Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Unreliable Narrator at Whitechapel

The Whitechapel Gallery’s Artists’ Film International 2015 presents The Unreliable Narrator (2014), a film by artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. The film focuses on the tragic events of 26 November 2008 across Mumbai (including a three day siege of the Taj Mahal Hotel) led by a group of Pakistani Jihadi gunmen resulting in 166 deaths and hundreds injured. The artists’ experience of being in Pakistan at the time and witnessing of the unfolding political discussions and global media interest and reporting of the Mumbai attacks over subsequent years is the background to this captivating work.

The term “unreliable narrator” in literature, film or theatre refers to an individual whose trustworthiness is significantly compromised. In the context of film and television there can be more than one unreliable narrator. The Unreliable Narrator considers the struggle of who gets to narrate. Potentially, the film might have had various unreliable narrators; Rahila Gupta (the female writer and activist whose ideas influenced The Unreliable Narrator and whose voice features in it and in the artists’ previous film, Deep State), the Pakistani gunmen, the artists, the news media or the 2013 Bollywood film based on the 2008 Mumbai attacks (presented from the moral perspective of Mumbai’s police authorities). Mirza and Butler do not conceive of the unreliable narrator as an entity or individual but as a global condition that is integral to our life. It is a situation where powerful forces on a global scale sustain a sense of permanent emergency that plays to their advantage e.g. the need for a surveillance culture.

This condition can also relate to Mirza and Butler’s idea of a “raid on human consciousness”. The latter is reflected in the competition (and even struggle) between different forces for the ownership of the meta-narrative of events, and how it is etched into people’s collective awareness. For the artists, the narrative of the Mumbai attacks has multiple perspectives or alternatives.

Inevitably, this film brings to mind the phenomenon of global terrorism and whether in this context these individuals who mostly target civilians should be considered freedom fighters or terrorists. Thinking broadly (beyond the Mumbai attacks) the film prompts viewers to question the status, narrative and rationale of perpetrators such as the Mumbai gunmen. The point is that global terror, its narratives and the multiple perspectives on it operate simultaneously offline and online – two equally important communicative platforms. Significantly, the Pakistani gunmen’s operation was not limited to Mumbai but took place (before and during the attacks) online, feeding social media (e.g. sending e-mails to local media, using Twitter and uploading footage filmed during the operation).

The frequent shifts between the cinematic (evident in the incorporation of film footage from the 2013 Bollywood film and the cinematic jargon used repeatedly in the artists’ film script) and the authentic (the perpetrators’ phone calls, the conversation with the jihadist survivor and the CCTV footage), causes viewers to doubt what is authentic and what is not. For Mirza and Butler, this scepticism or disbelief is essential as it raises awareness of the co-existence of multiple truths behind the Mumbai attacks. Judith Butler’s book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2009) influences the artists’ wider critical thinking (and on-going project the Museum of Non-Participation, of which the film is an integral part). In the context of the recent wars in Iraq, Butler discusses rhetorical decisions that defined the loss of lives as either grievable or not, and also analyses how different forms of media are important protagonists in leading modern wars. Butler inspired the artists to reflect on public knowledge issues and to apply it to the inclusion, elimination and misrepresentation of information at the core of the Mumbai attacks.

So where does the power of this film lie? For Mirza and Butler it is “where the viewer is placed, which is in an intimate proximity to the terrorist body”. In my opinion, the use of the human voice is the most powerful experience in the film: firstly, the intimacy of the gunmen’s voices (experienced through their phone conversations) before and during the operation and, secondly, Gupta’s voice, which frequently changes its character and produces a tension between intimacy (encouraging trust in her as “narrator”) and inauthenticity (which leads to distrust). Although the human voice is a basic means of communication, in contrast to social media – an advanced technology with various platforms of communication – it proves to be a very powerful communicative and emotive force.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Unreliable Narrator (2014), until 26 April, Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High St, London, E1 7QX.

Galit Mana

1. Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Unreliable Narrator (2014).