Conversation with Nicolás Pereda

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21 October 2016 19:30 Cinematek Brussels.
A collaboration between Cinematek, Courtisane, Embassy of Mexico in Belgium, VDFC, Universiteit Antwerpen and Nederlandse Filmacademie Amsterdam School of the arts, supported by Instituto Cervantes Brussels.

“Cinema is about believing. On some level you have to believe what is happening in front of you… I find it strange that there is still this division between fiction and documentary. Both are interpretations of truth. When you grab a few tools from documentary and introduce them into fiction, then fiction can become more ‘real’ in viewers minds. I like when fiction and documentary become hybrid, when all the conventions of documentary filmmaking fall apart. Right now documentary has a strong hold on truth, which is ridiculous.”

Perpetuum mobile, Latin for “perpetual motion,” refers to both the unattainable ideal of a self-motive motion of bodies that continues as an unspooling of inconsequential events without external motivation or compulsion, and to a form of composition in which sections and themes are repeated, often with varied modulations and progressions. Perpetuum mobile is also the title of Nicolás Pereda’s third feature film, and the phrase, in both senses, could as well be applied to describe his body of work as a whole. First, because Pereda wholeheartedly rejects the conventional narrative logic that represents the actions of men according to the laws of probability or necessity, and instead seems to focus his attention on what has traditionally been asserted as its opposite: the observation of the mundane world of everyday lives. A world of lackluster prosaicness in which nothing much happens, taking place in an empty, stationary time in which gestures have no continuation or effect and exchanges are either unproductive or rendered trivial by a consciousness of their futility. Secondly, because each of Pereda’s films tends to resonate with the others through the use of repeated themes and the same actors, playing characters who often have the same names, placed in an ever-shifting configuration of relationships to one another and their social environment, which is predominantly set in Pereda’s country of birth, Mexico. This escalating set of variations and permutations reveals itself as one grand, unfolding exploration of cinema and its possibilities and limitations of representation and narration. Pereda’s interest in class divisions, social structures and family relations in Mexican society seems to have fueled his determination to cross boundaries and blur categories, which has resulted in a constant drift between the documentary and the fictional, shifting between interviews and enactments, between actors portraying fictional characters and performers playing themselves. Each film, relying on bare dialogues and long takes, probes anew the borders of fiction as an arrangement of actions linked by verisimilitude and necessity and characters defined by consistency and credibility. As if the filmmaker, in creating a multiplicity of indirections, indeterminations and irresolutions, seeks to stretch fiction beyond the limits of its logic: at which point will the fictional pact between cinema and its spectators shatter beyond rebound? How far can one go in blurring the lines between artifice and reality, in defying the dramatic codes of transformation and resolution, without annulling the cinematic game of identification and distantiation altogether? The greatest merit of Nicolás Pereda might be that he tackles this challenge to the heart of cinema to its fullest extent, while managing to deepen its very mystery.

In Remembrance of Shadows Forgotten

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Transcript of a short Q&A with Pedro Costa, after a screening of Juventude em Marcha (2006) during the courtisane festival 2015.

After having just seen Juventude em marcha again, and Casa de Lava yesterday, I couldn’t help noticing quite a few resonances between the films: for example, the reference to the title, the card playing, the letter, … As if there’s some kind of continuous movement of rediscovery, re-imagination, reinvention. Do you consider your films as part of an ongoing work of progress?

More or less. It’s doing something in cinema that I can’t do in life, which is to continue side by side with the same people, loving and caring for them. It’s very simple. It’s being very afraid of people dying and going away… I like being in the same places, in the same spaces. Doing the same work. That’s why things seem to have this continuity or this permanence. The filmmakers that I like also have their own small part of the world. You’re there, you stay there and you remain more or less faithful to that.

Like John Ford going back to Monumental Valley?

A little bit. There’s always a difference between life and cinema. But it’s a conversation, an attempt to balance something. In cinema I think I can balance better than in life.

I remember Daniéle Huillet once saying that the most important aspect of filmmaking is the collective work. Earlier you mentioned that you have no convictions, at least not the kind of convictions that filmmakers like Straub and Huillet have. Is this collectivity, this search for a kind of solidarity something that keeps you going?

It’s one of the things, yes. I had this panic moment in my “professional” life, let’s say. There was a moment when I said: “I don’t like what I’m doing, I don’t like the way it’s done”. I didn’t even like to go to see films, except for the Fords and the Ozus. It was boring. So I said: “something has to change”. So something changed. But it was a very frightening moment. Then I discovered things – or perhaps they were just mysteriously there: a certain place and people and words and colors … They were there and I thought: “perhaps these are the things that I’m here for”. That was twenty years ago or more, and it’s still new every day. My ideas for making films depend on that place. Now it’s not even a place anymore, it’s an imaginary place, because that particular place does not exist anymore. What you see in Juventude em marcha is the moment when the change happened, between the old place and the new place, the transformation to new rules and new lives. But it’s still there, the community is still resisting a little bit. This solidarity between us still exists. Making these films depends on a lot of things that are not the usual spices of filmmaking. Of course it’s money, machines, camera, energy, desire. But then it’s also a lot of different things that I wouldn’t like to tell you about, because it seems very abstract and sentimental. You don’t have to know about that.

Is it still frightening for you? Is the fear still there?

Yes, for everybody. Because it’s very connected to something which is essential. It’s the core or heart of cinema: what’s next? It’s very frightening. It’s always there when you’re involved in making films: what is the next shot, what comes after this? Well, Hitchcock knew about all of that.

Where does the desire for making a new film stem from? If I’m not mistaken Juventude em marcha started with a memory of Ventura.

This came more from me, I think. The making of the film before, No Quarto da Vanda, was very traumatic. It was about a lot of young people, people in very problematic situations: there were drugs, suicidal cases, it was very tough. Some of them never saw the film. Even Vanda held a very critical distance, even though she is, I could say, the co-director of the film – she did almost as much of directing as I did. So after this film, after working with people of more or less my age I thought I would like to see different ages, I would like to see how it started, that place I thought I knew then. So I wanted to do some kind of historiography or anthropology. It still is a bit sociological. I really like sociological films. I really do. Like Thom’s (Andersen) films for instance. Remember: sociology used to have a good name – like shoemakers. I’m fed up with philosophy in cinema, I prefer sociology or anthropology. For me, Ventura was a kind of detective or historian, going around collecting memories and stories. This mysterious, more abstract moment in this shack with his partner, for me, is the past, the beginning of the present.

There seems to be a tension between two approaches, two modes of consideration: on one hand there is what you call “anthropology” or what others might call the “documentation” aspect – chronicling the lives of the people you work with. But on the other hand the films also has this epic, mythological side, something that’s even more present in your new film, Cavalo Dinheiro. Is that what you meant when you earlier talked about the struggle with realism?

I think you can say that of other filmmakers work too. Probably it comes from Straub. But it also comes from filmmakers before Straub, this epic tradition – it’s not even a tradition, it’s an affection. You cannot but try to treat these people with the best lens you can get. I have a very shitty machine, but my lenses I think are ok. They have to be seen like they’ve never been seen before. It’s a bit of a cliché but they have to be bigger than their lives, the lives as they are represented in the papers or on tv. It has to be something else. And it was something else with Brecht, Ford, Straub, Godard, Bunuel, poetry too – the letters in this film come from the French poet Robert Desnos – all these guys… From some it comes visually more obvious, for others it comes from another aspect of their work. For instance this film is really between an odyssey, an epical voyage, and what in music or poetry you can call an elegy. An elegy you sometimes do for past, dead friends, or lovers, people you admire.

You were just talking about the need to search for new approaches, for “something else”. Does this get harder within the limitations that you have set for yourself or do you have the impression that you are getting closer to some kind of “secret”?

There’s no secret. There’s fear, being afraid of what’s next, of what comes up, of what tomorrow will bring. But there’s really no secret. You only get older, your body gets weaker, your mind gets a little bit less clear… In cinema it’s very simple: you get used to something and if you’re serious you get more aware of certain details, like in painting. I’ve always liked routine. Every time I have my camera with someone, It’s like it always used to be, and that’s very reassuring for me. That’s why I changed production mode, let’s say. I hated the variety, the novelty, the newer and the bigger – that kind of ideology and mythology of difference-making. It’s very present in filmmaking today, but I don’t care for it. For me it’s the same old thing, the same old shot, the same old work. Even the people I work with never change. I would like it to be like that forever. But we have to change sometimes and I think it’s bad – I made a film called “Don’t Change”, so…

What do the films mean for the people you work with? Is it just work for them? What happens when you show the films?

Their relation to cinema is different than mine. They work and they act in the films, but it stops there. I don’t believe in this mythology of how cinema can change their lives or how making films is good for them. Perhaps it is a little bit – though not on the financial side, because they get very little money, like myself… But I have always worked with people who are more on the unemployment or retirement side, people who are there, just there. That’s also important because they are people who have a distance, have a way of thinking about or looking at things, like Vanda, Ventura or now Vitalina. They have this, I almost could say “unemployed” look at things. Vitalina is terrible and terrifying but that’s very useful for me, because it’s critical, powerful. There’s a tension, a certain kind of dramatic tension that I could perhaps not get from actors, something that you cannot fake. I’m not only interested in artistic qualities or the tensions that you can see – the eyes, the hands, the words – but I’m interested in the truth of that, doing that kind of work. If you’re a serious filmmaker, artist or teacher you are or should be naturally interested in the question of how we can make things better, how can we solve problems, asking ourselves “what happened? Why is it so bad, so difficult between us, so dark and cold?” There are no good films but these ones. But it’s becoming more difficult – I created my own prison, that’s the problem now. I still believe I have my freedom in this way, but it’s also a prison, a very confined space. I’m more and more making the films with leftovers. Well, it used to be leftovers, like In Vanda’s Room. When I say leftovers, I mean I didn’t have any money to make the film, I made it with the most awful camera in the world – I mean, she’s my adored friend, I owe everything to her, but you can buy it in the Media market. I mean it’s not what cinema wanted. I did In Vanda’s Room with cigarettes and change. Vanda used to say something every day that made me cry. She used to say: “I could have been a girl”. That’s unbearable. So the film was made with those ruins. Now there are not even ruins left. I’m making the films with what they allow me to make the films with. Which is also very good because it reduces my small space even more and that makes me think: how can I solve this dramatic problem, visual, sound, … ? But every filmmaker has his or her own kind of method or working, of moving forward or backward.

I remember you saying that you would like to work more with the younger generations in that neighborhood. Has that proved to be more difficult?

You don’t see them in the films, but they help me. I don’t know what the future will bring. By chance I was drawn to Ventura and then to other people, to this memory lane. Now I’m stuck in this thing, because I don’t have anything else. I don’t have the money or even the desire to do much more than watch people remember. We’ll probably move closer to theater, or to some form of theater.

Or musical, like Horse Money?

Yes, or between both. With music and theater you’re safe, you’re home free. The problem is that cinema refuses a little bit the word and music. I’m not Godard or Ozu or Ford to make those kinds of things. Somebody up there talking or singing or just the music pouring out of there, you don’t do it just like that. It’s very difficult, hard work.

(Then, one of my most beautiful memories of the festival: a young girl comes all the way down from the last row of seats to tell Pedro she loves the way the people in his films move, stand, gesture and touch one another. She asks “I wonder how consciously do you ask them to do this?” Thank you Manon.)

It’s not like there’s only one way. Each person is very different. Because they are not actors, there’s something that they can give me and you and cinema that actors can perhaps not. Mind you: I’m not against working with actors: there are very good ones, I love some. But these people, they give some very small – or large – mainly priceless things that you cannot pay for, cannot dream up. Each one of them has their own singular movement. In Colossal Youth, There’s this scene with Ventura playing a record, while the other guy is drawing or doing something on the table. I thought that scene should have been shorter than it is. Now it sways very slowly with the music and that’s because Ventura felt like doing it like that. It’s not a question of direction or organization. I remember I said that the scene was too long. Sometimes, you get afraid and you don’t really realize what you’re doing. Because I have a lot of things to take care of, lots of things I’m worried about, so many things escape me. Sometimes you think “this is going on forever”, so you try to speed it up. I could never with him. It’s just his tempo, his way of moving, of expressing himself. Vanda is completely different. You can see that. What’s interesting is the shock, the confrontation between them, it’s like movements that collide. When Ventura and Vanda are both on the bed, it’s amazing because she’s always very stressed, nervous, paranoid and he always seems very calm. But I know that he was much more tense than she was. He was really nervous about everything, about her, her state of mind and condition. This is interesting with people who are not actors. With actors it tends to be predictable, here it’s in constant motion – from the first to the second take, everything can change, the position, the speed… if they want to. I’m not the director of everything: moving a finger is something I cannot dream of, something I don’t want to imagine. Those things are always very surprising.

Do you discover these little things while editing? I know you never liked to watch rushes.

Today there’s no more rushes, we have camera’s that have their own lcd screen. I see it immediately, everyone does. In Vanda’s room usually there was Vanda and her sister or someone else, and when somebody got off-screen, they came to sit next to me to see what was happening with the one that stayed. Normally they were joking, making faces… – very “cinema”. They are not actors. Perhaps they are a bit more naïve. Well, not naïve, but more direct. There’s no intellectualization, it’s simple action-reaction and taking care of a kind of movement and – if words are involved – a text. But what I like is the constant surprise of this kind of work. It seems very controlled but it’s really very evolvative – it changes all the time. If you would see the rushes, you would see that the takes are very different. It’s like Chaplin’s method of rehearsing on camera: doing exactly the same thing five hundred times. Then you see the finger or the wrist moving. But there are a lot of things that I cannot explain to you: actors, shots, technical stuff. We can never talk about that in Q&A’s. We can watch the film shot by shot and then it’s a bit more serious, like I did with the film with the Straubs. I always end up saying banalities, more or less.

Audience member: What is your relationship towards the audience? What are you hoping to convey to the spectator?

Lately I’ve been having these weird dreams, thinking “oh, they probably won’t understand”. It’s very recent. For the last film I thought “they probably won’t understand this connection or this jump”. “They” meaning “you”. Because I myself was not understanding certain things I did. Why should I understand everything? Or make it understandable? I don’t mean that I want to make pure poetry or abstract painting or pure philosophy in motion. I still believe that the best movies are the ones that narrate, which is not the same as telling a story. There is something called narration, and that for me is fundamental, it’s crucial. If it’s not there, I give up, I abandon things. But I have a feeling of what it is because I come from the study of history. It’s almost organic, genetic for me. I know that everything is narration, everything. It’s like a huge, immense, subterranean flow. It’s everywhere, but it’s very difficult to control, to organize and to construct. And in film it’s even more difficult than in a novel, especially after so many great narration masters like Griffith, Ozu, Ford, Godard, Straub, Rosselini. There are so many of them that changed things. And the world being what it is today, which has never been as bad… This is the worst moment, I think. Not just because we’re living it. For film it is for sure: just think about the digital ideology. It’s not only about the story: shooting with the cameras I’m using, I need twelve times more time than I used to with 35mm. Because even the camera is designed to do something else. It’s a camera that for instance does not allow shadow. Everyone knows this. Perhaps I exaggerate in shadows, because I like them. But these digital cameras do not believe in shadows, they don’t think about them. So I’m trying to remember, remember shadows.

Yesterday I don’t know if you were here to see Farrebique. I mean, it’s two hours of science fiction. It’s just doors and dogs and people walking. Like you’ve never seen those things before. It has been years since you have seen a baby cry in a film. So that’s also one of the tasks of the filmmaker today, I think: to remind people that a door shuts with a sound and people go through the door and come from the door and not only fly through walls. And that people are kind and don’t kill five hundred guys per second. This is just a cliché, but there’s much more: like the shadows…

I’m very fond of a Korean filmmaker called Hong Sang-Soo. I think he’s doing a magnificent job. He’s a guy who’s working in a field that is much needed: small sentimental comedies. Films that, I think, are much better than Woody Allen’s. Woody Allen used to be good, he’s weaker now… Hong Sang-Soo is the guy who took over an I think cinema needed that, needs that. He does it in a, for me, very wonderful way. He’s reminding people: do you remember these kind of situations between people, how we used to feel watching this kind of things. There’s also the Chinese Wang Bing doing his work and showing some other things. Which is also about reminding people: don’t let certain things happen or watch this closely. If you see something like this, watch out. It’s about warning sometimes. So I’m saying “sociology”, “warning”, “message”. I’m doing the complete no-no Q&A. But I do like sociological films with messages.

Talk with Stoffel Debuysere. Thanks to Lennert for recording, Ruben for the transcript, Manon and Frederik for the questions.

DISSENT! Pedro Costa & Thom Andersen

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3 April 2015 15:30, Sphinx Gent

Pedro Costa & Thom Andersen in conversation with Stoffel Debuysere, preceded by a screening Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Pedro Costa, 2001, 104′). In the context of the Courtisane Festival (1-5 April), in collaboration with ciné-sessies KASK en HISK.

“Oddly, the older I get, the more optimistic I become about the possibilities of film, cinema, movies, whatever you want to call it, as a medium. I think for the way it brings together so many different arts, because of the fact that there is a kind of existential bond between the representation and the thing being represented, because of the way that it can take us to different places, give us an insight into lives that are very different from our own, show us things that we can never possibly see, describe an aspect of reality that hasn’t been acknowledged.” – Thom Andersen

“Cinema is not about the artist. It’s about being in the world, our world, choosing a place and figuring out elements of time and space and limits that are common to all of us. I believe that, if cinema goes beyond its realistic borders, it loses all of its powers.” – Pedro Costa

Pedro Costa and Thom Andersen: two filmmakers who, to all appearances, seem to have very little in common. One is mainly celebrated for his portrayals of the inhabitants of Fontainhas, a quarter on the margins of Lisbon, the other is most well known for his investigations into the history of cinematic representations, in particular those of Los Angeles. But for those who prefer to embrace cinema as a “supplementary country”, as Serge Daney was so keen to say, the geographical or categorical borders that tend to divide it are doomed to be nothing but nuisances and hindrances. If there really is an imaginary country called cinema, it might be because it has true inhabitants who all speak the same “language”, no matter how far apart they may find themselves from one another. This shared language, in all its impurity and hybridity, is precisely grounded in the one sentiment that seems to be lacking these days: trust. A trust in cinema’s capacity to describe the world, in all its terrifying splendor and intolerable horror, in all its vulnerability and resilience. But how does one hold on to this trust, in defiance of the waves of cynicism and defeatism that persistently threaten to erode it? Perhaps that is what Thom Andersen means with “Cinema Against the Grain” – which is the name he has given to one of his classes. What does it mean to think of cinema as an oppositional force? What or whom does cinema need to resist or stand against? And what exactly does this resistance imply? Does it entail stubbornness by remaining in place or the confidence to push ahead? In the latter case, one cannot fail to ask: Where to? Is it not when the answer to this question remains unclear that one is confronted with what is perhaps the most critical question of all: For whom? And perhaps more importantly: With whom? These and other questions will be at stake during this talk, which will be preceded by a screening of Pedro Costa’s magnificent portrait of two filmmakers whose work is undoubtedly one the most powerful manifestations of “Cinema Against the Grain”: Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet.

Pedro Costa and Thom Andersen are both Artists in Focus at the Courtisane Festival.

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.


About DISSENT!

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.

The Fire Next Time documentation

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The Fire Next Time
Afterlives of the militant image

3-4 April 2014. KASKcinema, KIOSK & Minard, Gent, Belgium

There was a time when cinema was believed to make a difference, to be able to act as a weapon in struggle, to operate as a realm of discord. The so-called ‘militant cinema’ was not only considered as a tool to bear witness but also to intervene in the various political upheavals and liberation movements that shook the world in the 1960s and ‘70s. What remains of this unassailable alliance between cinema and politics? After the flames had died down, all that seemed to be left was a wreckage of broken promises and shattered horizons. Today it feels like we have been living through a long period of disappointment and disorientation, while the sense of something lacking or failing is spreading steadily. An overwhelming melancholy seems to have taken hold of our lives, as if we can only experience our time as the ‘end times’, when the confidence in politics is as brittle as our trust in images. Perhaps that is why, for those who came after, there is a growing tendency to look back at an era when there was still something to fight for, and images were still something to fight with. Can a re-imagining of old utopian futures shed a new light on our perceived dead-end present, in view of unexpected horizons? Can an understanding of past dreams and illusions lead to reinvigorated notions of responsibility, commitment and resistance? Can a dialogue with the period in question help us to find the very principles and narratives capable of remedying its impasses? And how can this questioning help us to think about how cinema, unsure of its own politics, can be ‘political’ today? In light of a potential rebirth of politics, would it still be possible for the art of cinema to appeal to the art of the impossible?

In the framework of the research project ‘Figures of Dissent’ (KASK/HoGent) and the EU project ‘The Uses of Art’ (confederation L’Internationale), in conjunction with ‘L’œil se noie’, an exhibition of work by Eric Baudelaire and Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc (KIOSK, 05/04 – 15/06/2014) and the Courtisane Festival (02-06/2014). With the support of the research groups S:PAM & PEPPER (UGent), art centre Vooruit, BAM institute for visual, audiovisual and media art, Eye on Palestine, Embassies of France & Mexico.

Research Tumblr Page: fire-next-time.tumblr.com

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THURSDAY 3 APRIL
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Introduction
Stoffel Debuysere

I just wanted to say a few words about ‘The Fire Next Time’ and some of the challenges we would like to engage with in the coming days. It has become clear for all of us that in the past few years there has been a resurgence of interest in notions and practices of miltancy, and more particular of what is called “militant cinema”, which generally indicates a pretty heterogeneous landscape of film making and thinking that accompanied the various struggles for emancipation and liberation in the 1960’s and the beginning of the 1970’s. It is a tendency you can see in the programs of so many festivals and cinema venues nowadays, but also in the spaces of contemporary art, where many artists (or curators) attempt to reboot or revisit some of the issues and tensions, presences and absences that characterized this landscape.

There are many possible as to why this revalidation is happing right now. Perhaps, as people like Alain Badiou have suggested, in times of disquiet, riots and uprisings such as ours, these models of thought and action can serve as potential source of inspiration, as some kind of historical poems that can give us new courage. Perhaps they can allow us to react now that we are, as we are told over and over again, in the grip of despair, after the waning of so many dreams and desires that framed and animated the past politics of emancipation, including its anti-colonial and socialist forms. And then perhaps, now that it seems that there are no more determined horizons or programs to guide the current struggles, this looking back might help us to start trusting in the actions we might take in the here and now.

So on one hand there is the question of our current relationship to these paradigms of militancy, as echoes from a certain era, and the affiliated assumptions in regards to the relation between art and life, reality and appearance, theory and practice. There is the question of how to look at these film work from where we are now, but on the other hand it might be interesting to consider how these films look back at us too, how these films are not only historical objects from a faded past, but how they are still alive somehow, alive with sensation, affect, thought, and that they can perhaps, ultimately, make us feel alive in return.

So this program of interventions and screenings might provide an opportunity to think about the representation of politics, and also how some ideas and words that once demarcated the battlegrounds – such as revolution, proletariat, commitment – can be released from their sediment and given back their untimely charge, but it can also be a chance to rethink the politics of representation, the links between intention and outcome, between what is represented and the form that it has been given, and how this form could be appropriated by each and every one of us.

And then, it seems to me that as much as this broad landscape of militant cinema can be used as an exemplary terrain on which to think through aspects of the contemporary aporia of the crisis of politics, it can also be used as a stimulus to counter the melancholia that characterizes a lot of the critical thinking of the past decades – including the film critical thinking. These, for me, briefly, are some of the stakes and the challenges of these coming two days, and I hope that we will be able to, if not provide satisfactory answers, at least probe a few pertinent questions.

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Militant Cinema: from Third Worldism to Neoliberal Sensible Politics
Irmgard Emmelhainz

Jean-Luc Godard’s Ici et ailleurs (1969-1974) as well as Chris Marker’s Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) crystallize the histories of militant engagement and political filmmaking in the 1960s, a time in which Marxism was a vehicle for cultural as well as actual revolution here and elsewhere. From both films, lessons about this era of militantism can be drawn. Moreover, they announce a turn in the 1970s and 1980s toward minority politics (tied to de-colonization struggles) and humanitarization –which implies an ethical, as opposed to political relationship to the elsewhere, as well as the utopia of globalization. Bearing this in mind, Irmgard Emmelhainz will discuss the changes in the meaning of ‘politicization’ and political work from the 1960s from what is known today as ‘Sensible Politics’: a form of politicization active at the level of encoding unstable political acts in medial forms. Taking up Jean-Luc Godard’s plea for texts and poetry (inspired by Aristotle’s and Hannah Arendt’s understanding of political action as speech), in his film Notre musique, she will argue that most of the current politicized images are compensatory devices to the ravages caused by neoliberal reforms implemented worldwide in the past two decades.

Irmgard Emmelhainz is an independent writer and researcher based in Mexico City. In 2012, she published a collection of essays about art, culture, cinema and geopolitics: Alotropías en la trinchera evanescente: estética y geopolítica en la era de la guerra total (BUAP). Her work about cinema, the Palestine Question, art, culture and neoliberalism has been translated to French, English, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew and Serbian. She is currently co-editing an issue dedicated to Mexico City of Scapegoat Journal, and teaching a course at the Esmeralda National School of Engraving and Painting in Mexico City.

Preceded by a screening of
Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville,Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere) (FR, 1976)
Hito Steyerl, November (DE, 2004)
Guillermo Gomez-Pena, A Declaration of Poetic Disobediance (US, 2005)

THE FIRE NEXT TIME – Militant Cinema from KASK & CONSERVATORIUM on Vimeo.

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Landscape/Media – an Investigation into the Revolutionary Horizon, Reloaded
Sabu Kohso & Go Hirasawa

The development of ‘Landscape Cinema’ and ‘Landscape Theory’ took place during the short period between the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in Japan, while the ‘60s movements were declining and the militant line of guerrilla warfare was rising. It embodied a collective effort to grasp a new horizon of revolutionary struggle and the possible location of its agency in the form of film productions and critical discourses. Initiated by an enigmatic film, AKA: Serial Killer (1969), the cinema/theory sought to confront ‘landscape’ as the main terrain for the power operation, seen by the gaze of a migrant worker. Then Red Army/PFLP – Declaration of World War (1971) was produced, embodying the second stage of the development in which tactical uses of reportage were juxtaposed over the everyday landscape of Palestine guerrillas. Although the film was produced in collaboration with Japan Red Army, it involves multiple messages including critical reflections on a broad orientation of Japan’s radical left. Screening the latter film, Hirasawa and Kohso seek to decode the problematic complexity of the cinema/movement, that tackles the mechanism of capture by landscape/media and the resistance therein, in order to approach the apocalyptic feature of planetary crises today.

Sabu Kohso is a writer and translator. Living in New York since 1980, he has published several books in Japan and Korea about urban space, radical politics, and the philosophy of anarchism, and has translated books by theorists such as David Graeber, John Holloway, Kojin Karatani and Arata Isozaki. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, he co-edited the website jfissures.org, and has written several articles on the problematic of post-nuclear disaster society in English.

Go Hirasawa is a researcher at Meiji-Gakuin University working on underground and experimental films and avant-garde art movements in 1960s and ’70s Japan. His publications include Cultural Theories: 1968 (Japan, 2010), Koji Wakamatsu: Cinéaste de la Révolte (France, 2010), and Masao Adachi: Le bus de la révolution passera bientot près de chez toi ( France, 2012). He has organized several film programs on Japanese Underground Cinema.

Preceded by a screening of
Masao Adachi & Koji Wakamatsu, Sekigun-PFLP: Sekai Senso Sengen (The Red Army / PFLP: Declaration of World War) (JP/ Palestine, 1971)

THE FIRE NEXT TIME — Landscape/Media – an Investigation into the Revolutionary Horizon, Reloaded Sabu Kohso & Go Hirasawa from KASK & CONSERVATORIUM on Vimeo.

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Destroy Yourselves as Our Bosses
Evan Calder Williams & Victoria Brooks

The connected talks of Evan Calder Williams and Victoria Brooks develop a feminist history of, and approach to, militant cinema from 1973 to 1983. In particular, they focus on critiques, both filmed and written, of how even allegedly radical movements reproduced a hierarchy of “legitimate” concerns that consistently framed the issues and modes of struggle posed by women as secondary to the cause at hand. This sidelining and its proprietary relation to politics has a history inextricable from labor movements themselves, but it becomes particularly visible with how practices of cinema directly engaged in social struggles negotiate what is literally foregrounded, drawn forth, or edited out. The first talk focuses on the Italian situation in the mid-’70s, considering “free newsreel” projects and experimental documentaries and reading their recurrent focus on the factory and piazza through the fierce critique articulated by Italian communist feminism in those same years. The second talk deals with films focused on women’s relation to factory and mining struggles in Ontario. These films, including those by Sophie Bissonnette, Joyce Wieland, and Sandra Lahire, developed a complex vision of histories and voices continually pushed to the side of movements fighting for access to basic necessities of survival.

Victoria Brooks is a curator and producer based in Troy, NY. Prior to joining EMPAC (Experimental Media & Performing Arts Centre) in 2013 as curator of time-based visual art, Brooks was a London-based independent curator, co-founding the itinerant curatorial platform The Island, co-curating Serpentine Galleryʼs artist-cinema program, and producing Canary Wharf Screen for Art on the Underground. Together with Evan Calder Williams, she is currently organizing Third Run, a new yearly film journal and colloquium series to be launched in fall 2014.

Evan Calder Williams is a writer, theorist, and artist. He has a doctoral degree from the Literature Department at University of California Santa Cruz, where he wrote a dissertation entitled The Fog of Class War: Cinema, Circulation, and Refusal in Italy’s Creeping’70s. He is the 2013-2014 Fellow at the Center for Transformative Media at Parsons, where is developing a theory of sabotage. He is the author of two books, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse and Roman Letters, has written for Film Quarterly, Mute, La Furia Umana, Viewpoint, and The New Inquiry, and writes the blog Socialism and/or Barbarism.

Preceded by a screening of
Sophie Bissonnette, Martin Duckworth, Joyce Rock, A Wives Tale (CA, 1980)

THE FIRE NEXT TIME — Destroy Yourselves as Our Bosses, Evan Calder Williams & Victoria Brooks from KASK & CONSERVATORIUM on Vimeo.

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Möglichkeitsraum (The Blast of the Possible)
Angela Melitopoulos & Bettina Knaup

The Blast of the Possible is a project containing the creation of a temporary performance and lecture platform, a space for exhibiting video and film archive materials belonging to the history of activist media since the 1960s. The design of the platform is based on the idea of an extended postproduction studio in that all functions of montage are spatially presented. This theatrical archive space recalls the archaic function of theatre being a switching panel for different modes of language flows that foster potentials of experimentation, learning and the relation and agency between language-modes. The imaginary developing from an index of the databases and from the materiality of the archival documents will be transformed and preformed through the live energy of performance and speech. ‘Language,’ as Walter Benjamin states, ‘is mediating the immediacy of all mental communication, and if one chooses to call this immediacy magic, then the primary problem of language is its magic.’ Angela Melitopoulos & Bettina Knaup propose to concatenate different languages modes and work on their boundaries with performances that mind the gap between memory and matter. The exhibition becomes a place in that we sense the time quality of mediated images, their historical context, their possible figures and pathologies, their spatial order and their construction and segmentation, their open or closed logic of montage. Through these interventions we can re-read documents and documentation, the construction of representation and identity, the imaginary of the past and the potentialities of becoming.

Angela Melitopoulos studied fine arts with Nam June Paik at the Academy of Arts in Düsseldorf. She has been working with electronic media since 1986 and has created experimental single-channel tapes, video installations, video-essays and documentaries, her work of art often based on research and collaboration with other knowledge spheres like sociology, politics and theory. She has recently been appointed professor in the Media School of the Royal Art Academy in Copenhagen.

Bettina Knaup is a cultural producer with a background in political science, theatre, film, TV studies and gender studies. She has been involved in developing or managing a range of interdisciplinary and transnational cultural projects operating at the interface of arts, politics and knowledge production, including the open space of the International Women’s University (Hanover) and the trans-disciplinary Performing Arts Laboratory, IN TRANSIT (Berlin).

THE FIRE NEXT TIME – Möglichkeitsraum (The Blast of the Possible), Angela Melitopoulos & Bettina Knaup from KASK & CONSERVATORIUM on Vimeo.

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When we act or undergo, we must always be worthy of what happens to us
Ayreen Anastas & Rene Gabri

The militant cinema and image, taken in a more strict sense, have historically tended to push toward the real and toward the truth and toward the overcoming of capitalism, colonialism, and sometimes patriarchy among other things. They have worked to uncover, to lay bare, to expose, to clarify and at times to destroy existing regimes of order and/or truth. Occasionally, there have also been engaged comrades who have chosen the path of militancy as an arena to also investigate the truth claims of the image itself and its production. Of questioning the regimes of images themselves whether as spectacle or as contested fables or fictions. The utopic in the latter camp assumed cinema must be destroyed in the struggle. The more skeptical of this group, (in the philosophical sense not the everyday sense) returned to the cinema as a place of diagnosing the limits and failures of movements, as well as the images movements produced. This film is not about this history and the antinomies of these various modes of militancy in cinema, here reduced to a kind of caricature (quite common in historical accounts). It attempts instead to loiter around the shards and remnants of the processes, struggles and gestures that were produced in these varied forms of militancy in the hopes of discovering the latent forces and insights they may retain for contemporary struggles.

Ayreen Anastas & Rene Gabri work together. Ayreen writes in fragments, and makes films and videos. She is interested in philosophy, literature, the political and the everyday. Rene is interested in the complex mechanisms that constitute the world. He works within the folds of cultural practice, social thought and politics. Ayreen and Rene’s collaborative projects have evolved a great deal through their frequent contributions to the programme at 16Beaver, an artist community that functions as a social and collaborative space in downtown Manhattan, where the group hosts panel discussions, film series, reading groups and more. Ayreen and Rene’s Radioactive Discussion series was a physical counterpart to their fictional Homeland Security Cultural Bureau project. Other collaborations include: Camp Campaign, Artist talk, Radio Active, United We Stand, What Everybody Knows, Eden Resonating, 7X77, Case Sensitive America and more.

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FRIDAY 4 APRIL
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Memories of upheaval and tropical insurrection
Olivier Hadouchi, Stoffel Debuysere, Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc

At this stalled and disillusioned juncture in postcolonial history, at a time when many anticolonial utopias have withered into a morass of exhaustion, corruption, and authoritarianism, how can we rethink the past in order to reimagine a more usable future ? If the longing for revolution, the craving for the overcoming of the colonial past and the reclaiming of national identity that shaped the ‘cinemas of liberation’ of the 1960’s is not one that we can inhabit today, then it may be part of our task to set it aside and begin an effort of reimagining other futures for us to dream of. But how can we go beyond the nostalgia for past horizons that still (or once again) seems to occupy our contemporary scope of imagination ? Can an answer be found in the work of the contemporary artists and filmmakers who are attempting to reinvent and redirect the legacies of militant culture and ‘Third cinema’ ? How to position ourselves today in view of this large corpus of historical film works in a context that is radically different but at the same time dauntingly close ? A selection of formally and politically bold films from Latin-America will serve as the starting point for a discussion on the relation between our ‘dead-end’ present, and, on one hand, the old utopian futures that inspired it and, on the other, an imagined idiom of future futures that might reanimate this present and perhaps even engender in it unexpected horizons of transformative possibility.

Olivier Hadouchi is a critic, curator and film historian, based in Paris. He obtained a PhD at the University Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3) on Cinema and Liberation struggles around Tricontinental’s constellation (1966-1975). He has written for various publications such as CinémAction, Third Text, Mondes du Cinéma, La Furia Umana and has curated film programs for Le BAL, Bétonsalon. le Cinématographe de Nantes and la HEAD (Genève).

Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc is an artist, curator and researcher interested in exploring the history of the colonial encounter and its effects on memory and identity. Amongst others, he is very concerned to engage with film history and the decolonisation of African states in the 1960s. Abonnenc recently took part in the Paris Triennial in the Palais de Tokyo and in group exhibitions in the Fondation d‘entreprise Ricard (Paris) and the ICA – Institute of Contemporary Art (Philadelphia, USA).

Preceded by a screening of
Santiago Álvarez, Now ! (CU, 1965)
Ugo Ulive, Basta (VE, 1969)
Santiago Álvarez, 79 Primaveras (CU, 1969)
Nicolás Guillén Landrián, Coffea Arábiga (CU, 1968)
Nicolás Guillén Landrián, Desde La Habana ¡1969! Recordar (CU, 1968)
Humberto Solás, Simparelé (CU, 1974)

THE FIRE NEXT TIME — Memories Of Upheaval, Olivier Hadouchi, Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, Stoffel Debuysere from KASK & CONSERVATORIUM on Vimeo.

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Splicing the Militant Cinema
Subversive Film (Mohanad Yaqubi & Reem Shilleh)

In 1968, a group of young filmmakers decided to establish a film unit affiliated with the Palestinian Revolution newly active in Amman, Jordan. The unit was called Palestine Film Unit (PFU) and was working with Al Fatah, one of the Palestinian Libation Organization (PLO) factions that adopted armed struggle as the only way to liberate Palestine. When the PFU was established, not only did it furnish the revolution with cinematic vocabularies, but it also addressed the decades old dilemma of invisibility of the Palestinian people and would offer apparatus for reclaiming visibility. At a later time the work of the unit became a major part of the Palestinian revolutionary cinema. This presentation tracks life and work of the PFU and its members as an example of a militant cinema practice in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, when filmmakers believed cinema could change the world.

Subversive Film is a cinema research and production initiative that aims to cast new light upon historic works related to Palestine and the region; to engender support for film preservation; and to investigate archival practices and effects. Other projects developed by Subversive Film to explore this cine-historic field include the digital reissuing of previously-overlooked films, the curating of rare film screening cycles, and the subtitling of rediscovered films. Subversive Film was formed in 2011 and is based in Ramallah and London.

THE FIRE NEXT TIME – Splicing The Militant Cinema from KASK & CONSERVATORIUM on Vimeo.

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Dissident Images
Raquel Schefer

In 1982, in the short film Changer d’Image – Lettre à la bien aimée (To Alter the Image), Jean-Luc Godard reflected upon the difficulty to produce an image of change likely to induce and formally represent change. Can an image of change give rise to change? Must an image of change be an altered image? A politics of aesthetics underlays these questions, as they point out to the poetics and politics of the film image, to the intrinsic articulation of its aesthetic and pragmatic dimensions. Representing current class struggle in Southern Europe, Daphné Hérétakis’ Ici rien (2011) and Ramiro Ledo Cordeiro’s Vida Extra (2013) reclaim a poetic political cinema, leading a formal creative synthesis between historical legacy and emergent audiovisual forms which undermines established categories. Daphné Hérétakis and Ramiro Ledo Cordeiro will be present to show their work, to discuss these aporias of image, aesthetics and politics, and to rethink the relationship between art and politics in the context of an open collective debate.

Raquel Schefer is a filmmaker and researcher. She is presently doing a PHD in Cinema Studies at the Université de la Sorbonne-Nouvelle (Paris 3). Politics of representation, remembrance and oblivion, the acts of telling and re-telling, and the non-coincidence between sensorial memory and audiovisual mnemonics are central issues in her work. Historical episodes are approached through personal and familiar narratives, in some cases embedded in the history of Portuguese decolonization.

THE FIRE NEXT TIME — Dissident Images, Raquel Schefer, Ramiro Ledo Cordeiro, Daphné Hérétakis from KASK & CONSERVATORIUM on Vimeo.

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Crazy Nigger – Gay Guerilla
CONCERT Julius Eastman

“What I mean by niggers is that thing which is fundamental, that person or thing that attains to a basicness or a fundamentalness, and eschews that which is superficial, or, could we say, elegant… There are 99 names of Allah, and there are 52 niggers.”
– Julius Eastman, Jan 16 1980, Northwestern University

When Julius Eastman took the stage of the concert hall of the Northwestern University to explain the titles of the pieces that he and three other pianists were about to perform, he could not have known that this appearance would be the most lasting statement about his music. Having studied with the likes of George E. Lewis, Morton Feldman and Lukas Foss, all signs pointed towards a bright future for this composer. By 1980 Eastman was performing his music all over Europe and the States and he was an integral part of the thriving Downtown scene in New York, where he recorded with Arthur Russell and Meredith Monk. But for all this promise, his self-destructive behaviour inevitably caught up with him. When he passed away on May 28 1980 in a hospital in Buffalo, the news took more than seven months to reach New York. With the scarce recordings and scores of his music scattered all over the place, attempts to reconstruct Eastman’s output are doomed to remain incomplete. Only fairly recently a selection of his work has been made available, including the trilogy Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger & Gay Guerilla, which represents in so many ways the intense brilliance of this ‘forgotten minimalist’. These compositions for multiple pianos took the minimalist device of additive process to a whole new structural level, building up immense emotive power through the incessant repetition of rhythmic figures, a composing technique he called ‘organic music’. The titles of the pieces exemplify the rebellious attitude of Eastman, as someone who has always struggled with identity, yet never without casting a new life; someone who has steadfastly eschewed compromise, yet giving rise to a body of work that continues to startle and engage.

in collaboration with art centre Vooruit.

THE FIRE NEXT TIME – Julius Eastman from KASK & CONSERVATORIUM on Vimeo.

The politics of mourning

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Talk with John Akomfrah. November 21 2013, Gent. In the context of the DISSENT ! series. Moderated by Stoffel Debuysere.

This talk took place on the second day of John Akomfrah’s visit to Belgium, after a screening of his second feature film, Testament (1988). “If we loose the ruins, nothing will be left”: the quote by Zbigniew Herbert which opens the film sets the tone for this post-colonial mourning play, composed as a blend of lyrical drama and archival documentary. There are no heroes in this “war zone of memories”, only ghosts, drifting through history as if through an arbitrary world. One of them is Abena, a reporter returning to Ghana after being sent to exile following the 1966 military coup that overthrew the continent’s first independent government led by Kwame Nkrumah. Taking grief by the hand, she wanders through scarred landscapes in search for remnants and companions of her past, only to find there is nothing to return to, no epitaphs for those who were left behind, no records that document the pursuit of the first experiment of Pan-African Socialism, no ruins that can testify to the struggle to escape the grip of colonialism. The absolute dream of the diasporean, the return to a place called home, turns out to be an impossible dream.

“This film is personal in very concrete terms. All the events in it are the events that made the flight from Ghana possible. Had the coup not happened, I would probably have been somewhere in Moscow, East-Germany or some communist shit hole. Because my parents were both involved with the party, my mom was at the school teaching there, so everything that happened to my life is as a result of those events. At that time I was groping for something that has now become, in the 26 years since we did the film, almost like a genre. I’ve must have seen at least fifteen films dealing with west-African people who go back for death, in search for something or someone, in the process of discovering that the person is not there or the place is gone. But this was not a certainty when we made the film. Most of us, even in the early 1980’s, still believed that the diaspora was a kind of temporary zone. The making of this film emotionally convinced me that there is some legitimacy in thinking about diasporisation as a what Stuart Hall calls a “permanent disturbance”. There is really no other space before it to return to, because the process of the flight so transforms you, and by implication you can never go back to the place that you’ve left behind. When you go, what you’ll see will be skeletons but not much else. Which is usually the sign that you should move on. There’s only death here, you must go forward.

It is a very painful memory because my father is buried in that cemetery you see at the end of the film. At the time there were lots of lootings of gravestones and you know that there is something really wrong in a place where one starts robbing the dead, something seriously profoundly wrong. But there was a more serious robbery of the dead happening at that time and that’s why the film took the form that it did. In 1987 I was in Burkino Faso where I met some of the great African filmmakers, who all seemed to know that Werner Herzog was in Ghana making a film, and they would say “you should go to Ghana and make a counter-film – tell them about the real Ghana!” Part of the reason why I finally went was because that Herzog story provided a sort of impetus, but the real reason was to try to make a film on Nkrumah and the party. At the time however the theft of that memory was almost complete: it was illegal to talk about Nkrumah, one couldn’t even mention his name, it was illegal to make a film about the CPP, the party that he led. There was a guy from the ministry of information standing next to me during every scene, to make sure we didn’t talk about Nkrumah. So the allegorical form that the film took was partly an attempt to deal with the policing of it. You have to remember this is late 1980’s: everything, including the rhetorics of the coup, had been played out. The coup happened because the military and its supporters abroad – America, France, the usual sources – said that Nkruma was running the country down and that what was needed was this dose of realism from the military, who would bring prosperity etc. In 1987, twenty years after the military experiment, it was sometimes possible to buy fish which had worms in it, things had gotten that bad. All the rhetorics, including that of African-socialism, had been played out and we were coming in at the end of the utopian pronouncement, both of the original anti-colonial figures as the people who replaced them. So it really was a kind of war zone of memories.

I literary went there to make more of a standard left-wing type of film. There was always this idea that there was this woman who would go back, but I thought it would be possible to talk more openly, so the film was going to be a kind of debate-driven, much more vibrant, Eric Rohmer-like talkie about Nkrumah and African Socialism. But it became clear very quickly that this was not a possibility, so I really found myself being forced to deal with the folkloric resources that the country had. When the film was shown in Cannes, a lot of European writers would say to me “oh, this is very avant-garde isn’t it, how would Africans take it?”, and I said “listen, this is one of the few films I’ve made, that when you show it to a ten year old in Ghana they’ll know exactly what the film is about!” Especially if they’re Ga from the coast side. Because, in that part of the world, we have a very regimented, in fact the most ordered approach to death, more than we do to life. Every color of mourning – black, white, red, blue – means something very specific. It means there’s a certain proximity of the person to death. You’re either, in case of red, angry, black, you’re resigned to, white, you’re definitely very depressed, and blue, you feel a mixture of anger and depression. So every color in the film is coded in the folk psyche. All across Ghana, every kid will know exactly what the colors mean. When you start to refer to allegory as a means by which you get to the source, this is a very standard West-african device. So people might not understand exactly what all those allegorical shifts mean, but they know you don’t mean that. They know you mean something else. The space of narration is empty. Because they know the actual story is elsewhere. It’s like when you mourn, its not about a specific thing, it’s not about details about a person’s life, you’re mourning the absence of that figure.

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The image of the baby twins in the film is connected to this. There’s a kind of cult of twins across West-Africa. They are sort of omenic: they are both harbingers of something good, but also something not very good. I didn’t want to make something that is all symbolic, I wanted something which is not a metaphor but an actual metonymy. I was searching for material and I just came across these archive images of twins conjoined in the 1950s. And you watch the film and they do the operation and you think “ok they’ve got everything they need to both stay alive”. Bit there was one organ that they didn’t know about, that one didn’t have, so one died. And this sense of twinning is something I have been preoccupied with a lot, it’s something I just made a piece about called Transfigured night. It’s based on a piece by Schönberg, Verklärte Nacht, based on a poem which pretty much tells you everything about my obsession with twins. The poem is about two lovers who are walking through the woods on a moon lit night and the woman says to the man “my love, I am yours but I need to confess to you on this night that I’m carrying someone’s child and it’s not yours”. The man says “ok, my love, do not worry because tonight the moon will transfigure our love. From this moment, we will be one and this love will bring this child into the world”. Something about the nature of the postcolonial movement reminds me of that. The postcolonial state goes to the postcolonial subject and says “I love you, were gonna be together but I carry these weird postcolonial elements inside and I promise you they won’t get in the way”, and the citizen says to that “we love you too”. Of course this love doesn’t last. The dream of unity, of being twin, of being identical, having an interest that is absolutely the same, seems to me to mark that moment of independence. For that reason I have always been fascinated, other than for folkloric reasons, in twins and especially because these are siamese. They really are joined, but they can’t survive without that space of relative autonomy.

I think necrophilia is absolutely central to how the diasporic imaginary works, and by implication for its filmmakers. When you think about it, in everyday speech, part of the urgency that informs black militancy – “Ahm shoutin, you fucked my people, and now we need justice” – the invocation of the dead made in this speech is one that requires endlessly to look to the dead for sustenance, for legitimation. For me that is a kind of feeding off the dead. And it is there throughout, it is part of the diasporic imagination, because you are aware of this moment of rupture and break, and if you are a new world diasporic figure that moment of rupture is marked by the triangle. If you listen to the spirituals and the gospels, they are infused with this necrophiliac imaginary. But I think filmmakers become even more in tune with it – so much of what I’ve done is about the dead. Figures who are no more. So much of the authority of the films comes from this act of mourning. Which in visual terms is a kind of consumption of those figures.”

In the beginning of the 1980’s, it became clear that the legacies of the Bandung moment and its varied postures of nonaligned sovereignty had effectively come to an end, and the narratives of liberation and overcoming, as well as their underlying mythologies, could no longer hold the critical salience they once had. This shift also had an effect on the counter-models of cinema, particularly those categorised as ‘Third Cinema’, an ambiguous term which referred to the forms and practices that were cultivated in subaltern cultures in response to the hegemony of Western cinema, as dialectical weapons in the process of decolonisation. “Inscribed in the militant and nationalist pretensions of the term ‘third cinema’,” wrote Akomfrah in 1988, “is a certainty which simply cannot be spoken anymore. A certainty of place, location and subjectivity. What now characterizes the ‘truths’ of cinema, politics and theory is uncertainty. “ In times of uncertainty one can no longer hold on to stories of salvation and redemption, depending upon a utopian horizon or a prospect of homogeneous collectivity toward which the emancipatory history is imagined to be moving. In times of uncertainty, other fictions tend to be created, reports of wanderings without preconceived maps or destinations, forms of inquiry that are not in search for the one and only Truth, but for a sincerity of small truths; fictions that embrace the “unknowing” and oppose the view of history as a chain of events on a ‘road to salvation’ with that of a discontinuous drift through uncharted territories, in which action is ever open to unaccountable contingency, chance and peripeteia . In Testament the fiction takes on the tentative form of a “trauerspiel”, which Benjamin identified as fitting for a time “turned unheroic, requiring no redemption and no ultimate order”. In contrast to the dominant cultural form of tragedy, which relies on the illusion of totality or wholeness – of which the typical Hollywood spectacle is today’s prime manifestation – the allegorical trauerspiel brings life to experiences of absence and failure, the spaces in between that cannot be captured by the pursuit for an imposing knowledge of the absolute and the determined.

“A lot of the cinema I was schooled on was not only the European art tradition or even the Asian one – Mizuguchi, Ozu etc. For a cinephile the central supplement to the art cinema was the militant “third cinema” tradition, premised on the idea that the machinery, this indexical machinery of narrative filmmaking could participate in a project of social transformation of a utopian kind. I think there was a sense in which for three or four decades that was true. But if you’re making films in the 1980s this was a very tough call to make, a very difficult proposition, because the very language vernacular of the utopian was itself now in flux and in doubt in some way. So certainly the thing that a number of us started to try to do was redefine “third cinema”, to move it away from the militant posture. The need for an “imperfect cinema”, the need for a national address, the question of minorities, etc: all these things are important but they don’t need to be attached to some eschatological religious teleological narrative, which says if you have those things you will automatically go to nirvana. … it’s an impossible demand: if your films haven’t participated fully in this project of national renewal in the utopian kind, if you haven’t gone to the promised land, that by implication means you fail, because if the cinema only exists to verify those utopian horizons and we don’t have it, theres no raison d’être for your being. So the intent to break this limb was in part, not for the political project, but for the cinema itself. To save it from itself. Sometimes the filmmakers from themselves. So for Glauber Rocha you don’t have to do too much, but for someone like Solanas you really have to work hard, because The hour of the furnances is an extraordinary formal project by any definition. The fact that he didn’t need to socialise Argentina is neither here or there as far as I’m concerned. The effort in itself was fine. The desire to find a language to speak is worth applauding, I think, even if you don’t get utopia at the end. So that was what the project was about. We took a lot of criticism… just this real need to give legitimacy to a moving image culture spread across various continents, which had been growing for 40 years … if that’s the only way of calling itself real, the wall is gone. You should bury it all. You could see the wall coming down. You could see this was where we were heading, trying to disentangle the two, to disengage them. That was a worthwhile project.

There are two films, the openings to which I absolutely love: Far from Vietnam and the Hour of the Furnaces. The first five minutes of both films are extraordinary. Syncopated, energetic, “this is going somewhere, this is gonna happen”. “We can see the bombs, are we gonna stop them?” As exercises in cinema they were fantastic. The Hour of Furnaces: I would happily give up next hour and a half because I think the essential work is done literally in those minutes. Nobody had done it before, not even the great Cubans. Fantastic images, but they don’t need to be attached to projects of aspirational fantastic utopian possibilities. For example, what utopian projects are you guys gonna make a film about: overthrowing the Belgian state? … It used to be like that: we watched The hour of the furnaces and we thought we should be in Angola fighting. We wrote, four our us, to ask if we could join. The fact that you would have been dead in two minutes didn’t enter our mind… If the cinema’s model for agency was that you imitated and mimicked what was going on in the film then we’re gonna loose. A lot of the films that were inherited from the radical tradition were made it that spirit, but they don’t have to be consumed in that spirit to be of value. So the question really was about this notion of use value. How one could re-calculate use value in their light, in what appears to be a failure, both in terms of the ambitions of the film as well as the content. And that was really what we were grappling with in the eighties.”

Watch Testament here.

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. The visit of John Akomfrah has been made possible with the support of Cinematek, le P’tit Ciné, Brussels Arts Platform and VUB Doctoral School of Human Sciences.