inquests or convictions, but whether FA’s “counter-forensics” dismantle the structures of power they utilize and operate within. And it is what their films fail to show that speak to this question. Consider Killing in Umm al-Hiran (2019), which challenges Israeli police on their killing of a villager during a raid on a Bedouin village marked for demolition. The 30 minute film is undeniably comprehensive in its reconstruction of the killing, but by its conclusion, it doesn’t seem to address the fundamental injustice of the situation: that the eviction of Bedouin villagers in service of settler-colonialism is not something that can be humane at all. Much discussion is devoted to proving policemen failed to follow their own regulations and protocols, and that official accounts of the killing (which focused on the death of a policeman during the event) are riddled with inconsistencies. It’s a frustratingly insufficient effort. For the police, a failure to follow regulations, and an attempt to cover this fact up, are not aberrations. It is business as usual.
The danger in making art that is also legally effective is that in trying to be both, it may end up being neither. Killing in Umm al-Hiran illustrates the limitations of human rights legislation, the language of which FA circulates in its films and their presentation of data. Genealogies of activism and resistance against displacement are neutralized, and reduced to an isolated assessment of criminal behavior. The village of Umm al-Hiran is stripped of context, history, and character in the 3D model of the event, which renders it a grisly crime scene. It’s almost reminiscent of the loading screens of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, a game which fires off platitudes about the horrors of war but nevertheless reinforces its logic. Broadcast media traffics regularly in this drab spectacle of death and destruction in the Middle East, whether for hawkish or humanitarian ends. This film, and others by FA, are not much different—what Rahel Aima calls the “voiding of research art” is on full display. Killing in Umm al-Hiran may have a lot to say, but it doesn’t contain much that will sway those already opposed to FA’s stance. Writing about an exhibition in Palestine which included this investigation, Rana Anani similarly states that documentation is not useful for Palestinians who remain in “a state of ‘waiting’…for international saviors to act on their behalf.” The will to enact change requires more than what FA provides. Even the human rights lawyer, Michael Sfard, whose law office is a close collaborator of FA, has also noted how “the government or the army or whatever authority is involved, digests the human rights actor and makes him part of the process.” The very act of bringing a case against the Israeli state is, ironically, reliant on establishing its legitimacy.
The individual work of some of FA’s current and former collaborators provides different, and perhaps more salient ways of presenting the same cases. The artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who analyzed the sounds of gunshots for FA’s investigation The Killing of Nadeem Nawara and Mohammed Abu Daher (2014) later created his own film about it, Rubber Coated Steel (2017). The investigation deals with two teenagers who were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers. The soldiers claimed they had used less-lethal rubber bullets, but Abu Hamdan determined that they had fired live rounds. Crucially, he found that the sound of live ammunition was masked using a rubber bullet adapter, which made them sound as if they were rubber bullets.
Unlike FA’s film, which cross-references footage captured by reporters and citizens, Rubber Coated Steel contains no actual video of the killing itself. Instead, it takes place in an indoor shooting range—itself a place to mask the sound of gunshots—with still images from the case moving up and down the range, attached to the overhead target system. Another silence manifests itself in the film’s subtitles, which displays a fictitious transcript of trial proceedings related to the case. There is no spoken dialogue accompanying the subtitles, and only the ambient, mechanical noises of the shooting range are audible. Is this order in the court, or the suppression of justice by the law? Rubber Coated Steel embodies the polar opposite of FA’s work. The one-point perspective of the shooting range’s dark corridor feels like the barrel of a gun pointed at us, and like a reference to Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity (1970), a film which also contrasts illusory movement with clinical stillness. We are placed in a vulnerable position, and made to doubt our own faculties in the absence of sounds that would allow us to judge the case. These subjectivities enact the critique missing from FA’s films: that the law is not here to save these two teenagers, but, in Abu Hamdan’s own words, to “amplify their silence.”
Taking a very different approach, filmmakers Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed chronicle in Purple Sea (2020) the same event that FA does in Shipwreck at the Threshold of Europe, Lesvos, Aegean Sea (2020). The titular shipwreck is of a migrant boat, which was carrying Alzakout to the Greek island of Lesvos. When the boat began to sink, her waterproof camera captured the event from the time of the sinking to their rescue. The footage is terrifyingly somatic. Whereas FA attempts to extract sense and order out of the panic and chaos it depicts, Purple Sea lets it play out, superimposing it with a deeply personal, almost lyrical monologue. In both films, there is still something ethically problematic about witnessing the death and suffering of many others on that boat. But what Purple Sea demonstrates quite well is that there are times when violence doesn’t have to be dissected, analyzed, or viewed with the clarity of time and distance to be understood. It just has to be felt.
Recently, FA has been at the center of a controversy involving their exhibition at Miami Dade College’s Museum of Art and Design. Days before the group’s director, Eyal Weizman, was set to fly to the US for the opening, his visa waiver was revoked. After the exhibition opened, it was almost immediately censored. The museum tried to suppress and disavow an ongoing investigation by FA into the nearby Homestead Child Migrant Detention Center. When FA exhibits their investigations far from the places they are actually undertaken, it seems they’re met with high praise. But, as this incident, and Anani’s critical coverage of their Palestine exhibition shows, exhibiting their investigations “close to home” raises issues over whether they can actually benefit marginalized communities where they are. I do not intend to blame FA for the censorship of their exhibition, and if anything, it’s proof that they remain more potent than I have let on. But it might prompt them to reassess the effectiveness of the venues and strategies they rely upon. Beyond the gallery and the courtroom, there are many other places where forensic architecture can be put to use. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity for them to establish the accountability to their research subjects that is often elided from their work.