‘The abduction of Alan Johnston in Gaza is cruel and terrifying. However, we don’t honour persecuted journalists and writers around the world by increasing censorship. We maintain our freedoms by continuing to speak and write about contemporary events. This craven act of censorship by the BBC brings disgrace on this organisation. I don’t believe it is something that Alan Johnston would want.’ -Hanif Kureishi
Weddings And Beheadings
I have gathered the equipment together and now I am waiting for them to arrive. They will not be long; they never are.
You don’t know me personally. My existence has never crossed your mind. But I would bet you’ve seen my work: it has been broadcast everywhere, on most of the news channels worldwide. Or at least parts of it have. You could find it on the Internet, right now, if you really wanted to. If you could bear to look.
Not that you’d notice my style, my artistic signature or anything like that. I film beheadings, which are common in this war-broken city, my childhood home.
It was never my ambition, as a young man who loved cinema, to film such things. Nor was it my wish to do weddings either, though there are less of those these days. Ditto graduations and parties. My friends and I have always wanted to make real films, with living actors and dialogue and jokes and music, as we began to do as students. Nothing like that is possible anymore. Everyday we are ageing, we feel shabby. The stories are there, waiting to be told; we’re artists. But this stuff, the death work, it has taken over.
We were ‘recommended’ for this employment, and we can’t not do it; we can’t say we’re visiting relatives or working in the cutting room. They call us up with little notice at odd hours, usually at night, and minutes later they are outside with their guns. They put us in the car and cover our heads. Because there’s only one of us working at a time, the thugs help with carrying the gear. But we have to do the sound as well as the picture, and load the camera and work out how to light the scene. I’ve asked to use an assistant yet they only offer their rough accomplices who know nothing, who can’t even wipe a lens without making a mess of it.
I know three other guys who do this work; we discuss it amongst ourselves, but we’d never talk to anyone else or we’d end up in front of the camera.
Until recently my closest friend filmed beheadings, however he’s not a director, only a writer really. I wouldn’t say anything, but I wouldn’t trust him with a camera. He isn’t too sure about the technical stuff, how to set up the equipment, and then how to get the material through the computer and onto the Internet. It’s a skill, obviously.
He was the one who had the idea of getting calling cards inscribed with ‘Weddings and Beheadings’ inscribed on them. If the power’s on, we meet in his flat to watch movies on video. When we part he jokes, ‘Don’t bury your head in the sand, my friend. Don’t go losing your head now. Chin up!’
A couple of weeks ago he messed up badly. The cameras are good quality, they’re taken from foreign journalists, but a bulb blew in the one light he was using, and he couldn’t replace it. By then they had brought the victim in. My friend tried to tell the men, ‘It’s too dark, it’s not going to come out and you can’t do another take.’ But they were in a hurry, he couldn’t persuade them to wait, they were already hacking through the neck and he was in such a panic he fainted. Luckily the camera was running. It came out underlit of course – what did they expect? I liked it; Lynchian, I called it, but they hit him around the head, and never used him again.
He was lucky. But I wonder if he’s going mad. Secretly he kept copies of his beheadings and now he plays around with them on his computer, cutting and re-cutting them, putting them to music, swing stuff, opera, jazz, comic songs. Perhaps it’s the only freedom he has.
It might surprise you, but we do get paid; they always give us something ‘for the trouble’. They even make jokes, ‘You’ll get a prize for the next one. Don’t you guy love prizes and statuettes and stuff?’
It’s all hellish, the long drive there with the camera and tripod on your lap, the smell of the sack, the guns, and you wonder if this time you might be the victim. Usually you’re sick, and then you’re in the building, in the room, setting up, and you hear things, from other rooms, that make you wonder if life on earth is a good idea.
I know you don’t want too much detail, but it’s serious work taking off someone’s head if you’re not a butcher; and these guys aren’t qualified, they’re just enthusiastic – it’s what they like to do. To make the shot work, it helps to get a clear view of the victims eyes just before they’re covered. At the end the guys hold up the head streaming with blood and you might need to use some hand-held here, to catch everything. The shot must be framed carefully. It wouldn’t be good if you missed something. [Ideally you should have a quick-release tripod head, something I do possess and would never lend to anyone.]
They cheer and fire off rounds while you’re checking the tape and playing it back. Afterward, they put the body in a bag and dump it somewhere, before they drive you to another place, where you transfer the material to the computer and send it out.
Often I wonder what this is doing to me. I think of war photographers, who, they say, use the lens to distance themselves from the reality of suffering and death. But those guys have elected to do that work, they believe in it. We are innocent.
One day I’d like to make a proper film, maybe beginning with a beheading, telling the story that leads up to it. It’s the living I’m interested in, but the way things are going I’ll be doing this for a while. Sometimes I wonder if I’m going to go mad, or whether even this escape is denied me.
I better go now. Someone is at the door.
Hanif Kureishi is an award-winning writer