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In the Beginning was the Image: The Omnipresence of Pictures

Time, Truth, Tradition


Edited By András Benedek and Ágnes Veszelszki

The authors outline the topic of visuality in the 21st century in a trans- and interdisciplinary theoretical frame from philosophy through communication theory, rhetoric and linguistics to pedagogy. As some scholars of visual communication state, there is a significant link between the downgrading of visual sense making and a dominantly linguistic view of cognition. According to the concept of linguistic turn, everything has its meaning because we attribute meaning to it through language. Our entire world is set in language, and language is the model of human activities. This volume questions the approach in the imagery debate.

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Truth in Testimony: Or can a Documentary Film ‘Bear Witness’? Some Reflections on the Difference between Discursive and Existential Truth (Sybille Krämer)

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Sybille Krämer

Truth in Testimony: Or can a Documentary Film ‘Bear Witness’? Some Reflections on the Difference between Discursive and Existential Truth

1.  Svjedok – The Witness (2012), a Film by Haris Bilajbegovic

31 May 1992: A Bosnian village in the Sanski Most region of Bosnia-Herzegovina is raided by Serbian militiamen. The male inhabitants are then rounded up and forcibly led to a bridge. Four of the men have already been shot along the way; the others must jump individually from the bridge into the water. While swimming in the water they are then killed one at a time by volleys of gunfire. Only one man, Rajif Begic, survives this campaign of execution by removing his T-shirt after jumping in the water and allowing it to float downstream. While the T-shirt is riddled with bullets, he is able to save himself by concealing himself in bushes. Ten years after this event, Begic testifies before a tribunal in The Haag that is pursuing criminals in the Serbian army under the command of Goran Hadzic and Ratko Mladic. Begic’s statements lead to the conviction of the principal offenders who directly participated in the bridge murders. The survivor of a war crime becomes its only and most relevant witness.

An Austrian with Bosnian roots, Haris Bilajbegovic, filmed a documentary about this event, in which he himself lost an uncle, and his Bosnian grandfather thus lost a son. His film Svjedok – The Witness premiered in 2012. The film was nominated for the German Human Rights Film Award, is available on DVD, and can be seen on Youtube. It was broadcast on Austrian television on the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre on July 25th, and was broadcasted again on July 30th, 2015. Rajif Begic’s story constitutes the chronological axis of the film, and he is mostly filmed in close-up, like in interviews with Holocaust survivors. Within the film Raijf Begic also performs a plurality of witness functions at the same time: The film incorporates archival recordings of his testimony before the international criminal court, in which he serves as a legal witness. In the close-ups of his face and hands filmed in the studio, he reports on the event as a contemporary witness. He also walks through the original locations where the event took place and thus acts as a witness of “oral history”. As a survivor, he also finds himself ← 29 | 30 → in the position of a moral and political witness who attempts to give a voice to those who were silenced by death.

Furthermore Begic’s descriptions are followed by a reenactment of scenes of the event,1 which are staged like a feature film; the roles of the victims and the perpetrators are played by the inhabitants of the raided village themselves, and these scenes are filmed at the original locations where the event took place. Lastly, these scenes are intercut with shots of skeletonized remains that were excavated from the area around the bridge and later evaluated as DNA traces that match the victims of the massacre; their deaths are thus “proven” through evidence.

The film claims to depict a real event, as what it represents is factual rather than fictional.

But is it even possible for a film to raise a truth claim? What we see is an artificial world of moving images: actors performed the events reported by the witness in the film. These scenes were also staged, edited, combined, and assembled by the filmmaker. As a produced artwork, the film belongs definitely to the realm of the fictional. What entitles us to think that the events presented in the film are established facts that we truly know and not only believe after watching the film?

2.  On Truth

Since Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the concept of “truth” is seen as the truth not of things but rather of propositional sentences (Leibniz 1966: 15–21). Truth is associated with language. The pragmatic philosophy of language of the twentieth century made this insight even more radical: truth is assigned not simply to sentences but rather to statements produced in communicative, dialogical situations. A question of truth only emerges when the truth claim of a statement is doubted by someone else, and grounds for justification must or at least can then be given. I will call this the discursive or propositional truth, which has two characteristics:

(i) In the case of a truth statement, it must be possible to separate its genesis and validity. In other words, the grounds for justification must be independent of the individual history of the person who justifies the statement as well as the specific situation in which something was recognized and discovered. Truth is something that not only matters from the subjective perspective of a speaker but is also objectively valid from a third-person perspective.

(ii) If objective truth is connected to the medium of language, then it is “located” in a speech act in which one person claims something to another. Visual ← 30 | 31 → images or films are characteristically different from languages – for example, images cannot negate something. According to this discursive concept of truth, images cannot be carriers of truth.

3.  The Dilemma of Witnessing

When viewed from the perspective of the discursive concept of truth, the act of bearing witness leads to a dilemma. Witnessing is necessary when there is uncertainty about the course of events: someone who was physically present at the event reports his or her perception of the situation, and he or she does this in the presence of addressees, who have no access to the past event themselves. The subjective experience of the situation is expressed in an intersubjectively understandable language so that the jury judges or accepts the testimony of the witness to be true. Witnesses witness by saying something. This constitutes the core of our understanding of witnessing.

However, the verbalization of an experience opens up the possibility of errors and lies. Practices like oaths and vows in legal contexts – even though they are disappearing – point to this problem. At the same time, we know that nothing is as susceptible to error as a witness report (Ross–Read–Toglia ed. 1994). It is empirically certain that half of all eyewitnesses are wrong. Every testimony thus has the potential to be false, and this possibility becomes even more precarious when a witness is the sole witness. The dilemma associated with eyewitnessing can be expressed this way: speaking the truth constitutes the foundation and function of witnessing, yet at the same time nothing is as fallible and prone to error as witness testimony.

It is no wonder that the claim to truth of testimony is fundamentally questioned in philosophy – and from entirely differently positions (for an overview: Gelfert 2014: 95–124; Fricker 1995). In the context of an individualistic conception of knowledge, according to which everyone must be able to justify what he or she knows through his own cognitive resources, no knowledge can be transmitted through the words of others. Testimony is only epistemically valid when its receivers are able to verify the claims of the witness with their own epistemic abilities, such as memory, perception, and reasoning. Its consequence is a philosophical skepticism with regard to testimony: witness statements do not create objective knowledge unless the transmitted information can be traced back to other forms of evidentiary and corroborating knowledge in the third-person perspective. It is only in this case that there is a separation possible between origin and validity.

Jacques Derrida also questions the claim to truth of testimony, as it creates not a fact but rather a fiction (Derrida 2000: 147–182; Derrida 2003). Witnessing thus ← 31 | 32 → requires an act of belief on the part of the listener. “I testify” means “you must believe me” (Derrida 2000: 159). Derrida separates testimony from the realm of knowledge and moves it into the domain of belief; the relation to truth of witness testimony is thereby eliminated.

Traditional skepticism with regard to testimony and the poststructuralist fictionalization of testimony thus converge in the problematization of the truth content of witnessing. Testimony does not create evidence, and it is not proof – otherwise it would no longer be testimony. It is impossible to separate what the witness communicates from his or her own personal perception and experience. The irreversibility of the past event combined with the first-person perspective of the witness’s perception of the event makes it impossible for witness knowledge to be independently verified and justified. This is the epistemic dilemma of testimony.

But is this combination of speech act, evidence, proof, justification, and truth the only possible form of truth that can play a role in witnessing?

I want to argue that there is another significant form of truth involved in witnessing, which is not attributed to verbal statements but rather to people. Moreover, the specific quality of this form of truth is that it cannot be stated, but rather “only” shown and thus made visible. But how is this other form of truth to be understood (Krämer 2016a)?

4.  Existential Truth: Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard develops two concepts of truth, which are derived from the difference between “knowing a truth” and “being a truth” (Kierkegaard 2012: 215). In so far as truth is linked to knowledge it can be formulated in language; methodically acquired and justified; intersubjectively transmitted, taught, and learned; and embodied in text and speech. However, the kind of truth that Kierkegaard sees embodied by Jesus in his religious role as Christ is entirely different. This form of truth has a performative dimension, as it cannot be taught but rather only lived; its existence is thus shown and then (re)enacted by other people in their own lives (Kierkegaard 2012: 214).

This is a truth that is inseparable from the path by which it is acquired. With questions of knowledge – according to Kierkegaard – the discovery of a new finding is supposed to be time-consuming; once it is part of the knowledge system, it is no longer necessary for others to follow the path of its discovery. Truth that consists in being rather than knowledge is different, however, as its origin and validity cannot be separated and it is not predicated on propositions but rather on people. I will call this “existential truth”. ← 32 | 33 →

For Kierkegaard, the aim of “witnessing” is this existential truth. In religious testimony, for example, Christ does not speak the truth but rather shows it (Kierkegaard 2012: 213). This testimony requires its listeners to believe.

Kierkegaard thus does not open up Derrida’s opposition between knowledge, which is capable of truth, and belief, which is not. The sphere of belief itself characteristically involves an “either/or” decision that cannot be resolved by thought, reason, method, and knowledge; rather, it is a situation that requires a “leap.” For Kierkegaard, the origin of ethics lies precisely in this absolutely understood “either/or” (Kierkegaard 1998: 727). Yet, if believers lack a guiding method, then how is this either/or to be decided? What is the determining factor in the choice between different possibilities?

Kierkegaard’s answer is “authority” (Kierkegaard 2012: 302). Authority is the attribute of a person who speaks and acts in the name of an entity that transcends the individual. In its weak form it is the authority conferred by an office or the authority of parents with respect to their children. In its strong, paradigmatic form it is the religious authority of the apostles, which is based on being the emissaries of a message that they themselves did not create: they speak and act not on their own behalf but rather in the name of an entity who has authorized them (Kierkegaard 2012: 301–315).

5.  The Second Person Model of Witnessing

It is surely irritating that this kind of truth is not propositional, that it only manifests in real life, that it requires a leap into uncertainty, and that its only guarantee is belief in an authority. Yet this conceptual constellation intersects at an interesting point with the contemporary postanalytic debate over testimony – albeit without reference to Kierkegaard and with the crucial difference that concepts like testimony, authority, trust, and belief can actually generate a form of knowledge. This is the second person model (McMyler 2011: 91–112).

Remember that knowledge from the third-person perspective means that a speaker can give reasons for his assertion, which listeners can understand and recognize. If this is the case, then the knowledge that arises is based on evidence. However, the second person model assumes that there are legitimate forms of knowledge that are not based on evidence and thus grounded in the third-person perspective. The second person model deploys a social theory of knowledge: as a result, evidence is replaced by concepts of social interaction, such as “trust” and “authority”. Thomas Reid already demonstrated that knowledge is a “social operation of the mind” (Reid 2002: 68). Individuals are not epistemically autonomous, but rather mind and knowledge emerge through cooperative social ← 33 | 34 → activities.2 The social theory of knowledge generation emphasizes that “telling” – the transmission of content via speech, image, and writing – can still be accepted as knowledge without independent verification and justification. This “telling” takes many forms: it begins when we ask strangers for the time, when we hear news on television, when we divide numbers without understanding why the division algorithm works, and when we obtain information through Wikipedia or printed encyclopedias. It also occurs when bearing witness to perceptions to addressees who were not present at the perceived event. Telling is not arguing (Moran 2005: 1–29): it does not provide reasons for what is told, and the audience is not able to judge the truth content of what is told on their own. This is precisely the situation of our epistemic dependence on the knowledge of others (McMyler 2011: 142). It does not negate the creation of knowledge from testimony, but rather it defers its justification. The speech act of the witness is not an assertion, but rather an assurance (Moran 2005: 7). The witness gives the audience a guarantee that he will assume responsibility for his statement if problems and doubts should arise. As with every guarantee, it thus concerns future behavior. The authority of the witness consists precisely in issuing a guarantee for his own statement. And the audience recognizes this authority if and only if it accepts this guarantee, trusts the witness, believes in him, and accepts the truth of his testimony (McMyler 2011: 113–140).

Kierkegaard’s belief in the religious authority of the apostles as the emissaries of God thus became trust in the epistemic authority of the witness as the emissary of an experience that the listeners do not share. In the case of witnessing, however, there is one crucial condition that enables the social configuration of assurance, authority, trust, telling, and believing and creates new knowledge: the witness must not only speak, but also address his listeners directly. The realization of authority and trust as complementary sides of a reciprocal social relationship in the form of the second person model is thus based on the direct speech associated with the telling of testimony.

6.  A Documentary Film as Testimony?

This brings me back to the film Svjedok – The Witness.

A documentary film claims that what it shows is not invented but rather found. For Dirk Eitzen, the crucial criterion for distinguishing between documentary and fictional films is the question “could it be a lie”.3 At the same time, Eitzen also ← 34 | 35 → emphasizes that the genre boundary between documentary and fictional films is ambiguous, as it depends on whether recipients interpret a film as real or fictional. Accepting a film as a documentary means that the public trusts the film and the filmmaker.

The phenomenon of witnessing is linked to documentary films through the uncertainty concerning the reality content of a spoken or filmic statement and the trust that is either given or refused to a witness or a film. I argue that the film Svjedok – The Witness introduces a third possibility with respect to the “mere” documentary film, on the one hand, and the “mere” witness statement given in the physical presence of receivers, on the other hand, in so far as it is not simply a documentary film but it also provides testimony. The hypothesis, therefore, is that the film Svjedok – The Witness not only filmically represents the act of bearing witness but is itself also a testimonial (Krämer 2016b).

But how can a film that – from a media-technical perspective – is undoubtedly staged by the filmmaker and addressed to an anonymous public, who must forego the co-presence between the witness and the audience that is constitutive of witnessing, nevertheless bear witness?

Keep in mind that eyewitnesses do not simply act as causal tracers of an event – if that were the case, they would function as evidentiary proof; rather, eyewitnesses act symbolically by means of linguistic representations, and it is precisely this speech act – the discursification of their experience – that opens up the possibility for error or even intentional lies, while at the same time allowing them to assume responsibility for and offer a guarantee of the truth content of their speech. The truth content of testimony is always only “promised” and “assured,” but never made evident as proof.

The witnessing film functions in a similar way, as the staged and composed sequences of images cannot be proof of truth, but they can raise a claim to reality insofar as it is self-referentially marked in the film that the world it symbolically generates and presents is just like the real world. Viewers should not perceive the film as real in the sense of a photograph, which is impressed as a trace on a sensitive surface by a constellation of light and a chemical reaction at a specific moment in time. Rather, the film should be seen as if it is the reproduction of a historical event. This “as if” highlights a gap that cannot be skipped over and a persistent uncertainty on the part of viewers. This is precisely the “usual” situation of an audience faced with witness statements: the speech of witnesses is supposed to be perceived as if it were true, yet without the certainty that it is.

Remember that the second person model overcomes this veracity gap in that testimony does not function as proof, but nevertheless transmits knowledge by ← 35 | 36 → virtue of the personal address of the witness, which transforms his statement into the promise of a guarantee. Yet this is precisely foreclosed by the mass-media construction of the film and the anonymization of the public.

Could there be a filmic equivalent of the cooperative social relationship between a witness and his audience? One answer comes to mind: couldn’t the filmmaker, as the author of the film and the representative of the witness, stand surety for the promise of truth connected with his film? This would be a classic case of “secondary witnessing” – a concept developed in connection with survivor testimonies, particularly in relation to the Holocaust.

7.  Secondary Witnessing?

The often-cited last line of Paul Celan’s poem Ashes-Glory claims that “no one bears witness for the witness,” yet the empathic and often videographic “work” with survivors of the Holocaust is based on the guiding principle of secondary witnessing (this concept goes back to de Pres 1976 and Langer 1991; Laub 1992: 75–92). According to the proponents of this idea, the experience of violence traumatizes its victims so intensely that they can only be brought to articulate their experience through active, empathic listening. The person who appeals to the witness thus becomes a co-producer of the testimony,4 which gives rise to a kind of “representative witnessing” (Weine 2006: 11).

But this approach to survivors poses a problem. However much the self-understanding of the interviewer as co-creator is necessary in clinical and therapeutic contexts (see Weine 2006), the self-empowerment of the “representative witness” or secondary witness remains problematic. Is the “earwitness” supposed to be “the redeemer of the eyewitness” (Schneider 2007: 65)? Concepts like “representative witnessing” tend to negate the difference between those who were exposed to traumatizingly violent situations and those who were not. The sublime structure of witnessing, which is based on the gap between the witness, who is physically and psychologically involved in an event, and the addressee, for whom the past event embodies an inaccessible past, thus collapses in a way that to some extent levels the unattainable position of the witness.

“Secondary witnessing” cannot compensate for, much less suspend, Paul Celan’s “no one bears witness for the witness”.

Questioning the relationship between the filmmaker and the interviewed and filmed survivor witness nevertheless points in a compatible direction. ← 36 | 37 →

I argue that Svjedok – The Witness can be understood as not only a documentary film but also a form of “testimony” because the medium of film instantiates a social relation between the survivor witness and the filmmaker. This is not the contract-oriented relation between an actor and a producer or the secondary witnessing of the filmmaker with respect to a victim and a survivor. Rather, the way the filmmaker made the film demonstrates his trust in the witness’s description of the events. The film is thus a testimony not to the catastrophic event that it superficially depicts – the witness report of a war crime – but rather to the profound friendship and personal connection between the witness and the filmmaker. The style of the film embodies a form of sociality that – communitarianly extended (Froger 2014: 73) – can also make the viewers part of the community created by the film; a community whose bond is the political-ethnic solidarity created by the survivor testimony in the film.

8.  Summary

Is it sufficient to say that the film Svjedok – beyond what it implies about the documentation of an event – consists in the creation of a social relation between the filmmaker and the witness, and that this social relation also “invites” viewers to establish this kind of connection?

The creation of communitarian connections through the viewing of documentary films goes back to Marion Froger. She refers to the cultural-anthropological phenomenon of the gift: with some documentary films, the “informational value of the image” recedes behind the film’s function to create a “communitarian connection” between the filmed person, the filmmaker, and the film viewer (Froger 2014: 76).

Gifts make relationships.5 In terms of social anthropology, the gift is an act that creates a form of community that is not based on the validity of conventions, rules, and laws. Rather, it creates social relations that differ from the functional relations regulated by law, politics, and the economy and that produce instead a sense of mutual closeness, which is typical of spatial, neighborly, familiar, and ethnic communities. Friendship paradigmatically embodies such an “unregulated” sociality.

The executions that took place on the bridge, which took the lives of Raijf Begic’s brothers and Haris Bilajbegovic’s uncle, accidentally brought them into a fateful connection. Through the film this accidental connection becomes an intentional collaborative project, in which they both follow the impulse to give a ← 37 | 38 → voice to the Bosnian war dead. The film thus creates a second-person relationship that can be described in terms of “giving”: Haris Bilajbegovic gives the surviving witness a filmic space of public attention for his story, and he bestows almost blind faith in what the survivor reports by staging the reconstructed scenes in a “live” mode that conveys a sense of the real presence of true events. He also contributes to its documentary authenticity by simultaneously embedding evidence and archived recordings into the story.

Conversely, Raijf Begic’s story gives an answer that the filmmaker had long sought in order to be able to reconstruct the event on the bridge, which also affected his family. The survivor thus entrusts himself to the filmmaker as a person who is intimately familiar with the means of representation: he exposes himself through this disclosure and reveals himself to the anonymous public. It also takes courage to admit to being an eyewitness twenty years after the crime and to contribute to the conviction of the perpetrators in The Haag.

The filmmaker and the witness are both giving; they are also both receiving.

The production of the film thus establishes a network of consent for those who took part, which also includes the inhabitants of the Bosnian village who performed in the staged scenes and whose roles were divided into those of victims and perpetrators. Making the film and participating in the film is an act of connection, perhaps even an act of friendship, but in any case an act of social cooperation, political articulation, and ethnic identification. What is verified is not simply a testimony, but rather a social relation that emerges in and through the film.


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Derrida, Jacques (2003): Bleibe. Maurice Blanchot. Wien: Passagen.

Derrida, Jacques (1994): Zeugnis, Gabe. In: Weber, Elisabeth (ed.): Jüdisches Denken in Frankreich. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.

Eitzen, Dirk (1998): Wann ist ein Dokumentarfilm? montage/AV 7/2: 13–44.

Fricker, Elizabeth (1995): Telling and Trusting: Reductionism and Anti-Reductionism in the Epistemology of Testimony. Mind 104 (441): 393–411.

Froger, Marion (2014): Die Gabe und das Bild der Gabe. Dokumentarische Ästhetik und Gemeinschaft. Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft 11: 65–78.

Gelfert, Axel (2014): A Critical Introduction to Testimony. London etc.: Bloomsbury. ← 38 | 39 →

Kierkegaard, Sören (2012): Einübung im Christentum. Zwei kurze ethisch-religiöse Abhandlungen. Das Buch Adler. Edited by Walter Rest. Second edition. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag.

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Krämer, Sybille (2016b [forthcoming]): Svjedok – Der Zeuge (2012), oder: Kann ein Film ein Zeugnis sein? In: Krämer, Sybille – Schmidt, Sibylle (eds.): Zeugen in der Kunst. München: Fink.

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Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm (1966): Dialog über die Verknüpfung zwischen Dingen und Worten. In: Leibniz, G. W.: Hauptschriften zur Grundlegung der Philosophie. Vol. I. Hamburg: Meiner. 15–21.

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Weine, Stevan (2006): Testimony After Catastrophe. Narrating the Traumas of Political Violence. Evaston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. ← 39 | 40 →

1 For a discussion of artistic reenactment practices see Lütticken ed. 2005.

2 For the foundational function of cooperation and agreement see: Kusch 2002.

3 “A documentary is any motion picture that is susceptible to the question ‘Might it be lying?’” (Eitzen 1998: 13).

4 “[T]estimony must be co-created by a survivor and an authoritative listener […]” and “the listener actually knew more than the survivor” (Weine 2006: 33).

5 On the relationship between giving and testimony see Derrida 1994.