The Unreliable Narrator: how should we represent terror?

All images from The Unreliable Narrator 2014 © Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, courtesy of Waterside Contemporary (London) and Galeri NON (Istanbul)

How should we respond to mediated terror attacks? A new essay film asks why jihad and the news often work in unison, on now at The Whitechapel Gallery

At the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the British artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler are currently screening The Unreliable Narrator, an installation, photography and essay-based film that connects CCTV footage of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks with Bollywood depictions of the event.

As a narrator intones on the state of the globalised world, we see unvarnished, documentary footage and still imagery of the victims’ last moments before they are executed, before the same scenes are dramatised, and sensationalised, in Bollywood cinema.

The film has been criticised for acting as a highly-conceptual snuff movie. To that, they defend themselves via a quote from the cultural theorist Stuart Hall. “The process of representation has entered into the event itself. In a way, it doesn’t exist meaningfully until it has been represented, and representation doesn’t occur after the event; representation is constitutive of the event”.


The Mumbai attackers spent most of their onslaught on their phones, uploading their massacre to the internet. One fighter, the film points out, shot at police and filmed at the same time. The movies the attack spurned, most notably The Attacks of 26/11 and the TV-series Terror in Mumbai, gave the attackers the oxygen they craved.

The suggestion is clear. These murderous, attacks were designed for, actively targeted and hungrily craved the attention of the news cameras. They were rehearsed, and then they were performed. And, in the most macabre and repulsive way, an interactivity took place. The Mumbai attacks, and indeed every modern terrorist attack, is personally mediated by the perpetrators, even within the act. And we respond with relish.

The film is part of Karen Mirza Brad Butler’s ongoing project The Museum of Non Participation, which intends the most unsettling of questions. Are we, through the way we consume media, somehow partially to blame?

The film is inspired by: “the differing global interpretations of events,” in the hours after the attacks, the artists tell me, “which alerted us to the diverging forces of interest involved in situations like this.”

“We began to think of an Unreliable Narrator not as a character but as a condition,” they write, “a condition where some global players gain from maintaining a feeling of ‘permanent emergency.’”

When asked whether they consider such freedom of expression to be absolute, Mirza and Butler say: “One of the complications here is the term freedom. In our research we have found many of the greatest speeches about freedom have come from oppressed people. One then should ask – what are the forces that stop these radical visions coming into being?”

BJP: What was the genesis of The Unreliable Narrator? How would you characterise the film’s intentions, ambitions, hopes?

We were in Pakistan when the Mumbai attacks happened, and the immediate differing global interpretations of events alerted us to the diverging forces of interests involved in situations like this. We began to think of an Unreliable Narrator not as a character, but as a condition. A condition where some global players gain from maintaining a feeling of “permanent emergency”.

BJP: What are the challenges incumbent in using documentary fragments from a near-historical event with continuing repercussions?

The challenge was to provoke insight by making imaginative connections overlooked in the recycling of stereotyping images competing to represent their version of ‘normal’. What are the challenges in using a frame from the real that is already fiction?

BJP: Does it bother you that people out there seem less receptive, less interested and engaged, by works that report a more nuanced, more humanistic take on such events?

It sometimes does seem that dramatic stories grab the most public attention, especially struggles arguing “right” over “wrong”. This is definitely a thread in our film of how most of its protagonists knowingly create events to be dramatic images. But we find many people are hungry for the nuances. Especially when they are not overwhelmed by a lack of time, pressure, or fatigue.

BJP: Do fictionalised depictions of terrorism have an important role to play in liberal democracies, a sort of release valve helping us to cope with an ever-present threat? How do you understand their purpose?

Do we live in a liberal democracy? Or is it now a neo-liberal democracy? We at least don’t attempt to make work that acts as a release valve. Rather, we set out to confront and challenge audience expectations.

BJP: Recent terrorist attacks were designed to be filmic; tailor-made to be as tantalising to our mediated social culture as possible. The rise of ISIS, with their viral videos and game-influenced propaganda, is a permanent example of this. How should we respond? Do artists have responsibilities in terms of their reaction to such horrifying events?

It is an incredible era to be an artist, when so many different groups are using media tools. The Unreliable Narrator is timely for us because it places the viewer very close to these events. This is a perspective so rarely dealt with. It is a political intimacy that does not further propaganda agendas.

BJP: Do you feel an obligation to depict terrorism in a way that does not somehow play into the hands of our would-be attackers? Is that a consideration in your process? Do cinematic depictions of terrorism glamourize our enemies, enlivening their threat? Do you feel a moral pressure to condemn these acts?

We tend not to moralise. Instead we ask ourselves: What is the line between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? and whose freedoms are being fought for? Male brotherhood? Independence from occupation? Marxist-inspired struggles for the freedom of the working class and the 99 percent? Can you be sure when the next revolution happens that you will be on the side you might have expected, hoped or imagined? What happens if a movement you believe in recognises you as its enemy?

BJP: There’s been a debate on whether free speech, and right to expression, is absolute. Where do you stand on that?

One of the complications is the term freedom. In our research we have found many of the greatest speeches about freedom have come from oppressed people. One then should ask what are the forces that stop these radical visions coming into being? “Next to victory, there is nothing so sweet as defeat, if only the right adversary overcomes you.”

See more of Mirza and Butler’s work here and visit The Unreliable Narrator here.

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