Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y  

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"Everything around us tends to channel our lives toward some final reality in print or on film. Two lovers quarrel in the back of a taxi and a question becomes implicit in the event. Who will write the book and who will play the lovers in the movie? Everything seeks its own heightened version. Nothing happens until it's consumed."--Mao II (1991) by Don DeLillo

— The airplane is safe.
— Tell me. There had been a report that the hijacker had asked for some sandwiches. Did he get those sandwiches?
— No, sir.

--Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) by Johan Grimonprez

"Men have tried throughout history to cure themselves of death by killing others [...] The dier passively succumbs, the killer lives on."--White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo

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Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) is a film by Johan Grimonprez which traces the history of airplane hijacking as portrayed by mainstream television media. It is composed of archival footage material from pre-9/11 terrorism incidents — interspersing reportage shots, clips from science fiction films, found footage, home video and reconstituted scenes.

The work is interspersed with passages from Don DeLillo's novels Mao II and White Noise which are meant to give the film a literary and philosophic underpinning.

According to the director, "Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y 's narrative is based on an imagined dialogue between a terrorist and a novelist where the writer contends that the terrorist has hijacked his role within society."

The film's opening line, taken from Mao II, introduces the skyjacker as protagonist.

Interspersing fact and fiction, Grimonprez said that the use of archival footage to create "short-circuits in order to critique a situation" may be understood as a form of a détournement. In fact, as (Sholem Stein, 2022) has noted, aircraft hijacking is called détournement d'avion in French.

The Guardian selected Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) as one of 30 works that tell the history of video art.



Against a backdrop of a chronology of airline skyjacks, the plot of Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y centers on an imagined dialogue between a novelist and a terrorist, based on passages from Don DeLillo's novels Mao II and White Noise. As the plot progresses, it becomes clear that with the increasing media coverage of terrorist hijacks, this power of producing an inward societal shock has been wrestled from the writer by the terrorist. They are 'playing a zero-sum game' where “what the terrorists gain, novelists lose!” We hear Mouna Abdel-Majid of the PLO tell a reporter, "you westerners, you don't understand ... we have to fight outside our territory and we have to bring the hope to understand our case." The act of writing/terrorizing occupies the central paradox of democracy; it is the irreconcilable tension between the individual and mass culture.

Throughout much of Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, this mass culture becomes synonymous with pop music and the ubiquity of television, particularly its news coverage. As this image-saturated society amplifies throughout the 1960s and 70s, it becomes apparent by the 1980s that the hijackers' political message has been itself hijacked by the media. Whereas in the 1960s hijackers were portrayed as romantic revolutionaries, by the 1990s these have been replaced on television sets by anonymous bombs in suitcases. According to Alexander Provan, "The end of the film seems to suggest that the media is now the ultimate author of fictions that transform themselves into events as they're broadcast." Correlating with a steep rise of the level of violence used, this depersonalization of the terrorist is merely the accommodation of terrorist spectacle for political gain.


History of Hijacking

The guiding visual thread through Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is an almost exhaustive chronology of airplane hijackings in the world. From Raffaele Minichiello, the first transatlantic hijacker (1969), to an anonymous and dying terrorist in St. Petersburg (1993), In this sense, the underlying theme is that the hijack was becoming itself hijacked by news media corporations. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y suggests that hijackers and television evolved a deadly symbiosis: on the one hand, with their protracted duration, hijackings allowed for enough time to the television cameras to be set up. The nature of live television allowed for a minute-by-minute update of the hijack as the situation progressed; this blurred the line between entertainment and tragedy. Television coverage stressed the extraordinary nature of the unfolding events (first transatlantic hijack, first live TV broadcast of a hijack, first attack on a skyjacked plane, etc.) as the only material suitable for television. On the other hand, for terrorists seeking to inscribe their struggle in history, the hijack devoid of the mediatized image of itself lost all of its communicative power. With the airplane always on the move between countries and borders as if belonging nowhere, the hijack came to symbolize the transgression across a violent border towards a political utopia.


Inflight Magazine, a companion reader to Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, is a parody based on the safety instructions pamphlets and glossy airline magazines provided for the passenger's edification and entertainment. It functions as an artistic manual for hijackers, equipped with such essentials as a safety instruction card and a barf bag. It includes excerpts from William S. Burroughs (FORE!); Leila Khaled ("Weapons Gave Me Words") Bernie Rhodes ("These Ears of Crime"), Tim McGirk (Wired For Warfare) and Richard Thieme ('Beep' Theory), Jodi Dean ('No place like home') among others.


The film premiered in 1997 at the Musée National d'Art Moderne (Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris); and at Catherine David's curated Documenta X (Kassel).

Critical reception

Roberta Smith described the film as "exceptional for its juice and its stomach churning power". "A Holiday From History", an essay by Slavoj Zizek was published in conjunction with the DVD release of the film with contributions by Don DeLillo, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Vrääth Öhner.


New York composer David Shea wrote the soundtrack to this "disquieting reflection on contemporary history". The title of the soundtrack is Hsi-Yu Chi and seems heavily based on Lalo Schifrin's work on Enter the Dragon (Sholem Stein, 2022).

Additional music "I'm Every Woman" [N. Asford | V. Simpson] "The Hustle" [V. McCoy] "Lamento Cubano" [G. Portabales] "Mi Son Cubano" [G. Portabales]


Golden Spire 'Best Director', San Francisco International Film Festival.

Director's Choice at Images, Toronto International Film Festival.

Thanks to (from the credits)

Laurence Abraham, ARGOS, Berto Aussems, Nicolas Bacou, Fredo Bernardini, Christine Barbier-Bouvet, Harouth Bezdjian, Cis Bierinckx, Sylvie Chabot, Piet Coessens, Marie-Thérèse Cohen, Herman Croux, Véronique Dabens, Sophie Denize, Wim De Rop, Mieke De Raedemaecker, Benny Desmedt, Dirk De Wit, Clara Fon-Sing, Gillian at Colorlab, Jean-Paul Gratia, Valérie Gerbeaud, Geraldine Grimonprez, André Iten, Hedwig Jenear, Ty Kistler, Isabelle Kolégnako, Agnès Kourdadzé, Els Kuypers, Fabien Lagny, Piet Maris, Marine Meulemans, Mini Europa, Montevideo, Gunther Pauwels, Hilde Philips, Olivier Regnault, Etienne Sandrin, Shari Rothseid, Sint-Lukas Instituut Brussel, Sluik/Kurpershoek, Agna Smisdom, Daan Stuyven, Roman Théaudière, Leslie Thornton, Pieter Van Bogaert, Katrin Vandenbosch, Hans Van den Broeck, Barbara Vanderlinden, Paul Van de Velde, V-Tape, Hortense Wetsels, World Wide Video Festival, Eric Yaeger, Otomo Yoshihide and all those at the Centre Georges Pompidou & the Kunstencentrum STUK, who made this production possible. Special thanks to... Don DeLillo, The Wallace Literary Agency Inc.

See also

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