Figures of Dissent


Notes on cinema and politics

It’s not enough to make political films, films must also be made politically. This dictum by Jean-Luc Godard reflects the longstanding tension between politics and cinema. It’s part of the introduction to his “What is to be done?” manifest from 1970, a sharp-toned piece which references Bertolt Brecht, Dziga Vertov and Vladimir Lenin, summarising the fundamental differences between the two above-mentioned notions in forty points. “For the first”, writes Godard, “it is enough to only open the eyes and the ears. The second means to be militant”. The combative tone illustrates the attitude of the French cinephile milieu at the time, which after the revolutions of May 1968 and the following disenchantments would see the need of taking an outspoken political role, parallel to a growing realisation that cinema – their idea of cinema –had become a shadow of what it once had been, or could have been. This was the time during which Godard and the editorial staff at Cahiers du Cinéma sought solace in Maoism; a short-lived impulse that would later be dismissed as “naive”, but which is indicative of the perceived failure of the great utopias that had characterised French left-wing thinking since the Liberation. The Prague Spring, Salvador Allende’s “Chilean experiment” and the Soviet version of communism had all failed and the idea of revolution seemed to be reduced to a selling slogan in the capitalist mindset. What was left was a great open void that seemed to be filled with nothing but bursts of violence, trivialisation and narcissism. The existing theoretical paradigms did not stand a chance: the interventions in the dialectic between ideology and representation, that had dominated the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma for years, came to nothing. The tragic events of the time demanded other forms of action and reflection, which more than ever needed to be directed to exploring and cultivating the political potential of cinema. In his first article as editor in chief of Cahiers in 1973 Serge Daney wrote: “For film-makers of all leanings, in this near-open battle, in their very craft of film-making, a single problem emerges: How can political statements be presented cinematically? How can they be made positive?”.


The critical attention of Daney and many others close to Cahiers, did not go out to the verification of the effectiveness of a given “militant” cinema (“all films are militant films”) but to the exploration of the relation between filmmaker and filmed subject. The favoured term was “point de vue” (point of view), which was interpreted in at least two different ways: on the one hand, as the application of a political discourse – which thus already exists before the film is made; on the other hand, as the position taken by the filmmaker, his crew and equipment during the shooting. In the context of a demonstration, a politically committed filmmaker will for instance always film from within the crowd, with the camera among the limbs, the flags and the cries of the demonstrators, contrary to the police or television, who tend to film the crowd from above (as if in order to count or – imaginary – machine-gun). The temptation was always high to dismiss that fundamental distinction as “political”, an argument that doesn’t hold up. What is here at stake is a question of morality: is the filmmaker aware of the camera’s power of intervention, interference and provocation? Can he be truthful to his ideas and yet be respectful to the images that he has made? This accent on the idea of the “point de vue” aligns with the long-time cinephile tradition of Cahiers du Cinéma, based on the idea that each cinematographic work represents a voice and a standpoint, a vision of the world that at the same time legitimises and organises the work. It is not enough to simply emphasize what is being told in a film, it is at least as important to lay bare where, when and by whom it is told. There can be no “énoncé” (statement) without “énonciation” (enunciation). In other words, the unquestioning belief in the intrinsic power of an idea is under no circumstances enough to settle a (political or ideological) argument. In Daney’s words: “We have to know that today the struggle must encompass point of view as well as choice of subject. As our Italian comrades of La Commune remind us: ‘It is not enough to counter the false statements of the bourgeoisie. In and through our own statements we must convey a different view of the world.”


In the light of this understanding of the notions of politics and cinema, the traditional distinctions between documentary and fiction can no longer be sustained – the “framing” of reality always implies a form of fiction – but neither can the distinction between “mise en scène” (as in: staged, constructed) and the so called “direct” filmmaking (as in: from “real” life). For Daney, “bourgeoisie does not only hold the monopole of the images of reality, it also has the monopole of the mise en scène of that reality. A city, a film theatre, a public space… are already ‘mises en scène’. There is already a given use of time and space that is laid out by obligatory paths to be followed, thresholds, out of bounds”. There is no “real” world, only a configuration of what is established as real, a system of coordinates that philosopher Jacques Rancière refers to as a “police order”: an order of bodies that defines what we do and what we don’t, and assigns those bodies to a particular place and function. It is an order of the visible and the sayable that sees that a particular activity is visible and another is not, that one speech is understood as discourse and another as noise. It’s this “mise en scène”, more powerful because we are barely aware of it, that inevitably predetermines and conditions how and what to behold and film. The opposite of a mise en scène is thus not a pure, non-manipulated, direct take, but another mise en scène. The opposite of a direct take is not a mise en scène, but another take. “Another” in the sense that it makes a new perception possible. “Another” in the sense that the filmmaker takes a new position – spatially, morally, politically – in regards to what he films. It’s here that the potential of true politics resides: in breaking with the self-evidence of the “natural” order – that pushes people and things to certain positions, pins them down on a determinate time and space, assigns them to specific ways of being, seeing and saying – by reframing the given mise en scène, in search for alternative partitions of time and space, new configurations of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise. Rancière has a word for this: dissensus.


The greatest danger of our time, according to Rancière, is consensus. The term does not simply mean the agreement of political parties or social partners about the common interests of a community, it implies the resolute abolition of every form of political subjectivity, of every possibility of breaking through the dominant categories of classification and identification. By objectivising the conditions of any possible collective situation, every dispute is fundamentally neutralised: what is left are endless arguments over the administration and configuration of who and what has already been given a place and function. In other words, consensus is what reduces politics to police. Consensus, as a form of government, reduces the role of the state to that of regulating and controlling identities, space and movements, a stalemate which is greatly determined by the global economical order. As states have less control over the circulation of capital, they fall back on what is still within their power: the circulation of persons. This control, in permanent conflict with all the identities that it has not created itself, is today not only one of the principal tasks of the state; it is becoming its essential raison d’être. The recent hardening of immigration policies in many European countries and its resulting forms of stigmatisation and discrimination illustrate what has grown to become the ultimate trading mark of the consensual state: the management of (in)security. Only in the moments when the ranks are broken, when those who don’t have the right to speak raise their voices (“Nous ne sommes pas en trop, nous sommes en plus” – “We are not surplus, but a plus”), when those who don’t count make their existence known (“On est ici, on est d’ici” – “We are here, we are from here”), on those moments when the dreadful contradictions and logics of the dominant order are brought to light, only then politics becomes possible. In that sense politics always implies resistance. A resistance that is born in the refusal to accept the place that has been assigned to people and things. Politics assumes dissensus: two worlds in one.


Politics situates itself not in the administration and the demonstration of the apparatus of power but in the gestures, glimpses and cries of those who are not recognised by the same apparatus. It’s in this intersection of politics and aesthetics that the work of French filmmaker Sylvain George is to be found: in the struggle of the “nouveaux damnés” (“the new damned”), trapped between the rule and the exception: the outcasts, the unemployed, the “sans papiers”, the young with no voice and even less perspectives; they who are regarded within the dominant socio-political order as “surplus”: included but not belonging. But George is not the sort of filmmaker to embellish his sympathy with an overflow of commentary and explanation, nor to fall into a pedagogical ceremony of misery and sorrow. Instead of organizing his formal strategies around the worn out strategies of causality and narrative, structure and texture are put in the service of allegorical examinations where people and things have their full potential restored. Rancière writes that cinema “must agree to be the surface upon which the experience of people relegated to the margins of economic circulations and social trajectories try to be ciphered in new figures”. It is not the task of art and cinema to endorse the self-evidence of the “real”, but to seize the relation between reality and signification, between appearing and being. In the words of filmmaker Philippe Garrel, there is certainly “a solidarity between real artists and revolutionaries, because they both refuse ordinary identifications.” In the films of George representation tears itself off from itself, in search for new figurations, new trajectories between what we see and what we know. Fable-like figures, worn faces, burned hands: the body constantly takes up the space of the image, but always resisting recognition, always on the verge of disappearance. It is the perceptible tension between the visible and the invisible, presence and absence, individual and collective, that leads us to a confrontational awareness: here is life.


“Ce qui n’a jamais été vu, n’est pas reconnu” (“What hasn’t been seen, cannot be recognised”) wrote once Daney. The consequence is clear: “on a un manque d’image” (“we have a shortage of images”). The problem is not, as it’s generally considered, that there are too many images; on the contrary: there can never be enough. The problem is that there are too few images that contest the dominant mise en scène, too few that give visibility to what is ignored by the dominant order; too many of the same, too little of the “other”. It’s not that there are no images of grief, violence, injustice and revolt; on the contrary, we get to see them regularly in the countless news reports and current affairs television shows self-evidently presenting us the state of the world. But they are always overshadowed by the faces and the voices of those who fabricate the news, those who speak with authority, the newsmakers, politicians and specialists. These are their images: their effigies that validate their words, their selection of visibilities that their words designate as relevant and in turn validate the same words. It isn’t that we don’t get to see any suffering or struggling people. But what we see are far too often bodies without a name, too many faces that do not return the gaze that we direct at them, too many voices that are spoken about, but who don’t get the chance to speak themselves. What Sylvain George’s images do is let these bodies speak for themselves: words of fire and dream, gestures of rage and despair. The spontaneous outbursts of resistance in a Paris neighbourhood in N’entre pas sans violence (2007), the voicing of hope and desperation in the harbour city of Calais in Qu’ils reposent en révolte (des figures de guerre) (2010): these are the stories of a few, who stand for the stories of many. For if there is something that we should retain, this is it: everyone has a story.


“Aesthetisising” is a grievance often heard referring to the portrayal of misery. Making “beautiful” images in the light of the intolerable can only indicate indifference, or even worse, a gesture of “populism”. This line of thinking is the consequence of using simplistic oppositions between wealth and misery, between passivity and involvement, between what is given and what is seized. The question of aesthetics is not a matter of choosing a certain formula in order to grasp the hard “reality”. It’s a question of searching for a relation to the configuration of space and the rhythm of time, a question of experiencing and grasping the energy that space and time hold, a question of “point de vue”. This is the attitude that is imbedded in Sylvain George’s images. There is no trivial formalism hidden in the way he pays attention to the wealth of the landscapes surrounding the refugees in Qu’ils reposent en révolte; there is no cheap populism hidden in the patience with which he listens to their stories. Everything that is seized, is given back: the misery of the world, the power of speech, the possibility of resistance. This is a poetry of exchange that is also present in the films of American filmmaker Robert Fenz. His work displays a conviction that the real is not a “given”, the real can only be “framed”. That’s why the inclination to naturalism is foreign to him, as it would only be a confirmation of the dominating mise en scène. The challenge is to break though this order, to disclose it, to fracture it. “Realism must always be won”, according to Daney. Hence Robert Fenz’s preferred use of grainy black&white 16mm film, against the naturalistic impulses of the audiovisual industry. Hence his restless passion for the frame – the passion of a cameraman who understands that filming amounts to choosing. The frame, in André Bazin’s words, is a “mask”, hiding all what happens outside of it. But in Fenz’s films, the frame is much more than a delimitation of the visible: it’s an invitation to the invisible.

fenzsmall4.jpgMeditations on Revolution (1997- 2003) is the title of a series of films that represent the heart of Fenz’s oeuvre. “Revolution” does not refer here to the overthrow of a form of state, but to the countless nameless revolutions inscribed in rural and urban spaces, steeped in hollowed and smiling faces, dancing on the rhythms of a world in constant transition. “Revolution” takes here the form of a sensible world. A dance lesson in the bustling streets of Havana, children playing in a shanty town in Rio de Janeiro, the hard-trained torso of a boxer in Greenville, Mississippi, the proud but fatigued monologue of a jazz musician (the late Marion Brown) in New York: the politics of Fenz’s films does not lie in lecturing on economical or geo-political issues, but in the reframing of bodies, the world they live in and the place that they take in that world. Politics resides in the confrontation of power and impotence, reality and possibility, inside and outside, “here” and “there”. It lies in the way films are made. “Say how things are real”, as Godard proclaims, is what making political films implies. Making films politically: “to say how things really are”.

Sylvain George and Robert Fenz are two of the “Artists in Focus” on the Courtisane Festival 2011.

Translated from Dutch by María Palacios Cruz
Images are taken from various films by Robert Fenz and Sylvain George