“Before being a conflict of classes or parties, politics is a conflict concerning the configuration of the sensible world in which the actors and the objects of these conflicts may appear. Politics is then this exceptional practice, which makes visible that which cannot be seen, which makes audible that which cannot be heard, which counts that which cannot be counted.”
– Jacques Rancière
It is not just a matter of “making political films”, but also of “making films politically”. With this dictum Jean-Luc Godard articulated a longstanding tension between politics and cinema. What is considered as problematical here has to do with the position from which one speaks, with speaking and letting speak, and with the medium that conveys it. Most of all, it has to do with the relations – social, cultural, economical – between people, in front and behind the camera, filming and being filmed, viewing and being viewed. Making cinema in a “political” way can never be about “subjecting” or “identification”, but should rather be about “subjectivation”. Likewise it’s never simply about delivering a “message”, but always about shaping new forms of visibility. One recent, powerful film that has the notion of the political at its very heart is Sylvain George’s Qu’ils reposent en révolte (des figures de guerre).
“Art is not political owing to the messages and feelings that it conveys on the state of social and political issues. Nor is it political owing to the way it represents social structures, conflicts or identities. It is political by virtue of the very distance that it takes with respect to those functions. It is political insofar as it frames not only works or monuments, but also a specific space-time sensorium, as this sensorium defines ways of being together or being apart, of being inside or outside, in front of or in the middle of , etc. It is political as its own practices shape forms of visibility that reframe the way in which practices,manners of being and modes of feeling and saying are interwoven in a commonsense , which means a “sense of the common” embodied in a common sensorium.”
The most avid theoretical explorer of the relationship between art and politics today is undoubtedly Jacques Rancière. For him, the politics of art plays itself out in the way in which new forms of visibility enter into politics’ own field of aesthetic possibilities. Indeed, there is an aesthetics at the core of politics: a configuration of times and spaces, of the visible and the invisible, of voice and noise, that defines both the place and the arena of the political as a form of experience. Politics has in itself nothing to do with the exercise of power or the struggle for power, but rather with the framing of a specific sphere of experience, the setting of objects posed as “common” and of subjects to whom the capacity is recognized to designate and discuss these objects. Politics, then, is essentially the conflict about the very existence of that sphere of experience, the reality of those common objects and the capacity of those subjects. The conflict resides mainly in the tension between the structured social body where each part has its place – what Rancière calls the “police” aspect of the political, the rational administration and control of social processes – and ”the part with no part” which unsettles this order on account of the principle of “universality” – what Etienne Balibar has named égaliberté – the principled “equality” of all men. It is precisely where verification of equality (really the condition required for being able to think politics) clashes with the established order of identification and classification, that the political has its terrain. The essence of politics resides in acts of subjectivation that separate society from itself by challenging the natural order of bodies in the name of equality and reconfiguring what Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible”- a system of coordinates defining modes of being, doing, making, and communicating that establishes the borders between the visible and the invisble, the audible and the inaudible, the sayable and the unsayable.
The great danger of our times, according to Rancière, is the contemporary shift in the aesthetics of politics: that what is called “consensus”. Consensus is what reduces politics to police. It does not simply mean the agreement of the political parties or the social partners about the common interests of the community. It means putting a ban on political subjectivation alltogether, by objectivizing the givens of any collective situation in such a way as they can no more lend themselves to a dispute. There is no more contestation over the givens of the situation, over the partition of the sensible, there is only debate over the technologies of management, the arrangements of policing, the configuration of those who already have a place and a stake, whose voice is already recognized as legitimate. There’s no doubt that the political is rapidly loosing ground today, giving way to a post-political, post-democratic arrangement of management and polic(y)ing, occupying the spaces of instituted democracy. Against this consensual order, which squeezes out the political bit by bit, the only way of resisting is staging dissensus. This doesn’t only imply conflicts of interests or ideas, but also that “there is a debate on the sensible givens of a situation, a debate on that which you see and feel, on how it can be told and discussed, who is able to name it and argue about it … It is about the visibilities of the places and abilities of the body in those places, about the partition of private and public spaces, about the very configuration of the visible and the relation of the visible to what can be said about it.”
“The notion of dissensus thus means the following: politics is comprised of a surplus of subjects that introduce, within the saturated order of the police, a surplus of objects. These subjects do not have the consistency of coherent social groups united by a common property or a common birth, etc. They exist entirely within the act, and their actions are manifestations of a dissensus; that is, the making contentious of the givens of a particular situation. The subjects of politics make visible that which is not perceivable, that which, under the optics of a given perceptive field, did not possess a raison d’être, that which did not have a name…. This … constitutes the ground for political action: certain subjects that do not count create a common polemical scene where they put into contention the objective status of what is ‘given’ and impose an examination and discussion of those things that were not ‘visible’, that were not accounted for previously.”
Politics is the struggle for one’s voice to be heard, always setting up dissensus and disrupting the police order by supplementing it with a ”part that has no part”. If police is concerned with the regulation of populations by assigning subjects to their proper place within the social order, seperating those who take part form those who are excluded, politics always involves the subjectivization of those who make a claim to participate in an order in which they have no part. A particular arena in this process of emancipation is taken up by the “sans-papiers”. It is precisely because the logic of police cause these people to exist as an entity – thus clashing with the logic of equality – that politics comes about. In Rancière’s terms, the entity of the sans-papiers is the part that has no part: included, but not belonging. They are the indivisible remainder of the transformation of democratic political struggle into the post-political procedure of constant negotiation and policing. Žižek writes: “Postmodern racism emerges as the ultimate consequence of the post-political suspension of the political in the reduction of the state to a mere police agent servicing the (consensually established) needs of the market forces and multiculturalist tolerant humanitarianism”. When social order is organized in this way, so that constitutive antagonisms and splits within the people are plainly denied, it’s a matter of radically cutting through this order of the visible and sayable. A political moment arises when those “who have no right to be counted as speaking beings make themselves of some account”, at the moment it is shown for all to see hat they “didn’t have the rights that they had” and “had the rights that they didn’t”.
Politics is therefore always disruptive, it emerges with the “refusal to observe the ‘place’ allocated to people and things (or at least, to particular people and things)”. This is why the political is at the heart of Sylvain George’s cinema; a body of work that stems from a refusal to stand by, a will to resist, and, most of all, a drive to turn noise into voice, to make the invisible(s) visible. If the political consists of the demand to be counted, named, and recognized, to receive a place in the order of being, then his films are giving voice to this claim – that of the “nouveaux damnés”, trapped between the rule and the exception: the stateless, the clandestine, the precarious. If politics, as Rancière maintains, is really about “the visibilities of places and abilities of the body in these places, about the partition of public and private spaces, about the very configuration of the visible and the relation of the visible to what can be said about it”, then George’s work is a much-needed intervention in the aesthetics of politics, brimming with urgency and singularity. After having seen Qu’ils reposent en révolte (des figures de guerre), his impressive first feature film portraying the situation of migrants in Calais over a period of three years, it’s hard to believe George only started making films in 2005. Still, the intention must have been there all along, in the back of his mind, all the way through his studies in philosophy and his experiences as a social worker. It’s in this intertwining of philosophical, socio-political and humanistic concerns that his cinematic endeavors are grounded. “The idea”, he says, “is to make films that take a stand and assert a political position, and at the same time not to separate content from form; to be formally demanding and to manage to define an own view and grammar as a filmmaker.”
“The dream of a suitable political work of art is in fact the dream of disrupting the relation between the visible, the sayable and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle. It is the dream of an art that would transmit meanings in the form of a rupture with the very logic of meaningful situations. As a matter of fact, political art cannot work in the simple form of a meaningful spectacle that would lead to an awareness of the state of the world. Suitable political art would ensure, at one and the same time, the production of a double effect: the readability of a political signification and a sensible or perceptual shock caused, conversely, by the uncanny, by that which resists signification.“
According to Rancière, the effect of political art is always the object of a negotiation between opposites: the readability of the “message”, that threatens to tear apart the sensible form of art, and the radical uncanniness that threatens to destroy all political meaning. This exercise is always present in George’s formal language, which is full of ruptures and displacements, creating multiple games of temporality and spatiality, in his own words “space-time continuums where beings and things are fully restored to what they were, are, will be, could be or could have been”. Beyond the needs of narrative clarity, his focus is rather on an aesthetic of sensation, which tends to play on the material qualities of the medium. Changes in focus, speed, lighting and exposure, use of black & white tints, unusual angles and framing, long shots alternating with close-ups, and (in some of his films) the combination of different media (from Super-8 to DV and mobile phone): all these techniques are subtly put into the service of a certain defamiliarization and poetization, shaping the films as bodies of variating textures and intensities, loaded with intricate energies and arcane regions. While the images often ebb and flow between the figurative and the abstract, it’s the human body that is always present: rough faces, scorched hands, obscure figures. In this way, George’s work inscribes itself in a cinema with, in Nicole Brenez’ words, “a very elevated figural responsibility”; a cinema “capable of refusing physiological fatality, analysing figurative quadrates, discovering other frames and angles to view the body… a series of gestures whereby representation tears itself from itself so that, from a quantitative recording of the trace left by a body, the image becomes a speculative intervention on the body’s presence, its organic life, real needs, screaming and sometimes frenzied desires… As something that is simultaneously a trace, a reconstitution and a flickering, the figurative material appears in the state of a fetish, it is a sample, offering – or not – a hypothesis on being”. The body, after all, is an entirely political organism, craving for survival and recognition.
“Ce qui n’a jamais été vu, n’est pas reconnu”, Serge Daney once wrote. If what Rancière refers to as the police-aspect of the political – the rule governing the appearance of bodies in common space – focuses on the clear categorization of every individual, of every “visible” social unit, recognizing neither lack nor supplement, then the cinema of Sylvain George is an elementary form of resistance. By disturbing the dominant order of the visible and bear testimony to those who remain invisible and inaudible, a true anarchical act of emancipation is undertaken. Surely, we have seen images of “sans-papiers” before – in the news, in reportages that always seem to speak as authority – but never enough, hardly ever “right”. We see too many bodies without a name, too many figures who do not return the gaze we direct at them, who we are spoken about, without them given the chance to speak to us. George’s images make these silent bodies speak for themselves. Far away from any form of didacticism, what these images document is first and foremost an encounter between people, between different realities, in a indeterminant search and constant strive to make images possible that are, as Rancière has noted, “in phase with” the weight of emotions expressed, gestures uttered and words spoken. “For me”, George says, “cinema is a ‘means without an end’ – to paraphrase Agamben. The idea is to privilige the means to arrive at something that I don’t know myself. Starting for there, we are in the ‘demultiplication’ of worlds, rather than in a fixed world that tends to be folded on itself. By world, I mean that what constitutes the singularity of an individual. The objective is to shatter representations, otherwise we’re in the language of the ‘expert’, a language that reifies human beings and relations. There we’re also taking up the question of power. I claim the fact of not having an overhanging position. Yes, I provoke something in the sense that I have a camera and go meet with people, but it’s consideration I give them, in a relation of reciprocity and equality. This is what is eminently political: there we enter a world that opens up, where the borders become nomad.” Here we arrive, perhaps, at what Godard meant with “making films politically”. What is of importance here is installing relations between people other than the ones the dominating information system and police order prescribe, using modes of subjectivation that transform the aesthetic coordinates of the community, by fighting for what is the ultimate presupposition of politics: we are equal.
“Politics is gestures, cries, attitudes. This is what I think one sees in the film. We see in the film a moment in which bodies appear. There are words gushing out. There is a relation with the space which shatters itself. In general, in order to try to think about the relations between politics and aesthetics – not in the sense that it should be in the service of politics – what interests me is precisely the way in which the work of a filmmaker can be in phase with the weight of certain gerstures – be it the gesture of the revolt in the street, or the gesture of burning one’s fingers to prevent police identification. It’s something that is very important for me, the idea that the relation between politics and aesthetics is also the relation between the art form used by the individuals who struggle to change their conditions and the art form an artist applies himself, or tries to apply.”
All quotes (in grey) by Jacques Rancière. The last one is taken from a conversation with Sylvain George (translated from French). See below for video documentation. Also included are some recent interview with George (one featuring Archie Shepp, whose haunting rendition of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ closes ‘Qu’ils reposent en révolte’), and a streaming copy of ‘Ils nous tueront tous’, a short film George has made as part of ‘Outrage et rébellion’, a collective film project born as a reaction to the “Joachim Gatti affaire”. On 8 July 2009, Gatti, a young film director, was seriously injured by the police during a peaceful demonstration in Montreuil. A flash ball bullet hit him in the face and ruptured one of his eyes. Other contributors to the project (45 in total) are Lionel Soukaz, Jean-Marie Straub, Ange Leccia, Peter Whitehead, Robert Fenz, Marcel Hanoun, Philippe Garrel and Laura Waddington, amongst others.
Sylvain George interviewed by Olivier Pierre (English translation, FID 2010)
The origin of the project?
These are the first images from a film I have been working on for the past four years, about migration policies in Europe and the social mobilizations they may set off. The idea is to try and give an account of the issues which I think are among the most crucial of our times. Indeed, issues related to immigration and the figure of the foreigner are perfect indicators to assess and question the state of our democracies, the building of public policies, the drawing up of their implementation procedures. At first, even though on paper the project already seemed substantial enough, it was supposed to be a two-part short film. Then, as I found myself facing the realities of the field, as I met people in Europe and Africa, the whole project expanded considerably. Now, there will probably be two feature-films. For instance, the film was supposed to start with the situation of migrants transiting in Calais, before showing other circumstances in Africa, Europe, … Initially, I had planned to stay in Calais for three months for that purpose. But because of the situations I discovered and the connections I developed with many people, I ended up staying for three years, through stays of various lengths, between July 2007 and January 2010. The “Calais part” gradually stood out and became independent from the rest of the film. It became a proper feature-film. It features many threads that will be drawn out, exploited and developed later on, in the second feature-film. The shooting of the latter is almost done, and the editing process is about to start.
What about the structure of the film, the editing?
The film is made of autonomous sequences, fragments that refer and correspond to each other, that intermingle, thus creating temporality and spatiality effects. Since the shooting took three years, you can feel the cycle of seasons, without it being necessarily set up in chronological order. The same applies for situations that may or may not be treated chronologically, without time or narration necessarily matching a homogeneous, linear and empty conception of time. Indeed, the correspondence, the poetic and dialectic tension set between situations, events, people or “patterns” philosophically meet the building of some history that is still very much pregnant, linear and marked by the myth of progress, and that tends to foreclose times and issues in some permanent overtaking. Politically speaking, it is about standing up, contesting these grey zones, these spaces or cracks like Calais standing somewhere between the exception and the rule, beyond the scope of law, where law is suspended, where individuals are deprived, stripped off their most fundamental rights. And that while creating, through some dialectic reversal, the “true” exceptional states. Space-time continuums where beings and things are fully restored to what they were, are, will be, could be or could have been. The question of redemption was redefined in the 20th century as a category that was’t religious, but rather political and aesthetical (Rosenzweig, Benjamin). Aesthetically speaking, I try to operate a rereading, and updating of allegory: neither baroque nor modern, but that I would call contemporary.
How was the shooting with migrants in Calais?
As a director, I follow a certain number of rules that are always evolving. First, I take the time to carefully set a frame as clearly as possible. I introduce myself, explain who I am, what I’d like to do, what kind of film it is. I spend time with people. I never film them without their knowing, nor do I steal images, etc. These rules, which are in no way dogmas, may seem simple and obvious. However, given what you see out there, they are simply revolutionary, they have to do with ethics and of course politics, Take Calais, for instance, as the film is set there. The city is a permanent film set. It is a place much exposed politically, where politics are obvious. As a result, there is always a film or still camera somewhere, a notepad… That goes from a student in journalism, to big-budget films like Welcome, or television crews, documentary directors… Generally, as regards prevailing cinematographic or journalistic practices, the end justifies the means. One should stop at nothing to get an image: befriending migrants, paying for interviews, hiding in the bushes.. My own conception of cinema and my position as an individual and a director are completely at odds with that, with such narrow-mindedness and ethnocentrism. Cinema isn’t an end in itself, it cannot just shut down on itself. It is an endless means to build a connection, a relationship to the world, to establish dialectic links with yourself and the world, and thus to assert your singularity. Cinema can introduce mobility with steadiness; break with determinism of all sorts, and set a profound movement of emancipation going. Standing by all these principles, I never had any problem with the migrants. Quite the opposite. When you build a relationship based if not on trust, at least on honesty and respect, you can really connect with people and film them, as well as facts and unexpected situations.
The film is deliberately descriptive, but it also uses some effects that give it its original form.
I think that the technique – and the camera is a technical tool – can allow to explore and develop the potentialities and virtualities within nature and mankind. Therefore you have to use all the resources your chosen medium – here, the camera – has to offer, to actualize those virtualities. They are never used for their own sake then, or as ends in themselves (an image for an image, an effect for an effect), as opposed to a countless number of films, especially those on immigration that have been really common lately, in which the filmed subject only becomes a pretext for symbolic experimentations and aesthetic experiments: an aestheticization of reality. An aestheticization of politics. But is rather according to the situations and subjects that you meet and film, to the way you perceive a context, an atmosphere, the feelings you might feel, that you find it a good idea to make use of such and such “technique”, such and such “effect”: play with the speed of frames, slow motions, accelerations, superimpositions, freeze frames etc.
Why did you choose again to shoot in black and white?
Because this allows me to work and to question the concepts of document, archive, preservation. Because doing so establishes a historical distance from displayed events that are in keeping with what’s very important, what’s indeed very red hot news. A dialectic of near/far therefore unfolds and established itself. The more you move things away, the closer they actually get. Black and white also conjures up an aesthetic and poetic dimension fully relevant to the film. The dimension is akin to elegy, although there are some nuances here awaiting further specification. However cohesive as a whole, you’ll find various types of black and white in the film, allowing to generate shifts and weave metaphors. For instance, you’ll get some overexposed sequences where whites are burnt out and black very deep. This again is consistent with numerous testimonies given by migrants; in these, they repeatedly refer to having felt like survivors, as though burnt out, scorched, consumed from within. Obviously, you also think of the “burning fingers” scene, which graphically shows that those migrants being literally “branded” like cattle by the current immigration policy beyond a mere image or metaphor.
Other choices are obvious as well, like the absence of commentary, the only voices being those of the migrants and that of the State.
Indeed, in no way I want to make a didactic film, or to treat this issue they way a journalist would, by enumerating facts and giving so many explanations. I seek to illustrate, without being comprehensive, some realities which seem crucial to me; this I do via images, sounds, words which spring out with tremendous force. In order to do so, I endeavor to be as available and attentive to what may happen as I can possibly be. I may have a few hunches before getting on the field, but these are swiftly made irrelevant during shooting and then editing. My ambition is primarily to learn and comprehend what’s taking place. So I choose to be on the lookout for persons, situations, places, and to be ready to record and welcome anything coming my way, be it testimonies, actions, objects, feelings… For the first time I have also used voice-over in the film, not so much to bring extra factual info but rather to generate distance, to play on other layers of temporalities, to open up the times and film to anything that may go through it, that may pierce it and shatter it, whether old or new. Thus, two or three times in the film, in some discreet, imperceptible way, you can hear a “voice from outside”, that of Valérice Dréville actually, who, in a murmuring voice, repeats some words actually uttered by migrants. At some other points, she speaks a poetic sentence as an echo to the second quote that concludes the film, inspired by political slogans heard during demonstrations of “sans-papiers” in the U.S. back in 2006.
Lastly, during the final credits, you’ll hear some “singing from the Outside”, in this case Archie Shepp’s voice, humming Strange Fruit. Potential links with bygone times are therefore suggested by the cover of this very eloquent, powerful song, and by the very person that sings it. The fact that this was recorded with the actual camera used for the shooting, like all the other elements present in the film, underlines the free-jazz dimension of the whole film.