Premiering at the 45th Cinéma du Réel in Paris, Maxime Martinot’s short essay The Film You Are About to See (Le Film Que Vous Allez Voir) offers a brilliant investigation into the ways in which cinema exhibition and spectatorship are mediated by paratexts within and outside the films. Repurposing a range of verbal material intended to set context for viewing — disclaimers, introductory warnings, fourth-wall breaking intertitles, notices from theatre management — the film examines the fraught, slippery nature of the relationship between text and image in cinema. In doing so, it also throws light on contemporary institutional outlook towards problematic works from film history.

The texts that Martinot gathers greatly vary in their tone, style and function. A number of them are pre-emptive disclaimers about the films not being representative of the real world (“merely an ancient fable”), forestalling perceived slight to such institutions as the police, the Red Cross and the Catholic church. A few extend the language of publicity, hard-selling the provocations of the film or preparing the audience for the experience to follow (“not a detective genre movie”). Yet others instruct the projectionist to keep an eye out for spectators pirating the film, while one intertitle registers a feeble protest against the censors: “In its original version, the film ended here, but the censorship demanded an optimistic ending as you are about to see.”

Systematically interspersed with these title cards are thirty-two excerpts from across the history of moving images, from Jules Janssen’s Passage de Vénus (1874) to Angus MacLane’s Lightyear (2022). Arranged more or less in chronology, these images often have a dialectical relationship to the intertitles, which, for their part, are presented in a reverse-chronological order, culminating in slides preceding magic lantern shows in the seventeenth century. This historical regression of the title cards goes not only against their anticipatory function and forward thrust within their respective films, but also against the increasingly slick, sophisticated images on display.

The Film You Are About to See cogently demonstrates the extent to which such title cards serve to fix the meaning and affect of the images, and to counter, as Roland Barthes put it, “the terror of uncertain signs.” Taken together, these paratexts attempt to tame the image and protect the audience, cautioning them about the kinds of violence that the images could subject them to: nausea, dizziness, motion sickness, temptation to vice, even moral outrage. One intertitle reproduces a notice that a theatre in Oklahoma had put up to alert the viewers of Lightyear about “scenes of gender ideology,” assuring them that a same-sex kiss will be fast-forwarded as soon as it appears on screen.

In this regard, the counter-chronological arrangement of intertitles and filmic excerpts also evokes regressing cultural attitudes to potentially disturbing films, the atavistic fear of the power of images. The disclaimers we see in the film have a striking resemblance to modern-day trigger warnings that seek to shield viewers from presumed psychic assaults. However, in its savvy assembly of ambiguous movie clips, Martinot’s film suggests that this is an ultimately futile enterprise, for images will always find a way to escape domestication and remain polysemous in the face of texts that seek to pin them down. In this and its fixation on the perverse detail, The Film You Are About to See comes across as a quintessential work about cinephilia, that illicit passion for smuggling personal significance into curated, tamed images.

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]