Cinema of France


The last week of March 2022 marks the second anniversary of India’s first covid-enforced lockdown. Out of work and anxious about the immediate future, migrant workers from every part of the country decided to go back to their homelands by whatever means was available to them. The harrowing, mediatized tracking shots of men and women trudging along highways with their belongings are now a veritable part of the visual history of independent India.

Migrant labour also happens to be one of the most prominent themes of the recently concluded Cinéma du Réel documentary festival. While several films that premiered at this year’s edition explore the intersections of technology, nature, politics and work, four projects train their attention on the experiences of the expatriate working-class.

We barely see workers in Noah Teichner’s Navigators; even so, the film centres on an important chapter in the history of migrant labour in America. Following the October Revolution in Russia, the United States drafted the Immigration Act of 1918 to deport anarchists and communists living in the country. In November 1919, the US Department of Justice raided the premises of the Union of Russian Workers, an anarchist organization comprised of Russian immigrants. 249 of the arrested radicals were put aboard the USAT Buford on December 21 and sent away to the new-born Soviet Union.

Among the deportees were the anarchist intellectuals Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, whose diary entries and letters on the voyage serve as textual material for the film. But the protagonist of Navigators is the USAT Buford itself. Commissioned in 1890, the ship was put to varied use during its forty-year lifetime. At one point, it even served as the set for Buster Keaton’s classic comedy The Navigator (1924).

Presented entirely in split screen, Teichner’s film employs three distinct formal elements. Its visual component is made largely of newsreels and scenes from silent comedies, particularly The Navigator. Clips of Buster Keaton wandering on a ghost ship are juxtaposed with excerpts from writings by Berkman describing the harsh conditions aboard the overloaded Buford over its 28-day journey. The comic images and radical text are scored to a selection of humorous anti-communist music, sometimes slowed down to the point of being unrecognizable.

In Buford, Navigators discovers an instance of history appearing first as tragedy, then as farce. But history resurfaces in other bitter ways as well. If America’s deportation of anarchists recalls the pogroms of Tsarist Russia, Lenin’s persecution of the same anarchists in the 1920s strikes a note of sad irony. Comedy and history come across as conjoint twins in the disorienting crosstalk between text and image, fiction and reality, that Navigators puts in place. Cinephiles will no doubt notice that the three-way clash of cinema, radical politics and red scare that informs the film’s formal scheme would emerge again in the Hollywood blacklist of the late forties.  

Migrant workers are also deported in Jessica Johnson’s Anyox, which mixes current-day footage of a former mining town in British Columbia, Canada, with archival material from the twenties and the thirties, when the site was owned and administered by the Granby Consolidated Mining corporation. During its heyday, about half of the company’s workforce was made of immigrants from Central Europe who mostly worked at the mines, while labourers from English-speaking countries were deployed at the smelting facility. The workers all appear to have been sensitized to their rights by political newspapers available in a host of languages.

Compelling the viewer to read forbiddingly long reports and newspaper clippings, director Johnson provides a detailed account of the agitation that gripped the town in the thirties. Since the company owned all the businesses in Anyox, the worker’s sustenance-level salaries came back to the firm in the form of shopping receipts and dorm rents. When the demand for copper plummeted during the Great Depression, the company further cut down wages. The employees struck, demanding better living and working conditions. The police intervened, hundreds of strikers were put on barges and expelled from the town.

The immigrant workers of Crossing Voices, on the other hand, returned to Africa of their own volition. In 1977, fourteen migrant labourers working in France travelled to Kayes, Mali, to establish a farming cooperative named Somankidi Koura. The group had first met in Paris as members of the Cultural Association of African Workers in France (ACTAF), which fought for the rights of migrant workers, but also supported the liberation struggles of Portuguese colonies in Africa. ACTAF members protested the lamentable living conditions for African labourers, housed in terribly equipped, undersized dormitories in suburban Paris.

Following the liberation of the Portuguese colonies in 1974, however, the group turned its attention to the droughts that were gripping the Sahel region. They came to the realization that the very phenomenon of African immigration to Europe has its roots in the exploitative practices of colonial agriculture: the colonisers’ insistence on cash crops such as peanuts had eroded the quality of the soil in rural Sahel, producing the drought and the subsequent exodus of rural workers to cities, including in Europe. In order to address the problems of urban immigrant life in France, one then had to address the state of rural agriculture in Africa.

To this end, the group undertook underpaid internships with French farmers. They carried this knowledge back to Africa, their reverse journey from Europe a symbolic undoing of the effects of colonial economics. “To fight the sun and the famine, our weapon is the daba (pickaxe),” became their motto in establishing the Somankidi Koura cooperative.

Using material from public archives and the personal collection of filmmaker Bouba Touré, one of the co-founders of the cooperative, Crossing Voices illustrates the continued struggles of immigrant and illegal workers in France and contrasts it with the everyday operations of the cooperative. Spanning decades, continents and economic activities, the film offers a cogent historical analysis of blue-collar emigration from Africa.

The politics of migratory labour takes a backseat in Caught in the Rain, which instead adopts an oblique, lyrical approach to representing migrant life. The setting is a nondescript residence in Belgium. Two African men are engaged in what appears to be fragments of renovation work, peeling old wallpapers, clearing scrap materials or doing the laundry. But there are interruptions: responding to offscreen signals, one of the men abandons his task and rushes outside. It rains a while later, and the man lets half-a-dozen other immigrants inside. They wait until the rain stops and then make their way out as quietly as they came in.

We learn shortly that the two workers were picked up by the police five months ago on a raid. The men, it appears, are illegal immigrants squatting in this abandoned house; far from distraction, their alertness to off-camera stimuli is indicative of their uncertain situation, a compulsion to be ready to flee anytime. But this scenario isn’t treated for dramatic effect.  

Rather, the film unfolds like a haiku; instead of putting their actors through a narrative, directors Mieriën Coppens and Elie Maissin photograph them in partially-lit profiles, lending them a monumental presence that underscores their silent dignity. There are precedents to this approach in the work of Pedro Costa or even John Ford. But the film’s rarefied portrait of immigrant labour and community life is moving in its own right. In their apparent precarity, their quiet desperation, the workers here call to mind India’s nameless, numberless migrant labourers who, too, were forced to run for shelter, caught in the metaphorical rain.

 

[First published at News9]

[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s short monograph Luis Buñuel (1957), the fifth volume in the series Les Grands Créateurs du Cinéma, published bimonthly by the Club du Livre de Cinéma in Brussels. I’m extremely grateful to Samuel Bréan for finding me a copy of this rare volume.]

 

Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.

– Hegel

In our time, in our era of blockbusters and epic films, Luis Buñuel’s work and career stand out. While the vast majority of important filmmakers choose to marry art and commerce, with varying degrees of success, Buñuel confines himself to low-budget ventures, just like Roberto Rossellini. He thus enjoys a great deal of freedom: producers’ interference is limited to the choice of subject, which is generally very banal, and to the development of the script. The filmmaker imposes the expression of a highly distinct personality on such weak material. El río y la muerte (The River and the Death) was completed in fourteen days; technically it is superior to many French films, and in terms of quality, it has nothing to envy most of Buñuel’s great works. Like a novelist, the maker of L’Âge d’Or and El (This Strange Passion) works for his own pleasure; that is why the most mediocre of his offspring, the most industrial of his films, still bear his mark. This is a kind of miracle that cinema is not familiar with.

 

The Surrealist Experiment

One of the main constants in Buñuel’s work has often been explained using his Spanish origin. I’m referring to his taste for cruelty and violence, which also throw light on the inclinations of his personality. He was born at the dawn of this century, on 22 February 1900, in a small town in Aragon, Calanda, located on the edge of the famous Sierra de Teruel. After spending ten years at a Jesuit school, he left his provincial bourgeois parents for the University of Madrid, where he studied science, particularly neurology: physiological phenomena had always captivated him, as had the life of animals. But the Castilian capital attracted him towards less studious pursuits. He enjoyed idleness and led a merry and dissipated life. This is how he became friends with two of the greatest creators of twentieth-century Spain, Federico García Lorca, the poet, and Salvador Dali, the painter, who were then young unruly students. Buñuel’s films retain some of Lorca’s tragic lyricism and, above all, Dalí’s phantasmagoria.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Our young man was soon to be found in Paris, where he worked as a scientific attaché. But he was interested in many other things. Dali, who lived on the banks of the Seine, introduced him to the Surrealist Movement, in which Buñuel discovered an equivalent to his taste for the unusual. Cinema seemed to him to be the best means of expression, one that allows one to show the most amazing aspects of reality. After a first script, written from a surrealist perspective, which he could never shoot for lack of means, he took technical lessons, a trial run for Un Chien Andalou (1928). This small, fifteen-minute silent film made a great impression at the time and is still the biggest hit at film clubs today. The story, written by Dali and Buñuel, doesn’t follow any logical rule; underlying the main plot, a love story, are a series of extraordinary visuals of the purest surrealist tradition: the enormous living room piano stained with the blood of rotting donkeys, to which two seminarians are attached. The virtuosity, the unbridled inventiveness belonged as much to Buñuel as to Dali. And yet the director parted ways with his friend, whom he accused of seeking scandal for the sake of scandal. The next film, L’Âge d’Or (1930), which Buñuel made for a patron, continued the experiments of Un Chien Andalou while respecting factual logic more closely. This time, the scandal was huge: the precision and realism highlighted the filmmaker’s multiple attacks on society and religion, which he said impeded the power of love. Buñuel went from surrealism to documentary with Land Without Bread (1932), a poignant account of the region in Spain called Las Hurdes, one of the most backward and poorest parts of Europe after the Grésivaudan, Slovakia and Haute-Provence. Buñuel went ahead with the same talent, the same critical eye towards modern civilisation, whose most ignoble aspects he unveiled. At first sight, the rigour and honesty of the work contrasted with the fanatic Manichaeism of L’Âge d’Or: but in many beautiful visuals (the donkey devoured by flies, the portrait of idiots), there is that astonishing sensitivity partly inherited from his contact with surrealism.

But the time of patrons and small productions that one could finance oneself was soon over. For fifteen years, Luis Buñuel worked in cinema without making any films. This period of silence was important in its own right: faced with life and its difficulties, the maker of Land Without Bread evolved markedly; with maturity, he moved from revolt to reflection. That is how he was able to resume a body of work that was thought to be prematurely finished: recent films such as Los Olvidados or El are even considered to be of a much higher quality than those of the surrealist period. In charge of dubbing films in Paris, Madrid — where he moved on to production — and Hollywood, a bureaucrat, then a speaker in the United States, Buñuel finally left Los Angeles in 1947 for Mexico City with a very ambitious project in the bag: The House of Bernarda Alba, based on Lorca’s play, which he didn’t finally shoot.

 

(more…)

I learnt a new term on social media this year (or maybe it was last year, who knows?): the Overton Window. Wikipedia defines it as “range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.” By extension, it also designates the gamut of utterances that defines the limits of a discourse at a given point in time. As we sit aghast here in India watching this window slide to the right of the political spectrum—to a point that inclusion of conservative and extreme-right figures on televised debates constitutes diversity of opinion—the pandemic appears to have redrawn the old battle lines of film discourse. Forget the fight for celluloid over digital cinematography and projection. The old fogeys of today are those that think the theatrical experience means something, while the median of the Overton Window consists in debating what makes for good OTT content.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to take sides on this debate. As it happens, 2021 was the year that I did not go to the cinemas at all, and truth be told, it wasn’t entirely due to the health crisis. A number of other projects kept me busy in these twelve months, including the release of the hardcover version of my first book, and as it is, I find it increasingly hard to get excited about this or the other production. Except for the end-year binge that made this list possible, I must say I hardly saw films in 2021 and that includes older ones. I regret not being able to watch West Side Story, which had a run of less than a week in my city and was elbowed out by another Disney tentpole released on the same day. Who would have thought that the Overton Window now ranges from Spielberg to Spiderman? Anyway, here are my favourite films from this cursed year.

 

1. France (Bruno Dumont, France)

What comprises the blight of modern life? The reverse shot, answers Bruno Dumont in his scorching new dramedy about celebrity news reporter France, played by a dazzling Léa Seydoux, who cannot help but make it about herself in every story she does. Fresh off two films on Joan of Arc, Dumont gets his hands dirty with the profane world of modern media. And yet, it’s a spiritual tale that he tells. The filmmaker often quotes Péguy about the need to “stand up where one is.” That is what France does after she is subject to one moral crisis after another in her professional and personal life: rattled by a minor accident that she causes, France begins to see things “as they are”, subtracting herself from the reverse shot, but this grasping at saintliness doesn’t last long. She returns to her profession, not necessarily wiser but more authentic, and in doing so, reaches a state that may be seen as one of grace. It isn’t a media satire that France is after, but something all-pervasive, the simultaneous genuineness and falsity of our emotions faced with harrowing images of the world. Dumont’s film is daring, tasteless, compelling, overblown, contradictory and superbly stylized. Familiar but uncanny, it is everything you don’t want it to be.

 

2. Dear Chantal (Nicolás Pereda, Mexico)

An apartment evermore waiting to be occupied, letters responding to inquiries not heard, a voice never embodied in the image: Pereda’s five-minute short is a haunting, haunted tribute to the late Chantal Akerman that is structured around absence and substitution. We hear Pereda replying to fictitious queries by the Belgian filmmaker about renting out his sister’s apartment in Mexico City, and we see his sister readying the apartment, moving out paintings or clearing foliage from the skylight. In the film’s robust organization, Pereda, his sister and Akerman become mediums, connecting links in each other’s (after)lives: Pereda, unseen, serving as a middleman between the apartment owner and the impossible future tenant; his sister, unheard, taking the place of Akerman who will never feature in Pereda’s film; and Akerman herself, unseen and unheard, bringing the siblings together in a non-existent real estate deal. In an act of respect and love, Dear Chantal creates a physical space for Akerman to continue to exist, even if not in flesh and blood, just as No Home Movie, Akerman’s final work before her suicide in 2015, grappled with the physical absence of her recently deceased mother. The film imagines an alternate reality that brings Pereda and Akerman together not in artistic collaboration, but in the banal transactions of everyday living.

 

3. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksandre Koberidze, Georgia)

How would Lubitsch do it? Well, if the old master were a contemporary filmmaker, ‘it’ would probably resemble Koberidze’s off-kilter, disarming romantic comedy about two lovers-to-be who work at a shop around the corner without recognizing each other all summer. What Do We See is obviously designed to please, but there is never a sense that it panders to its audience. Like the best storytellers, Koberidze knows that pleasure can be deepened by deferring gratification, and to this end, his film takes surprising excursions away from its central story, restarting at will and relegating its lead couple to the margin as though reposing faith in destiny to bring them together. This vast negative space of the narrative clarifies the larger objective of the film, which is to integrate its characters into the landscape of the ancient town of Kutuisi, whose faces and places, ebbs and flows, become the central subject. Pinning down the fable-like story on the voiceover allows the director to employ a complex, highly unusual visual syntax—that nevertheless derives from classical Hollywood cinema—without disorienting the viewer. The film involves magic, but Koberidze demonstrates that a towel flying through the frame can be as enrapturing as the most outlandish fairy tales.

 

4. Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine)

The title says it all. Loznitsa’s new documentary represents a modulation of style for the filmmaker. Where his found footage work so far dropped the viewer into specific historical events in medias res, without much preparation, Babi Yar. Context offers a broader picture. With the help of archival material, but also uncharacteristic intertitles, the film details the events leading up to, and following, the Babi Yar Massacre of September 1941, where over 33,000 Jews were killed over two days in the eponymous ravine in Kiev. We see Ukrainian citizens welcoming the occupying Nazi forces with enthusiasm and collaborating in the persecution of their Jewish compatriots. In an illustration of the failure of archival, the massacre itself isn’t represented except in photographs of its aftermath. Loznitsa’s shocking film is a rousing J’accuse! directed at his nation, at the willingness of its citizens in enabling genocide, at the amnesia that allowed for the valley to be turned into an industrial dumping ground. Loznitsa’s newfound desire to contextualize his material should be construed less as a loss of faith in images to speak ‘for themselves’ than as a critical acknowledgement of their power to deceive. After all, the Red Army is welcomed with comparable pomp after they liberate Kiev, this formal continuity with the reception of the Nazis concealing a crisis of content.

 

5. Bellum – The Daemon of War (David Herdies, Georg Götmark, Sweden/Denmark)

The spectre of Harun Farocki hovers over Herdies and Götmark’s excellent documentary about war, technology and the production of images. A meditation on Western attitudes to armed conflict, Bellum unfolds as an anthology of three human interest stories: a Swedish engineer involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target, a war veteran in Nevada suffering from PTSD and having trouble reintegrating into civilian life, a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. Well-meaning though these individuals might be, their lives and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of the vet, but the photographer’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. The engineer’s efforts to bypass the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in armed conflict. Bellum cogently points out the ways in which technology—of training, of intervention—increasingly eliminates human fallibility from the equation of war, for as Colonel Kurtz put it, “it’s judgment that defeats us.”

 

6. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, USA)

I don’t know if Bruno Dumont and Paul Schrader saw each other’s films this year, but I’m certain they would both have much to say to one another. If First Reformed (2017) was the subtext, The Card Counter is the text, a film that is all surface. Where the earlier work stood out in the authenticity of its character and milieu, the new film aspires to an artificiality worthy of the casinos and bars it mostly unfolds in. Schrader tells the same Catholic story he has always been telling, that of God’s Lonely Man who is mired in mud but has his eyes on the skies. Oscar Isaac portrays William Tell, convict turned cardsharp who tries to save a younger man from self-destruction, but faced with divine indifference, decides to play God himself. Formally, Schrader doesn’t deviate from the Bresson-Ozu-Dreyer axis of the previous film—what Schrader rightly or otherwise called the Transcendental Style—and this reserve produces a productive friction between the film’s style and noir setting of the story. In that, The Card Counter is highly reminiscent of American Gigolo (1980), which is to say that, despite the references to Abu Ghraib, it is a work completely out of joint with the present. It is incredible this film even exists.

 

7. The Year Before the War (Dāvis Sīmanis, Latvia)

Even if we are done with the 20th century, suggests Sīmanis’ singular, absurd period comedy, the 20th century isn’t yet done with us. When Hans, an opportunistic doorman at a Riga hotel, is falsely implicated in a bombing, he flees the Latvian capital to shuttle from one European city to another. The Europe of 1913 that Hans traverses is less a real geography than an abstract zone of competing political currents. War is around the corner, and there are several groups trying to influence the course of history. Zealous ideologues seek to entice and co-opt him, subjecting him to what Louis Althusser called “interpellation.” All through, Hans fights hard to follow his own moral compass, flee subjecthood and retain his individuality. A historical picaresque, Sīmanis’ film is interested in the singularity of this particular juncture in Western history—a point at which fin de siècle optimism about technology and human rationality came crashing against the reality of trench warfare—where countless isms sought to impose their own vision on the world. It would seem that Sīmanis views Latvia of the early 20th century as something of an ideological waystation, an unstable intellectual field where free radicals like Hans couldn’t help but be neutralized. And that vision isn’t without contemporary resonance.

 

8. Mr. Bachmann and His Class (Maria Speth, Germany)

Maria Speth’s expansive documentary about a batch of preteen students, mostly of an immigrant background, in a public school in Stadtallendorf, Hessen, is a classroom film that achieves something special. Remaining with the children for almost its entire four-hour runtime allows it to individuate them, to look at them as independent beings with their own skills, desires and prejudices, just as their charismatic teacher-guide-philosopher Dieter Bachmann adopts a different approach to each of his pupils. For Bachmann, it would seem, whatever the students accomplish academically during the year is of secondary importance. He knows that he is dealing with a group with an inchoate sense of self: first as pre-adolescents, then as new immigrants. Consequently, he spends a great deal of effort in giving them a sense of community, creating a space where they can be themselves. At the same time, the classroom is a social laboratory where new ideas are introduced and the children brought to interrogate received opinion, all under Bachmann’s paternal authority. Speth insists on the particularity of these individuals and there is no sense that our star teacher is indicative of the schooling system in Germany at large. Bachmann is an exception, and in his exceptionalism lies a promise, a glimpse of how things could be.

 

9. Out of Sync (Juanjo Giménez, Spain)

It’s an ingenious, wholly cinematic premise: estranged from family and friends, a sound engineer spends her nights at her film studio until she starts to experience a lag between what she sees and what she hears. Juanjo Giménez’s absorbing psychological thriller riffs on this setup, weaving its implications into a coherent character study of a young woman out of sync with her life. The result contains some very amusing set pieces constructed around the delay between sound and image, but also one of the most sublime romantic scenes of all time, one that begins with rude abandonment and ends at a silent movie show. Marta Nieto is brilliant as the unnamed protagonist who withdraws into a shell and then reconnects with herself and the world. She brings a fierce independence to the character that nuances its vulnerability. Its claustrophobic premise notwithstanding, Out of Sync feels like a very open work, integrated gracefully with the urban landscape of beautiful Barcelona. Watching the film in 2021, when so much of real-world interaction has been rendered into digital images and sounds, using Bluetooth speakers with their own latency to boot, is an uncanny experience.

 

10. Shared Resources (Jordan Lord, USA)

Ambitious to a fault, American artist Jordan Lord’s new work is nearly unwatchable. Yet it bends the documentary form like few films this year. Shared Resources is a home movie made over a considerable period of time, presented in scrambled chronology. We learn that Lord’s father was a debt collector fired by his bank, that his health is deteriorating due to diabetes, that the family lost most of its possessions in the Hurricane Katrina and that they had to declare bankruptcy shortly after Lord’s acceptance into Columbia University. All this material is, however, offered not directly but with a voiceover by Lord and his parents describing the footage we see, as though intended for the visually challenged, and two sets of subtitles, colour-coded for diegetic and non-diegetic speech, seemingly oriented towards the hearing disabled. In having his parents comment on images from rather difficult episodes in their lives, the filmmaker gives them a power over what is represented. Through all this, Lord initiates an exploration of debt in all its forms and shapes: paternal debt towards children, filial debt towards parents, the debt of a documentary filmmaker towards their subjects, one’s debt to their own body, the fuzzy line between love and indebtedness. This is an American film with an Asian sensibility.

 

Special Mention: From Where They Stood (Christophe Cognet, France/Germany)

Favourite Films of

2020 • 2019 • 2015 • 2014 • 2013 • 2012 • 2011 • 2010 • 2009

[The following is a translation of an essay by Nicole Brenez titled ‘René Vautier: droits, devoirs et passion des images‘, originally published in Afrique 50 de René Vautier (2013, Les mutins de Pangée). The translation has been published as part of an anthology of Brenez’s writings assembled by Sabzian on the occasion of the film historian’s State of Cinema address, to be delivered on 23 December 2021.]

“…even when committed to a cause with all his heart and soul, René Vautier subordinates his images to nothing or no one, not in a proprietary sense (on the contrary, they are offered to anyone who needs them; we find them in numerous activist films and this sometimes results in the loss of precious copies too, as was the case with Algeria, a Nation), but in the name of an inalienable liberty. Emerging from the conception of cinema developed by René Vautier is the principle of an autonomy of images, whose existence, meaning and freedom, established in their own right, must be protected with the most vigilant intransigence: a symbolic and inalienable territory organized in time, from which history can be established. This autonomy (in the literal sense of a singular law) belongs to no one, not to filmmakers, not to cinema and not even to the people whose oppression and struggles these images document; everyone has the right to enjoy them and none the right to own them. This autonomy is in no way a counter-history, it establishes the possibility of an exact history.

[…]

One must point out that an autonomy of images has nothing to do with the fetishization of a shot, a motif or a medium (film, video, digital), so common among filmmakers. Rather, it has to do first and foremost with a symbolic operation, the responsibility of images in face of history, which subordinates and reconfigures other authorities: participants, author, signatories, context, intertext. René Vautier’s work deploys a precise and broad conception of the functions and uses of images: to document, to tell the truth, to do justice, to testify, to offer proof at a trial, to converse with other images, pieces of information, instructions and signals, to contradict, to counterattack, to convince… René Vautier explicitly invested images with all these duties: but in order for them to accomplish these, he had to also implicitly conceive of a right of images, which makes them irreducible to the host of uses and instrumentalizations they can be subjected to.”

 

[Full text here at Sabzian]

“Without Franco, I wouldn’t be here, nor this book. Thank you, Francisco. It’s the only good thing you did in your life.” The author behind this characteristic note of thanks is none other than French filmmaker and critic Luc Moullet, whose endearing and very funny autobiography, Mémoires d’une savonnette indocile (“memoirs of an unruly piece of soap”) has just been published by Capricci. In 42 chapters, the “prince of shoestring cinema” walks us through his young years as a critic at Cahiers du cinéma, his filmmaking life, and his stints in various professional and educational bodies. The book was announced in 2012, with the intention for it to be published posthumously. Reading it nine years later, with the author still in the pink of health, one senses that the cause for Moullet’s original reticence may have had to do less with his comments on his peers and collaborators than with the encouragement the book might give to the French tax department to come after him.

“My whole life has just been a series of exclusive passions I was ashamed of,” notes Moullet in the first chapter. Frowned upon at home, cinema became clandestine education for this Paris-born recluse, who talked to practically no one and had few friends at school. Haunting the film club of the Latin Quarter, he gradually found a “standing place” at Cahiers at the age of 18, thanks to the detailed filmographies he could assemble with the help of English dailies. A first text on Edgar G. Ulmer was rejected by Truffaut, who “was afraid of being ridiculed by the caricature of himself that I was.” Once into the ranks, Moullet was on the hunt for “unknown and forgotten filmmakers,” this kind of provocative rehabilitation being a sure-fire way to critical limelight. Very soon in his career, he says, he decided to stick to two principles: to write in a way that was “easy to understand,” unlike some of his colleagues at the magazine, and “to educate through laughter”—principles that have evidently remained intact throughout his life.

We also get personal assessments of the other leading lights of the magazine, and hence much of the Nouvelle Vague, whose criticism, declares Moullet, was ratified retroactively by the success of their first films: François Truffaut (“one of the rare filmmakers to not have been flattened by the roller of traditional culture”), Jacques Rivette (“the driving engine of the new criticism”), Jean-Luc Godard (“he put everything into his work, nothing into his life”), Claude Chabrol (“a filmmaker who looks at others… our little Balzac”), Éric Rohmer (“his strength was not getting out of a narrow subject, imagining all its facets with an unusual, fascinating and passionate tenacity”), Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (“made all the girls fall for him without wanting to”). Interestingly, Moullet’s views of André Bazin register as more conflicted; the latter’s “art of analysis,” it would appear, was put in service of terrible films (“How could F.T. like this guy who often spent his time defending turkeys and destroying masterpieces?… Was Bazin a great stylist rather than a great critic?”). “In real life,” he adds however, “each of his gestures towards others seemed to be to be a model.”

The transition to filmmaking, Moullet tells us, was much easier, and happened without him even trying, at the age of 23 years. Everything he knew about shooting films at that time was taught to him by Rivette “over a lunch on Washington street between 1 PM and 1:40 PM.” Even so, after initial hiccups, Moullet the filmmaker overtook Moullet the critic, who nevertheless continued to produce texts, even major ones. The bulk of Mémoires is devoted to the discussion of each of his films: the reasons for their making, circumstances of their production, incidents from the shoot, their critical and commercial reception. Hilarious anecdotes abound, but sprinkled throughout are also tips for young directors both tongue-in-cheek (how to behave at cocktail parties, how to fudge your way to state subsidy, how to avoid paying lunch money to your crew) and serious (“never do your storyboarding when you aren’t absolutely sure of the participation of each actor”).

In terms of the information it offers, Mémoires has some overlap with Notre Alpin Quotidien (2009, also Capricci), the book of extended interviews that he wrote with Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni. All the now-familiar themes of Moullet’s work make regular appearances: geography (“I learnt to read maps before I learnt to read”), cycling (“Truffaut was an autodidact. I was a cyclodidact”), mountaineering (“I’ve seen every film, and I’ve climbed every mountain pass; well, 229 of them”), and naturally, women (“The drama of my life is that I’ve always been a toy for women… I was in love with four Françoises at the same time”). All this intersects with cinema in amusing ways, as when Moullet is scandalized at his own attraction for the Positif critic Michèle Firk: “How could I desire such a contemptible girl, a Biberman fan and a Fuller hater?” The episode would be the inspiration for Les Sièges d’Alcazar (1989) two decades later.

But it is, of course, the theme of money that gives the book its tuning note. What makes Mémoires such an unusual, and perhaps even radical, autobiography is its lack of any sense of shame in talking about creative work in terms of finances. It isn’t just that Moullet often translates budget numbers of his films into what it could buy (a small car, two lofts in Paris) or that he discloses all the fraud that goes on around state subsidies. One of the permanent fixtures of this book is the author’s discussion about his personal relationship to money. So he talks about making do with very little, picking “soap from Lelouch’s home, paper reams from Societé des auteurs, newspapers from trash cans… toilet paper from Centre du cinéma.” It’s easy to believe that Moullet completed the script of Brigitte and Brigitte (1965) in small writing in an old school notebook in order to avoid buying a new one, but less so when he declares that he used to remain in the buff at home to avoid large laundry bills.

Some of these no-holds-barred revelations around money are positively discomfiting. It is one thing to create shell companies to avoid tax or to charge Tunisian distributors of his films for old prints already paid for by the British. But it’s something else to be on the dole while producing profitable films or hiking in the Himalayas, and to buy studio apartments in Paris with this welfare money. Moullet’s financial wiles were, moreover, supplemented by inexplicable windfalls, like the time he was credited 80,000 Francs by Crédit Lyonnais owing to a computer error. He describes this incident in some detail in Mémoires and his elaborate efforts to make sure that the money wasn’t retrieved from him. “I have no regrets about it,” he states, “Bravo Luluc (but I had regrets about watching Vidor’s The Fountainhead only in 1958. To each his own morals).” Indeed, the filmmaker seems to have been more sensitive to the feelings of individuals than the rights of institutions in his dealings with money, as is attested by his desire not to ruin Françoise Vatel following the fiasco of A Girl Is A Gun (1971) or his periodic cheques to Jeanne Moreau for Nathalie Granger (1972), which he produced.

Borrowing a journalist’s qualification, Moullet describes his public self as “an unruly piece of soap,” whence the book’s title, as someone who has always eluded grasp, an individual who signs up for one thing and does another. Admittedly, there is a groupie side to him that has wanted to belong to “families” like the ones at the Cahiers or the SRF (Société des réalisateurs de films, where he was once treasurer). Also, as an outsider, an “apraxic autistic Alpinist,” the prospect of sticking to dominant standards, such as making genre films or shooting on digital video, has been an attractive one. But this is counterbalanced by a flight from commitment. The filmmaker explains his refusal to define himself politically as an “instinctive reflex” against his father, who was constantly switching allegiances, being at one point a pro-Nazi militant.

There are other areas in which this perpetual slippage manifests. Moullet admits that, whenever planning a new project, he tried to make it run counter to the grain of the previous one. So the “navel-gazing” of Ma première brasse (1981) was a repartee to the social film that was Origins of a Meal (1978), itself made against the inwardness of Anatomy of a Relationship (1975), a follow-up to the Western A Girl Is A Gun. In his docu-fiction hybrids, such as La cabale des oursins (1991) or Le ventre de l’Amérique (1996), one isn’t always sure whether to take what is seen and heard at face value. Moullet makes reference to pataphysics once or twice in the book, but even without that framework, it’s plain that his films often use trappings of scientific research (enumeration, measurement systems, statistics, reportage, expert commentary) to absurd ends.

In the same vein, at a number of places in the book, it isn’t always clear if it’s the memoirist or the farceur in Moullet who is holding forth; for instance, when he rails against the evils of automobiles or when he performs a ridiculous psychoanalysis of women’s fear of cockroaches. This détournement, this formal displacement as it were, seems to be at the heart of his work.

The tendency for evasion may also be a survival mechanism. The overall impression one gets from Moullet’s book is of a rather easy life, one without much drama, controversy or struggle. Except for a brief lean period following the failure of A Girl Is A Gun, there appear to have hardly been any money troubles for him; friends on festival committees and boards of institutions have lent more than a helping hand in getting his films funded and showcased; the filmmaker has enjoyed a stable marriage of over fifty years and the advantages of a relatively good health—facets that a romantic (and masochistic, Moullet might add) conception would deem unconducive to good art. Shooting only for nine days a year, he seems to have led a life consecrated instead to the pleasures of farniente.

Cinema, in such an order of things, becomes a simple activity, pure game, made for and with pleasure, without any high stakes riding on it. When shooting a scene, writes Moullet, he looks for the easiest way to film it, unlike Delmer Daves, Bertrand Tavernier or Rivette who “willingly complicate life.” How to open a bottle of Coke, what are the challenges in booking a room in a mountain refuge, why do the French deify dogs: these are the burning questions his movies tackle. Moullet’s greatest legacy as a filmmaker, and the prime pleasure of reading his memoirs, may well be to have whittled down the universe to a human size, to have offered a working model of a creative life responsive to the world around it, but not caught up in the social and political upheavals of its time. For an artist, as he wrote back in 1959, “it’s enough to be a maker of objects.”

 

[Originally published at Mubi]

The history of battle,” wrote Paul Virilio in 1984, “is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception.” Examining the relationship between war and images, the French philosopher advanced that, through the ages, victory in an armed conflict has always been a matter of perceiving and representing enemies and enemy territories; that, in industrial warfare, “the representation of events outstripped the presentation of facts”. He continues: “Thus, alongside the army’s traditional ‘film department’ responsible for directing propaganda to the civilian population, a military ‘images department’ has sprung up to take charge of all tactical and strategic representations of warfare for the soldier, the tank or aircraft pilot, and above all the senior officer who engages combat forces.”

Virilio’s analysis has only become more accurate with time. A few years ago, MIT developed a camera that can look around corners — an invention that has obvious military application. In March this year, the U.S. Army publicized their goggles that allows soldiers to remain inside their armoured vehicles while being able to see everything happening outside. To be able to see the source of danger without exposing yourself to it — the Rear Window principle — is already a battle half-won. Photography and filmmaking have therefore increasingly been at the centre of contemporary military strategy.

The work of German filmmaker Harun Farocki (1944-2014) has, over decades, thrown light on the profound, multi-layered links between war, photography and cinema. His films echo Virilio in demonstrating how, in modern warfare, terrains are mapped out in extensive detail, combat tactics are thoroughly simulated in software and variables of battle are controlled to such a degree that the actual field operation simply becomes a logistical formality. In such an asymmetric war, the side that controls machine-filmed, amoral and objective images of a region is one that has already conquered it. To see is to capture.

Two films screened at the recently concluded Visions du Réel festival in Nyon imbibe the spirit of Farocki’s work and explore the intersection between images and war with great cogency and rigour.

Directed by Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti, the Italian feature War and Peace lives up to the ambitions of its lofty title. The opening part is set in a film archive, where researchers study footage from a “forgotten war”: the Italian invasion of (current-day) Libya in 1911. Perhaps the first war expressly filmed for public consumption back home, the clips show soldiers advancing in the desert and or assembled outside captured sites. These films, we are told, played a part in creating the fiction that was unified Libya. As it did elsewhere under various imperial film units, cinema here served as a colonizing force, with the power of writing history residing with those who wield the camera.

The second segment of the film parachutes us into a crisis unit in Italy that helps locate and repatriate civilians and military personnel stuck in war-torn areas around the world. More than a century since the Libya invasion, technology has now democratized image-making. Even the “enemies” have the means to fashion their own narrative through film. Thanks to global media and the internet, these images of war can now be produced, distributed and immediately seen across the world. We observe experts at the crisis unit investigating and interacting with these videos to navigate the chaos of the present. It’s effectively a battle for the control of future history.

Production and control of images of war is also the theme of the third part of the film, set at a French military academy. A new batch of recruits in what Virilio called the “images department” is being trained in the techniques of photography, visual composition, voiceover commentary, live telecast and filmmaking. At the end of the course, a whole combat operation is simulated in the campus for these trainees to shoot and edit into a wide-screen Hollywood-like movie, as though the primary goal of war was to fabricate images, “representation of events” outstripping “presentation of facts”.

War and Peace nevertheless concludes with a reflection on cinema’s power to prevent history from falling into oblivion. As footage of post-war devastation and testimonies of Holocaust survivors wash over reel cans, we realize that while cinema may not have been able to forestall historical tragedy, as Jean-Luc Godard lamented, its true mission may simply be to pick up the pieces, to preserve the memories of the victims of war. And that perhaps is the only way cinema could film peace.

Bellum – The Daemon of War deals with similar ideas as War and Peace, but weaves them into human interest stories. Made by David Herdies and Georg Götmark, the film follows three subjects living at different corners of the world: an engineer in Sweden, an American photographer working in Afghanistan and an Afghan war veteran in Nevada, USA. They don’t meet one another in the film, but their lives are all shaped by war and Western attitudes to war.

Fredrik Bruhn, the Swedish engineer, is involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target — a game-changing invention that will eliminate the need for any human intervention in combats. Bill Lyon, the war vet suffering from PTSD, has trouble reintegrating into civilian life and hopes to go back to the front, not just for the money, but also to regain some semblance of normalcy. Paula Bronstein is a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. We see her directing her subjects with makeshift lighting, wandering the streets of Kabul coaxing children for a pose or signing photo-books at her exhibition back in the United States.

Bellum emphasizes that these are nice people. Bruhn is a doting father and a science enthusiast. Bronstein is empathetic and wants to put a human face to the fallout of the war. Despite his hatred for the conditions in Afghanistan, Lyon too is a loving husband. Well-meaning though they might be, it becomes apparent that their life and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of Lyon, who has seen his friends and colleagues die in the field, but Bronstein’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. Bruhn’s efforts to eliminate the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in an armed conflict.

Elsewhere, the narrator remarks that armies don’t use just cardboard silhouettes for target practice anymore, but well-defined human-like figures, such that soldiers find themselves in a situation as close to real life as possible. Lyon drives past a large military facility in Nevada, where a life-size replica of Kandahar was set up. Such hyper-realistic simulation environments, which were the subject of Farocki’s four-part Serious Games (2010), are ultimately designed to blur the boundary between reality and fiction and to have combatants take one for the other.

It’s judgment that defeats us,” says an embittered Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) at the end of his famous monologue in Apocalypse Now (1979). What Bellum points to us is that this judgment, this human fallibility, is the variable that technology seeks to eliminate from the equation of war, seeking to forge amoral killing machines that will, somehow, do the “right thing”. In this mission, these two films show us, cinema will be always on the side of the powerful.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

It is in leaving the Lumière factory that the workers give themselves over to cinema, that they attain the status both of actresses and of future spectators. Moving away from work, they enter the enchanted world of entertainment. For the world of work is only weakly enchanted (enchanting), and unlikely to be enchanted in return by cinema, except in the form of a nightmare…

– Jean-Louis Comolli, Images Documentaires 24

On 22 March 1895, in the Rue de Rennes in Paris, inventor and industrialist Louis Lumière presented a private demo of a motion picture system he had devised with his elder brother Auguste. The device was called Cinématographe, and the 17-metre strip of celluloid used to show its working was titled Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon-Monplaisir. Lasting about fifty seconds when projected at a certain speed, it showed a mass of labourers, mostly women, leaving the Lumière facility at lunch hour from either side of two gateways. The audience at the demo, composed of businessman, researchers and photography enthusiasts, was very different from the people on screen, as most movie audiences would be in the coming decades. Traditionally considered the first ever motion picture, Lumière’s film bound labour and cinema together for eternity, the image of workers leaving the factory being a veritable birthmark for the medium.

What is less well-known, however, is that there were at least three versions of the film. In the first two iterations, the gates are already open, and the workers flood out from the first frame onwards. Even so, the factory is not emptied by the time the picture ends — that is, by the time the camera runs out of film. The culprit appears to be a horse buggy that takes time to come out of the facility. The third version premiered in the first commercial showing of Lumières’ films in the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris on 28 December, 1895. In it, the door opens only after the film has begun, and thanks to the absence of the buggy, the workers get out in time and the door is (almost) closed. Now considered the definitive version, this “first film” in the history of cinema, was in fact a remake of a remake.

Why did Louis Lumière make several versions of the film? One theory is that, since there were no internegatives in the film development process at the time, the original negative degraded with every new print made. The picture had to be therefore reshot onto a new negative so that fresh copies could be made for various screenings across the continent. Another hypothesis is that the Lumières didn’t like the quality of the picture and judged that the factory gates should close before the camera ran out of film. After all, a door opening and closing in the manner of a theatrical curtain had a certain spectacle about it that is missing in the first two versions, which drop us in medias res, so to speak.

Whatever the reason, it is believed that, after the first version of March 1895, the brothers summoned their workers for repeated takes, sometime in early summer. The planned day of reshoot falling on the Lord’s Day, the Lumières requested their employees to come to the factory after the Sunday mass to simulate the scene of workers leaving for lunch on a workday. As a result, in the second and third versions of the film, the participants’ hats and clothes are fancier, their mood more cheerful: one female employee mischievously tugs at the skirt of another just as they take leave from each other. The actors themselves seem wiser to the presence of the camera, more professional, so to speak. In comparison to its predecessors, the third film is on the whole more harmonious, less chaotic, the flow of workers out the gates more streamlined. Except for an implacable canine and his bicycle-bound master, who appear in all three versions, the play of chance in this definitive version is minimal.

It is not known whether the participants were paid for any of the versions, if not as the first actors of cinema, at least as workers doing overtime (on a Sunday to boot — France wouldn’t become officially secular until ten years later). At the time, there was no law in effect in France limiting the working hours. Labour unions were illegal in the country until 1884 and the General Confederation of Labour (La CGT), France’s first and largest confederation of labour unions was established only in September 1896, sometime between the private and the commercial screenings of Lumières’ film. On 1 May 1891, incited by Paul Lafargue (a son-in-law of Karl Marx’s), textile workers up north organized demonstrations in favour of the eight-hour work day. In the town of Fourmies, soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators, killing nine young people.

The protests were an emanation of the ferment across the Atlantic, where there was considerable labour unrest in the preceding decade. In May 1886, workers in Chicago rallied in favour of a universal adoption of the eight-hour work day, until then applicable to only certain sections of the American workforce. The rallies turned violent, a bomb exploded and several people died. Three years later, the Second International, adopted the 1st of May as the International Workers’ Day to commemorate the events in Chicago and to continue the campaign for the eight-hour work day. The demonstration at Fourmies was part of this campaign.

Much has changed in the nature of labour, its conditions and its screen representation in the century since Lumières’ film. Workers Leaving a Factory seems to possess a historical innocence that is impossible to recapture now. The men and women leaving the Lumière factory did so in an era of industrial optimism and ground-breaking scientific progress. It wasn’t until the First World War, and its technologized warfare, that this faith in scientific rationalism was seriously questioned. With Fordism rendering skilled labour ever more marginal and the Great Depression causing unprecedented levels of unemployment, industrial work could no longer be viewed the same way. The downbeat image of hunched, robotic workers changing shifts in an underground industrial-city in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) or the cut from a herd of sheep to contemporary workers leaving the subway in Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) altered the primal scene of Lumières’ film irrevocably.

For the centenary anniversary of Workers Leaving a Factory, German filmmaker Harun Farocki made a video work of the same name, which traces the cinematic genealogy of the “first film”. Analysing photographed images of workers at factory gates through the years, Farocki deems it “an image like an expression, which can be suited to many occasions”. His film views the area outside the factory as a dialectical space. For one, it is the place of direct confrontation between Labour and Capital: between picketers and guards, between strikers and the police. The factory gate becomes the membrane that separates work from workers, an economic system from its constituents. It is at the factory gate that Labour and Capital identify themselves by identifying the other

Farocki also regards this space as facilitating diverging definitions of the public and the private. On one hand, the factory entrance mashes private individuals into the mass being called workforce. It is for this reason that much of popular cinema centres on life outside work. In these films, narratives about individual lives begin once work is over and the impersonal, faceless workforce dissolves into separate somebodies. They replace the viewer’s leisure time with that of the characters, our problems with theirs and provide vicarious pleasures and catharses. “Whenever possible, film has moved hastily away from factories” says Farocki’s narrator, noting that in one hundred years of cinema, there have been more prisons and correctional facilities than factories and workers. It is indeed telling that mainstream cinema has shown itself better equipped to depict work when it is a form of punishment or a crime than when it is part of an everyday reality.

On the other hand, suggests Farocki’s film, the area in front of the factory gates is itself subject to competing notions of property and theft. While the territorial imperative of Capital defines this liminal space as the company’s private property, for the workers it becomes a public area of discussion, congregation and protest. “Where the first camera once first stood, there are now hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras”, goes Farocki’s narrator, pointing out how cinema unwittingly became an instrument to safeguard Capital. The apparent innocence of Lumières’ film may, however, be fallacious too. With the camera cranked by Louis Lumière himself, and his employees dutifully hurrying out of the factory under his instructions, it could be argued that even the first film was a form of surveillance footage.

Surveying the factory gates is evidently in the interests of owners, but what happens when employees do the surveying? In the era of invisible labour — the rise of the class of knowledge workers, the erosion of the boundary between workplace and home, and the ceaseless digitization of all work in general — does it even matter if the factory gates are watched over? Some companies certainly think so. In his digital video Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2011), American artist Andrew Norman Wilson recounts the repercussions of filming and talking to workers leaving the “ScanOps” facility at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. These temp workers, responsible for digitizing printed matter for Google Books, are comprised chiefly of people of colour and don’t have the same rights as other contract employees at the firm. Wilson, himself a contract employee with the tech giant at the time, was sacked for violating the non-disclosure agreement even though his footage barely shows any worker leaving the building. If Lumières’ film has any lasting politico-cinematic lesson, it’s that bosses will always want to be the ones holding the camera.

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[The following is a translation of a dialogue between Hélène Frappat and Jacques Rivette originally published in La Lettre du cinéma in 1999 and reprinted in Textes Critiques, the collection of Rivette’s film criticism issued by Post-Éditions in 2018. The reprint carries an introductory note by editors Miguel Armas and Luc Chessel, reproduced hereThere are no images accompanying the reprint, the additions here are mine.]

Hélène Frappat and Jacques Rivette

Towards the end of 1997, Hélène Frappat contacted Jacques Rivette, who was about to finish editing his film Secret Defense, in order to propose a conversation intended for publication in a new quarterly magazine called La Lettre du cinéma, whose first four issues had come out that year. Their constant exchange, following the release of the film in March 1998, gave way to two recorded conversations, held on 30 September of the same year and then on 6 January 1999, whose transcription was revised and reworked by Rivette, who added three footnotes with his pen.

Together, they constitute a truly collaborative work, published in two parts in issues 10 and 11 of La Lettre du cinéma in the summer and autumn of 1999: the first part carried the title “Trailer”, as a quick introduction to an upcoming dialogue; the second, initially announced under the title “Hunt down the imposters!” was finally titled “Secrets and Laws”, providing the text its general and final title.

It wasn’t the first time that Rivette participated in this kind of exchange: recall the importance of the sprawling conversations he had with his companions at the Cahiers du cinéma, attentively read over and corrected by the filmmaker himself, on his films L’Amour fou (“Time Overflows”, issue no. 204, September 1968) and Le Pont du Nord (“Interview with Jacques Rivette” in two parts, issue no. 323-324, May 1981, and issue no. 327, September 1981); or his dialogue with Serge Daney in two parts, “Day” and “Night”, filmed in Paris by Claire Denis as Jacques Rivette, the Nightwatchman, for the collection “Cinéastes de notre temps” in 1990.

But “Secrets and Laws” seems like a separate work in itself. While presenting it then, Hélène Frappat gave the following guideline:

“What you’re going to read isn’t an interview, but more precisely what Rivette prefers calling a ‘dialogue’, for him a more interesting form than the traditional ‘Q&A’, a form more open and closer to his usual method of working when he’s writing, preparing or shooting a film with members of his crew. The concern of this dialogue will be more general and theoretical (what is a film?) than particular and circumstantial (how to evaluate this or that film?). It’s perhaps for this reason—though he is loath to mention his older writings most of the time—that Jacques Rivette returned to two foundational texts published by Cahiers du cinéma, one in 1953 and the other in 1956: “The Genius of Howard Hawks” and the “Letter on Rossellini”. In these two articles, Rivette reflected on a double evidence: the self-evidence of Hawks’ genius and that of Rossellini’s modernity; a question all the more crucial because, in a way, it poses a threat to the very activity of criticism: how can one prove a self-evident fact (if it can’t be demonstrated, only confirmed)? And what are the conditions that make it possible to think about the feeling of self-evidence that often underpins our critical judgment [1]?”

“Secrets and Laws” thus constitutes as much a reflection on the work of criticism in its relation to the history and practice of cinema as a return to Rivette’s journey, his thought and his work by the filmmaker himself: a major text on the theory of art, which develops invaluable and unexpected ideas in trenchant orality, soberly offered for the use of future readers, where the questions “what is a film?”, “what makes a film a work of art?” register as political questions, in line with the one that Rivette never stopped asking under the name of “modernity”.

(more…)

Like several events over the past year, the 50th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) was reconceived in light of pandemic-imposed restrictions. In addition to a significant part of the proceedings taking place online, the festival is also split across February and June, with a host of repository screenings (online and off) and a special exhibition at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam offered for audiences in the interceding time.

It was also the year that the festival found a new director in Vanja Kaludjercic, who, in an interview with Screendaily, evoked her work as a programmer with festivals specializing in a diverse range of cinemas. The programming at IFFR this year, too, was nothing if not eclectic. The films on showcase spanned a range of styles, genres, budgets and themes, suggesting a festival beginning to open up to newer horizons while remaining focused on its mission of promoting up-and-coming talent around the world. The June leg of the IFFR promises to throw more light on the overall character and orientation of the festival under the new direction.

Two films set in Japan, featured in the Big Screen Competition section of the festival, provide complementary perspectives into the intersection of class and gender in Japanese society. At first glance, the films couldn’t be any more different: one is a classically-styled fiction, while the other is a sport documentary. Yet, the two films succeed, in their own ways, in drawing out what they see as certain fundamental features of the national temperament.

Adapted from Mariko Yamauchi’s serialized novel Ano Ko wa Kizoku (2015-16), Aristocrats presents two narrative arcs each centred on one young woman. Hanako (played by Mugi Kadowaki) is the last child of an upper-class household in a posh ghetto of Tokyo. The opening scene, a New Year dinner in an upscale restaurant, establishes the family dynamic: just jilted by her fiancé, Hanako sits humiliated in silence as everyone from grandma to her sisters offers tone-deaf advice on how she should find a new partner soon.

And so, Hanako is sucked into the rigmarole of arranged marriage, meeting one unsuitable boy after another in locations across Tokyo. Where another film might have dispatched these unfortunate encounters in a quick, comic montage, director Yukiko Sode chooses to flesh out each meeting, dwelling on Hanako’s discomfort in not just interacting with these basket cases, but in negotiating these alien spaces of the city.

The problem with Hanako, however, is less romantic than existential. She is a cipher with no identity of her own. Brought up in the cocoon of ultra-privilege, she never comes into her own, moving straight from the role of a father’s daughter to that of an aristocrat’s trophy wife to that of a mother to a political heir. In the duty-bound upper echelons of Japanese society, Hanako must fulfil the social function ordained for her, whether she wills it or not.

Miki (Kiko Mizuhara), on the other hand, has always had to fend for herself. Born in a modest household in the provinces, Miki is nearly forced to drop out of her college by her ne’er-do-well father and takes up a job as a hostess to be able to continue her studies. Not all spaces of Tokyo are open to her, but as a working-class girl, she enjoys freedoms that Hanako in her regimented social station cannot. She lives alone in a studio in the city, drives around on a bicycle and forges friendships in a way her social better can’t imagine. Even formally, her story moves freely between the past and the present, in contrast to the strict linearity of Hanako’s narrative.

The first time the two women meet, it’s in order for Hanako to confront Miki about her relationship with her aristocrat husband, whom the latter had met in college and had an affair with ever since. What one expects from the scene is an expression of jealousy and anger from the women; what we get, instead, is mutual curiosity and respect. The affair itself comes to an end in a dignified, bittersweet fashion.

The two meet one more time in the film. Hanako, resigned to her gilded cage, spots Miki on the road. Miki takes her to her tiny studio, which Hanako peruses with a fascination recalling Greta Garbo’s ‘memorization’ of the bedroom in Queen Christina (1933). It’s a busy loft, filled with souvenirs and photographs, attesting to a life of individual enterprise and genuine camaraderie – concrete signs of a personality that prompts Hanako to take control of her own life.

Issues of class and gender identity are present in a more subdued manner in Witches of the Orient, French filmmaker Julien Faraut’s documentary about Japan’s legendary national women’s volleyball team that won the gold medal at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Given the epithet of the film’s title by the Soviet press for their athletic wizardry, the team went undefeated for 258 games in the early sixties – a still unbroken record – and were eventually assimilated into Japan’s broader pop culture.

The film opens with a lunch meeting between some of the players as they are today. Faraut takes us through their daily sport routine, while their voices on the soundtrack furnish recollections of their glory days. Some of the teammates are no more, some infirm, but most still very fit, and at least one still coaching younger volleyball teams. The film doesn’t get too much into the details of their private lives, allowing their public role to take centre stage.

The team originally belonged to a textile factory in the Osaka prefecture, where the women worked at daytime. After their shift, they would train for the rest of the day, sometimes until dawn. Faraut, who is in charge of the audiovisual repository at the French national sports institute, INSEP, unearths archival clips that show the rigours of the women’s training: a barrage of balls directed at individual players, who keep throwing themselves at the ground with the last ounce of energy in order to gain the points that will allow them to wrap up the session.

Faraut charts the team’s dream run by intercutting footage from the games with clips from an animated television series that was later made based on the team’s sporting exploits. Set to pulsating electronic music, these dynamic sequences neatly illustrate the way the rugged working-class bodies of the players were idealized and exaggerated into elegant, expressive anime forms that became part of Japan’s popular lore.

Towards the end of the film is a sequence presenting Japan’s astounding rise from a country left in ruins by the war to being a global industrial giant in less than two decades. In a bit of cultural essentialism, Faraut equates this economic miracle with the volleyball team’s ascent to world domination, the common thread being the indomitable determination of the Japanese in beating almost impossible odds. It is pertinent that the team’s brutally exigent coach, Hirobumi Daimatsu, was a commander in the Imperial Army who survived starvation with his platoon in the Burmese jungle.

Despite the heterogeneity of their source material, both Aristocrats and Witches of the Orient adopt a relatively simple style that can at times even feel rather flat and disinterested. But through accumulation of detail upon detail, both films manage to achieve a certain critical weight and emotional resonance. They are likely to travel far.

 

(Originally written for Firstpost)

Is it possible to say anything about this world-historical year without some amount of preliminary hand-wringing? Culture writers, film critics included, appear to feel obliged to present their bona fides, to relativize their work in view of the pandemic and to pre-empt any accusations of frivolity. We are already masters at the art; it is, after all, a profession that hits you with the question of relevance every single day. The silver lining, if one can call it that, in this catastrophe that has touched every person on the planet may be that barely any other pursuit seems any more relevant. Here’s to all those who lost their lives to the virus, to those who have been fighting to save us, and to those who haven’t lost sight of causes for justice, peace and compassion amid the global health crisis.

The enormous impact of the pandemic on film production, distribution and exhibition has been obvious. Streaming giants, namely Netflix, Amazon and Disney, who have been successful at vertical integration in the past few years (and are poised to go even further), seem to be the biggest gainers from this disruption. Whatever their claim about increase in consumer choice, it seems to me that it hasn’t really resulted in a diversity of viewing patterns. (Consider, for instance, the Sight & Sound critics’ poll: the 2019 edition had a total of 353 films chosen by 100 contributors whereas the 2020 version has 353 films from 104 contributors—hardly a sign of a paradigm shift.) Given their subscription model, these firms have every incentive to pump more and more money into marketing and hog the discourse. If this annus horribilis has proved anything, it’s that publications are more than willing to bend over and serve as unaffiliated PR organs for these companies.

While the cancelling of film festivals across the world was unfortunate, it gave publications and critics an unprecedented opportunity to bypass traditional tastemakers and widen their horizons. Considering that so many organizations, by generosity or lack of choice, presented their programs online for international viewers for the first time, it was an invaluable chance for film journalists to let their readers know that there was good, smart, moving and entertaining work—old and new—available outside of subscription walls and subcultural echo chambers they have themselves helped create. To my limited knowledge, this opportunity was squandered. Publications, predictably, saw their task as giving readers “what they want” instead of elevating them.

My own viewing this year was dominated by older films. Thanks to torrent archives and illegal websites, which are seemingly the only platforms making any effort to save and make older work accessible, I had the privilege of seeing countless great works from across decades and across the globe. Watching dozens of films by William A. Wellman, Luc Moullet and Alfred Hitchcock, most of which are available for free online, remain especially fond memories (Waltzes from Vienna (1934) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) are top-drawer works!). I had great fun writing about some of them for my classical Hollywood column until it was scrapped in June.

Of the 130-odd new films I saw this year (of which three in theatres), I found no masterpieces, several accomplished works amidst a sea of middling-to-uninteresting efforts. (Shoutout to Malmkrog, Siberia and The Last City for plunging into territory conventionally considered bad taste and coming out trumps.) What I sense is that, thanks to cheap digital media, more and more independent and experimental filmmakers are simply documenting every aspect of their lives, amassing vast amounts of footage without any specific purpose in mind, and reusing them when a chance arises. With the production halt of 2020, I suspect this habit will only be more apparent in the coming months. While that is certainly a valid method of working, I can’t help but feel that so many films I saw this year came across like half-cooked soups, disparate material thrown together with the hope that it will all, somehow, result in poetry—one reason why works on this list, with their rigour, intelligence and feeling, stand out in my mind.

 

1. Hopper/Welles (Orson Welles, USA)

I’ve had no greater screen delight this year than watching two white dudes chat for two hours. Orson Welles and Dennis Hopper hole up in a dark room with half a dozen technicians to talk filmmaking, politics, religion, love, magic, news, television and literature while dutiful assistants scurry about readying one refill of liquor for them after another. Welles plays the Grand Inquisitor, pressing his timid interlocutor to state his artistic and political beliefs, conjuring theories to counter him and never allowing him a resting ground. We never see him, save for rare glimpses of his bellowing pin-striped trousers moving at the edge of the frame. As Hopper’s cinematic forefather, Welles looms large, appearing to be incarnating some kind of metaphysical force, orchestrating a Kafkaesque trial for the young man. What results is a stark power imbalance between the seen and the unseen, the subject and the author, the one who is recorded and the one who wields the camera. But the primary pleasure of the film lies in seeing two artists in a terribly absorbing conversation, grappling with the cinematic-aesthetic problems of their time. Going public after fifty years, Hopper/Welles is both a standalone film and an anniversary celebration. It hasn’t dated one bit.

 

2. Forensickness (Chloé Galibert-Laîné, France/Germany)

Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s funny, sharp and dizzyingly smart video work begins as a commentary on Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives (2017), a desktop film about the crowd-sourced investigation on Reddit following the Boston bombing of 2013. As the director breaks down Kennedy’s film, analysing its narrative construction and its tendency for geometric abstraction, she voluntarily gets caught in an ‘analytical frenzy’, not unlike the Redditors themselves. As Galibert-Laîné seamlessly chains one stream of thought after another, her film evolves into a meta-reflection on our relation to images and our compulsion to create meaning from visual material. If Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (2019) saw cinephilia as a self-made prison of images, Forensickness digs deeper, revealing the epistemological malaise that is the search for meaning that animates all cinephilic pursuit. Her film lays bare the adventures of the critical mind, throwing open not only its own making, but also the thoughts producing it. Forensickness may look like an object of pure play, the result of a filmmaker “seduced by her own jokes”, even a solipsistic game in the way it asserts the inescapability from these self-imposed maps of meaning, but this magnificent work is unmistakably insightful regarding the way we make sense of the world through images.

 

3. A Machine to Live In (Yoni Goldstein & Meredith Zielke, USA/Brazil)

What remains of the modernist dream of reshaping human societies from the ground up based on scientific, rationalist principles? Goldstein and Zielke’s ambitious, erudite and formally complex city symphony seeks to find out. Its subject is Brasilia, the artificially created capital of Brazil that architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa forged out of the wilderness in the late fifties. The imposing geometric forms of the city, expressly conceived in cosmic terms and perfected like Kubrickian monoliths from outer space, appear to have all but snuffed out human presence. Machine sees this city as an otherworldly geography unfit for human life, but also allowing the possibilities of imagining utopias, catholic cultists, freemasons, biker gangs and Esperanto evangelists all finding a home within Brasilia’s orbit. Employing heterogenous narrative modes, Goldstein and Zielke develop a visually striking portrait of a city that has come to resemble a religious monument in itself, demanding awestruck worship and constant maintenance by people who can’t afford to live here. Their Brasilia is either a place that inspires dreams of reimagining life or an abyss where dreams come to die. Even as it looks back at a moment in modern intellectual history, Machine evokes questions about the future, inviting us to reflect on the eternal human desire to play demiurge.

 

4. The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane, India)

Tamhane’s superb second film feels like home territory for him. Sharad, an apprentice Hindustani music singer, is not the greatest of talents, but imagines himself as part of a tradition, one that gives a structural meaning to his life. But, the promise of omnipresence and instant gratification of the modern world beckoning him, not only does he find himself unable to live up to the lofty ideals of his tradition, he’s also is gradually disabused of these ideals themselves. In a very direct manner, The Disciple zeroes in on a fundamental, civilizational sentiment that underpins artistic succession in the subcontinent: that of filial piety, as opposed to the parricidal narrative that informs the Western conception of self-realization. Even when his faith has been questioned, Sharad continues to serve his elderly teacher, caring for him till the final days, like icon worshippers who hold on to their idols even (and especially) when the meaning behind them is lost. Tamhane builds up gradually to this assault on Sharad’s worldview, with humour, suspense and a calculated formal reserve that redoubles the impact of the emotional violence. His film invites viewers to constantly process narrative information in order to access it, providing a rich dividend for the effort.

 

5. Unusual Summer (Kamal Aljafari, Palestine)

In Unusual Summer, Aljafari repurposes CCTV tapes that his father left behind after his death in 2015. The tapes are from the summer of 2006 and were used record the parking spot outside his home to see who’s been breaking the car window. Despite the dramatic promises of the CCTV aesthetic and the location of the house in the crime-ridden district of Ramla, what we get in this film are quotidian incidents, sightings of neighbours passing by, the picture of a town going about everyday business. Aljafari adds a sparse ambient soundtrack that imparts Tati-esque colour to the proceedings, with the passers-by on screen becoming veritable characters. This transformation of private surveillance footage into a session of window-watching and people-spotting produces a feeling of community and forges a relation of inheritance between the filmmaker and his father, the only two people to have seen these tapes. Supremely calming though it is, Unusual Summer is also seared by loss and mourning, the familiar faces, places, animals and trees that register like spectral presences on the lo-fi video having vanished in the intervening years following intrusions by the Israeli state. A minimalist gem that speaks to our now-amplified urge to reach out to others.

 

6. The Game of Shifting Mirrors (Amit Dutta, India)

Dutta’s richly dialectical new film draws out themes from Chitrashala and Finished/Unfinished (both 2015) and puts them in a stimulating new conversation. The first section, set in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum in Mumbai, jumps across artefacts from several centuries while a voiceover describes an encounter with tribal artists and paintings. This contrast between the linear time and historical narrative of the British-era museum and the mythical worldview underpinning ‘indigenous’ art is given a third dimension by the film’s latter section that showcases the 8th century rock-cut temples of Masrur. Like tribal art, the temple complex has a founding myth that departs from the rigorously documented secular accounts of archaeological practice. As the industrial working hours of the first section make way for a day-night cycle, we observe the complex’s sculptural reliefs that have been partially eroded by nature. The film’s evocative organization then embodies an ambivalence towards museological conservation: while modern museums salvage art from natural degradation for the benefit of posterity, they wrench objects out of their original context, severing them from the knowledge systems and traditions that gave birth to them. In its fruitful frictions, Game suggests that perhaps all preservation necessarily entails a loss.

 

7. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross, USA)

The Ross brothers’ new docuficion follows the last day of operation of The Roaring 20s, a downscale bar fictionally set in Las Vegas, at which a bevy of social castaways gather to mourn and celebrate. While all the actors play themselves, the filmmakers loosely fictionalize the scenario, giving direction to it with certain pertinent themes. Set against the backdrop of collapsing American businesses, Bloody Nose is a hymn for failure, a note of solidarity to what the American lexicon calls “losers”. The Roaring 20s is the opposite of everything one associates with the glitz and glamour of Sin City: it’s a floundering venture that is the negative image of the American Dream. For its regulars, however, the bar is something of an institution that provides them with a public (and, at times, private) space that has become scarce elsewhere and where they can be themselves. The film’s broader view of class is compounded by a specific generational perspective that refutes the idea that the young, the ‘millennials’, can’t make it because they don’t work hard enough. A film that hits the right moods without tipping over into condescension or miserabilism, Bloody Nose deserves all the plaudits it’s been getting.

 

8. Corporate Accountability (Jonathan Perel, Argentina)

Perel continues his exploration into Argentina’s military dictatorship by examining the role of large private corporations in enabling and carrying out state-sponsored pogroms against political dissidents of the junta. He photographs the company facilities as they are today while a brisk voiceover lists out how each firm helped military and security forces detain, torture and get rid of problematic workers in exchange for financial perks. The text, read out from an official 2015 report, is numbingly repetitious, and drives home the pervasiveness of these military-industrial operations. Perel’s decision to frame the sites through his car’s windshield creates a sense of illicit access, even though there is visibly little stopping him from going nearer the facilities. Some of the companies continue to operate under their own name, while some others have changed, with at least one site carrying a memorial sign for the injustice perpetrated there. Perel is, in effect, photographing the ur-filmic image of factory entrances, but all we see is a handful of vehicles leaving the gates. This eerie absence of human figures evokes the disappeared workers who, at some companies, were picked up at the entrance, a site, as Harun Farocki has demonstrated, of class dialectics. A tough nut, but wholly rewarding.

 

9. Film About a Father Who (Lynne Sachs, USA)

Lynne Sachs’ frank, morally messy documentary turns around her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a ‘hippie businessman’ whose unconventional living and constant womanizing comes down heavily upon his nine children, some of whom have known the existence of the others only after decades. Sachs weaves through footage shot over half a century in half a dozen formats and layers it carefully into a simple, direct account with a voiceover addressed at the audience. She takes what could’ve been a narrow family melodrama into much stickier territory. Her film isn’t a portrait of her father, but a meditation on relationships with this man as the connecting element. Sachs goes beyond all gut responses to her father’s behaviour—disappointment, rage, disgust—towards a complex human reality that can elicit only inchoate sentiments, as suggested by the film’s incomplete title. She isn’t filming people or their stories, but the spaces between people, and how these spaces are always mediated by the actions of others. Father’s wayward life, itself rooted perhaps in a traumatic childhood, profoundly shapes the way his children look at each other. Sachs’ film is ostensibly a massive unburdening project for her; that she has been able to draw out its broader implications is a significant accomplishment.

 

10. Victoria (Sofie Benoot, Isabelle Tollenaere & Liesbeth De Ceulaer, Belgium/USA)

As part of his work, Lashay T. Warren, a young family man from Los Angeles, is posted in Cal City, California, a town wrought in the fifties by a lone developer out of the Mojave Desert with the hope that it would become the next Los Angeles—a dream that didn’t come to fruition. Along with other men and women his age, Lashay is responsible for maintaining this ghost town by reclaiming its streets from nature and restoring some semblance of cartographic order. Victoria teases out various thematic layers from this singular scenario. On one level, it is an absurd tale about one of the many dead ends of capitalist enterprise, a kind of anti-Chinatown portrait of a Los Angeles that could’ve been. Lashay is like a worker repairing a remote outpost in space, marvelling at every sign of life in this almost otherworldly landscape. But he also resembles the American pioneers, whose diaries on their way to the West he emulates in the film’s voiceover. Ultimately, Victoria is a poignant, humanist document, in the vein of Killer of Sheep, about the dignity of a young Black man providing for his family, trying to graduate from high school, all the while fighting the gravity of Compton’s streets.

 

Special Mention: Red, White and Blue (Steve McQueen, UK)

 

Favourite Films of

20192015201420132012201120102009

Next Page »