#4b5320, digital photography and text, Ink-jet print, each 90x60 cm 

Text: Vivien Trommer

Noam Carmeli sits on a railing, barefoot, the abyss visible beneath his feet. He isn’t moving; his muscles are taut, his gaze concentrated. He just waits there, carefully scanning his surroundings. Later, the camera focuses on his face, while a voice off screen says, “How does it feel to kill a human? They never prepare you for that. They don’t prepare you to leave the army.” In Valentina Knežević’s film VOICEOVER (2017) Carmeli, who was a professional soldier in an Israeli special forces unit before studying architecture and later becoming a dancer, translates his experience of being a career soldier into the language of modern dance. He performs an improvised choreography of memory.

The war, as illustrated in movies, is destructive and bloody; usually its cruelty is directly translated into images. Not so in the work of Valentina Knežević. Her films and photographs are reserved, immersed in dazzling fog to illustrate the faded memories of her protagonists. For her short film VOICEOVER and the photo series #4b5230 (2019) Knežević conducted interviews with professional soldiers and veterans for a year. She spoke with men and women from Germany, the UK, France, Croatia, Russia, and the United States and asked them about their personal stories, their motivations, but also about their hopes and wishes. Some of them still serve the army and want to remain anonymous; others are socially engaged in veterans’ organizations. However, they all have in common that they chose a profession that authorized them to fight by force of arms against an “enemy” in the name of peace.

Valentina Knežević has experienced war herself. She grew up in Yugoslavia, in Split, in today’s Croatia, where a bloody civil war took place between 1991 and 1995. “War,” says Knežević, “is one of the most extreme forms of violence.” As an artist, Knežević changes the perspective. Her protagonists are not the civilian victims of war, but the soldiers: those who conduct and wage wars. “How can a person kill another person?” Knežević asks. “What motivates someone to voluntarily go to war? Why would someone who almost died return to a war zone? Has war become just another job with bonuses and holidays?” Soldiers reside in the bodies of ambivalent figures, both murderers
and heroes. They consent to sacrifice their lives.

Knežević conceives her cinematic and photographic works based on oral stories, combining the authentic traumas and horrifying experiences of her interviewees with her own war experiences to create a semi-fictional storyline. This radically removes her works from the principles of the documentary and creates a world in which the personal war reports are transcended. Instead, Knežević highlights the economic, psychological, and physical frictions with which the ambivalent figure of a soldier always seems to be confronted. She portrays the soldiers as subjects and as humans, but without veiling the ethical fault in their actions.

Valentina Knežević not only weaves the stories of individuals into a larger narrative, she also formally layers her works. In VOICEOVER, a narrator’s voice floats above the moving image. In her photography series #4b5320, written monologues are superimposed over the portraits of a ground soldier, a sniper, a drone pilot, and a teenager who wants to be a soldier. The narrative structure is disassembled, making visible how memories are conveyed through media, namely through constructed images and written texts. They are layered and overlapped in fragments, in bits of memories and repeated loops of traumas. Where does it lead?

In the third act of VOICEOVER, dancer Noam Carmeli wriggles his way through the room, rolls across the floor, touches his face with his hands. He is unarmed. The camera follows his expressive movements. In the final scene, Carmeli lies exhausted on the floor. He is motionless. His blue eyes look directly into the camera. His memories of deployments have been inscribed in his body. Valentina Knežević’s works capture the experiences in pictures and they aim to counteract forgetting.