Johan Grimonprez’s Shadow World presents itself in the grand tradition of 21st century leftist political documentaries, a kind of intoxicating mix of talking heads, archival footage of war and conflict and a broad, angry condemnation of the neoliberal consensus which elbowed its way through violence and crafty politics into ideological prominence in the 1980s. It deals in conspiracies which are not fully explored but merely teased, before the next grand scheme unfolds, which overlaps and interconnects. It has the shifting focus of a YouTube documentary, or – more crudely – a series of blurry photographs connected by string on a cork board.
Any viewer will see automatically see Shadow World for its broadest point, which is laid out as follows: war and violence have become a massive self-sustaining system which has transcended politics to the point that the global arms trade is what invigorates all political transactions. The global military-industrial complex has insinuated itself into the corridors of power so comprehensively that the main function of politics is to keep it churning along, at the cost of providing the material wants and needs of the world. Foreign affairs, Grimonprez alleges, are ultimately dealt with by de facto shadow governments which democracy cannot penetrate or even understand.
This story is told through the aforementioned archival footage and interviews with critics of military adventurism and the global security state – like Dirty Wars author Jeremy Scahill, leftist thinkers like Vijay Prashad, and journalists like the New York Times’ Chris Hedges. They paint a picture of a vast series of transactions now freed by the Reaganite and Thatcherite reforms of the ‘80s – a worrying global arms state driven by intersecting self-interests which no longer have any hope of being unwoven; an arms state now oriented towards a global war on terror, which has no definitive target and can therefore persist into perpetuity.
The film argues that corruption and the flow of dirty money between states, contractors and individuals is so endemic to the arms trade that it cannot be considered an unfortunate externality of the industry, but actually what energises it in the first place. No solutions are offered, but there is ultimately a hopelessness to this critique – the world has backed itself into this rut and may never extricate itself.
But there is much more going on here. Put frankly, Grimonprez doesn’t work in conventional documentary and never has. He works in a kind of psychopolitical collage. His second, and perhaps most renowned film Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y was broadly a kind of elegy about the relationship between literature and violence understood through the lens of 20th century airplane hijackings. It drew a broad point, but was dreamlike and clearly not intended to be understood as a linear essay, but instead a collection of dissonant archival images, poetic narration and sound, which was largely comprised of disco music.
Shadow World is in many ways closer to Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y than, say, Dirty Wars. It is incisive, and its analyses of events like the long term munitions sales between the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia are meticulously shown, but Grimonprez’s larger point is far more epistemological. I spoke to the director last May, and his discussion of Shadow World kept returning not to any specific event, but instead a brief philosophical interlude from Machiavelli’s The Prince, in which the titular prince attempts to determine whether the seat of power ought to be in fear or love. Fear, the prince concludes, is in the hands of the ruler, whereas love is more volatile, because it is in the hands of the people.
There is good reason why Grimonprez was so fixated on that quote when we spoke. For him, the shadow world represented by the arms trade is not merely a material condition, but a philosophical one which straddles the world of reality and dream. Vijay Prasad says during the film that the “grammar of the past” continues to operate today, and this seems to exemplify what Grimonprez tries to do with his films: interrogate the quasi-dreamlike structures which connect history and the present, and which are doomed to repeat forever.
Shadow World also works well as a film about war and the military. Though it departs from its more linearly constructed source material, Andrew Feinstein’s book of the same name, what Grimonprez’s film brings to the table is something far more abstract: a kind of musing on the human condition with the military-industrial complex as its vessel.
The film’s first and final scenes feature grainy, juddering black-and-white footage of British and German soldiers together on the Western Front in World War I, those who crossed no man’s land to mingle with one another. They swapped names and played football, and promised to write when the war was over. The fraternisation ended when the generals became aware of it, and ordered the soldiers to fire upon their enemy. This is the point Grimonprez is trying to make. History repeats itself, war continues inevitably, and the great systems of violence will always continue by the hand of the powers above, with human beings as collateral.
Shadow War screens on the 12th of October at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival.