The documentary world


By Hartmut Bitomsky

Originally published in ‘Hartmut Bitomsky: Retrospective’, Goethe Institut München, 1997. As found in the Doc’s Kingdom 2010 catalogue. Hartmut Bitomsky will be our guest for the next DISSENT ! session, on March 28.

Films are not alone. They live in an environment of wonderful moments. One, for example, is in Flaherty’s The Land, when a child takes a little piece of bread and wipes the last remaining bit of sauce from his plate. There is the scene of a sandstorm in Turksib by Viktor Turin: the figures are seen crouching down behind the bodies of the camels, and the bulging bales of cotton burst open. The sand buries and suffocates a whole caravan. At the end only a couple of pieces of white fluff remain, which are blown about over the dunes by the wind.
We know nothing about the people nor about the covering letters that they were carrying under their jackets. The greatest tragedies always probably occur in a state of anonymity; it is not necessary to have individuals and persons in order to speak about the human condition.
There is the smile of Nanook, the Eskimo whom Flaherty got to play himself, but who in smiling into the camera stepped out of his role, and in doing so created what many would like to call the documentary moment, the moment of truth that only cinematography can create.
There is the circle of faces that Eisenstein in The General Line has gathered around a separator, the device that removes cream from milk. In the spinning movement of critical emotions a clarity shows in the faces of the farmers. One can see the smoothness of the features, the swaying of firm opinions and the hardness of the singular character.
Another film is Las Hurdes [Land Without Bread], which impresses me because of its incorruptible pitilessness. It does not ally itself with poverty, nor does it blur the difference between film-making and the filmed subject
There is the bird that flies up from a branch, startled in anticipation of the pealing of a bell, which Basil Wright only includes later in the film when he adds the sound track to Song of Ceylon.
From Franju we learn that even in the cruellest moments, there is something like a condition of mercy in which everything has a part – people and things – even in the shabbiest and most despicable state.
There is Vigo, who during every take in A propos de Nice cannot conceal how filming has made him so excited, and the cheerfulness that overcomes him in view of the fact that someone with a maimed hand takes part in a game that nonetheless requires dexterity.
In Forest of Bliss Gardner describes to us the world in its total unintelligibility and incomprehensibility. People develop activities, carry out plans and ritually obey regulations and laws, and yet there is no real reason why things have to happen the way they happen.
Nothing must be the way it is.
In a Kinopravda [cinema-truth] by Vertov, a person is seen crossing the wide street, and the camera moves with him showing his movement in great detail, in order to let us see exactly how crossing a street takes place – as if this walking movement were the most important event happening at this moment in the world. There is Grierson, who in Drifters, as sailors at sea wake up in the morning blinking their eyes, inserts shots of houses situated on the beach, as if the seamen with a feeling of longing are trying to salvage their last dreamy thoughts or home from the depths of sleep into the reality of the day.
And there is also the cheerfully light, almost carefree film-making style of Jean Rouch in Chronique d’un Été, with his nearly brazen use of an obsolete grammar of film to treat a unsuitable subject.
We also have the media of film to thank for showing us that people are no more than masks, masks that bear an extraordinary resemblance to themselves. What they do in film are simply attempts to acquire a physiognomy through their work – one could also say, attempts to make a grimace at the world.
That is the society in which I see my films.


The work of an artist, says Lévi-Strauss, is engaged in a threefold dialogue. First of all there is the dialogue with the audience or, as it is referred to these days, with the user, which is a halfway acceptable term. However, when we consider the many misunderstandings, the wrongly understood and forgotten and rediscovered works, the outrage of scathing reviews, the condemnations, the attacks of the censors, the scandalous events, the ridiculing and mutilation, then it becomes clear how difficult and controversial this dialogue is. And perhaps it must be this way, confused and erratic. This illustrates clearly the extent to which indeed all communication also contains an element of unreconciled opposition and conflict. In a work of art this might even appear to be enlarged.
The reason for this seems in part to lie in exactly the other two dialogues that the work maintains. One of these dialogues refers to the depicted things, the represented objects, the model (Lévi-Strauss uses the term model here, because he is referring to paintings and sculptures in the fine arts; for similar reasons Bresson, incidentally, also calls his actors and actresses models). From a broad perspective this is a dialogue with the world and with reality, which the artist confronts together with his work of art, and which attempt to gain entry to the work in various ways.
Finally, the third dialogue deals with the artistic material that the artist has, or does not have, at his disposal the material that he must select or master. For the filmmaker this artistic material consists of the camera, the lens, filters, light, sound and editing, and the whole history of film and all methods of making a film that exist or that do not yet exist.


In the dialogue with the artistic processes there appears something that in another place would be called the aesthetic resistance. The work of art gives to things a particular form, one that they do not bring with them naturally – it first has to be given to them, and sometimes in a really violent way. A situation is not simply filmed; the images, the shots have to be worked out. Eisenstein speaks of the film shot, and thus of filmmaking in general, as knocking out a piece of reality by means of the lens. This is related to Michelangelo’s dictum, according to which the statue may indeed already be contained within the block of marble, but the superfluous parts would still have to be hammered away. In Man of Aran Flaherty shows how a small boy catches fish from high above in the cliffs. The boy is wearing a balloon-like cap. He smiles as he removes it, and he has to take it off because under the cap he keeps his bait – live shrimps. Having no fishing rod, he extends his leg outward and lowers the line down to the water between his toes.
In order to show all of this, perhaps three of four shots would have sufficed. One long shot for general information, a close-up of the boy, another one of the foot, then another long shot and the episode would have been clear to anyone. Flaherty, however, shot the scene from all sides, from the front, from the side, from the back and again from the front, from above and from below; he repeats takes, re-edits and cross-edits them. He really has the boy work in front of the camera.
This method has, of course, a delaying effect, completely in the style of Flaherty’s slow procedure, referred to as slight narrative. This can be called the putting up of aesthetic resistance. Just as in music a phrase is modulated again and again, the film images, as if they wanted to be heard from all sides, spread out in every conceivable direction, until it becomes evident that here Flaherty is comparing the work of the boy with that of film-making, and that the one type of work is just like the other, as if there is a close affinity between them.


The third dialogue is the dialogue with the subject, with the object in the lens, with reality, the dialogue with the world. What happens in front of the camera at the moment of filming is the domain of the documentary film. The camera is aimed at objects that exist independent of it and of the situation in which the filming is taking place. It is fixed on the material world, in a visibility of its own.
With a certain justification it can be assumed that the documentary film works with ready-made objects: things that already exist, that are prefabricated in a particular, already developed form and state, and with a separate history; things that have their own distinctive right to exist, that have developed in a specific (even if perhaps unknown or only vaguely suspected) context to become what they are. I call this development a primary production, by which I also truly understand the process of a person’s life, the production of his biography and physiognomy, his individuality, his character and his fate.
The film-maker – by making a picture and by recording a sound – tears the subject out of its original context, sometimes in quite a violent way but sometimes without leaving behind a distinct mark (which is what happens with ready-made objects in the strict sense of the term), and places them in a new context and into another structure. This is what I term secondary production or the aesthetic production (it can well be minimalist or, in accordance with the theories of Direct Cinema, consist more of an avoiding of the aesthetic element)
Grierson once defined the documentary film as a creative treatment of actuality – whereby creative treatment could indeed refer to what has here been called the second aesthetic production and should certainly be associated with Levi-Strauss dialogue with the artistic material. Behind the concept of actuality there appears once again the completed substance of reality, as it is also suggested in the term ready-made object. It is from this consideration that the idea of the primary production was developed
In keeping with this idea Siegfried Kracauer in his most important work, Theory of Film (which bears the subtitle “The Redemption of Physical Reality”), distinguished between the two fundamental categorical functions of film, namely a recording function and a revealing function. This certainly goes along with Dziga Vertov’s dual appeal to film: it is to capture the world as it is, and at the same time it must decipher it.

How can, however, this registering and the revealing, the reproduction and the deciphering tally in this equation? When Joris Ivens unexpectedly encountered difficulties during the production of a film a while ago, he believed to have discovered that the aesthetic production was definitely derived from reality. The task involved filming some workers as they were in the process of moving basalt rocks, but somehow Ivens was not able to correctly capture the work in pictures. So, he looked for a way of gaining access to the action in that he performed the work himself, and this gave him information about how to go about filming the subject: “I noticed that the greatest exertion was in the shoulder muscles and in the chin. Thus, to film this action, these places had to be emphasised because they are an organic part of the work. From then on the camera, the angle of shooting and the composition of the picture were all determined by these muscles and the chin. They became something like two focal points of the action. The photography is determined by reality and not by my aesthetic efforts to obtain a well-chosen balance between line and light. But then it was precisely this realistic viewpoint that was the most beautiful one. I could not film the stoneworkers before I had understood the physical exertion involved in their work.”
Although it cannot be denied that Ivens insight has a certain, almost touching persuasiveness about it, nevertheless there are doubts that the standpoint of the work and the standpoint of the film-making could simply coincide. The reason for this is that pictures do no just come from the things they depict; they also originate from other pictures, and this origin cannot be placed in a picture.


Another film by Ivens, namely De Brug (“The Bridge” was his first film, which one notices because of his particular fascination with pictures) elucidates the problem from another point of view. The film, as the title indicates, is all about only one thing: a bridge. The one here is a lift bridge, which is raised so that large ships with high superstructures can pass under it.
The film shows all views and aspects of the bridge, every single element and each individual function during the construction of the bridge. One would almost like to say that each detail corresponds to a camera shot, just as the bridge itself corresponds to the engineers’ detailed plans according to which it was constructed. Indeed, one could say that the film is a blue print of the bridge – it is created before our eyes a second lime, and this time it is not to be used by pedestrians or by railway passengers, but rather to be looked at.
This leads us to consider that a documentary film does not simply reproduce reality, but rather causes it to be created visually once again: it shows us how reality is created. What we perceive is the creation of reality, the creation of a second reality.
Jean Rouch, who with his cinéma vérité worked on exactly the problem of how to record and reproduce reality, was incidentally led to the concept of cinétrance by a similar realisation. The concept cinétrance describes the fact that when a piece of reality and a camera are brought together, something new is created, something that would not exist if the camera were not present.


This conclusion causes, of course, a certain uneasiness and invites us to contradict it. With the documentary film there is an almost yearning expectation of reality, enlightenment and truth. In the same way there is also its opposite, namely a disappointment and a discontent of all those truths and realities that are brought to the surface in the documentary idiom.
Chris Marker once described this conflict as two fundamental ways of behaving, which the documentary film synthesises. On the one hand the film-maker behaves in a modest way towards reality and accepts it as it is. On the other hand, however, he determines beforehand what reality has to be – and when in fact it does not correspond to this, then reality is just wrong. In other words, first reality is accepted, and even more than that, it is held as if in a tender embrace; then it is rejected and denied.
In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men written by James Agee there appears a photo of a pair of torn-up shoes, which was taken by Walker Evans. This photograph puts the observer in an almost paradoxical situation. It is apparent that the shoes have reached the end of their usability, and they are looked upon as someone’s wretched belongings, as poverty that is naked and above all dispossessed of its usefulness. We revolt at the sight of them.
Nevertheless, at the same time these shoes have a unique preciousness: they are real shoes and they have a true life-story. They were not devised nor specially produced for the picture: they are not props, not part of the scenery, and they have not been made instruments of something. They simply are what they are. And they are beautiful, with an unmistakable beauty all their own. Finally, it should definitely be added here that the shoes in the photo no longer exist. They have rotted. The pictures show a reality that does not exist. Perhaps the documentary is nothing more than a place of exile for reality, a home away from home.
What I am getting at is that the documentary, because of its subject, is a critical genre. It is the expression of a crisis, because that which we call reality is itself something that is in a crisis. This realness is always in the process of dissolving, breaking apart, breaking down and breaking through, of developing and changing, of slipping away and of crossing over. The concept of reality itself indeed concerns an object in its crisis.


Franju, whose film Sang des Bêtes will remain unforgotten, although the slaughterhouses in Paris no longer exist – they are now art exhibition halls – and although the animals in the meantime are slaughtered in a completely different, namely industrial, way, Franju in a discussion once emphasised the artificial aspect of realness as it appears in film. He said that with a film the world had to be created again, because it was constantly running away from us. “Reality denies reality” – this is the formula he reduced it all to, and for this reason the artist always has to give reality an aspect of artificiality. Reality is always on the run. A documentary film cannot keep a firm hold on it; it can only create it again.
In a metaphorical way Fellini once evoked this loss of reality as a wonderful albeit wistful moment: In the film Roma, when a catacomb is opened during excavation work for an underground, frescos are discovered which have survived there in the darkness for two thousand years, but in that moment through the fresh air that streams in and the daylight that filters in they are destroyed and vanish from the walls before our eyes.


New York, N.Y. is a film whose subject refused being captured by the camera in another, perhaps even more extreme way. It is an almost inconspicuous, casual little film by Raymond Depardon, who made it in New York at the beginning of the eighties, and it consists of only three albeit long shots.
The first one is a travelling shot high above the East River along a bridge full of traffic, taken from the gondola of a cable railway that passes over the river at that location. The second shot shows a street intersection in Manhattan in the twilight – a couple of pedestrians are crossing the street. The third shot is again a travelling shot over the river, although in the opposite direction and at a later time of day.
In a voice-over during the first shot Depardon says a few sentences about how the film came about: A few years before, he had stayed in New York for a couple of weeks, and every day he had set out with his camera to take shots of the city. After finishing he had gone into a little café and looked out of the window at the intersection. At some point in time he had discontinued shooting the film, had returned to Europe and had totally forgotten the film about New York until he discovered these three shots during an occasional examination of his film material.
These three shots became the film, but it is not about New York: it is the film that New York made against the film-maker. He looked at the subject, but it did not look back at him; it merely turned its back on him.
The filming was done in New York, but what it shows is not this city but rather a hazy diffusion, which softens the three pictures with shadows, as if perceived through the unwashed windowpane of a café. The passers-by at the street intersection are nothing else but strange, anonymous silhouettes, who are wandering through a Nietzschean metropolis. No one sees anyone else, and everyone is alone.

This film sticks like a thorn in the flesh of documentary film-making. It instantly caused all other documentary films to age, so that the whole genre, in its self-confidence of being able to capture what is real, has something strangely old-fashioned clinging to it. This is because the documentary film has always seen itself as a driving force in the salvation of reality, and in this regard it was always certain at the affirmation of the real object.
Here, however, the object manifests itself through its absence. It has vanished from the film.


In order to continue developing the concept of disappearing reality (of the reality of disappearing), we should remember the fact that there are astonishingly few film recordings of the Gulf War. The explanation given is the rigid censorship of the military. The Vietnam war had been accompanied by a flood of pictures – it has even been suggested that this flood of pictures was a decisive factor which contributed to ending the war. This time history was not to repeat itself, and thus the entire press coverage of the war was put under the massive control of the military. In a way the censors functioned like a photo agency, which at their own discretion did or did not make their material available to the press.
As a consequence the visuality of the Gulf War remained rather meagre. When new material was released recently, which until then had been kept under lock and key, it was possible to view scenes like the following: A group of tanks moving at high speed through the flat desert (this shot was fairly long) suddenly came to halt and then fired a series of rounds in an undefined direction. No target could be seen, and for that reason it was not possible to determine what damage the barrage of cannon fire had caused. Finally, the tanks turned around and returned in the direction from which they had come. Then there is a cut to General Schwarzkopf, who said that they had hesitated for a long time before attacking the heavily fortified lines of the Republican Guard, but then finally decided to proceed, and in fifteen seconds the job had been completed.
What took place cannot be called a battle of tanks. To identify this event as a conflict between two opposing military forces who resolved their differences with the use of weapons is simply impossible. The kind of weapons and strategies used make traditional war invisible. The soldiers are no longer engaged in action; they fight each other over enormous distances, and instead of making contact with the enemy, they sit down in front of television monitors on which combat targets appear as small dots of light.
Other pictures of this war – but should we not call them pictures? – were made by cameras mounted on missiles, which glided through a milky darkness until the missile hit the target and the transmission on the monitor died because the missile and with it the camera exploded. Nothing was seen of what took place. It was necessary to resort to one’s imagination in order to recognise again a reality in this softened representation, a reality that at one time was powerful but now has been done away with.
In the television series Heimat [“Home”] by Edgar Reitz there was an aerial shot of Hunsrück, which was supposed to show in one take the entire area where the action with its stories would cover. The shot was filmed from a jet fighter, which flew at the speed of sound. It lasted, I don’t know, for about two minutes, and what there was to see can no longer be called a picture: it was a trembling, blurred shaking movement of visually perceived elementary particles, crashing into each other grey in grey. Such enormous speeds disconnect the cinematographic picture from every object, and the unit of measurement of twenty-four frames per second can no longer capture it. Virilio will probably not have seen this shot. Otherwise he would have rewritten his book Cinema and War. Modern war and cinematic pictures do not go together any more.


With the advent of digitalised pictures, the detachment of reality from the cinematographic and photographic image has again continued at an accelerated pace. Every digital element can be substituted for another digital element without leaving any trace of this substitution. A photograph (or what looks like a photograph) does not necessarily have to refer to a real model, at least not entirely. Then we would be at the end of the age of a consubstantiality of photography and object. The technique of retouching – for which photography in the Soviet Union was condemned and ridiculed – has become a generally used, accepted and commended process (Forrest Gump was still a bit chubby, but that will improve).
This situation is a challenging one. In the future the documentary film will have to change in order to survive and to have new definitions for itself to develop. It will no longer be able to exist by guaranteeing a truth that is based on the mechanical reproduction technology of the camera and the film material. Authenticity has held the documentary film in shackles long enough, and consuming reality instead of producing it more than ever will not be sufficient. And it will become evident that the reality even of something documentary is not to be found somewhere beyond the pictures but rather in them.

Too Early, Too Late


By Serge Daney

Originally published in Libération, February 20-21, 1982. Translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

What do John Travolta and Jean-Marie Straub have in common? A difficult question, I admit. One dances, the other doesn’t. One is a Marxist, the other isn’t. One is very well-known, the other less so. Both have their fans. Me, for instance.

However, one merely has to see their two films surface on the same day on Parisian screens in order to understand that the same worry eats away at both of them. Worry? Let’s say passion, rather — a passion for sound. I’m referring to Blow Out (directed by Brian DePalma) and Too Early, Too Late (co-signed by Danièle Huillet), two good films, two magnificent soundtracks.

The cinema, you may persist in thinking, is “images and sounds.” But what if it were the reverse? What if it were “sounds and images?” Sounds which make one imagine what one sees and see what one imagines? And what if the cinema were also the ear which pricks itself up — erectile and alert, like a dog’s — when the eye loses its bearings? In the open country, for instance.

In Blow Out, John Travolta plays the part of a sound effects freak who, starting off with one sound, goes on to identify a crime and its author. In Too Early, Too Late, Straub, Huillet and their regular sound engineer, the inspired Louis Hochet, lose themselves in the French countryside before they set about wandering along the Nile and within its delta, in Egypt. Starting off with sounds — all the sounds, from the most infinitesimal to the subtlest — they too identify a crime. Scene of the crime: the earth; victims: peasants; witnesses to the crime: landscapes. That is, clouds, roads, grass, wind.


In June 1980, the Straubs spent two weeks filming in the French countryside. They were seen in places as improbable as Treogan, Mottreff, Marbeuf and Harville. They were seen prowling close to big cities: Lyon, Rennes. Their idea, which presides over the execution of this opus 12 in their oeuvre (already twenty years of filmmaking!) was to film as they are today a certain number of places mentioned in a letter sent by Engels to the future renegade Kautsky. In this letter (read offscreen by Danièle Huillet), Engels, bolstered with figures, describes the misery of the countryside on the eve of the French Revolution. One suspects that these places have changed. For one thing, they are deserted. The French countryside, Straub says, has a “science fiction, deserted-planet aspect.” Maybe people live there, but they don’t inhabit the locale. The fields, roadways, fences and rows of trees are traces of human activity, but the actors are birds, a few vehicles, a faint murmur, the wind.

In May 1981, the Straubs are in Egypt and film other landscapes. This time the guide isn’t Engels but a more up-to-date Marxist, author of the recent and celebrated Class Struggles in Egypt, Mahmoud Hussein. Again offscreen, the voice of an Arab intellectual speaks in French (but with an accent) about the peasant resistance to the English occupation, up until the “petit-bourgeois” revolution of Neguib in 1952. Once again, the peasants revolt too early and succeeded too late as far as power is concerned. This obsessive recurrence is the film’s “content.” Like a musical motif, it is established from the outset: “that the middle-class here as always were too cowardly to support their own interests/that since the Bastille, the plebes had to do all the work.” (Engels)

The film is thus a diptych. One, France. Two, Egypt. No actors, not even characters, especially not extras. If there is an actor in Too Early, Too Late, it’s the landscape. This actor has a text to recite: History (the peasants who resist, the land which remains), of which it is the living witness. The actor performs with a certain amount of talent: the cloud that passes, a breaking loose of birds, a bouquet of trees bent by the wind, a break in the clouds; this is what the landscape’s performance consists of. This kind of performing is meteorological. One hasn’t seen anything like it for quite some time. Since the silent period, to be precise.


While seeing Too Early, Too Late (especially the first part), I recalled another film, shot in Hollywood in 1928 by the Swedish director Victor Sjostrom: The Wind. This magnificent movie showed how the sound of the wind drove Lilian Gish mad. The film was “silent,” which only gave it more force. Anyone who’s seen The Wind knows that it’s an auditory hallucination. Anyway, there’s never been a “silent cinema,” only a cinema deaf to the racket produced inside each spectator, in his very body, when he becomes the echo chamber of images. Those of the wind, for instance.

One had to wait for the sound film before silence had a chance. Again, Bresson is optimistic when he writes, “The sound film invented silence.” The possibility of silence, at least. Take the example of the wind. One doesn’t have a clear memory of the wind in the films of the Thirties, Forties, Fifties. Or, rather, it was the thunderstorms which went whoosh in pirate films. But the North wind, the draught, the air current, all those winds so close to silence? The West wind? And the evening breeze? No. One had to wait for the Sixties, the small sync-sound cameras, the New Waves. One had to wait for Straub and Huillet.


For at the point of refinement when they arrived at the practice of direct sound, a very strange phenomenon is produced in their films (such as From the Clouds to the Resistance). One rediscovers there the “auditory hallucinations” proper to the “silent” cinema. The same phenomenon crops up in certain recent films by some “old”figures of the New Wave: Rouch (Ambara Damda), Rohmer (The Aviator’s Wife), Rivette (North Bridge). As if the direct sound brought back the absence of sound. As if, out of a world that’s integrally sonorous, the body of a burlesque actor once again emerges.

It’s normal: when the cinema was “silent,” we were free to lend it all the noises, the tiniest as well as the most intimate. It was when it set about talking, and especially after the invention of dubbing (1935), that nothing remained to challenge the victory of dialogue and music. Weak, imperceptible noises no longer had a chance. It was genocide.

They came back again, gradually. In America through an orgy of sonorous effects (see Travolta), in France through the re-education of the ear (see Straub). Too Early, Too Late is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the few movies since Sjostrom’s that has filmed the wind. This has to be seen — and heard — to be believed. It’s as if the camera and the fragile crew took the wind for a sail and the landscape for a sea. The camera plays with the wind, follows it, anticipates it, comes back behind like a ricocheting bullet. As if it were held on a leash or tied to another machine, like the one invented by Michael Snow in that stupefying film that was La Région Centrale (in Snow’s case as well, the terrain of the camera’s performance was a deserted planet of sorts. This explained that.

To see and hear at the same time – but that’s impossible, you’ll say! Certainly, but (1) the Straubs are stout-hearted, and (2) voyages into the impossible are very instructive. With Too Early, Too Late, an experience is attempted, with us and in spite of us: at moments, one begins to see (the grass bent by the wind) before hearing (the wind responsible for this bending). At other moments, one hears first (the wind), then one sees (the grass). Image and sound are synchronous and yet, at each instant, each of us can create the experience in the same order in which one arranges the sensations. It is therefore a sensational films.


This is the first part, the French desert. It works differently in overpopulated Egypt. there, the fields are no longer empty, fellahs work there, one can no longer go anywhere and film anyone any which way. The terrain of performance becomes again the territory of others. The Straubs (whoever knows their films realizes they’re intransigent on this matter) accord much importance to the fact that a filmmaker should not disturb those whom he films. One therefore has to see the second part of TToo Early, Too Late as an odd performance, made up of approaches and retreats, where the filmmakers, less meteorologists than acupuncturists, search for the spot — the only spot, the right spot — where their camera can catch people without bothering them. Two dangers immediately present themselves: exotic tourism and the invisible camera. Too close, too far. In a lengthy “scene,” the camera is planted in front of a factory gate and allows one to see the Egyptian workers who pass, enter and leave. Too close for them not to see the camera, too far away for them to be tempted to go towards it. To find this point, this moral point, is at this moment the entire art of the Straubs. With perhaps the hope that for the “extras” thus filmed, the camera and the fragile crew “hidden” right in the middle of a field or a vacant lot would only be an accident of the landscape, a gentle scarecrow, another mirage carried by the wind.

These scruples are astonishing. They are not fashionable. To shoot a film, especially in the country, means generally to devastate everything, disrupt the lives of people while manufacturing country snapshots, local color, rancid back-to-nature museum pieces. Because the cinema belongs to the city and no one knows exactly what a “peasant cinema” would be, anchored in the lived experience, the space-time of peasants. It is necessary therefore to see the Straubs, city inhabitants, mainland navigators, as lost. It is necessary to see them in the middle of the field, moistened fingers raised to catch the wind and ears pricked up to hear what it’s saying. So the most naked sensations serve as a compass. Everything else, ethics and esthetics, content and form, derives from this.

One may find the experience unbearable; that sometimes happens. One may stop finding the very idea of the experience bearable; that happens every day. One may decide that filming the wind is a ridiculous activity. What a lot of hot air! One may also bypass the cinema when it takes the risk of straying from its own turf, away from the beaten paths.

The freedom of Costa and the Straubs


Interview by Philippe Azoury, published as ‘Costa et Les Straub en liberté‘ in Libération, 19 September 2001, at the occasion of the release of ‘Operai, contadini’ and ‘In Vanda’s Room’


JMS: I’ve been talking too much. An interview is dangerous: one always falls back on the clichés that the work on the film really wants to destroy. Bringing us together is also a bad idea: our two films are not alike, although they seem to have some family traits in common. Pedro has spent two years in Vanda’s neighborhood, we have always worked with this patience. What our films have in common is their luxury. The only difficulty they present is the absolute liberty they leave. People are afraid of this liberty.

PC: I have made the film for the people of the neighborhood where I filmed.

The little girls of the province

PC: Vanda is shown in only one cinema. It’s charity, really: it’s not even advertised. Paula Branco (distributor of the film) didn’t deem it necessary. If people are interested in seeing Vanda, they have to do it soon. How many days, not even weeks, can the film hold out?

JMS: In school, I knew a Jesuit who always said: “we need little girls like you in the province”, which meant “everything goes well over there, but not here.” The only liberty we have when making films like that, is that we have been demoted, since thirty years, to beggardom. We are not the only ones: Pedro also doesn’t delegate when making his film. Make a film freely means organising everything oneself. Every film is a political film, if not it’s worth nothing, it’s just put in the hands of professionals. We only try to do the work of artisans freely, correctly, morally and esthetically irreprochable.


PC: the cinema of Danièle and Jean-Marie has formed me. I was into punk-rock when I discovered their films. And, for me, it was the same thing. I would like that the people who have a false, terrorizing, idea of their films, could imagine the very simple, very beautiful things I have learned from them: a minimum of images is enough for there to be cinema. Today, being close to them means to continue to be able to make films in a simple manner, while respecting the things I film.

JMS: Vanda has dazzled me for at least one hour: here is someone of his age making shots not unworthy of Fritz Lang or Mizoguchi. The film takes place inside, but when, in flashes, we find ourselves outside, we immediately imagine ourselves in films of Ozu.

Every film against the previous

JMS: The danger is to apply a style. There is nothing worse than style. When it becomes rhetorics, it’s over. Every Renoir film tried out a little something. We have always tried to do the opposite of the preceding film. It’s a liberty that doesn’t pay off. Operai, contadini is a film against Sicilia. Oddly enough, it’s quite close to our second film, Nicht versöhnt (1965), even though it has been shot in fifty different places.

PC: I have made Vanda because I was completely fed up with the shooting of Ossos, the film I made precedently. The technical crew consisted of forty people, when only four were needed. The production went against the subject of the film. For Vanda, we were only two people: me framing the image, someone else recording the sound. I had spent a sufficient amount of time in that room, I was protected. I wanted to film this girl, with her sister, inbetween these walls, from dusk till dawn. It’s very simple, as desire of cinema, almost in a Renoir fashion, at the limits of “mise en scène”. To be with this girl. And then opening up to the neighboorhood, which was condamned. The irony is that it is still there. In the middle of the film the excavators have left, so they will be there for another winter. I would have liked to stay, and have the means to make a film in 35mm, for the exterior shots.

Deny oneself nothing

JMS: Filmmaker don’t want to deny themselves anything, they’re not masochists. If I had a subject that required digital video, I would love to make it, especially now that everyone has already declared that I’m the one who will never use video. What we deny ourselves are the esthetics which go against the precise subject.

In regards to this film, everyone is surprised that we used the zoom. We never said that it couldn’t be used! The subject decides, every film imposes its esthetical choice. Materially, the location didn’t permit us to construct a travelling shot on the edge of a ravine, with a stream behind us. And then this film, which is basically a process, a hearing, also defies the talk-shows we see on television. I am fascinated by them, although, morally and politically, they disgust me. A talk-show can be something else than a form of contempt.


JMS: Our next film will be different than Operai, contadini, although it will be shot in the same ravine. John Ford always went back to Monument Valley.

PC: Ford always said that he returned because there were people he loved a lot, and the air was pure. In Fontainhas, the air is rotten, everything is shit, but there are people I love. I am at home, there is something shared.

JMS: Our two films are each in their own way “at home”. Place is crucial. Filming Othon in 1969 did not stem from reading Corneille but from this Roman terrace where we wanted to film something. In Operai, contadini, the place contradicts the fiction: there is a proliferation of histories but one specific place that is not fictional. I can’t imagine another decor for this text by Vittorini. My film is this place, this proliferation of colors, of movements produced by nature, in this exact vicinity.


DH: No, our cinema is not a matter of courage, but of justness, of passion.

PC: Radicality is a word that freightens the public. Yet, the problems of cinema are very simple: one has to film, edit, work with actors, it’s human, almost lyrical. Seeing the films of the Straubs, I feel a sensual shiver; as a student, I didn’t understand this fear that was instilled on us even before seeing Dalla nube alla resistenza (1978). It’s a film that I keep revisiting, just like Rio Grande or a Renoir film. These are the most gentle of films.

Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translation).

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts

No Secrets, Just Lessons


A dialogue between Pedro Costa and Thom Andersen on Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, after a screening of Costa’s film ‘Où gît votre sourire enfoui?‘ (‘Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?‘), on 28 September 2006 at the Bijou Theater, on the campus of the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California. Originally published in Cinema Scope, issue 29, winter 2007.

Andersen: Your film on Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub is often described as a romantic comedy, the kind Stanley Cavell calls “a comedy of remarriage”. I think it’s sometimes compared to some of Hawks’ movies. The other day you mentioned The Marriage Circle (1924) by Lubitsch. Do you want to comment on the comedic aspects of the movie?

Costa: That’s a difficult way to start.

Andersen: You want to start another way?

Costa: Yeah. Because that involves a lot of personal relations between us. I understand very well what Jean-Marie is saying when he addresses me, because he’s really my master. I know there are some secrets that I cannot tell because it’s better to be private, to keep it secret. But I know there is a movement on Jean-Marie’s part in the film of giving himself, exposing himself and exposing his love story, as well as his knowledge and sensitivity, or sensibility. The way he described the first meeting with Danièle is, I think, the best example of what he did for me, and for you, of course, in the middle of this very, very hard work he was doing with a lot of tension in that room, a lot of, I would say, suffering – they wouldn’t like this kind of word – but yeah, let’s say work, tension. And so he had the braveness of doing this movement, of giving some wonderful fragments of their love story, which is personal, private. He had no reason to tell them. He was there just to talk about the editing of this film, cinema, his opinions, to share a bit with the students.

This is a way they found now – or I should say, someone found for them – to finish the films they do today. It is very difficult for them to continue working. One of their mottos is “this will be the last film.” They are always saying that. And it’s absolutely true, not only because they approach every film as the last one, the first and the last, but because to finance the films and to complete them is very, very difficult. I know now for instance – because I helped them a little bit in one of the movies they made recently – I know people now work absolutely for peanuts, as you say, with them. With a lot of pleasure, of course. I could tell you that my film on the Straubs costs as much as Sicilia! So they have this plan B, this escape plan to finish the films, which is going to this school in France, and in exchange for talking like this, about editing, about cinema, about what you’ve seen, they can edit the films and they are given a print. One print. I think that’s the only way they can do it. They’ve been doing this kind of seminar for the last four or five films, I think.
I was there from day one to the end. And as you see, it’s made chronologically. Thay start on the first scene, they end on the last. This lasted for one-and-a half months. So what was a bit ironic or symptomatic was that on day one there were 30 students, and on the last day there were three, one girl and two boys. So that’s very sad because it’s like a screening of one of their films. Everybody leaves.

Andersen: sometimes

Costa: Sometimes. But the ones that stayed were there. There was this deal also that they were showing some of their films in the school’s cinema. I shot that, and I chose to have these two or three moments of those, let’s say, shows, for a simple because that’s the purpose of this series, Cinéma, de notre temps, which is a bit didactic. Also, it’s made to let you know what kind of films this man makes or that woman does. So it should have a didactic side to it. In the case of Jean-Marie and Danièle, it goes much deeper, I think, because for them cinema is not disconnected: it has to do with an attitude, a way of behaving every day. So there is a political way of being that had to be there also. So for me there is a very beautiful moment when Jean-Marie presents the Death of Empedocles (1987), and he shares this vision he has, this dream. This dream is more or less the same as that of this guy he’s talking about – the German poet Hölderlin. This Communist utopia. That has been something he’s been working on in films and his life with Danièle. And he’s probably the person who has worked this dream most deeply, in life and in art. So I had to have that. And the part at the end where he makes a summary of his life, his artistic life, and he says to the audience, “We started, it was difficult, but we enjoyed it, and we’ll keep going.” I felt that I should have those kinds of moments in the film because it wouldn’t be complete, without them.
Also, I wanted to destroy a little bit this common notion, this common cliché, that Straub is intellectual, difficult, hermetic, or Communist, Marxist, Maoist, terrorist – I don’t know what else. When I was young, it was impossible. You almost avoided going to see the films of these people, even the people that were their friends, like the Cahiers du Cinéma. I never agreed, and they don’t agree either – because we’ve talked about that – with those kinds of etiquettes and slogans. It’s like saying: don’t go see that. It creates indifference. It’s like denying this natural faculty that we all have of seeing and watching in liberty, in freedom. We’re free. So when this cultural thing begins, it’s like the beginning of indifference for me. It’s very violent, I think. It never stopped me from going to see their films, but I know that it frightened a lot of people. And perhaps some people saw their films and didn’t like them, I think, because of this other side. You have to know that is Hölderlin or Kafka or Schoenberg on the screen to like the Straubs. It’s not true. You just go there, and you hear something, you see something. If you like that, perhaps you can discover Schoenberg or Pavese. Culture means nothing to them, I think, culture in that sense. It’s really like Danièle says: it’s an effort in giving or approaching something. And then people discover things. So that was also one of the reasons why I accepted to do this films. It was to go against a lot of mainly French and American critics that didn’t help the films. I’m not saying that was the worst that happened to them. Far from it. But it didn’t help. So i think you have a light comedy.

Andersen: But also you were saying that for you the greatest films are the saddest films. And the ending of this film is… I don’t know if “sad” is the word, but “poignant”. They come into the theatre at the end of a screening…

Costa: This film is the impossible dream of every filmmaker because it’s a love story that works, that ends well. It’s probably the last chance I had of doing a film that has a happy ending. I always see that as a happy ending. He’s tired. There’s Beethoven regaining a bit of life, as he said, just for a moment perhaps. But he has his lighter. You see the light. And you know Danièle is behind him. She’s upstairs somewhere, always. So this is exactly like lubitsch. It’s a dream. How can you do something like Lubitsch? I did it once. Now it’s over. I will go on to do sad movies again. But this is not a sad movie, I think.

Andersen: Well, for me, when you’re standing or you’re sitting outside an auditorium in which people are watching a movie you’ve made, there’s a loneliness you feel that is a kind of special loneliness because you know that the way other people experience a movie you’ve made is something you can’t share because your relationship to it has to be different from that of everyone else. So I always feel, even if people like the movie, I always feel a kind a special isolation, which for me is kind of sad.

Costa: Snap out of it.

Andersen: All right.

Costa: Of course it is sad. It is always like this to people that work so hard and try to discover something new. What I found very nice was that everything confirmed all the expectations I had. I knew them a little bit before I did this film, but just from festivals and things like that. It was a very difficult decision for me to do this film because it has been in development for years. Three people tried to make it and failed. Janine Bazin and André Labarthe suggested me for this film because they knew that I was a fan, a guy that always, always, in interviews spoke about the Straubs. So when they asked me if I would like to do it, I said, “Yeah, I have to think because it’s something that is a bit scary.” Not because of them. That I think I could deal with. But what to do? And how? That was difficult. So it was a long story. I went to see them in Rome where they live. I had no idea what to say to them. So we spent one hour, me and Jean-Marie, in silence in a bar. And after an hour, he said, “So, what about this film?” And I said “I think I can make it.” And he said, “What’s it going to be?” And I said, “I’d probably like to film this editing you are going to do in France.” And then I remember he said, “That’s impossible, you can’t see that, it’s impossible to translate the image and sound.” And I said, “Yeah, perhaps.” But I had this experience of the other film, In Vanda’s Room, and sometimes in Vanda’s room, I had this impression that I was in this room and it became something else and the walls were moving and Vanda speaking, ad time and space were just there in front of me, and I was much more in control of all that than in the normal shooting, and so I was very, very sure of what I was seeing and hearing. And I told him about that, and he said, “I don’t think so, but if you don’t bother Danièle, okay, let’s try.”
Then he told me something very funny. He said, “But don’t forget that you will never, never find any artistic secrets. There are no secrets behind us.” I think that was the problem of all the projects before. They wanted how these crazy people do this kind of stuff. And so the editing work was for me the answer, to be close to this nonexisting secret. It’s just about work. So we started, and as Danièle said, it was just about confidence, trust. Little by little, I think they saw I was doing a very hard job myself, and Matthieu Imbert, who was doing the sound. And, of course, everything was confirmed. What I thought or suspected was true. Fortunately, of all the great artists I’ve met, mostly people that I loved very much when I was starting young and just dreaming about them and imagining things, now that I know them, it’s like there’s a reason for me to have loved them before. There was a poetic reason. So I was right. And that is a strong feeling to have. Knowing that you were right doesn’t matter that much, but for your art, it’s important. Sometimes for life. So they were very, very cooperative and generous, as you see, and they were always there.

Andersen: Maybe there aren’t any secrets revealed in the movie, but there are lessons, right? About patience, concentration, reduction, about where form comes from, how you can make a cut. I think for someone who’s interested in how you make movies, it’s a very useful film, even if you don’t agree with everything they say, or with their methods. I’ve always thought a lot of their ideas, which sometimes seem specialized and esoteric, actually apply to other kinds of filmmaking as well.
I could provide one example from my experience (Andersen had a small role in Class relations (1984)). Quite often the acting in their movies is, you might say, peculiar by Hollywood standards, or you could say Brechtian, as they have. There’s actually a quotation from Brecht in their films about the acting style. Something to the effect that the actor should tell the truth, he’s quoting. I recall one time when we were working on Class Relations, in 1983, Danièle said to us as we were working on a scene: “Don’t try to act until you have the lines in your blood.” I think all actors should follow this rule. It would prevent a lot of bad acting. But actors begin to act before they know the lines, so they get into bad habits, which repeat and repreduce themselves when they deliver the lines.


Question: Can I ask Thom about his experience in working with the pair? How many takes did you do?

Andersen: Twenty

Question: And what did they tell you between takes?

Andersen: Oh, Danièle said: “Don’t be lazy with your eyes.” That’s all I can remember. In your film, they said something about Christian Heinisch, the star of Class Relations, this young kid who was extremely bright, and because he’s been working with them for so long on this movie, three months or so, he understood what they were doing really well. Don’t they say he was the only actor they ever worked with who knew how to look?
Another story may relate to something Pedro was saying. This was a big production for them, it was a very long shooting schedule, three months or something. Most of the film was shot in Hamburg, but at the end they made one trip to the US, with two or three of the actors and the crew. But the crew was only six or seven people. There were two sound people, a kind of line producer, the director of photography, his assistant, maybe two lighting guys.
But the whole film was made for $250.000, shot in 35mm black and white. They did 20 or 30 takes of each shot. So they said, “You know, in a way we’re the richest filmmakers in the world.” Because they had found a way of working which enabled them to do what needed to be done, to do as many takes as they thought were necessary, by simplifying other aspects of the production. It makes a difference: when you have a crew of six people, you can be a director; when you have a crew of a hundred, catering trucks and all this, you’re not really an artist, you’re a general commanding an army, which is a different kind of work. Not necessarily evil work, just different. And it was like a close-knit family, everybody went to dinner at the same restaurant, everyone stayed at the same hotel and drank in the hotel bar after dinner. Well, Danièle and Jean-Marie didn’t hang out in the bar. They would edit.
What else can I say? Oh, one thing: you can make what you will of it, but I was impressed. I came a little earlier than was necessary for the scenes that I was involved in, and I watched them film for a while. There was this one location, and they filmed for the day with the actors and the crew. It happened to be the last day at this location, and everybody left (for the day), all the actors and the whole crew, but they stayed behind to clean up: they actually got down on their hands and knees and swabbed the floor of the location where they were working, so the place would be left the way they found it. So while everyone else was going out to dinner, they were doing the work that on any other movie would be done by the lowliest members of the crew.

Costa: Jean-Marie also said to me that his work as a director was much more about picking up cigarette butts than directing actors.

Question: You mentioned that in some ways you made this movie in response to a certain strain of criticism, both in France and America. Not being familiar with that body of literature, I was wondering if you could talk about that body of criticism?

Costa: go to your library.

Andersen: If you read French.

Costa: There was a moment, when I was 20 or so, there were two main forces for a person who liked cinema: Godard and Straub. And it was a very strong moment. In my case, when I saw the films, I was much closer to Straub than Godard. I still am. For me they are much closer to my beliefs on sensuality, violence, or tenderness. Perhaps it’s just really that there’s something more crude and raw, without camouflage, you know. That was what I liked about Straub. Actions to me found correspondence in Straub, not in Godard. Godard seemed very old to me, suddenly, when I saw all of Straub’s films. They were the fastest, the most furious, the most beautiful, sensual, ancient, modern. There was no doubt for me. The problem was convincing the others.
So I had these texts that sometimes didn’t help. Some were good, but let’s say the textual atmosphere around Straub was a bit… it didn’t talk well about this principle of sensuality in cinema. And that’s what I wanted to remember in this film, the feeling when I was young. They say it all the time. When they say, “it’s not true that in our films there is no psychology,” they are talking about that. They’re saying if you work well, you will have something. And they don’t avoid the words “emotion” or “tension.” And you can see how film is a movement, it’s a tension that you have to keep going in this editing room until the end, and it’s very, very difficult to maintian this tension, because it’s a tension you will probably have in life also if you do this kind of work. And another problem is that this tension is not bearable. It would be good to have this tension every day, every second, but it’s not possible. They perhaps are the people that go… they go very far in this. When I say “tension,” I could say “intense,” but no, it’s tension, a nervous sensibility, an attention to things, the kinds of details you see in the film. You have to be really, really attentive to see these kinds of things. You cannot maintain that all your life every day, it’s exhausting. But everybody should live that in that kind of way. That’s what they tell us, I think. Everybody should be as tense as a Bach composition – and let’s not say “complicated” or “difficult.” Let’s say “tense,” it’s much more simple, I think.

Question: So is that the reason Straub is referred to more than Huillet, because he was the primary author of these texts? Did he engage in these intellectual debates with Godard?

Costa: The essays are essays that people wrote about them, everything that people wrote in newspapers and magazines, some schools. Sometimes they said “Marxists,” they said “Maoists,” they said “terorists,” they said “formalists,” “Eisensteinians,” “Fordians,” It could be everything and the opposite. What I didn’t like was that people like you, people who don’t know the Straubs even today, can be blinded by these kind of things. So let’s see the films first, and then you can read, great texts on the Straubs – and I’ll tell you a lot of them – and then you can perhaps forget these “Maoist-Marxist-terrorist-hard intellectual” labels.

Andersen: Or maybe you could say there was a time when their films got reduced to being debating points in intellectual arguments. The films became objects to theorize about, and the theorizing wasn’t good enough. But there was another question she was posing: while they are equal collaborators, why do people often talk more about Jean-Marie than about Danièle?

Costa: You know as much about that as I do. I think because he’s the man – that’s point one – and a filmmaker is a man. I think also because she likes to be where she is. There is always this show-off in Jean-Marie. Jean-Marie is really an entertainer, let’s say. He would have liked to be the James Dean of the north of France when he was young, but he’s a genius, so… Danièle says you can be a genius for them, but you’re a distaster at home. He’s the boy, like you see. And Danièle is the woman: she takes care of him. They have been editing like you saw since the beginning, but in the first two films, the credits say, “Directed by Jean-Marie Straub,” and Danièle is the editor, or the producer sometimes. Then it changed to “Directed by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet”, and now it has changed to “A film by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub.”

Andersen: I think another thing is if you listen to them talk, or read the transcript of one of their interviews, Jean-Marie will go on for 20 minutes, and then Danièle will say one sentence that sums everything up. He talks a lot, but in a certain way she has more to say. She’ll cut to the chase, as it were, and say what he was trying to say over those 20 minutes. You can see it in the texts of the interviews that have been published.

Costa: And she corrects a lot of his misspellings and dates. When he says, “1914,” she says, “It’s ’24.” Or, “It’s not them, it’s they” – these kind of things; But seeing them work like I have, you can see more of Jean-Marie on the set. He’s more agitated, more behind the camera – it’s his job to be behind the camera, whereas she’s more of an art director, and likes to be with the actors.

Andersen: In my experience, on the set, Jean-Marie works on the image, and Danièle is directing the actors and working with the sound.

Costa: But she also does the clothing and the props, everything else. But I think a part of this very beautiful movement that their films have comes from her. This rhythmic fury that they have comes from her, because she’s so controlled. It’s like Moses and Aaron (1975): she’s the mouth of Jean-Marie in the film. She has this nervousness in he cutting, but she’s very calm and controlled. She’s tense too, but more controlled than Jean-Marie, who can be hyper-sentimental, and sometimes very melancholy also. So her work is to pull hum out of that dark place, saying, “Shut up,” or like they say, he’s always talking rubbish, and she says, “There’s a way of not talking rubbish in life: just shut up.” But it’s a collective work, it’s a duel, it’s not one person. It has never been, I think. Because they love each other so.

Danièle Huillet passed away 11 days after this dialogue took place, on October 9, 2006.

DISSENT ! Pedro Costa


2 February 2013 20:30 Argos, Brussels
in conversation with Stoffel Debuysere

“We have to do away with this notion of urgency associated with politics, because it’s the contrary of love. That’s where it starts. Politics is love.” The politics of Pedro Costa’s cinema has nothing to do with the instructive demonstration of injustice or the uncovering of mechanisms of exploitation or repression, but with a committed search for an approach that lives up to the capacity of anyone. This politics is most present in the films he has been making, since the mid 1990’s, in Fontainhas, a poor and insular Lisbon neighborhood, where he uses minimal means to depict its habitants in all their grandeur. This is a cinema of desire and conviction: the desire to take the time and the risk to capture the essence of people and things, the conviction that cinema not only has to witness the wealth of the world – the wealth belonging to anyone – but also has to return it, as condensations of light and color, bodies and objects, speech and silence. In this sense Costa’s work has a lot in common with the films of Jean-Marie Straub en Danièle Huillet, which he once described as “the fastest, the most furious, the most beautiful, sensual, ancient, modern.” While critical attention is all too often directed at the communist world view of Straub-Huillet, Costa particularly draws from the way in which they give cinematographic form to their ideas, as an unique and rigorous play of materialism, mysticism and humanism. In this DISSENT ! session Pedro Costa will use fragments from Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (2001), his portrait of Straub-Huillet, to discuss the ethics and politics underpinning their work. In the words of Jean-Marie Straub: “no political film without morality, no political film without theology, no political film without mysticism.”

One of the most important artists on the international film scene today, Portuguese director Pedro Costa has been steadily building an impressive body of work since the late eighties. Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, and Colossal Youth are the three films that put him on the map: spare, painterly portraits of battered, largely immigrant lives in the slums of Fontainhas, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Lisbon. Hypnotic, controlled works, these films confirm Costa as a provocative new cinematic poet, one who locates beauty in the most unlikely of places. (Criterion)

DISSENT ! is an initiative of Argos, Auguste Orts and Courtisane, in the framework of the research project “Figures of Dissent” (KASK/Hogent), with support of VG & VGC. Pedro Costa is also presenting ‘En Avant Jeunesse !’, ‘Ne change rien’ and ‘Centro Historico’ (Costa/Oliveira/Erice/Kaurasmaki) At Bozar on February 3rd. Pedro Costa’s visit to Brussels was initiated by ‘Ecole de Recherche Graphique’ (Erg).

Also read ‘The Politics of Pedro Costa‘ and ‘Ventura’s Letter‘, both by Jacques Rancière, as well as ‘A Closed Door That Leaves Us Guessing‘, the seminal text of a seminar Costa gave in 2004. Various texts about the work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, written by Rancière, Serge Daney and others can be found here.

How can the relation between cinema and politics be thought today? Between a cinema of politics and a politics of cinema, between politics as subject and as practice, between form and content? From Vertov’s cinematographic communism to the Dardenne brothers’ social realism, from Straub-Huillet’s Brechtian dialectics to the aesthetic-emancipatory figures of Pedro Costa, from Guy Debord’s radical anti-cinema to the mainstream pamphlets of Oliver Stone, the quest for cinematographic representations of political resistance has taken many different forms and strategies over the course of a century. The multiple choices and pathways that have gradually been adopted, constantly clash with the relationship between theory and practice, representation and action, awareness and mobilization, experience and change. Is cinema today regaining some of its old forces and promises? Are we once again confronted with the questions that Serge Daney asked a few decades ago? As the French film critic wrote: “How can political statements be presented cinematographically? And how can they be made positive?”. These issues are central in a series of conversations in which contemporary perspectives on the relationship between cinema and politics are explored.