There Will Be No More Night is an intelligent, nightmarish portrait of war as first-person shooter and interrogation of how we consume visual information in our digital age.
In 1991, Jean Baudrillard wrote a series of essays that would eventually be compiled and published as The Gulf War Did Not Take Place in 1992. A complicated (and controversial) text, Baudrillard makes a number of suppositions about the nature of images and how they mediate reality. Essentially, Americans who viewed the conflict via the nightly news saw only a highly controlled, sanitized construction of a conflict that was ultimately as meaningless to them as the blue screen graphics of the weather report. Skeptical of his overall project, Laura Duhan Kaplan wrote in response that “Baudrillard is concerned exclusively with the question ‘What reality does the image create?’… but fails to ask the equally important question, ‘What reality does the image mask?'” This is a succinct summation of the core idea at the heart of French filmmaker Éléonore Weber’s essayistic documentary There Will Be No More Night, a compilation of archival footage shot via night-vision cameras mounted on American and French helicopters during maneuvers in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Mounted on helicopter pilots, actually, which becomes an important point that Weber emphasizes throughout the film’s relatively brief runtime. With only Weber’s voiceover narration and brief snippets of diegetic conversations (part of the original recordings) offering limited context, we see long sequences unfurl in seeming real time from the first-person vantage of these pilots as they traverse landscapes rendered eerie and empty thanks to the limited spectrum of the cameras. Each scene tends to follow a similar trajectory; the pilots come across human figures, attempt to ascertain exactly what they are up to, and then shoot them. Weber occasionally relays information from an unknown source who is commenting on these sequences after the fact, explaining how the cameras work in tandem with the pilot’s line of sight, as well as the difficulty in sussing out what exactly is happening on the ground. Are these figures running away because they’re terrorists or because they can hear the sounds of approaching gunships? In effect, these pilots are acting as behavioral scientists, reading movement and body language to decide if something is a threat and whether to engage. Here, then, what visual information is being relayed takes on literal life and death consequences, and we are informed several times that the pilots are actually wrong in their conclusions (we are never told if any of this footage was used to prosecute war crimes, although one incident involving the murder of a journalist was identified as a 2007 attack by the Americans and released to the public as part of a Wikileaks info dump).
There Will Be No More Night is, then, a war film made up entirely of one kind of image, one which should be familiar to viewers of mainstream action cinema of the last several decades — guys like Michaels Mann & Bay and The Scott Bros spring immediately to mind, although even a humanist filmmaker like Jonathan Demme has used night vision as a formal device. More interesting are the experimental works of Deborah Stratman and Kevin B. Lee, artists who are concerned with issues of perception and how we consume visual information. Ultimately, this distancing effect between the image and the viewer is what concerned Baudrillard and fascinates Weber; the notion that night vision imparts a kind of verisimilitude when used in fictional works relies entirely on our familiarity from its use in non-fiction sources. In other words, the images are effective only because we believe they are real. Weber’s project perceptively articulates the fractured indexical relationship between these images and that reality — if even the pilots shooting the footage can’t tell what’s actually going on, then how can we? What we are seeing is no longer actual documentation of an event, but malleable digital pixels. This is war as first-person video game or Hollywood blockbuster, a concept that theorist Shane Denson has identified as “discorrelated images.” As he writes, “in a post-cinematic media regime, both the subjects and objects of perception are radically transformed.” The footage contained in There Will Be No More Night is both banal and nightmarish, long static sequences of ghostly specters flitting across the frame like blobs of light. We are in effect watching snuff films, with real people dying onscreen. That the nature of night vision obscures details like faces makes it slightly more palatable to watch, but is also part of Weber’s point; these “subjects” have been transformed into something else entirely. It’s no doubt easier for these pilots to point and click at digital smears from a distance (a common complaint lobbed at drone warfare, too, which is of course related to what we are seeing here). It all reflects a dreadful irony that Weber positions as a kind of thesis — we think technology is allowing us to see more than ever before, when in fact it is obfuscating reality in nefarious ways. Weber ends the film with a scene set on the ground, young children looking up at a helicopter in the sky and waving to the pilot, their father. It’s the only scene of its kind in the entire movie, one not filmed from the air looking down but from the POV of spectators. It’s a bracing reminder that how we feel about these machines and their human occupants is just a matter of perspective, and one’s ability to survive an encounter with them is reliant on the uncaring vicissitudes of geography.
You can currently stream Éléonore Weber’s There Will Be No More Night on Mubi.