What Can You See?

On Man Number 4 and background

Deirdre McAteer

Man Number 4
Year 2024
Country UK

Year 2023

Deconstruction can be understood as a process that reveals meaning through fragmentation, dismantling something into constituent pieces to offer up a perspective that the whole conceals. Khaled Abdulwahed’s background and Miranda Pennell’s Man Number 4 carefully and granularly deconstruct images, to investigate the limits of what an image can do and contain in the first instance, and to interrogate the role played by those who perceive them in the second.

background is a study of intimacy and the endurance of connection in the face of distance, temporal and geographic. In 1956, the filmmaker’s father travelled from Aleppo to the GDR as an exchange student for his studies in engineering. Abdulwahed uses the film as an attempt to re-trace this period in his father’s life, guided by telephone conversations with his father (now in his old age in Syria) which soundtrack the footage. These conversations are marred by technical difficulties, connections fading out and dial-tones eclipsing fragments of their conversation. “Hello?” his father at one point asks against a black screen. Scenes of residential Leipzig, where the filmmaker finds himself in present day, partly fill the visual gaps of the film; these images drift on, impassive and indifferent to the frustrations and anxieties in his father’s voice. It transpires that the distance between father and son is not only caused by poor phone lines, but by national borders, too; specifically, the refusal of a visa to Abdulwahed’s father by the contemporary German state.

“Yes, of course, I know that a documentary always needs documents,” says Abdulwahed’s father early in the film. Abdulwahed himself is in possession of a handful of enduring photographs of his father as a 20-year-old man, which he doctors and (re-)constructs into ‘visual documents’ of the memories his father relays to him over the phone. His hands and screens are shown first retouching and restoring the original images, then carefully cutting, cropping, pasting and resizing, striving to stitch together an ever more accurate visual representation of these memories. The film pays patient attention to the laborious mechanics of this construction process, chronicling each stage of the manipulation across various interfaces and softwares. Abdulwahed quests to create an image where previously there was none, an artefact whole and complete to acknowledge this chapter of his father’s history. In doing so, he ventures towards closing the distance between them.

The phone recordings roll on, often lapsing into a single voice seeking response from silence. Abdulwahed asks questions down the telephone, the answers to which are either omitted or never received. “I think I saw you,” he muses out loud, as archival footage of a blurred figure on the street, back turned to the camera, is slowed down with the click-click of the cursor. As the film questions and constructs, stitches together memories real and imagined, Abdulwahed goes some way to actualising his quest but he can only come so close–the image he is looking for is an ideal, bound by its own limitations. Thus, it can only, always, evade.

While background is concerned with the possibilities (and limits) of physically dismantling source images to create ‘new evidence’, Man Number 4 employs a more analytical mode of deconstruction on a single photograph to evidence the viewer’s complicity in images of violence. The film opens on an apparently indecipherable image obscured by compression algorithms, a vast gradient of pixelated colour with no purchase for the eye to land or orient itself. While the image remains abstracted, out of reach, it is described authoritatively by the anonymous narrator, who addresses the viewer as a direct and accusatory second person, “you”. Slipping without friction between description of the image, still unseen, and the imagined viewer’s internal cognitive associations (“You have trouble understanding what it is you’re looking at.”) the paternalistic voice-over breaks down the struggle for comprehension in a granular manner. Over the course of the film’s ten minutes, the image is gradually pulled into horrifying focus: it is revealed to be a scene of extreme, incomprehensible, and yet real-life violence, depicting a camp in Beit Lahia, Gaza, where hundreds of civilians were subjected to degrading treatment and torture.

But Pennell does not stop at simply explicating the image. The voice-over continues, “and you, sat here, listening to gentle music as you look on,” making clear the active participation and ultimate complicity of those who view images such as this. The film implicates the observer in the violence they witness, refusing evasion and the disavowal of responsibility. Laying bare the reciprocity between image and viewer, Pennell asks what we can expect, or demand, of both.

Deirdre McAteer is a writer based in East London.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the screening of Man Number 4 + background at Bertha DocHouse, 29 April 2024.