Film criticism: before and after

by Serge Daney

Published in Cinémarabe nr. 7/8, 1978. The articles assembled in this special edition around the theme of “film criticism” were supposed to be discussed in the presence of their writers in Hammamet (Tunesia) and Marrakech (Marocco). Unfortunately, due to a number of reasons this colloquium never took place.

Precaution. There is little to gain from the gargarizing of words. Those used in the introductory text of this edition – words like aesthetics, criticism, culture, struggle, national, forms, popular, dynamics, etc. – have a different meaning depending on me placing myself here (France, or rather Paris) or there (for example the Arab world, the Maghreb, or the little that I know about it). I’m even not quite sure if we know very well what they encompass here, in Paris. For example the expression “film criticism”. Also, before asking oneself how an Arab criticism should demarcate itself from French criticism (Parisian in fact), I would like to describe how I see this criticism function (badly).

Before (television). Film criticism in France is undoubtedly constituted on the model – established in the XIXth century – of pictorial or theatrical criticism. The critic is not a professional spectator. In the best case (s)he lives off writing by contributing to newspapers (freelance or in charge of a column). (S)he has to have culture and a minimum of taste for writing.

(S)he sees the same films as the average spectator. Simply because (s)he sees almost all of the films, (s)he is the instance who distinguishes (or should distinguish) the good from the bad, the well-done from the failed, the fake from the authentic, the new from the old. (S)he takes on the role of conductor and regulator. (S)he gives to readers advice for “enlightened consumption”. It’s a time (before the “crisis” hit) when the whole world sees a lot of films, but when films are created according to a limited number of narrative and representational codes, tied to serial production in the Studios of Hollywood, Misr or Mohan. Characteristic of this time was that there was an ideological consensus, guaranteed by the natural adhesion to codes. Divergences can only bear on their application (more or less talented, rigorous, artisanal). The role of the critic is not make cinema loved (which is spontaneously adopted and loved by the people), but to make it accepted by those who regulate the Bourgeois Culture. This situation lasts until the 1950s. At this time the appearance of television, a medium that has an even more pronounced mass (and massifying) vocation, will gradually topple cinema into culture (via the movement of ciné-clubs). The generation of critics-filmmakers of Cahiers du Cinéma, for example, is contemporary to this mutation.

In the old-fashioned cinephilia, there was, in the connivance and the anonymity of obscure cinema spaces, a provisory coincidence between the mass audience and petit-bourgeois cinema lovers who preferred the anonymous, established, a bit prostitutional space of cinema (the prostituted image: the star) to the stilted space of theatre, place of social representation and bourgeois prestige.

After (television). This situation will change bit by bit. This will result in the “crisis” of cinema (magic word that doesn’t explain anything), which is traditionally attributed to television. We observe two things.
1. Cinema ceases to be the dominant audiovisual medium
2. Film criticism ceases to be the only discourse about cinema. Let’s expand on this.

What is in crisis in cinema, since 20 years, is not talent or the avant-garde, it’s the grand (serial and industrial) cinema, which leads to cinematic “yogurts” like Taxi Mauve (Yves Boisset, 1977). Why? Because cinema is no longer a privileged means of ideological impregnation and control of the masses. It’s no longer with films that the French bourgeoisie stages its consensus (except, by way of the US, with Walt Disney or catastrophe films, as means to reaffirm the consensus in extremis). Inversely, it’s in cinema that the crisis of consensus reverberates the most.

Cinema becomes a sensitive plate for all the debates of opinion which are already delineated by the press. Thus, decrease of popular consumption of films and increase of (intellectual and non-intellectual) petit-bourgeois consumption, in search of general (and vague) ideas. The codes that bore on the ideological consensus run out of steam, which allows for a certain room for maneuver and which makes for formal innovations (Bresson, Tati, Rosselini, Antonioni, Godard) finding their way into industrial cinema and producing small ones. This desegregation of codes, the disqualification of work in the framework of a distraught industry, are still essential phenomena today, that need analyzing.

A grave rupture is produced between the remnants of mass – or “popular” – cinema and an “art & essai” kinda cinema (“cinéma d’auteurs”). The new cinema audience accepts (which is new) being in default of a film (disappointed, shocked, bored – up until a certain point). It also accepts that a film no longer suffices to itself and requires a debate (hence a very sharp loss of acuity and spontaneity in the reaction of “enlightened” spectators). Cinema encultures itself by increasingly playing a role comparable to that of theater yesteryear. In the face of this, the remnants of “popular” audiences are heteroclites and never meet one another: remainders of family (Disney, French comedians, catastrophes, animals), gangs (karate), atomized, migrated individuals (porno).

What happens to criticism and the profession of critics?
1. There is no effect whatsoever on this popular audience which doesn’t read and which is already staged by publicity
2. There is a – limited – influence on the average cinephilized layers (young and urban audience mostly)

What influence? Paradoxically: at a time when criticism has less and less effective action (as it is replaced, both up- and downstream, by distributors, managers, publicists, etc.), the circle of cinema – films to see, to think about, to make known, to criticize – is considerably widened. Especially in Paris (privileged city). The films arrive on new media (broadcast, video, super8) and moreover, they arrive from the whole world (every political regime understands, even if out of suspicion, that one has to take the audiovisual into account – see cases à la Moustapha Akkad or Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina). A critic can no longer be the common measure of everything (s)he sees. The critical activity enters into crisis as well.

Before judging one has to inform, before informing one has to inform oneself. There are no longer communal codes linking the producer to the critic and to the consumer. A film is seen. Who has made it? Where does it come from? What with, against what does it exist? Very rare are the critics who try to see from up close by themselves.

More prevalent are the critics who find everything prepared for them in pressbooks, which hey copy while adding their own signature or writing effect. The critic comes dangerously close to the “masquerade of culture”, as described by Straub. Finally, critics are transmuted into dealers of their discoveries and become press agents.

Which is fair. But there is a risk that the critic confounds the work of pre-chewed information-publicity with the work of criticism. (S)he runs the risk of becoming a sociologist specialized in cinema (in committed or African cinema perhaps) who unceasingly refers the product back to context and the context back to the product. And who, not at all knowing what the artistic work consists off, ends up despising it.

There is no evidence that activity of criticism is viable, interesting, evident today, here in France. No evidence that it is the lever which, in the Arab world, would allow for the advancement of those who love cinema and who do something with it. One has to start from something else: criticism has largely become a simulacrum, it is only a discourse on cinema amongst others. There are others. For those who continue to be mobilized by it, there is one sole weapon: the independence of thought.

(Translated by Stoffel Debuysere)

Conversation with Eyal Sivan


Conversation after a screening of Aus Liebe zum Volk (Eyal Sivan, Audrey Maurion, 2004) in the context of ‘1989: stories about Die Wende’, a program of screenings on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin wall 30 years ago, presented by CINEMATEK and Goethe-Institut Brussel.

Mr B has worked for twenty years as a public servant “in service of the people”. Out of love. An unconditional and absolute love for “his people”. A blind and destructive love. When the times change and the regime he adheres to is defeated, he becomes a social reject and life as he has always known it falls apart. Fired from his job, his “House”, Mr B. is left with nothing, no perspective, no future. He sits alone in this office which is no longer his. Once he walks out that door, he will never come back.

In February 1990, a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Ministry for State Security of the GDR is dismantled. This marks the end of the “Stasi”, the East German secret police. Major B. was a Stasi officer. Relieved of his duties, he delivers a detailed account of twenty years of his life and work within this institution.

Aus Liebe zum Volk is based on this extraordinary personal testimony, supported by never seen before archive footage. This is a film about surveillance and blindness, about faith and disillusion.

Conversation with Fronza Woods


In the context of the program ‘Breaking Sacred Ground’, part of Courtisane Festival 2019 (3 – 7 APRIL 2019).

“I like films about real people. I am inspired by almost everything but especially by struggle. I am interested in people who take on a challenge, no matter how great or small, and come to terms with it. What inspires me are people who don’t sit on life’s rump but have the courage, energy, and audacity not only to grab it by the horns, but to steer it as well.”

Fronza Woods was born, raised and educated in Detroit. She began her professional life as a junior copywriter at a small Detroit advertising agency. In 1967, she moved to New York, where she continued to work in advertising. Then, at a time when television was opening up to people of colour, she went to work for ABC news, before learning to craft her own films at the Women’s Interart Center under the aegis of Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer. Killing Time, an offbeat, wryly humorous look at the dilemma of a suicidal woman unable to find the right outfit to die in, examines the personal habits, socialization, and complexities of life that keep us going. When the film recently screened, Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker: “very simply, one of the best short films that I’ve ever seen,” comparing it favorably to Chantal Akerman’s first film Saute Ma Ville. In Fannie’s Film, a 65­-year­-old cleaning woman for a professional dancers’ exercise studio performs her job while telling us in voiceover about her life, hopes, goals, and feelings. The first in an unaccomplished series of portraits dedicated to “invisible women”, Fannie’s Film offers “a brutal, brilliant allegory for women and film” (Manohla Dargis, The New York Times). In addition to making her own films, Woods has worked as camerawoman on numerous independent films, was assistant sound engineer on John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet (1984) and a cast member in Yvonne Rainer’s The Man Who Envied Women (1985), and taught basic filmmaking at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where she also created and curated an outreach film programme for the city’s black community. She now resides in the southwest of France.

(portrait (c) Michiel Devijver)

Courtisane 2019: Fronza Woods from Courtisane Festival on Vimeo.

Michel Khleifi : Fertile Memory / Mémoire Fertile


Publication compiled on the occasion of a retrospective film programme dedicated to Michel Khleifi, organized by CINEMATEK and Courtisane (Brussels, 26 September – 05 November 2019).

“What we see on the screen, or in any picture representing the solidity of Palestinians in the interior, is only that, a utopian image making possible a connection between Palestinian individuals and Palestinian land.”

It’s been almost four decades since Edward Said wrote this passage on Michel Khleifi’s first film, Sadh-dhakira al khisba (Fertile Memory, 1980), but it has lost none of its expressive force. For Said, the film managed, with astonishing precision and beauty, to call up the memory of his own mother and all those who have had their land seized by the Israeli state. In seeing the moment when one of the women portrayed sets foot on her own land that has been “repossessed” by Israelis, but that she stubbornly refuses to sell, Said was reminded of how separated he was from the experience of an interior that he could himself not inhabit. “At once inside and outside our world” was how he described the experience of exile, one that Michel Khleifi himself is not unfamiliar with. In September 1970, the month that would become infamous as “Black September”, Khleifi left the city of Nazareth in Galilee and found refuge in Brussels, where he devoted himself to the art of cinema. It was only a decade later that he returned to the place of his birth to shoot Fertile Memory, the first full-length film ever to be shot by a Palestinian filmmaker within the disputed West Bank “Green Line”.

Fertile Memory portrays the lives of two women bearing the weight of a double occupation: both the burden of Israeli domination and the restrictions of a patriarchal society. By showing the lived contra- dictions of life under occupation, Khleifi’s film marked an important shift in the history of Palestinian cinema, one that he would explore further in his subsequent work. In Urs al-Jalil (Wedding in Galilee, 1987), which was awarded the International Critics Prize at Cannes, the guests at a wedding are contorted between the modern military power of the Israeli occupant and the archaic patriarchal authority of the local government. In Nashidu alhajar (Canticle of the Stones, 1990), the love that is refound by a couple, since their forced separation during the war of 1967, is contrasted with the violence raging on the streets of Jerusalem during the first Intifada. In these and subsequent films, Khleifi, time and again, shifted the dividing lines between reality and fiction, between document and narration, in order to give form to the complexity of a world that is all too often reduced to commonplaces and newspeak.

The films by Michel Khleifi inevitably bear the traces of the turbulent times that Palestine-Israel has gone through in the past decades. Fertile Memory was finished just before the Lebanon war broke out; Wedding in Galilee was released shortly before the beginning of the First Intifada; Route 181 (2003), in which Khleifi and Eyal Sivan trace the demarcation line put forward by the UN in 1948, was made right after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, which led to the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Today, violence is once again on the rise and a solution seems to be further away than ever. As the continuity of land increasingly disappears from the lives of Palestinians, and narratives claiming the inevitability and irreversibility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gain ever more traction, could Michel Khleifi’s “utopian images” still have something to say?

Stoffel Debuysere

Michel Khleifi: Fertile Memory / Mémoire Fertile can be found on Issuu

Of Sea and Soil: The Cinema of Tsuchimoto Noriaki and Ogawa Shinsuke


Publication compiled and published on the occasion of the film programmes dedicated to Ogawa Shinsuke and Ogawa Pro (CINEMATEK Brussels, 1 April – 5 May 2019) and Tsuchimoto Noriaki (Courtisane Festival Ghent, 3 – 7 April 2019). Both programmes, initiated by Courtisane, would not have been possible without the dedication of Ricardo Matos Cabo.

Ogawa Shinsuke (1935-1992) and Tsuchimoto Noriaki (1928-2008) are considered as the two towering pillars of Japanese documentary film. Both filmmakers forged parallel trajectories through the tumultuous landscape of postwar Japan, during which they developed extraordinary forms of committed cinema which remain unequalled in their dedication and perseverance.

Ogawa and Tsuchimoto were among a number of crucial postwar Japanese filmmakers who emerged from Iwanami Productions, a studio run by the Iwanami publishing house that mostly produced educational and PR films. Heated discussions on cinema and politics amongst these filmmakers led to the creation of an informal group they called the “Ao no kai”, or “Blue Group”. When the group dissolved, Ogawa and Tsuchimoto each went on their own way to make their first important independent films, which took sides with the student protest movement in Japan in the mid to late 1960s.

In the years that followed, their filmmaking approach underwent a profound transformation, which can be described as a movement from “outside” to “inside”. This inward shift, which evolved towards a full implication in the struggles of the people they filmed, reached its most refined and profound development in the Minamata and Sanrizuka Series. While Tsuchimoto committed himself to document the disastrous consequences of the mercury poisoning incident in Minamata, Ogawa recorded with great diligence the struggle by farmers and student protesters to prevent the construction of the Narita International Airport in Sanrizuka.

After the waning of the Sanrizuka protests, Ogawa and his colleagues of Ogawa Productions devoted themselves to an equally ambitious project, relocating to Yamagata Prefecture and beginning a series of films focusing on the rural village of Magino. Living and working with the farmers they filmed, the collective created a unique portrait of a culture and a way of life that are rarely depicted. From his side, Tsuchimoto – and his crew – continued to painstakingly document the effects of the Minamata tragedy on the life of the local fishing communities, while also redirecting their focus towards the dangers of nuclear power and the “theft of the sea” perpetrated by giant business conglomerates.

With the benefit of hindsight, the films of Ogawa and Tsuchimoto reveal themselves as monumental works in progress which remain open to incessant processes of debate and development. They made films that convey a material understanding of the world they document, films not on a subject, but with the subject. The astonishing commitment and persistence invested in their work continues to raise timely and pertinent questions about the responsibility, politics and ethics of documentary
filmmaking in the face of injustice and adversity. In that way, their films still accomplish what they were meant to do in the first place: to cultivate shared spaces of collective thought and struggle.

This publication aims to trace the trajectories of Ogawa Shinsuke and Tsuchimoto Noriaki, who film critic Hasumi Shigehiko respectively called “the filmmaker of the soil” and “the filmmaker of the sea”. The publication has taken the form of a scrapbook which assembles a patchwork of writings, quotes and interviews that we were able to track down and translate, with the help of numerous other “amateurs” who admire and cherish the work of these two filmmakers.

In all its modesty, we dearly hope that this body of texts, most of which are available here for the very first time in English, can serve as a stepping stone to a wider recognition and appreciation of these unique and singular practices of filmmaking which never cease to inspire and actuate.

Stoffel Debuysere, Courtisane
Elias Grootaers, Sabzian

Of Sea and Soil can be found on Issuu