Lying Down In A World Of Tempest – Lav Diaz Publication

On the occassion of the first Belgian retrospective to date of the work of Lav Diaz, produced by CINEMATEK, Courtisane and Bozar, in collaboration with VDFC (10 SEPTEMBER – 26 NOVEMBER, 2015).

How to come to terms with the history of a country that is haunted by memories of colonization, rebellion and oppression, a country that continues to wrestle with itself in search for meaning and identity? The weight of this question makes itself felt in every frame, in every face, breath and gesture inhabiting the films of Lav Diaz. From his feature debut, Serafin Geronimo: Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (1998), to his latest From What Is Before (2014), all of his films are deeply rooted in the history and politics of his home country, the Philippines. They bear the wounds of a troubled past that have never been able to heal, as the shadows cast by the Spanish and American colonization, the conflict between Moro Muslims and Christians, and Ferdinand Marcos’ imposition of Martial Law still loom heavily over the country. Even though the dictatorship has come to an end almost thirty years ago, the harms and injuries produced by the past have never seemed to wither away, but have grown ever more inward. This legacy of trauma and disempowerment, of “stifled hands and silenced voices,” as Alexis Tioseco wrote, is what can be felt reverberating in Lav Diaz’ shattering tragedies of sin, guilt and redemption.

It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that 19th century Russian literature, especially the work of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, has never been far from his mind. Already in Serafin Geronimo, which starts out with a quote from Crime and Punishment, Diaz seems to have established his main theme: the search for redemption, a theme which continues to run through his oeuvre, from the Tolstoy-inspired Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), in which a onetime political prisoner confronts his former interrogator, to Norte, the End of History (2013), which begins with a Raskolnikov-like figure committing murder, but develops into an allegory about Marcos. And just as the Russian novelists sought to depict “the Russian soul” by making full use of the temporal spaciousness of their prose epics, Diaz’ portrayals of the lives and suffering of the Filipino people unfold over epic lengths of time, stretching over multiple hours. This duration gives Diaz a grand canvas on which he patiently sketches painstaking diagrams of the factors and events that shape the multiple, interconnected lives of the people he observes, unfurling into panoramic meditations on morality, violence and death, torn between humanist faith and materialist despair.

Cinema as window onto the troubled soul of the world, as a quest for the inner life of reality in all its mystery and ambiguity: in Lav Diaz’ work yesteryear’s dream of André Bazin appears to have found a contemporary follower, a filmmaker who is not about to tone down his search any time soon. As he himself has said, “I would go to any extent in my art to fathom the mystery of humankind’s existence. I want to understand death. I want to understand solitude. I want to understand struggle. I want to understand the philosophy of a growing flower in the middle of a swamp.”

Stoffel Debuysere

Together in electric dreams


Supposedly unable to change the times we are in or to depart from them in any way, we continue to take them in, observing and figuring this world in which we find ourselves. We have increasingly become aware that we are mostly being fed things we already know, things we have been told so many times before and we will be told many times again. Most likely that is why so many of us, in our crucial search for a displacement of thought or a blurring of vision, tend to rely less and less on the visual evidence of this world, and look more and more toward the emotions that remain unrepresented by noisy broadcasts and unsignaled by loud headlines. This world might be impossible to capture in words or images, but they can be deployed to reveal the complexity of our contemporary experiences of disappointment and predicament, offering a sensible world that somehow responds to it. It is this sense of exploration that can be felt when looking at the work of many young filmmakers, at least for those who are willing to spend some precious time in the cinema spaces or on the festivals that choose to avoid the trodden paths and refuse the dead ends that are customarily ascribed to contemporary cinema. At the recent edition of FID Marseilles there were more than a few films that gave rise to the tantalizing feeling that cinema still has something to say about our world, for better or for worse.

It is a barren emotional state in which we find ourselves moving through the clutter of this world. In our incapacity to escape from the deepest depths of the spectacle of consumption, which now feels like the only way of living, it seems as if we can only continue to manage our suffering as something ever attached to the colonized body of our life. We are so sucked out and scared we wear it like a fashion, topped off by an acute lack of orientation. Impossible to know which way we walk, impossible to know if we walk at all upon the earth below us or if there is in fact an earth or a below upon which we might walk. Uncertain about who we are and where to go, what we know better is all that we are strange to: the radiant smiles and comforting words of those who continue to celebrate the logic of accumulation by dispossession, those who choose to join the hallucinatory dance of the global financial elites, gliding between the whirls and twirls of virtual credit and the sweeps and flows of transnational capital, surrounded by crawling governments, drunken with the maddening wine of liquid power and stealthy control, while so many are standing around in anguish, waiting for the lights to come up, roaming in the dark in wait for an all-encompassing whirlwind to put an end to this mad, ever rotating danse macabre.

And so we rage. We rage all the more because we don’t know what to do with our rage, we don’t know how to use it to make a difference, we don’t even know who or what we are raging against, causing us to feel that we ourselves might be the wrong being done to us, we who find ourselves caught up in an addictive frenzy of compulsion and frustration, at the same time spinning on the hamster wheel and stuck in the rat race, we who feel utterly confused by the dialectical ambivalence of fascination and condemnation for the swag and swank of capital, we who can’t help being mesmerized by the blinding glitter of bling-bling, drawn in by the neon melancholy of anonymous hotels and shady lounges, in awe of the slow-burning beseech of fast food chains and lifestyle brands, propelled by the mindless circulation of money flows and info bits. Isn’t it this two-faced ambivalence that is brimming in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers or, elsewhere, Kayne West’s Jeezus, two mutant fever dreams – somehow bridging the candy colored bombast that tinted the 1980’s and the shredding dystopian visions that shook up the 2000’s – that seem to lay waste to all divides between obsession and scorn for capitalism’s excesses ? And couldn’t this also have something to do with the unability of many to recognize the sense of irony that permeates Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf on Wall Street ? Our landscape of desire has never been so deranged and schizophrenic, torn as it is between seduction and repulsion, between complicity and guilt.

“Everybody’s got a hungry heart”, the Boss sings, “Lay down your money and play your part”. Cropping up at the end of Cantine / Transept, the debut film by Benjamin Klintoe & Dan Perez, the song hits you like a kick in the chest: its snappy rhythm and infectious mood can no longer obscure the bleak narrative of loss and failure contained in the lyrics. It’s a heart-wrenching clincher for a merciless take on some of those who are left dabbling in an all-consuming absence of affect, caught up in a never ending war against the urgency of their own boredom – “some kids lost in the sauce”, as the character of Joe Killer recounts, who “just want to have fun screwing the world”, who only know they “don’t want the life of others“ and count the whole world as their enemy. There is nothing to hold them while they fall into the ruins, nothing to soothe their anxiety as they plunge through the rubble in search for another high, another score, another distraction. No inhalation, no blow, no whack, no fast sex or easy take comes even close to matching the intensity of the fall, and no grunts of fury or whispers of fear can give vent to the tremendous desire burning inside, so desperately clamoring for articulation. As if the only way to not give up on desire, the only way left to exist, is to plunge ourselves into the chaos. As if the refusal to yield to the trials and tribulations of society, so uncompromising in its ambivalence, carelessness and hostility toward us, comes at the high price of becoming outcasts in our own time.

So many filmmakers seem to be drawn to the physiological and psychological chaos generated by frustration and excess, to the space of loneliness and disorder that is nourished by the frantic search for those intensities that could lead us into unknown territories where we could loose ourselves, even just for a while. Their universe is inhabited by fools, madmen, misfits and night-ark drifters roaming in Cimmerian wastelands and fluorspar twilight zones, where they often go in hiding from the yellow of gaudy urban lights that makes them feel so vulnerable and exposed. In Virgil Vernier’s Mercuriales the fractured landscapes of the Parisian banlieues are used as the hallucinatory backdrop for a twisted fairy tale on the spectres of legend futures past. Looking over these suburban landscapes are the cold shadows of the abandoned twin towers of Bagnolet, sad totem poles of an era gone by, dream residues of a world from before the future vanished from sight, when it was still conceivable to imagine a world different from the one in which we live. Guided by James Ferraro’s hypnagogic incantations and mutations of our wretched throwaway culture, like a nebula of free-floating memories slipping in and out of focus, one has a sense of plugging into the underground currents that expose the loops and fuses of past reveries and delusional fantasies. As the characters wander through a scattered world of dead end streets and cul-de-sacs, endless runways and gateways covered with bright graffiti that only seems to conceal misery and anonymity, what is laid bare is the festering wound of the present, this age of wreckage from which we need to salvage what remained unimagined, in order to fill up the void of the future.

Attempting to refuse resignation, we look for some recognition in the faces of others, reaching out in the darkly lit dream lands for other bodies, those imagined and imperceptible as well as those actual and perceivable, in the hope of transforming into animated coexistent bodies, improbably shared. But how can we, in all our reaching and touching, avoid losing our desire in the obscure mists of the nirvana principle, where all life tension dissolves into thin air ? Watching Luis López Carrasco’s El Futuro, it appears as if we can only wake up from the hangover of neo-liberalism by going right into another one, dancing and fucking the pain away until we are left dwelling in nothingness. How can we find a way to persist and insist beyond this gape into the void, against the lethargy of endless deferral and the ordeal of unliving ? How can we, sentient in our dance of death, continue to fight to come to exist, to be the future that happens ? What these films draw out, in a very tentative way, is perhaps not only an unfinished cartography of the wastelands of frozen imagination and thwarted desire, but also a map of how to perceive, amidst the darkness, this light that tries to reach us but never will. Perhaps being able to act in the present requires to live all that is left unlived.

Benjamin Klintoe & Dan Perez, Cantine / Transept (FR, 2013, 32′)

CANTINE, TRANSEPT from Dan Perez on Vimeo.

Virgil Vernier, Mercuriales (FR, 2014, 105′)

MERCURIALES – VIRGIL VERNIER (EXTRAIT 1) from Kazak Productions on Vimeo.

Luis López Carrasco, El Futuro (ES, 2013, 67′)

TEASER EL FUTURO from Sergio Jiménez on Vimeo.

Some notes are borrowed from Rachel Levitsky’s The Story of My Accident is Ours.

Between the fire and the voice


Talk with John Akomfrah. November 20 2013, Brussels. In the context of the DISSENT ! series. Moderated by Stoffel Debuysere.

In November 2013, John Akomfrah was in Brussels to present Handsworth Songs (1986). This was the first film he made as a member of the Black Audio Film Collective, a group of artists, critics and filmmakers who set out to intervene in the cultural debates around black identity and representation that were raging all over Britain in the 1980’s. Handsworth Songs, in many ways the key work of the collective, was made in response to the riots that broke out in September 1985, when roughly three hundred residents of Birmingham’s multi-ethnic suburb of Handsworth came into violent contact with the local police force. The violence was presented by the government as a solely criminal event with racial overtones, as yet another manifestation of the disintegration of norms regarding “law and order‟. Confronted with the rhetorics surrounding these events, the challenge for Akomfrah and the collective was then to find a form that could address and problematize the dominant representation of the riots in particular and the figuration of race and ethnicity in general. The events in Handsworth resonated with other uprisings that swept through England’s inner cities throughout the late 1970’s and the first half of the 1980’s. From the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976 and the ‘riots’ which ignited nationwide in 1981, to the uprisings sparked in response to the shooting of Cherry Groce in Brixton and the death of Cynthia Jarrett in Tottenham in 1985: these were the events that painfully exposed the gap between the dominant discourses on “Britishness” and what was intimately experienced by the “children of the Windrush generation”, those whose parents formed the first mass wave of migration from the Caribbean, the Indian Sub Continent and Africa during the 1950s; those “bastard children of 1968” who came of age in a Britain that still carried with it so many unresolved ghosts from its colonial past. These were the events that crystallised what was felt by many: a sense of discrimination, marginalisation and downpression, cultivated by a state power deciding who belongs and who does not, who is the same and who is other, who has the right to speak and to be heard, and who merely emits senseless noise. At the heart of liberal realism, supposedly freed of archaic impulses and immature passions, a consensual order in which the rationalization of social roles went hand in hand with a propagation of a certain multiculturalism, a new racism roared its ugly head: one propelled and maintained by the state itself. Who could not forget the words of the infamous speech given by Thatcher in the run-up to the 1979 election, stating that the once so proud empire “might be rather swamped by people of a different culture”, upsetting the hearts and minds of its hardworking people? Who could not forget the sight of Sir Ronald Bell on the set of BBC’s Panorama studio, disdainfully gesturing at the screen behind him showing footage of the “civil disorders” of 1981, and saying: “If you look at their faces… I think they don’t know who they are or what they are. And really, what you’re asking me is how the hell one gives them the kind of sense of belonging young Englishmen have?” These are the words that marked a whole generation, a generation who felt trapped in history, and was anxious to reclaim an affective counter-memory that could intervene in the official versions of historical continuity and national identity. For many of those who were coming of age in the England of the 1980’s, who were painfully confronted with the complacency of a dominant order that contended to have “history on its side” and the contempt of an imagined community in which they did not seem to have any part, the forage into counter-memory was not only a way of undoing the complicity of past, present and future, but moreover of the distribution of allocated places and roles that defined Thatcher’s “Englishness”. The organisation of representations and reasoning that shaped this reality had to be challenged and displaced by way of forms and narratives that could somehow express the uncertainties and anxieties that affectively contradicted and disrupted the state of consensus; forms and narratives that could establish new relations with the past: a past that had produced oppression, inequality, exploitation and discrimination, but had also grown inward, a haunting, unbinding past that had inflicted agonizing wounds and bruises to the sense of identity and collectivity.

“There’s a moment of apocrypha that for me underwrites personally the coming of Handsworth Songs. It was in 1981. Now, you’ve got to remember that the 1981 disturbances in the streets of London and across the country were being reenacted by people of my age and that’s not too surprising because we were almost certainly the first post-migrant generation. Think about the demographic shifts that took place in England between 1949 and ’59: about 1.5 million people came across from Africa, the Caribbean, the West Indies, … It takes about four or five years to find your feet, so if you start to have kids in the beginning of the 1960’s, they turn 18 in 1981, give or take a few years. That demographic block which comes of age between 1976 and ’85, those who are the offspring of the original migrant settlers, are historically unusual because for the first time a culture has to find a way of processing them. But they are also historically unusual because in a very real sense they spell the coming of the “hyphen”. In other words these are people who will be uniquely hybrid, but not in the way that is nowadays fashionably spoken about. They are black British, yes, but their identities will be formed in that space between the two. Because both categories exist prior to them.

This is the first group that was coming into being in that gap between the two, and it was a complicated becoming: part of the complexity had to do with how much of the Faustian bargain pact my generation would make with its history, with its past. The past said: “your parents came here to clean, sweep up the floors, and ‘say yes sir, no sir’”. How much of that will you embrace? If you decide to embrace that, you’re a migrant. But this is an impossible demand to make of that generation because the amnesia that characterized that becoming is not deliberate. Many of these people don’t know an elsewhere. They can’t rely on the ressources of an elsewhere to make this bargain, so they necessarily have to be subversive, because subversion just meant “no, I won’t be that”.

Before Handsworth Songs, we did a piece called Signs of Empire, and one of the speeches we used came from 1981 when a conservative minister said over and over again: “these people don’t know who they are or what they are. And really what you’re asking me” – and I’m quoting verbatim – “is how one gives them a sense of belonging”. Now he was speaking from the right of the political spectrum but I believe that in that particular instance he was voicing a common sentiment, which is: “who the fuck are these young people? We really don’t know who they are”. But crucially they don’t know who they are either. And there’s an element of truth in that. So when Handsworth happened, when it became clear that you had both a birth and death agony at the same time, we had to do something about it.

As for my moment of apocrypha: I remember standing in Brixton, London – then an area of large black settlements – during the riots of 1981. I have a camera and while I’m photographing stuff I see a group of policemen – young, in their twenties, very scared – who’ve got these shields and they are banging on them and screaming “kill, kill, kill!”, because they were trying to find some energy and courage. I was surrounded by all these journalists who were doing the exact same thing as I was. Now the next days’ newspapers all had that story of these policemen. But something interesting had happened – there was this “kill kill kill !” as the headline but rather than coming from the police these were now the words being uttered by the rioters. And that for me was a major lesson. Because I suddenly realized that there is something called a “regime of representation” in which people play particular roles, narrative roles. In that regime at the time it was impossible to imagine that a group of police officers would be saying those words, ergo it had to be the young black people. So I became aware very early on that there was something called a “slippery signifier” and that it was really all about naming. This was about undermining or confirming certain narrative expectations. And we – because many of the people who went on to form the collective were also around at that time – we became aware of this discrepancy between the fact and the naming of the fact. Part of the way in which you came into being as a subject was to chose the ability, to chose the terrain on which you name who you are. You had to involve yourself in that process.”

As part of the act of “naming things anew”, the collective had to look for narratives and forms that could undo and rearticulate the trajectories that framed the existing landscape of reality, and redraw the topography of places, roles and competences inscribed in it. A critical response to cultural and sociopolitical commonplaces could no longer be found in the language of binary oppositions and substitutions, as it was cultivated by Screen theory and its discussions on ideological stereotyping, nor could it be found in the paradigms of “cultural ethnography”, with its vocations to represent the inner workings of a community’s experiential reality. The problem did not lie in opposing the rhetorical messages that are disseminated through mass media or in, as Salman Rushdie suggested in his vexing critique on the film, “giving voice to the voiceless” by making heard their authentic colorful tales, but in questioning the way words and forms are interwoven in a common sense.

“There are several interviews we did for the film. The first two guys they tell you why they do this. The Asian people tell you “we knew there was something wrong, the problem was …” the point is that people might tell you what led to it but that doesn’t explain the acts themselves. And that is the problem that most of the discourse runs into. In other words, as long as you keep insisting that the reasons why people make certain social acts are purposive, rational and programmatic, you’re gonna miss the point, which is that we’re not entirely rational in our actions. Psychoanalysts understand this now and we all understand. There are certain obsessive compulsive acts, there are certain acts of hysteria or anger, … not everybody who’s on the streets is saying to themselves “we’re doing this to bring down racism in British society”, they’re just responding to it. I tried – like everybody else I was looking and asking around – but when we put it together, we realised it just wasn’t enough. It didn’t seem to explain the cataclysm. So you needed other ways of trying to do that and we did. We were editing this for a year trying to take seriously the folkloric and the ethnographic and it just wasn’t there. There was always a gap between the fire and the voice.

When we almost finished the film there was a key British post structuralist called Colin Maccabe, who was very close to Salman Rushdie. He said, “I love this film, I’ll show it to Salman and he will love it too”. Salman did this article in the Guardian and it appeared that he hated the film. The key accusation that he made was that instead of telling stories we had rehashed bits and pieces from archives and this was the worst way of going about things. The argument was that we needed a certain ethnographic veracity and it was difficult then to persuade people that it’s the very language of veracity that had to be challenged.

By the time we came to this film, we knew the cinema of Michael Powell, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Tarkovsky… We had seen everything because we had been to the same fucking schools as everyone else. But nobody believed that. We went to the arts council to get money to make “avant-garde” films and they were like: “you can’t because black people don’t make avant-garde films.” This was the environment. This was the primal scene of our becoming. Salman just couldn’t believe any more than most people who ran the film funds that you might do this deliberately. The assumption is that if something exists like this it is because you don’t know any other way of doing it.

What we wanted to do, and this is gonna sound very pompous but I don’t mean it that way, is to write a kind of feelroom about the coming of hybrid identities, to suggest that this is a kind of neural pathway. I’m not surprised that the work has some kind of resonance here in Brussels, because the condition of diaspora is the same everywhere and always. In terms of impact on the community, it’s always the same: people love it, some hate it. But it forced us to talk to each other about what the film is trying to say, which is really where are we and what do we want to say to each other about this country. Are we Ghanian, black, black British, how do want to name ourselves? And I’m glad we made it because it helped that discussion.

We just wanted to say: “look, there are no stories in the riots, they’re just ghosts of other stories”. These are just infinite rehearsals for this moment, and in order to just understand this moment you need to sift through all of this. You’ve got to understand that nobody leaves their country saving up money for five years, getting up a boat to travel 10.000 miles to come anywhere to cause trouble. Nobody does this. So if someone with their family made this journey to come here and their kids are on the streets rioting, it means that something has happened in the nature of the pact made between them and you. Something has gone wrong. So in order to understand what has gone wrong you’ve got to go back, to look at the moments of affirmation and when this affirmation goes wrong. That is the only premisse for the film, there is no other reason to make the film, because anybody else had done the other stuff before. You can still watch it every day on television: there will be a socialist MP and a conservative MP and a newscaster inbetween – and he will say, “Mister socialist, why are these young black people doing this?”, and he will answer “Oh well, because there is unemployment and policing etc.” And then the newscaster will turn to mister conservative who will say “Ah , but these problems you are talking about: white people in poor areas also face the same problem, so that can’t be the reason why they are rioting, the reason why is because they’re black, they don’t belong”. There’s no amount of great storytelling that will get you around this problem. The problem is race. Everybody knows it, but everybody is trying to wish it away. So we had to confront it: yes, it is about race, yes, all the kids on the street rioting are black. But why is it about race? That’s the question.”

There has always been a certain undecidability at the heart of the image, a tension between the composition of a distinctly visual sensibility, and a sensory fabric of indistinct intensities, circulating independent of any predetermined relationship of address. In other words, there is always a play with the variable significance of images, which are isolated to convey the tonality of the whole entity, or combined into an opaque object or dynamic form. It is this versatility of signs that has been dismissed by structuralist thought, which restored them to their signifying materiality. Within film culture, this tendency ultimately collapsed in endless discussions on “positive” and “negative” images, which more than often filled the pages of magazines such as Screen. The work of the Black Audio Film Collective can be considered as a break with the idea that there was a sort of wholesomeness to the image and that the response to dominant imagery had to be found in its antagonistic double. Their work was an attempt to render sensible the gaps and silences of Britain’s colonial history on the strength of the signs of those who had written it, addressing the uncertainties of the colonial archive and their effects on the diasporic condition by creating a space of poetic reflection in which the irreconcilable gaps and fissures between history and myth, the imagined and the experienced – there where diasporic histories lie in wait – can be excavated.

“We were talking earlier about this distrust of ambivalence and agnosticism in regards to the truth of the image. Yes, all these kids are out on the streets, but the reasons why they’re there is not implicit in the image. This is the standard ethnographic myth: that if you see people breaking stones, somehow it gives you some insight in their being, in their nature. Bullshit, it doesn’t, it’s just them breaking stones. If you see people throwing Molotov cocktails, that’s what they are doing. What it means, that’s a different proposition. It seems to me that when you reach these conceptual ruptures in the tissue of the social you have to go somewhere else in order to effect a kind of repair. You have to find ressources from other spaces, other than what is immediately in front of you, to make sense of that. So the fact that we were skeptical about documentary realism had to do with that. With the fact that you just had to question the value of the immediate, of what is immediately in front of you. Because sometimes it is telling you as much of the truth as it was lying.

The diasporic relationship to the archive is a very special one. In the case of the African diaspora in Europe in particular – between 1949 and ‘69 maybe 2 million people passed through – there is no epitaph, no monument anywhere that tells you that these people ever passed through. Most of them are dead now. The only tangible record of them ever having existed is the archive. But the archive is also paradoxical is the sense that these are also official memories of moments written in the language, or allegedly in the language of the official narratives. So from the beginning you have to have an ambivalent relation to the archive: everything that is in there – you see people coming off ships or boats, there is a voice-over saying “here are the immigrants, they’re going to be causing trouble” or “we have to be kind” – it’s the voice of the outsider of the interior of the archive. Most of these people have no idea that they’re already being constructed as a social problem before they’d even landed. So part of the ethical task in using this material is unraveling the polyvalent, to take apart the multiple meanings which are always present at the same time and make a choice about which of the possible meanings you are going to commandeer and use for certain aesthetic, cultural or political ends. And this starts with the realisation that things are always in multiple places at the same time. ”

Handsworth Songs does not assume a posture of urgency and emergency, as is typical of the so-called “militant” films which attempt to take up the torch for those considered as “surplus”; it does not aim for the awakening of a political consciousness, as was the case for some films of Horace Ove, Menelik Shabazz, or Franco Rosso, who each in their own way attempted to express the sense of dread and disquiet that gripped 1970’s Britain. It rather proposes a rearrangement of words, images and sounds in another fabric of sensibility, one of intimacy and vulnerability. It takes on the tonality of an allegory, choosing the fragmentary and the incomplete over the symbolic and the whole, choosing doleful monody over dramatic discursiveness, the expression of sorrow over the rhetorics of agon. What perspires is a sense of loss, of place and time, a loss that cannot be recovered but that leaves behind its traces, in images of departure and words of reminiscence. But there is also something else that remains vacated, another absence that haunts and taunts the lives of those portrayed : that which Orlando Patterson and Derek Walcott have called the “absence of ruins”, the lack of tangible documents or monuments, memorials or libraries, that legitimize the existence of those anonymous lives, of those who perish in the cracks of history, perish by never being allowed to go behind the definitions that others made of them, by not being allowed to spell their proper name or recount their own memories. What is felt, especially through the use of poetic texts, is a melancholic agency who cannot know its history as the past, cannot capture its history through chronology, and does not know who it is except as the persistence of a certain unavailability and unavowability that keeps haunting the present.

“When I first came across the phrase “the absence of ruins” it helped me so much. It is a phrase by the Jamaican sociologist/novelist Orlando Patterson. He was using it to describe the new world, the Caribbean, and how it, as a place of the diasporic subject, is marked by the absence of ruins – ruins that suggest a kind a civilizing trace. There’s no Acropolis, no elegy marble, these are places formed on the basis of an ever present. It struck us that the absence of ruins characterizes all diasporic lives. It’s the sine qua non of the diaspora. It’s marked by an absence of tangible traces to your existence. The available means are partly the archival records and you have to look not only for what the archival trace says but also what it doesn’t say. Because sometimes it’s hidden there. So all the words we used in the project were ones we rewrote because we believed those sentiments, silent though they are, were present as well at the time when those images were shot.

“He said to her, Remember Bunny Enriquez and Greta Borg and Lady June Barkerî.
Remember Countess Corblunska with her black velvet top her skirt of figured net over satin.
Remember the nights of Coruba cocktails and Curuba sour, their secret pregnancies, your wet nursing and me nappy washing.
It ís about time we had our own child.
Our own master George Hammond Banner Bart.”

All of those names are from real people, based on research into Caribbean upper class life in the 1940, so they are the very many people in the film would have left to get away from, because migration is a profoundly utopian act – you leave because things are gonna be better in the future, somewhere else. But by virtue of it being utopian it’s also a dystopian critique of where you’re leaving. It suggest that they are in flight. A number of the voice-overs were either to suggest what might be the reasons for flight or what might arrive – what you would meet in what Naipaul calls the “enigma of arrival”, because in the very real sense you are being made into something new. The journey of migration is the journey of diaspora. By the time you arrive you are something else. And you will never be the same again; you will never be a fola or wolof, you will now be something else and that something else is what that life you’re about to lead is about to discover, the implications of that something are what you about to discover. These are deeply held sentiments that we felt the writing should aid people to understand. “I walk with my back to the sea, horizon straight ahead.” Well, which horizon? “Night time, I am the sea”. In the evening you might go the Caribbean, in your dreams, but in the daytime you will be here in this cold, in this space, this impossible space that you have chosen. This is the awful thing about migration, no matter how awful things are for you, you made that choice. So you have to deal with it, you have to process this decision that you’ve made. That’s the importance of the writing.

In the 1980’s, when it became clear that the legacies of the Bandung moment and its varied postures of nonaligned sovereignty had effectively come to an end, the narratives of liberation and overcoming that sustained the force of the politically engaged cinematic practices from the 1960’s could no longer hold the critical salience they once had. This was especially felt in regards to the legacy of the so-called ‘Third Cinema’, referring to the often militant cinema forms that were developed in subaltern cultures as an answer to the hegemony of western cinema and an instrument in the process of decolonization. “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 we can no longer hold on to these stories of salvation and redemption, depending upon a certain utopian horizon or a prospect of homogeneous collectivity toward which the emancipatory history is imagined to be moving. In times of uncertainty, as Cyrille Offermans wrote about Michel de Montaigne’s essays, 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. As David Scott has written, there is a need of 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 broken series of paradoxes and reversals in which action is ever open to unaccountable contingency, chance and peripeteia.

“The quote is from a journal that I co-edited. It was really about trying to grapple with what we called the “politics of location”. Now it seems to me that the politics of location debate is connected to the question you were asking about diaspora and the notion of uncertainty. Just to make it real simple, if I speak to my mum – or rather, when I could speak to her when she was alive – she would say “we Ghanians, we do this”. There was a certainty that underpinned the utterance of identity that I couldn’t use. Because I couldn’t speak with the same assurance, the same certainty about what a Ghanian was. For the simple reason I didn’t really know – she did. The lack of not knowing has to do with this business of diaspora, of relocation. Because I am being formed in her home, in the care and love and concern of her home. At the same time as I am being processed by something else: a school, an outside. So I have to work on the assumption that this uncertainty, this döppelganger in my head saying “everything’s ok, don’t worry, you are really like everybody else” – that döppelganger has to at one point meet the other phantom on this side of my shoulder saying “if you’re really like everybody else how come you are being treated in different ways”? In other words, you’re split psychically and culturally in ways that you begin to understand are references to how the society in itself is split towards you and people like you. At that moment you choose something. You say “I will be the product of this and that”. And it seems to me that this need to make uncertainty a militant gesture, the need to make the hybrid identity a condition of speech, this is what diasporas do. At some point you say “I will sit here and I will sing about river Jordan”. Because I now know that I’m not wholly of here, and will probably never be of there. So whatever I am going to become, has to be made of my will, effort, gestures which we’ll have to take from both somewhere. Uncertainty becomes the condition of speech.

David’s point, which I think is a really important one , was that there were moments when a certain political narrative could become endear to explain certain actions, certain moments of anti-colonial struggles. But in the absence of those things, do we measure the effectivity of current actions in relation to the so-called pregivens, the narratives of a past? In other words, if a bunch of kids is out on the streets, even helping themselves to 10.000 nikes, if you can’t explain it by the discourse of socialist action, is the problem the theory or them? That’s what David is trying to grapple with: what happens in post-political times when the categories are not adequate to explaining the acts? What is the act now and how do we make sense of it without recourse to pre-existing ones, which by definition will say that these are not good enough? Because the pre-existing ones have models that are obviously always much more dramatic. In Ghana, in 1949, when Nkrumah started the CPP there was a country of 7.5 million people and 2.5 of them joined the party. It’s a mass party, so of course if you have that model in your head about anti-colonial struggle you’re going to run into problems when you hit the inner cities of London where there may be 10.000 people on the street who don’t and don’t want to belong to any party, and the cause they’re making is not for something clear.

After the 2011 riots in London there was this big event at Tate. Hundreds of people turned up to watch the film and to discuss it. Lots of people told us we had to make another film. But no! I believe very much in generations taking responsibility. The people on the streets in London in 2012 are not 45-55, they’re 25 and they have to find their own way of articulating the reasons why, they have to find a narrative for speaking out. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t help if I was asked but i will not initiate a project on another riot. Because the reason why we did it was because we wanted our generation to have it’s own stake in the argument. I wouldn’t do it for another generation, they have to do it themselves. I would help them but first and foremost they have to make the effort, otherwise it is not worth it.

We were very careful in Handsworth Songs to not take on the militant posture which says “these are revolutionary acts to bring down capital”. I mean that’s not what we were saying there. I’m not saying in Handsworth Songs that there were no criminal acts, but here’s the thing: there’s a tautology at work which you have to unmask. Criminals are subjects, you can’t be tried as a mass for a crime. Crimes are committed by criminals. They have to be able to face the law as subjects. So if you have 10.000 people on the streets committing a crime, then something else is going on other than a crime. Since the singularity is missing. This is a mass act. One needs to discuss how a certain form of sociality in a place at a particular time takes that form. Why? It doesn’t matter how many times you say, “it’s just criminal”. It doesn’t help you to understand that. I don’t believe, as many of my generation said about the event, that these were just kids interpellated by capital, that they just wanted Nike shoes etc. If you want Nike shoes you can go buy them or steal them on your own. When you do that with 10.000 other people, you’re making another sort of statement – as well as the fact that you want Nike shoes. So what is that statement? Why do people choose to bang together to do this in the name of Nike shoes, even if that’s all it was?

The fact that there is no grand narrative at the heart of it may well be their modus operandi. If the modus operandi of an event is “we don’t have a slogan”, that seems to me to be a political gesture, a political statement. Question is: what is it? You need to unpick that. Some lazy cultural theorist who goes “oh, they don’t have a political slogan, they went home and they took the fridge and the Nike shoes”. Do your job, dude! You are the guy who is paid to think about the impossible, they don’t have to. If you read the beginning of The making of the English working class by Edward Thompson, you never find anybody in the opening saying “we are the working class people, our historical mission is to take over capital.” People don’t speak like that. Nobody ever has. Bolsheviks might, but the people who joined the Kronstadt rebellion didn’t say “we are the avant-garde of the working class.” Nobody speaks like this. If you want the language, you have to make analysis, calculations, deductions, based on what you’re seeing or reading about. To expect the actors to announce in pamphlet form or, even better, in three volumes of Das Kapital is an impossible demand. Nobody has ever done it and no amount of young black kids are going to do it for you. It’s that basic. I don’t know of any social formation ever that did that. Including the most powerful one, the working class. There is no record. The moment when people become aware that they’re a class for themselves comes two centuries later, but not when it’s being formed. And that’s an important point to remember when we make these accusations about people without a signal or orientation. People never do have those things. “

Handsworth Songs was made in a time when various “endisms” started to make their way into the political and cultural imagination: the end of all grand narratives, of ideology and utopia, of politics and history, and ultimately the end of any meaningful time whatsoever. What was said to be dead and buried were the optimistic narratives that contained a historical faith in a possible transformation of the dominant world order, and the credibility of the theoretical models that sustained this faith with the promise of providing both the means to entangle the workings of our lived world and the weapons in the struggle for a new one. But this rhetoric also tainted the thinking about cinema: in the aftermath of the golden age of structuralism and semiology, there was talk of the death of the image, of the emergence of a certain post-cinema, a cinema that could no longer keep its promise and renounced its historical and political possibilities. The collective, however, did not concern itself with mourning the ‘end of cinema’ and lamenting the growing banality of signs and images, but on the contrary, with awakening the potential that is inside of them, a potential that is realized in new topographies of the significant and the insignificant, documents and monuments. The sense of mourning in Akomfrah’s film does not seem to be prompted by a loyalty to a world of lost ideals or a helplessness in the face of catastrophe, it rather coincides with a resistance to closure, finality and fixation.

“I started to make Super 8 films when I was very young and then I started up film societies. In fact, I am very proud of the fact that I was once beaten up for showing Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane in a film club. Cinema was really important to me from the beginning. But the collective did start off working in the gallery and at some point, about a decade ago, everybody denied this was the case. I don’t necessarily believe the theoreticians who announce the post-cinema moment, but it’s clear that something is happening. It’s clear that the disenchantment that we feel vis-a-vis the image is not just paranoia, it’s clear that some of the questions that people of my generation and certain generations before felt were the providence of cinema are now being addressed in other spaces, other platforms, other spheres. So I’m trying to respond to all of that.

I don’t love all cinema, there was a time when I could put my hand on my heart and say “I love cinema”, but not anymore. I love certain kinds, forms, practices, authors of cinema but I don’t love cinema in general anymore. Because so much is consciously not for me. So I’m happy to find spaces in which it’s possible to make some of the questions I want to pose. But I also think something happened just after the war. It had a long trajectory but essentially when you watch Bicycle Thieves or Rosselini stuff, you see a certain approach to the real. People say “we will be custodians of what you embody”. A number of institutions then came up , television being one of them, who said “we too will join you in this contract with the real”. I don’t feel that this is the case anymore. I think the real is again a fugitive subject, a pariah subject. Certainly television is like “the real , we don’t do that, we do reality TV but we don’t do real stuff because it involves open-endedness, fluctuation and ambiguity”. Suddenly all sorts of other spaces and platforms are receptive to the messiness of the real and they’re willing to take it on. I’m happy to go there because first and foremost that’s what took me into cinema. Because it was the custodian of that thing. Which it is not anymore, or at least not exclusively. You look at the opening sequence of Bicycle Thieves or Roma, open city and you can see all of these things. The dialogue, the discussions, the critique, it is all there. The fact that it is presented doesn’t mean that everything is accepted. There’s a sort of analytic power at work which is open to the very messy, protean possibilities of the real. Some of my favorite stuff is from television of the 1960’s: you watch it and there’s just this obsession with the insignificant. Now everything means something. It’s so tame, everything is “meaningful”. It’s that disenchantment with the real that I’m talking about, with it’s subversive, protean possibilities.”

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.

Notes on Militant Cinema (1967-1977)


Start from zero

For a brief moment, the world was on fire. Impossible to say how and when the spark was lit, but we know the air had been thick with tense anticipation for quite some time, and it wasn’t long before the flames were crackling all over. What was felt during the ‘long 1968’ did not, as many still seem to imagine, erupt as a momentary and localized flash of lightning in a serene sky, but flared up at the convergence point of multiple smouldering hot spots and flaming areas, dispersed in space, evolving over time. The fires were spreading at a moment when struggles against Western colonialism and neo-colonialism gripped the entire ‘Third World’: at the same time the Vietnam war was increasingly polarizing the world stage, guerrilla groups such as Uruguay’s Tupamaros and Chile’s Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR) were sprouting throughout Latin America, independence movements were gaining ground in Portugal’s African empire, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had brought together various forces struggling against Israeli colonialism, and left-wing rebellion was proliferating in various Asian countries, from India and Nepal to Malaysia and the Philippines. Che Guevara’s 1967 call to ‘create two, three, many Vietnams’ was taken to heart by resistance movements all over the world, while propositions to construct new societal forms in Cuba and China seemed to offer fresh, grassroots-based models of socialism.

Meanwhile, in France and Italy, a wave of strikes and occupations took hold of factories and universities, coming to a head in the events of May 1968 and the hot autumn of 1969. In the US, the large-scale civil rights protests that had been gathering steam since the mid-1950s boiled over when the surge of demonstrations against institutional racism and the Vietnam War led to violent uprisings, escalating in the 1968 Chicago riots. The clashes with police and army troops painfully resonated with another event that had happened just a few days earlier, when Russian tanks brought winter to the Prague Spring, brutally crushing the dream of a ‘socialism with a human face’. From Brazil to Japan, from Northern Ireland to South Africa: everywhere, the sky was filled with smoke and ashes. As if there were nothing to be seen but the light of the flames. But behind the haze, there was still a lurking sense of horizon, connecting local and specific struggles to a broader narrative, seemingly bound together by resistance against class oppression and imperialism, holding the promise of another world.

Where was cinema, this great art of light and shadow, in all this turmoil? As oppositional leftist politics seeped deeper into all areas of cultural life, filmmakers were increasingly confronted with questions such as: How to contribute to the struggle? How can cinema make itself useful? ‘For filmmakers of all leanings’, wrote French critic Serge Daney, ‘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?’1 The radical cinema that flourished so brightly in those years, on the wings of the various, adventurous ‘new waves’ that had infused the cinematic landscape with a playful spirit of liberation and iconoclasm, was one that saw itself as part of a broader project of national and international socio-political transformation. Its ambition was no longer solely to free up the camera and rewrite the codes of representation, but to make itself into a powerful vehicle for this transformation, by all means necessary. As worldwide revolts gave more and more currency to the idea of revolution, filmmakers were compelled to revolutionize their own means of production, expression and exhibition. When Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha was working on his fabulous ‘opera-mitrailleuse’, Terra em Transe (1967), he wrote:

When film-makers organize themselves to start from zero, to create a cinema with new types of plot lines, of performance of rhythm, and with a different poetry, they throw themselves into the dangerous, revolutionary adventure of learning while you produce, of playing theory and practice side by side, of reformulating every theory through every practice, of conducting themselves according to the apt dictum coined by Nelson Pereira Dos Santos from some Portuguese poet: ‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I know I’m not going over there.’ 2

To start from zero, recharging with every film: for Rocha and many other filmmakers in Latin America and elsewhere, it was not merely enough to dress up political subjects and messages in traditional outfits, as so many colleagues inclined to do at the time. It was hardly enough to proudly raise the red flag and use revolutionary theory as a signpost of good will and sentiment, as Sergio Leone did in Giù la testa, opening with Mao’s statement: ‘The Revolution is not a dinner party… ’. No, these ideas had to be thoroughly explored and followed through within cinema, which meant that the fundamental aesthetic, economic and ideological conditions and conventions of cinema had to be rethought anew. What could a cinema be if it were free from the overpowering influence of what Jean-Luc Godard referred to as the devious pair of Hollywood/Mosfilm? How could cinema be liberated from the clutches of what Guy Debord and his Situationist posse, in 1967, called the immense accumulation of ‘spectacles’, keeping the spectator at bay in a state of passive contemplation, separated from life itself?

This challenge was not entirely new. Debates on cinema as a possible form of political intervention had been raging ever since the rise of Soviet Cinema in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution – when Lenin commented that cinema was ‘the most important art form’ – and had resurged at various times, not in the least at the pinnacle of the Internationalist Popular Front alliance, when filmmakers such as Jean Renoir and Joris Ivens were swept up in their enthusiasm for communist ideals and the fight against fascism, and after World War II, in the context of the reconstruction of Italy and the revolution in Cuba. The heavy political stakes that were manifest in the 1960s put some of the debates that had been simmering within Marxist thought for decades back on the agenda, leading to radical, if often erratic re-readings of the work of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Bertold Brecht and Walter Benjamin. Only now it was done in the light of the neo-Marxist and libertarian thinking that marked the time, from the pamphlets of Mao Zedong and Che Guevara, the anti-colonialist writings of Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire to the structuralist work of Roland Barthes and Louis Althusser. Once again, the fundamental tensions between art and world, appearance and reality, practice and theory, were subject to intense inquiry, centered around the idea of ‘militant cinema’.


Amongst the people

But the notion of militant cinema, always ‘at the service of the people’, actually indicated a divided landscape. ‘There are two kinds of militant films’, argued Jean-Luc Godard in 1970, ‘those we call ‘blackboard films’ and those known as Internationale films. The latter are the equivalent of chanting L’internationale during a demonstration, while the others prove certain theories that allow one to apply to reality what he has seen on screen.’3 This division essentially redoubled a debate that had already been initiated in 1920’s Soviet Union, between those who considered the primary concern of revolutionary art as being the search for new formal and theoretical models and those who saw it as first and foremost a question of effective communication in a form and language that was already understood by the ‘common’ people. In the 1960s, the latter tendency was exemplified by the proliferation of a ‘popular’ model of militant cinema, according to which the camera had to place itself in the heart of the struggle, where the filmmaker’s task consisted of capturing the shimmering traces of life as vividly and ‘authentically’ as possible, plucking the living reality like the flowers that Mao encouraged to bloom. In a way, this notion of militant cinema was already apparent in the work of internationalist ciné-travellers such as René Vautier and Yann Le Masson: cameras were taken to the battlefields and the barricades, to occupied universities and factories on strike, not only to testify to the events, but also to give voice to those who had remained voiceless for so long.

This task was taken up by militants and filmmakers worldwide. In Japan, the students of Zengakuren, with the help of documentarists such as Shinsuke Ogawa, started to use cameras to document their battles with the authorities; In Italy, Cesare Zavattini, one of the proponents of the Neorealist movement, successfully promulgated the idea of Cinegiornale liberi; in the US, the October 1967 Pentagon riot led to the establishment of a broad network of “Newsreel” collectives; in the Middle East, the Palestine Film Unit (PFU) dedicated itself to recording the Arab-Israeli conflict, under the motto, ‘gun in one hand, camera in the other’; and during the May events in France, hundreds of film technicians and filmmakers joined forces in the États Généraux du Cinéma and started to produce ‘Ciné-tracts’. This series of anonymous shorts (some made with the help of established filmmakers) was instigated by Chris Marker, who had previously also set up SLON (La Societé de Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles). It was under the auspices of this collective that Marker put together Far from Vietnam (1967), a portmanteau film made as a protest against the American military intervention in Vietnam, including contributions by Godard, Alain Resnais, Claude Lelouch, Joris Ivens, Agnès Varda and William Klein. ‘How to make a “useful” film?’, asked Klein, ‘Fiction, agit-prop, documentary, what? We were never able to decide, but we had to do something.’ At the time, Far from Vietnam came about not only as a vibrant expression of the solidarity that many tiermondistes in Western Europe and the US felt for the national liberation struggles that were raging all over the world, but it also opened up the question of ‘usefulness’, a concern that has always been central to the debates on art and politics: how does one close the gaps between ‘here’ and ‘there’, between those who take images, those whose images are taken and those who watch them? How does one translate the struggle without re-inscribing the relations of domination between those who have the power to represent and those who are merely represented? And in doing so, how does one create art that can reach the broad masses, not only adopting, but also enriching their own forms of expression?

In his contribution to the collective film (a segment with the Vertov-inspired title ‘Camera-eye’), Godard explicitly took up these questions. ‘I am cut off from the working class, but my struggle against Hollywood is related. Yet workers don’t come to see my films.’ Perhaps engaging in the worldwide resistance against imperialism and colonialism, and creating a Vietnam in each of us, suggested Godard, can make us aware of what is common to both the filmmaker’s and the worker’s struggle. ‘What can bind us, the workers of Rhodiacéta and me, is Vietnam.’ Godard had actually visited the Rhodiacéta factory in Besançon just after March 1967, when the first occupations in France since 1936 had taken place, and would later also be there for the premiere of Far From Vietnam. On those occasions, he was always in the company of Chris Marker, who, during the production of the film, had been invited by the organizers of the local cultural programme to come and take a look. To Marker, who had previously been working in China, Cuba, Israel, and Siberia, they made a plea to give some attention to local matters: ‘If you aren’t in China or elsewhere, come to Rhodia. Important things are happening.’ After a first visit, Marker decided to make a film about the strike and secretly started shooting footage in the factory, interviewing workers, trying to involve them directly in the production of the film. The initial result of this effort was À bientôt j’espère, created by Marker, filmmaker Mario Marret and the SLON team. The film not only provides an account of the strikers’ concerns about working conditions, but also shows how they attempted to escape from their imposed identity, by laying claim to experiences deemed inaccessible and inappropriate to them: culture, education, communication. However, when the film was first shown to the strikers, they expressed a certain dissatisfaction toward it, finding it altogether too bleak, because it lacked perspective, and too romantic because it showed militants and strikes, while skipping over the preparation for the strikes and the training of the militants, which were considered the most important aspects of militant activism in factories. One of the workers, Pol Cèbe, told Marker:

Maybe you believe that audiovisual language, like written language, requires years of study, but we are convinced that this is not the case… We have so many things to say and we have a new way to say it, a new medium, a new weapon. 4

Responding to the criticism, Marker replied that the cinematic representation and expression of the working class should indeed be taken up by the workers themselves, from the inside of the struggle, not by well-meaning explorers coming from the outside. The only way to represent ‘the people’ without relying on the hallowed forms and customs that keep them in their place, so it seemed, was to provide them with their own means of representation. This would be the starting point for a longstanding collaborative effort between filmmakers and workers dedicated to fostering a cinéma ouvrier. They named themselves the Medvedkin Group, after the Soviet director Alexander Medvedkin, who in 1932 had travelled around the Soviet Union in a specially equipped ‘ciné-train’. Starting with Classe de lutte (1968), the collective initiated a model of filmmaking that aimed to annul the division between expert and amateur, producer and consumer, a model that would last in Besançon for almost five years before spreading to other places in France and beyond. The aim was no longer to simply produce militant films about the workers’ conditions, but a militant workers’ film, expressing, as Marker commented, a ‘change of consciousness’, incited by a desire ‘to learn how to see’.


Learning to see

For others, however, the challenge was not to make films about the process of ‘learning how to see’, but to make this process itself inherent to the production and reception of films. ‘It is not enough to do what Chris Marker did at Rhodiaceta – what The New York Times and Le Monde call “information”. We must rise above sensible knowledge and fight to make it rational knowledge… It implies a concrete analysis of a concrete situation.’ This quote, ripe with Marxist axioms, is taken from Pravda (1970), one of the films that Godard made with Jean-Pierre Gorin as the Dziga Vertov Group, undoubtedly the best-known proponent of the so-called ‘blackboard films’. For these filmmakers, it did not suffice to ‘start from zero’ and explore new sensible forms for new content: it was necessary to ‘return to zero’,5 to go back to the blackboard and start learning all over again, to rediscover the meaning of the ‘simplest’ acts of existence: seeing, listening, speaking, reading. This radical-regressive tendency took flight in France, where filmmakers and critics were looking for new tools of inspiration in the theoretical raids that had been traversing the discursive landscape since the beginning of the decade, particularly in the guise of Althusserianism, which in its desire to re-found Marxism, brought together fairly heterogeneous theories – drawn from psychoanalysis and semiology – under the concept of Structuralism. The most elaborate application of the structural thinking in the field of cinema emerged on the pages of such magazines as Cinéthique and Cahiers du Cinéma which, triggered by the work of the Tel Quel group, started to cultivate a lively debate on problems of ideological criticism and a potentially revolutionary ‘theoretical practice’ in cinema. After 1968, critical thinking in film increasingly found itself in the throes of a mode of reading associated with what Louis Althusser called ‘symptomatic’: a reading that searches for meaning under the surface of things, lifting the veil of images to reveal the constitutive presuppositions that make them possible in the first place, the underlying logic that determines what can and cannot be seen and thought within its framework.

The key word in this period was ‘ideology’, which was considered not simply a lie made up to fool the ignorant, or the inverted reflection of real social relations (as in Marx’s Camera Obscura model), but as a system of representation with its own logic and materiality: a set of images, myths, ideas and concepts that defined how the world was supposed to be experienced or negotiated. The reality put forward through ideology is not the system of the real relations that govern how we live, but our imaginary relationship to the real relations in which we live. What is generally taken for visible self-evidence should in fact be read as a form of encoding, whereby a society or authority legitimates itself by naturalizing itself, by rooting itself in the obviousness of the visible. According to this logic, all films had to be considered ‘political’, because they were always already overdetermined as expressions of the prevailing ideology, merely reproducing the world as it is experienced when filtered through this ideology. In view of a reality which was considered already coded, the challenge for any filmmaker was to break with reproduction or naturalization of reality, to uncover the unconscious mise-en-scène that precedes any cinematic mise-en-scène. As Serge Daney wrote, ‘Realism must always be overcome.’ Truth was put on the side of the signifier, while the signified was put on the side of ideology, or in Lacanian terms, on the side of the imaginary. Everything that involved a direct relationship between the sign and a referential reality, image and appearance, was suspected of being ideological, conforming to the self-evidence of the given. The only possible counter-strategy consisted in creating an awareness of the gaps between referent and sign, between what the image represents and how it represents it. It was this idea of disjunction, this breaking up and questioning the apparent unity of cinema by way of a ‘radical separation of elements’ (Brecht), that was at the heart of Godard’s aim to ‘produce films politically’. Political struggles should not merely be made into an object: film itself should be made into an object of struggle and criticism.

Godard did not simply want to create or represent an alternative worldview, but to investigate and deconstruct the whole process of signification out of which worldviews are constructed. Starting with La Chinoise (1967), the Althusserian pedagogy of ‘seeing, listening, speaking, reading’ became the basic rule in his play- book, the fundament of his so-called ‘blackboard films’. La Chinoise is a depiction of the ‘children of Marx and Coca-Cola’ who placed cultural concerns at the centre of their revolt in an attempt to rescue everyday life from the clutches of the ‘hidden persuaders’ which had colonized it. But Marxism not only functions as the subject of representation, it is also the principle of representation. While the Marxism represented here is Chinese Maoism as it figured in the Western imagination at the time – symbolized by the two Red books, Mao’s Little Red Book and the student-run Cahiers Marxistes-Leninistes – the film’s mise-en-scene is constructed according to the basic ideas underlying Althusserianism.6 The rhetoric and stereotypes of Maoism and Marxism are here merely used as a catalogue of images and a repertoire of phrases from which Godard, as always, had sampled various quotes, symbols and objects, setting them up as part of an extensive classroom exercise. Indeed, this is a film in the making, about learning how to see, listen, speak and read the leftist discourses that were pervading Parisian cultural life, at a time when the Cultural Revolution in China served as a projection screen for the hopes and dreams of the radical left, as an exit route to escape the straightjacket of orthodox Marxism. It is also a lesson on how to see and listen with them, as if they were but a set of illustrations and formulas written on a big blackboard. The scenographic setting becomes a classroom, the dialogue a recitation, the voice-over a lecture, the shooting an object lesson, the film-maker a schoolmaster: always the logic of school.

This pedagogic principle is the basis for Godard’s ‘militant’ films: only the application of a Marxist analysis of image and sound was able to bring light to all those roaming in the dark. And there could be no semiology without semioclasm: the unified appearance of the audiovisual had to be broken up, the correspondences between sounds, words and images undone, so that they could speak for and against themselves. In Godard’s films, there is hardly any attempt to point out the origins of the sampled elements. There is not even an attempt to question discourses by others, such as Althusser’s ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in Lotte in Italia (1971), or Brecht’s lesson on the role of intellectuals in the revolution in Tout va bien (1972). It is merely a matter of looking for other elements to put them to the test, rearranging their connections and reframing their meaning. The urgency of learning anew in order to put a halt to the endless circulation of images, to look underneath the surface of images, to read between the lines: this was the inclination that was feverishly developing among the French cinephiles of that time – the post-nouvelle vague moment of structuralism and the golden age of semiology. Political commitment in cinema once again appeared as commitment to form, rather than to revolutionary content. Against the old assumption that there is no ‘responsibility of forms’, there could no longer be a representation of politics without critically reflecting on the politics of representation.


Beyond the surface

In reference to Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, Godard would say, ‘The dominant class creates a world after its own image, but it also creates an image of its world, which it calls a “reflection of reality”.’7 With the idea that the reflection of reality should be considered an ideological construction, a longstanding debate was once again brought to the fore: the debate on realism. For those who were trying to develop a film critical thinking in a Marxist framework, André Bazin’s longstanding legacy of ‘ontological realism’ was no longer of any use. Everything that constituted that paradigm – the notions of continuity and transparency, the epiphany of the ‘sensible real’ – had to be violently renounced. As Godard had already indicated in the scenario of Les Carabiniers (1963), it is not enough to say how things are real: one has to say how things really are. It was this adage, adapted from Bertold Brecht, that was at the heart of the impulse to decipher the world, the desire to look behind the appearance of things. It was Brecht who, back in the 1930’s, had stated:

Less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp works or the A.E.G. tells us next to nothing about these institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relations – the factory, say – means that they are no longer explicit. So something must in fact be built up, something artificial, posed.8

Brecht’s ideas on realism as the exposure of a society’s causal network and dominant order had already been used as a reference in the film criticism of the 1940s and ’50s, even – mediated by the work of Joseph Losey – in the Cahiers du Cinéma. Throughout the first half of the 1960s, however, another interpretation of Brecht’s ideas would hold sway, one less concerned with film as an art of perception than film as a system of signification. The main inspiration from this turn came from Althusser and Roland Barthes, who treated Brecht’s views as a counterpoint for the primacy of psychology and identification in art, which was considered part and parcel of the bourgeois worldview. It had never been Brecht’s intention to condemn the lies displayed by art, but rather to call attention to the ways in which art can demonstrate to spectators the workings of a society that lies beyond them, and invite them to take part in its transformation. What is stigmatized is the illusion, which tends to present reality as a natural and unproblematic given and which keeps the spectators in a state of passivity, ‘hanging up their brains with their hats in the cloakroom’. An active spectator should refuse identification and remain at a distance, to be able to assess the causes and remedies for the injustices suffered. The mirror of transparent myths in which a society can recognise itself first has to be broken, before it can really learn to know and change itself. In Mythologies (1957), Barthes uses Brecht’s critique of mystification and identification to point out the shortcomings in Eli Kazan’s On the Waterfront, especially in its final scenes when, after having exposed the violence and the corruption of the workers’ union, Marlon Brando’s character decides to go back to work and give himself over to the exploitative system. Barthes wrote:

If there ever was one, here is a case where we should apply the method of demystification that Brecht proposes and examine the consequences of our identification with the film’s leading character… It is the participatory nature of this scene which objectively makes it an episode of mystification… Now it is precisely against the danger of such mechanisms that Brecht proposed his method of alienation. Brecht would have asked Brando to show his naïveté, to make us understand that, despite the sympathy we may have for his misfortunes, it is even more important to perceive their causes and their remedies.9

Similarly, in Brecht’s famous Mother Courage, what is shown in the play is not so much the suffering of a mother figure, but the result of a failure to come to grips with her historical situation. As spectators, we participate in her blindness at the same time as we are made aware of it. As Barthes once observed (in reference to Charlie Chaplin’s films), to see someone else not seeing is the best way to intensely see what he or she does not see. Staging events in such a way that what had seemed natural and immutable is revealed as historical and thus changeable: this is what Brecht called the Verfremdungseffekt. As a derivative of the Marxist theory of alienation, the formalist notion of oestranenie and the surrealist practice of errance, this strategy consists of ‘turning the object of which one is made aware, to which one’s attention is to be drawn, from something ordinary, familiar and immediately accessible into something peculiar, striking and unexpected’. In essence, it is an effect of displacement, the establishment of a gap between what is on show and how it is experienced and interpreted – or in semiotic terms, between signified and signifier – in order to demystify its apparent inevitability and appropriateness and draw attention to its own artifice, rather than attempting to conceal it. It is an idea that runs through Godard’s films of the 1960s and early ’70s, as well as films by Harun Farocki (Inextinguishable Fire, 1969), Nagisa Oshima (Death By Hanging, 1968) and Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet, to name a few.

The work of Straub & Huillet is particularly affiliated with Barthes’s interpretation of the verfremdungseffect, according to which actors should speak their lines as verse instead of attempting to make formal and ordered language appear as the natural expression of psychological states. Barthes cites with approval Brecht’s idea that the actor should speak his or her part not as if he were living or improvising it, but ‘like a quotation’. It is this principle of embodied storytelling, of ‘acting out’, that Straub & Huillet have always applied to their films. The title of their first film, Nicht versöhnt (1965), can be read as a Brechtian axiom par excellence: existing divisions and contradictions are not to be reconciled – on the contrary, they should be exposed and accentuated. Inspired by Brecht, Barthes wrote that ‘class division has its inevitable counterpart in a division of meanings, and class struggle has its equally inevitable counterpart in a division of a war of meanings: as long as there is class struggle (national or international), the division of the axiomatic field will be inexpiable.’ 10 This war of meanings is what was at stake in the pedagogical space of the ‘blackboard’ cinema of the 1968 generation. As discourse is always a space of conflict and a form of violence, it has to be unveiled and disclosed as dialectical contradiction, acted out in the form of sheer non-reconciliation – for in contradiction lies hope. For Straub & Huillet, dialectics meant ‘dividing one into two’, rather than ‘combining two into one’. This is apparent in the mise-en–scène, in which there is always a collision between what is seen and what is heard, between past and present (what Straub called a ‘science-fiction effect’), between words taken from existing literary texts, how those words resonate and those who say them. In Othon (1969), for example, Pierre Corneille’s eponymous text is recited on Mount Palatine, among the ruins of ancient Rome, in full view of the contemporary cityscape of the Italian capital, by a predominantly Italian cast, dressed in traditional togas. In this way, the film sets up a system of gaps and displacements, transgressing numerous historical, geographical and linguistic boundaries in order to unfold a genealogical trajectory of European power structures, from the modern city of Rome, to France in the era of the Grand Siècle, to the ancient Roman Empire. To the 1968 generation, the Straubs suggested that the question of power and class relations was a lot older than imagined. Didn’t the first sentence in the Communist Manifesto already state that ‘The history of mankind is the history of class struggle.’?

When Othon was released in France, it was heavily criticized in certain leftist circles as an abject film, not only because of the unusual setting and diction (‘the worst recitation in a school context’, wrote a critic), but mainly because of its incapacity to ‘adapt’ and enlighten a historical text for spectators in the present, instead translating it into an incomprehensible film in which no political message could be found. The response of the Cahiers critics was that films such as Othon, as well as Sotto il segno dello Scorpione by the Taviano brothers, Yoshishige Yoshida‘s Eros + Massacre, or Robert Kramer’s Ice – films that had been vigorously
defended on the pages of Cahiers – were to be considered political precisely because they were not satisfied with the pure and simple delivery of a straightforward political message. Rather, they ‘start at the beginning (which is also one of the conditions of political analysis) and carry out on their very materiality – that of the signifiers they put into play, as well as that of the conditions and means of production of these signifiers – a scriptural work which, as such, constitutes political work.’11 In other words, political cinema has to start from its own materiality, examine its own means and conditions of existence, and reveal rather than hide the work which has gone into its making, as well as its production of meaning. Only by refusing the effects of recognition and transparency, by criticizing the illusions of consciousness and unravelling its real material conditions and contradictions, can cinema activate the spectator, prompting him to start where the film ends, completing what it has left unfinished.


Politics of representation

Can a revolutionary film be made without criticizing the dominant forms of representation? This question, at the core of the many debates on militant cinema, became explicit in the discussion over two French films released in 1972: the Dziga Vertov Group’s Tout va Bien and Marin Karmitz’ Coup pour Coup. The similarity between the two films is striking. Both proposed an account of the class struggle which was stirring in France four years after 1968, complete with factory occupation and sequestration, but in contrast to the various ‘direct’ documentations of particular uprisings and strikes, the filmmakers chose fictional forms with which to depict the workers’ revolt. Additionally, the filmmakers, who shared similar political sympathies which leaned towards Marxist-Leninism, chose to produce and distribute the films through conventional channels rather than the various parallel circuits that had been set up in previous years. So the difference between the two films could not be found in the choice of subject or diffusion, but in their formal approach. What characterized Coup pour Coup was an adherence to what Althusserians referred to as a ‘spontaneous ideology’. Karmitz chose to ask real workers to ‘act’ out their actual life in a ‘natural’ way, and filmed them in a dispositive that put the spectator in the heat of the struggle, directly ‘amongst the people’. At last, commented advocates of the film, a voice was given to the people. For once, the working class was shown in their own environment, which is to say in the place of production, exploitation and repression. For once, by reflecting the concrete manifestations of the proletarian class, a film actually provided sensible knowledge of capitalist social relations. As an enthusiast wrote, ‘Confidence was given to the experience and the naturalness of the workers, and that paid off well: life is revealed in all its truth and intensity.’

According to the critics of the film, however, the idea that there was an actual ‘truth’ to capture and communicate through images and sounds completely ignored the fact that truth is not inherent in things, but alludes to a relationship of conformity between an object and its knowledge, between a reality and its reflection. As this relationship is always part of an ideological process, it does not suffice to produce sensible knowledge of capitalist social relations and proletarian class struggles. It is necessary to go beyond that and create rational knowledge of the internal laws of this process. These critics challenged the assumption that a redoubling of reality gives way to an active reflection of that reality: it is not because the reflection of reality on the screen is antagonistic to the dominant vision that they have revolutionary value. Making a film from the point of view of the working class should not be confounded with giving voice to the workers. It can never be an end in itself. To leave things at the level of appearances, of the sensible, only affirms the ‘cult of spontaneity’ and leaves the dominant ideology unchallenged. Furthermore, as Daney suggested, ‘naturalising’ also implies a denial and an effacement of the dialectics of exclusion that lie at the heart of the dominant order.

Naturalism is the game of readjustment where those such as young people, immigrants and peasants who were previously forbidden from making films and were never seen on the screen are now suddenly included in fiction films as though they had always been part of them. They are ‘naturalized’ in every sense of the word, recognized by the law, made normal, natural and legal, and accede to a sort of ‘iconic dignity’. but what is glossed over in this process … is how and why they break into the story.12

Naturalism – always the bête noire of the Cahiers at the time – is thus seen as a point of view and a way of filming that renders natural what is in fact not. According to the same critics, this tendency towards naturalism in Coup pour Coup is confirmed by Karmitz’ “typecasting” decision to give the roles of the other characters – the bosses and the union delegates – to professional actors, conforming to the idea of everyone in his or her place, in harmony with their ‘nature’, with ‘the way people are’. Class struggle is neither represented nor suppressed, it is simply taxonomlzed. Karmitz essentially reasserts a capitalist division of work, founded on a simplified analysis of class struggle based on relations of repression and resistance. As he himself explained, ‘The form of the film is conditioned by the contrast between repression and resistance. Everything is based on that.’ Godard and Gorin, on the other hand, opposed this mise-en-scene of workers playing their ‘natural’ roles by working with professional actors:

The militants who distrust actors ask workers to play their proper role. Traditional cinema takes big stars and makes them play the roles of proletarians. We think that, in the present situation, a worker who plays like Jean Gabin cannot embody his condition but only recount himself. So we have taken actors to play the roles of workers, but downtrodden and exploited actors, who feel the class struggle in their stomach. That has permitted us, by putting them in a correct situation, to really oppose them to the actors representing the chieftains. 13

This choice was rooted in a desire to highlight the contradictions between the status of actors and the social roles that fiction traditionally assigns to them. Casting the well-known French actor Yves Montand, for example, was not based on his natural tendency towards ‘repression’, but because of the dominant idea that actors should stick to their characters. It is precisely because Montand is perfectly able to embody a worker with a flair for spontaneity that they did not ask him to do so. For Godard and Gorin, one cannot transform actors into workers and workers into actors without asking what has to be transformed. Before representing classes, one has to reflect on the ideological conception of that representation, because there is already a dominant idea on how to depict class models, in their way of being, moving and talking. Exploring the theme of class struggle to destroy this idea does not hold up. Rather, the struggle itself has to traverse the work on the film; it has to be extended through cinema.

The point of Tout va bien, whose mise-en-scene is clearly inspired by Brecht’s lehrstücke (an attentive critic called the film ‘the Sesame Street of political radicalism’), is to take up the contradictions that are left unspoken in Coup pour Coup – between the practice of cinema and the practice of politics, between the status of workers and the status of actors – in order to make them ‘productive’. This is also why Karmitz was criticized for not using the recordings of the discussions between members of the film crew and the actors before and during the shooting: instead of developing an active reflection of the working process, he chose to give the film a sense of authenticity, covering up what is at stake in the contradiction between politics and cinema. Both Tout va Bien and Coup pour Coup essentially started from the same assumption: that one has to know the world, reveal the reality under the surface of things, in order to be able to transform it. While the first chose to create a reflection of reality, the second chose to expose the reality of reflection. While the first chose to revive a specific struggle and reproduce a sensible perception under the watchful eye of the camera, the second chose to put to work a rational reflection on the internal laws of the struggle. Why else has Marxist thought broken with the notion of contemplation? A film too, it was said, should intervene.


Behind the firing lines

In Vent d’Est, another film by the Dziga Vertov Group, there is a sequence in which Glauber Rocha stands at a dusty crossroads, with arms outstretched. A young woman with a movie camera goes up to him and says, ‘Excuse me for interrupting your class struggle, but could you please show me the way towards political cinema?’ Rocha points in front of him, then behind and to his left and says, ‘That way is the cinema of aesthetic adventure and philosophical inquiry, while this way is Third World cinema – a dangerous cinema, divine and marvelous, where the questions are practical ones…’ Rocha puts forward what was felt to be the main difference between the European ‘counter-cinema’ and the so-called Third World cinema – which is in itself anything but a stable phenomenon. While, for European filmmakers, it seemed in the first place to be a matter of radically opposing, or even, as Godard mentioned to Rocha, ‘destroying’ the industrially and ideologically dominant cinema, for many filmmakers in the Third World, it was not a matter of destruction, but of invention, as a way to escape the stranglehold of (neo)colonization, repression, censorship and underdevelopment. Although Rocha, one of the pioneering filmmakers of the Brazilian Cinema Novo movement, always expressed a strong admiration for Godard, he was also aware of the deep gap between them:

Godard sums up all the questions of today’s European intellectuals: is making art worthwhile? The question is an old one… And that is what is so annoying in Europe today: the issue of the usefulness of art is old, but it is in fashion, and, in cinema, it is up to Godard alone to come to grips with the crisis. Godard is what Solanas is to us in Buenos Aires. The truth, however, whether our intellectual fellow-countrymen want to hear it or not, is that European and American cinema has gone up a road without hope, and it is only in the Third World countries that there is a way left to make cinema.14

For Godard, Rocha laconically notes, cinema was over and done with. For filmmakers in the Third World, it was just beginning: ‘Godard & Co. are above zero. We are below zero.’ Some of the most prolific explorers of these new beginnings could undoubtedly be found in Latin America, where filmmakers offered arguments for a cine de liberacion, for cine imperfecto, for an ‘aesthetic of hunger’, a ‘third’ or ‘triccontinental’ cinema of decolonization – all terms that have since framed many debates on political cinema and have become part of the rhetoric of resistance against imperialist oppression, and for the empowerment of the people in the Third World. All these filmmakers were grappling with the rise of nationalism and militancy in the aftermath of several political and social incidents that had erupted throughout the continent, from the unfinished workers’ revolution in Bolivia in 1952 to the military overthrow of Argentina’s President Perón in 1955, and, most significantly, the guerrilla war in Cuba, which led to the establishment of a socialist regime in 1959. It was not only the Cinema novo filmmakers, but also Jorge Sanjinés and the Ukamau group in Bolivia, Julio García Espinosa and Tomás Gutierrez Alea in Cuba, Miguel Littín, Raúl Ruíz and Patricio Guzmán in Chile, and Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in Argentina: they all expressed the need for thinking about cinema as a social instrument, as a weapon in the struggle for national liberation and cultural transformation – ‘with an idea in one´s head and a camera in one´s hand’.

‘We must discuss, we must invent…’ It was this quote by Frantz Fanon that opened the manifesto ‘Toward a Third Cinema’ (1969), written by Solanas and Getino, who in the same year also released La Hora de los Hornos (Hour of the Furnaces), a didactic film fresco produced clandestinely under the Péron regime and signed by the Cine Liberación Group. In the manifesto, arguably the most influential articulation of Third World cinema, Solanas and Getino follow Fanon’s lead and argue that cinema should be ‘placed first at the service of life itself, ahead of art; dissolve aesthetics in the life of society’. Its objective was nothing short of a ‘decolonization of the mind’. In line with the thinking of the Russian avant-gardes of the 1920s, and Eisenstein in particular, according to whom films had to ‘plough the mind of the viewer’, cinema not only had to contribute to the development of a new radical consciousness, but should also be instrumental in the revolutionary transformation of society, as a means to an end. According to Rocha, however, revolutionary cinema should be seen as more than a simple instrument that could supposedly push spectators into the path of political consciousness and action:

The artist must demand a precise identification of what revolutionary art at the service of political activism actually is, of what revolutionary art thrown into the spaces opened up to new discussions is, and of what revolutionary art by the left and operated by the right is. As an example of the first case, I, as a man of film, cite La hora de los hornos, a film by the Argentine Fernando Solanas. It is typical of the pamphlets of information, agitation and controversy that are currently being used by political activists around the world. 15

To illustrate the second case, Rocha suggested his own films, which are not composed as theoretical guides for action, but rather as attempts to break with what he saw as bourgeois rationalism and the colonial logics of representation, induced as they were by exotic primitivism and social miserabilism. Rocha claimed that the work of Godard and Solanas, which basically consists of opposing an oppressive logic with a revolutionary one, does not allow for a way out of the deadlocks imposed by imperialism and capitalism. For him, revolution could only be accomplished as a form of anti-reason and irrationalism: ‘Revolutionary art must be magic, capable of bewitching man to such a degree that he can no longer stand to live in this absurd reality.’ The hopelessness of reality could only be overcome through enchantment; freedom could only be devised through popular mysticism (in favor of ideological demystification), something he saw arising from the historical relationship between religion, folklore and rebellion. This interest in breaking the course of history and advocating some kind of return to the past – not unlike Walter Benjamin’s ‘tiger’s leap into the past’ – was not only something that Rocha shared with the Straubs (Rocha organized screenings of Othon in Brazil, while Straub spoke highly of Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes, from 1969), but even more so with Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose work is also characterized by a certain regression towards religious themes and irrational impulses. There has always been a fraternal, yet heated dialogue between the two filmmakers. Rocha criticized Pasolini’s depiction of the Third World, which he saw as merely an alibi for perversion. Pasolini accused Rocha of having succumbed, as had Godard & Straub, to the blackmail of a certain leftist thinking which prescribed a radical subversion of representation and a conscious frustration of the spectator’s expectations.

What is it that Godard, the Straubs and Rocha are supposed to have in common? According to Pasolini, through their boundless provocation and transgression of cinematic codes, their ‘unpopular’ films at the same time render themselves as agent provocateurs, martyrs and victims: the search for freedom from repression had led to a suicidal intoxication and didactic self-exclusion, veering violently towards the negation of cinema. For Pasolini, who was a great admirer of Christian Metz’ semiology of cinema, there was no doubt that an infraction of the codes is a necessary condition for invention – after all, the first step towards liberation is to let go of certainties and open up to the unknown. But it also implies a refraction of self-preservation, one that opens the way to self-destruction. When the codes are too violently violated, when the front lines of transgression and invention are crossed too far behind the firing line, there comes a point when the codes can be recuperated for endless possibilities of modification and expansion, and any notion of struggle ends up being neutralized. This is when the struggle is no longer fought on the barricades, but on the other side, behind vacated enemy lines, at which point the enemy has disappeared, because he is fighting elsewhere. ‘What is important,’ wrote Pasolini, ‘is not the moment of the realization of invention, but the moment of invention. Permanent invention, continual struggle.’16


The end of a beginning

Where lines crossed? Isn’t that what happened when the ‘new waves’ of the 1960’s, in their insatiable thirst for freedom, got caught up in the well-intended games of decoding and deconstruction, when the liberties attained led to an endless search for signification, to a point where there was no more sense to give? The new waves had established an adventurous cinematic space of transversals and transgressions, where codes were cut loose from their moorings, images and sounds were set free from their bondage, where drifting took the place of wondering and iconoclasm replaced scandal. Still, it was only a matter of time before the freedom of representation would become a suspension of representation altogether, when the screen was turned into a blackboard, and the art of showing became an act of endlessly revealing. Godard’s work is undoubtedly the best example of this evolution: from the playful liberations of his first films to the Althusserian experiments of La Chinoise and the critical didacticism of the Dziga Vertov Group. In the end, critical cinema was turned on itself, taking “refuge in its own negation. hoping to survive through its death” (Adorno). This impasse is what is at stake in Ici et Ailleurs. The story is well known: in 1970, a year after Yasser Arafat was elected leader of the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Godard and Gorin were invited to make a film in support of the Palestinian struggle. They were not the only ones. Around the same time, other collectives and filmmakers, including Pacific Newsreel, Groupe Cinéma Vincennes, Francis Reusser, Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan (delegate of the French Maoist party), and Masao Adachi & Kôji Wakamatsu (associated with the Japanese Red Army) also travelled to Palestinian camps in Lebanon, Jordan and the West Bank to record the realities of the struggle. Just a year earlier, the Palestine Cinema Unit, founded under the aegis of three pioneers, Hany Jawhariyya, Sulafa Jadallah and Mustapha Abu Ali, had made the first militant films against Israeli colonization.

The aim of Godard and Gorin’s film, initially entitled Jusqu’à la victoire (Until Victory), was to ‘understand the thought and working methods of the Palestinian revolution’. Before travelling to Palestine, they had put together a storyboard that systematically conceived the path towards revolution: the people’s will + the armed struggle = people’s war + political work = the education of the people + people’s logic = the protracted war, until victory. But just a few weeks after the filming, which took place between March and August 1970, Black September happened: Jordan’s King Hussein decided to wage war on the PLO, resulting in the massacre of thousands of Palestinians. Confronted with the death of many of the film’s collaborators and growing antagonism within the Arab population, Godard was forced to rethink the concept of the project, a challenge that became even more daunting in light of the events that took place during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. It took him over five years to find a configuration for the images and sounds they had gathered, five years to come up with a response to the question of how to make sense of the gaps between intention and reality, commitment and failure, then and now, here and there.

Godard, together with Anne-Marie Miéville, did what he had always done: take the question and put it at the heart of the film. The film turned into a moving mournful reflection on the impossibility of a filmmaker to intervene in political struggles, and the difficulty of escaping the endless chains of images and sounds in which we are all caught up. Godard bemoaned how self-proclaimed militant films, despite good intentions, tend to ‘put the sound too loud’, always covering up the sound of one voice with that of another, obscuring what really is there to see in the images. As part of a vigorous auto-critique, the film exposes the cinematic trickeries by which we just love to be fooled: how images always deceive us, how sounds always hide something else, how we are to learn to read the signs. The desire to put a halt to the circulation of sounds and images ends up being a lamentation for the end of a certain belief in the power of cinema, accompanying the end of a belief in any change whatsoever. The act of mourning the failure of the Palestinian revolution becomes an allegory for the failure of all revolutions.

The end of the leftist era is also depicted in another film that came out around the same time: John Douglas & Robert Kramer’s Milestones. The film portrays the demise of the oppositional movements from the inside, something which both filmmakers, as former members of the Newsreel collective, had experienced first hand. At the end of the 1960s, both had worked on various films denouncing American imperialism, including People’s War, which aimed to give a view on the Vietnam war from the perspective of partisans in North Vietnam. Kramer had already made a trilogy of films – In the Country (1966), The Edge (1967) and Ice (1969) – which explored the limits of a collective desire for revolution and armed struggle. Milestones was an attempt to grasp what had happened to these militant desires once those limits had been reached, and they were redirected towards the exploration of new communal forms. As Kramer said:

A lot of people say that the ‘70s are like a time of falling away from political militancy. There is a sense in which that is true – if emphasis is put on the word militant and a strong, sustained confrontation with the powers that be. But there is another sense in which that is not true, because we came to a dead end, and it seemed as though we could not continue to be militant in that same way.17

Kramer & Douglas wanted to make ‘a film about rebirth’, providing a mirror for all those who had been involved in the struggles to look into and evaluate themselves, in order to go further. In a sense, it was not only the rebirth of certain militant ideas and energies that was at stake, but the rebirth of a certain cinema, a cinema of myth and dream, a cinema steeped in tradition and history. Is it any wonder that at the end of their ‘naive’ red period, the Cahiers du Cinéma celebrated the film as a ‘positive’ example of a new militant cinema? Tired of their own dogmatism and voluntarism, exhausted from the terror of the significant, the Cahiers once again turned to their roots, to Bazin and his concern for morality, to American cinema and its mavericks (a few months later Monte Hellman’s Two-lane Blacktop was heralded for its refutation of “the old cinema of acute difference and fatal necessity”18). As a sort of counterweight for Ici et Ailleurs, which problematizes any possible reflection on militant history by confronting all discourse with its own lies, Milestones attempted to make the militant left tell its own story, by returning to the foundations of classic American cinema: the travelogue, the Western, the communitarianism of John Ford and Anthony Mann. A strange ‘return of the repressed’. But hadn’t Passolini seen it coming all along: ‘Excessive transgression of the code can only lead to a nostalgia for it’?


The fire next time

‘The dream is over,’ a voice tells us at the end of Chris Marker’s Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977). When the smoke had cleared, all leftist resolve seemed to have withered away. In France, Chile, Portugal and elsewhere, revolutionary movements fizzled into rupture and defeat. In Italy and Germany, the hopes of the radical left collapsed in violence and despair. In China, the Cultural Revolution turned out to be a cruel failure, leading to famine and chaos. And so mourning began, mourning for failed hopes, mourning for possibilities that had turned in on themselves, mourning for a sense of togetherness that had somehow collapsed into contorted factionalism: a mourning without end. Soon enough, the energies of militant histories were overturned by some of those who had once fully embraced them. All that the ‘children of Marx and Coca-Cola’ and their actions had accomplished, so they argued, was to pave the way for a rekindled capitalism, allowing our societies to become free aggregations of unbound molecules, whirling in the void, deprived of any affiliation, completely at the mercy of the law of capital. All resistance was said to be futile, even suspect, in any case causing more harm than good. Revolt could hardly change the world; it could only give rise to cruelty and catastrophe. History was identified as an enormous, catastrophic ruin, perpetually piling wreckage upon wreckage. The memory of the Gulags dissolved all memories of revolution, just as the memory of the Shoah had replaced remembrance of antifascism. In claiming to have delivered us from the ‘fatal abstractions’ inspired by the radical ideologies of the past, Western capitalism and its political system of democratic parliamentarianism presented themselves as a universal shield, protecting us from all forms of terror and totalitarianism. ‘Capitalism won the battle, if not the war,’ the voice says, ‘but in a paradoxical logic, some of the staunchest opponents of Soviet totalitarianism, these men of the New Left fell into the same whirlwind.’

In 1977, the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 set a gruesome series of events in motion, the Bologna uprising and the Egyptian Bread Riots collapsed violently, and Margaret Thatcher’s re-initiation of privatization announced the neoliberal turn. In 1977, the Sex Pistols gave voice to the ‘No Future’ generation, Jean-François Lyotard wrote the first draft of La Condition Postmoderne, and former Marxists Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann declared the impossibility of all revolutions. In 1977, Chris Marker presented the first version of his requiem for the revolutionary era (Le fond de l’air est rouge), Robert Kramer documented the aftermath of what was possibly the last revolution in 20th-century Europe (Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal) and Robert Bresson made his portrait of the lost generation of post-May ’68 (Le Diable Probablement). According to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, this was a generation that rejected every form of commitment, ‘because commitment for the film’s young characters – whom Bresson seems to understand so well – is mainly an escape into an “occupation” which keeps that commitment alive, an escape from the awareness
that everything goes on regardless of you and your commitment.’19 A year later, Fassbinder would create his own vision of this ‘third generation’, coming after those who had dreamed of changing the world and those who had faded into violence, a generation ‘which simply acts without thinking, which has neither a policy nor an ideology, and which, certainly without realizing it, lets itself be manipulated by others, like a bunch of puppets’. After the collapse of utopian rebellion into desperate dystopia, all that seemed to be left was an overwhelming sense of bitterness and nihilism. Nothing but lost illusions, utopias gone wrong, ruins amidst the ruins. As if despair, as Godard mentioned in Numero deux, became ‘the ultimate form of criticism’.

At the same time that the leftist era crumbled under the weight of historical fatality, a certain utopia of cinema was believed to have come to an end. Serge Daney once claimed that Pasolini’s death in November 1975 – a few weeks before the release of Salò, which was his own personal cry of desperation – marked the point when cinema stopped playing the role of sorcerer’s apprentice and became a consensual landscape, instead of the space for division and confrontation that it used to be. The politicization of cinema – whether in content or in form – that had been associated with the upheavals and the hopes of the 1960s and ’70s, gave way to a general feeling of disillusionment and powerlessness. Just as the failure of the October Revolution had accompanied the end of the utopia of cinema as a mystical marriage between art and science, poetics and community, the implosion of leftist dreams accompanied the dissolution of the idea of cinema as a realm of discord or a weapon in the struggle. What had once been called ‘militant’ or ‘political’ film had disappeared in the shadows of a bygone time that was best left to forgetfulness. In 1977, Daney explained why Cahiers du Cinéma, after having abandoned the ideological critique of the ‘non-legendary years’, too lost interest in the familiar models of militant cinema:

It is because it failed to furnish this imaginary encounter with the people, because there were nothing but sectarian films, made hastily by people who didn’t care about cinema… Today I think that militant films have the same defect as militant groups – they have the Mania of the All: each film is total, all-inclusive. A true militant cinema would be a cinema which militated as cinema, where one film would make you want to see a hundred others on the same subject. 20

After the deluge, with the disappearance of the material reality of the struggles and the horizons that gave them meaning, the existing forms of ‘militant’ cinema could no longer be sustained. Straub & Huillet shifted their dialectical dispositive to a lyrical one (Dalla Nuba alla Resistenza, 1978). Rocha put his remaining energies into a self-destructing anti-symphony (A Idade da Terra, 1980). Oshima’s Brechtian articulations of revolutionary desire in the light of political repression gave way to portrayals of the exasperation and impotence of desire (Ai no corrida, 1976). As if desire could no longer be thought of as a mode of resistance, but only one of escapism: is this not the sentiment that has been haunting us since the end of the 1970s? The overflow of democratic mass individualism, that which the 1968 generation was supposedly seeking all along, has allegedly culminated in an infinite drift of narcissistic consumers who do not care for anything but the instant satisfaction of their own needs and desires: this is the narrative that the contemporary left has embraced. The same criticism that used to denounce the society of the spectacle and the mythology of consumer ideologies in view of possible change had started to turn on itself, trapping itself in an endless vicious cycle in which the power of the market can no longer be distinguished from the power of its denunciation. As if everything equals everything else, and all resistance is futile. As if we are now all political realists, stuck in an endless refrain of consensual melodies, stuck with the ‘way things are’, this ‘natural order of things’ that the character of Ned Beaty so vigorously evangelized in Network (1976).

‘But we can not continue much longer on the way of disillusion’, wrote Daney towards the end of his life. Despite his growing disenchantment with the dissolution of the cinema that he had so much cared for, the ciné-fils still put his wager on optimism. ‘Between the spectacle and the lack of images, is there a place for “art to live with images”, at the same time demanding them to be “humanly” comprehensive (to better know what they are, who makes them and how, what they can do, how they retroact on the world) and keep at their core this remnant that is in-human, startling, ambiguous, on the verge?21’ With Daney, we can ask how we might gain a renewed trust in the power of the image. How can we get out of the fatalistic scepticism that the ‘society of disdain’ has bestowed on us? Can the history of militant cinema, beyond all rhetoric, still infuse us with a much-needed sense of risk, adventure and emancipatory potential? It is clear to us now that the belief in the causal relations between affection, understanding and action, which once provided the basic foundation for militant cinema, is no longer valid: the lack of any horizon of change has made sure of that. It has also become increasingly clear that the overwhelming feelings of disorientation and disappointment, the sense of something lacking or failing that arises from the realization that we inhabit a violently unjust world, all too easily sweep us away into the never-ending depths of fear and nihilism. The challenge, then, is to break with this dominant discourse that tells us that any notion of politics is constantly undermined by disillusionment. Now that cinema, being unsure of its own politics, is once again encouraged to intervene in the absence of the proper political, the question is how it can generate a new power of affirmation, one that is consistent with the interruption of the logic of resignation evidenced by recent uprisings, one that breaks with the febrile sterility of the contemporary world. In a time when capitalism has colonized most of our dream life, can cinema once again become a laboratory of distant dreams, invigorating a new sense of the impossible, something to hold on to, hold on dearly?

Stoffel Debuysere
In the framework of “The Fire Next Time” and “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)” (KASK/HoGent)

1. Serge Daney, ‘Fonction critique’, Cahiers du cinéma 250, May 1974
2. Glauber Rocha, ‘Beginning at Zero: Notes on Cinema and Society’, The Drama Review, Winter 1970
3. Godard par Godard, éditions de l’Etoile – Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 1985, p. 348
4. Trevor Stark, ‘Cinema in the Hands of the People: Chris Marker, the Medvedkin Group, and the Potential of Militant Film’, October 139, Winter 2012
5. Quoted in Le Gai Savoir (1969)
6. See Jacques Rancière’s analysis: ‘Le rouge de la Chinoise’, Trafic 18, spring 1996
7. Godard quoted in James Roy McBean, ‘See You at Mao: Godard’s Revolutionary British Sounds’, Film Quarterly, 1970-71, pp15-23
8. Bertold Brecht, quoted by Walter Benjamin (1931)
9. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, 1957, pp. 68–69
10. Roland Barthes, ‘Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers’, 1971
11. Jean-Louis Comolli, Film/politique (2) L’Aveu: 13 propositions, Cahiers du Cinéma 224, October 1970
12. Serge Daney, Pascal Kane, Jean-Pierre Oudart, Serge Toubiana, ‘Une certaine tendance du cinema français’, Cahiers du Cinema 257, May-June 1975.
13. Jean-Luc Godard in Nouvel Observateur 388, April 1972
14. Rocha, ‘O último escândalo de Godard’, Manchete 928, 31 January 1970
15. Glauber Rocha, ‘Aesthetic of Dream’, presented at Columbia University in 1971
16. Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘The Unpopular Cinema’, 1970.
17. G. Roy Levin, ‘Reclaiming our Past, Reclaiming our Beginning, interview with Robert Kramer and John Douglas’, Jump Cut 10-11, 1976
18. Pascal Bonitzer , ‘Lignes et voies : (Macadam à deux voies)’, Cahiers du cinema 266-267, May 1976.
19. Rainer Werner Fassbinder interviewed by Christian Brad Thomson
20. Serge Daney in conversation with Bill Krohn (1977)
21. Serge Daney, L’exercice a été profitable, monsieur, P.O.L, 1993, p. 210

The Art of Getting Lost


“No doubt there are more and less painful ways of getting lost… But at the very least they all lead one who has left behind the categories of what can be said about society… to the point where what comes back to us from what we say is that no one can see where we’re going.”
— Jacques Rancière

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I know that you can’t get there that way”
— Glauber Rocha recalling a Portuguese saying

A tale of getting lost, letting go, setting forth without turning back. ‘A Child Kills himself’ feels like one of the most personal pieces Jacques Rancière has ever written. It does not only come across as a touching account of how his view on Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ‘51 has changed over time, but also of how his fundamental way of thinking has taken shape, much against the grain of the times. Indeed, when he describes the erratic wanderings of Irene, the character played by Ingrid Bergman, he might as well be referring to some of his own experiences. In Europa ’51, the complacent bourgeois lifestyle of Irene is violently overturned by the suicide of her young child. This traumatic event leads her astray through the outskirts of Rome, where she hopes to find some answers to the impassable questions which haunt her. This “voyage to the land of the people” is guided by her friend Andrea, who attempts to give meaning to Irene’s desperate search by situating it within the framework of Marxist thought: behind every individual agony, he suggests, we find an instance of a great social misery. What is hidden needs to be uncovered, what is unfamiliar needs to be explained, what is disordered needs to be cured. But there comes a time when the explanations given by others no longer suffice, when one needs to look elsewhere and see for oneself. That is how Irene’s progression towards (class) consciousness leads her ever further away from the trodden paths where things can supposedly be healed and revealed by the rules of knowledge, further down the shores of the river towards the barren wastelands where she starts nursing a tubercular prostitute, towards the cement factory where she takes the place of a worker and the steps of the church where she discovers a new faith. Instead of an act of “consciousness”, what takes place is a process of conversion. Irene’s own unplanned exploration turns out to be a deviation which displaces her from the system of explanations and motivations that determines what the proper rules of conduct and models of social behaviour are, the common sense that defines what is “sensible”. In letting go of all chains of causes and effects, knowledge and truth, she becomes a stranger who no longer has a valid place in the layout of paths and traces that others make up to be “reality”; a foreigner out of place and out of reason, lost in the void of uncertainty, in the niente, the nothingness that silently lingers throughout the film.

Rancière readily admits that when he first viewed the film during the 1960s, his Marxist-inspired critical expectations were frustrated by Irene’s retreat into religious idealism, which seemed to contradict the first, “realist” half of the film. This part presented itself as a perfect marriage between Marx’ historical materialism that provided the theoretical foundation of the workers’ struggle and the materialism of the relation between bodies and spaces that defines the mise-en-scène. But as the main character ventures from the world of labor and oppression to the spiritual path towards sainthood, the materialist connection is radically severed. In order to reconcile the two seemingly opposing views, “it then became necessary to say”, writes Rancière, “that the materialism of the mise- en-scène had been diverted by the personal ideology of the director.” In the same way as Marx once praised Balzac, the reactionary realist, for unwillingly revealing the truth of the capitalist world, Rancière argued that Rossellini, the Catholic idealist, showed something other than what he intended: in her inability to achieve an understanding of the social formations in which she found herself caught, Irene did not find salvation, but utter “madness”. Still not content with this interpretation, it took Rancière twenty-five years years to change his view on the film: more than two decades of digging in the archives of proletarian dreams and aesthetic experiences, where he took flight from the Althusserian science of the hidden that he had denounced so fiercely after the events of 1968. “For one who had been invited to look behind things, the break comes from looking to the side instead,” he writes. With that in mind, Irene’s conversion no longer indicates a lack of ”consciousness”, but a departing from it: it does not stem from a revelation, but from an alteration that leads her towards places where she is not supposed to be, where all certainties are put into question. A world without coordinates where nothing is identifiable as such any longer. “Irene bids farewell to this consciousness in the Socratic manner: she lets it go.” This is the Socratic atopia that characterizes Irene’s wanderings: a being out of place that originates in an act of trust. Trust in what we see, in what lays before us and the uncertain paths that we may have to walk.

It is an idea that runs through all of Rancière’s work, ever since he parted from Louis Althusser, his former teacher: the denunciation of all narratives of historical necessity and teleologies of “coming-to-consciousness”, which are always based on a certain distribution of sense: there are some who need to speak for others who know not what they do, because they know not how to see. Such is the position of Andrea, Irene’s well-intentioned guide: he is there to point out what is to be revealed, to make knowledge out of what others do not know. It is a position of basic mistrust, inherent in the Marxist critical tradition: truth can only be found behind appearances. But in the process of uncovering, the truth only gets reduced to the certainty of place, the only “right” place, the place of knowing. According to Rancière however, “the problem is not that of knowing what one does… The problem is to think about what one does, to remember oneself… ” Remembering oneself by becoming foreigner, by refusing the dominant interpretative schemas that connect sense with sense: this is the fundamental idea which underlies Rancière’s thinking. The challenge is not one of unveiling, he suggests, but of “encircling”. That is what Irene’s gaze does: an indeterminable encircling that unlocks the settled system of places excluding all forms of atopia, that undoes the certainty of social identities by exceeding everything that they are supposed to be one with. It is a matter of establishing a logic of “heterology”: one that denies given identities that pin down people to certain names, relations, times and places; one that disturbs the fabric of the sensible sustained by the dominant network of meanings, one that unsettles and undermines the system of coordinates that determines where and what we are supposed to be. It is the foreigner’s gaze that puts us in touch with the world, not the view of those who decide to stay on safe grounds, who stop looking, who cease to put their trust in what they see and sense. Irene, like Rancière, knows what to respond to all those who claim to be in the know, all those who designate what is meaningful and worthwhile and what isn’t: there is something else to be done, something that is not determined, and will perhaps never be. Something that defies the reasoning behind the choices we all have to make at one time or another, we who are painfully torn between fragile sensitivity and common sensibility, mindless longing and mindful sustaining, between knowing and unknowing, holding on and letting go.

(For B)