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.

A Secret to be Shared


Talk with Pedro Costa. 2 February 2013, Brussels. In the context of the DISSENT ! series. Moderated by Stoffel Debuysere.

Some moments are there to be cherished. Moments that brim with a sense of wonder, of affection, of truth. This was one of them. The setting could hardly have been more modest: a small space, some chairs, a table, a screen, and an admixture of people, a few of them talking, all of them listening, wrapped up in that singular moment of tenderness. The proposition at stake: cinema. To be more precise, the cinema of two filmmakers who have crafted one of the most distinctive bodies of work in the history of cinema: Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. The principal talker is not only an avid admirer, but also a friend, a soulmate, a colleague, who in his own way has shaken up the world of contemporary cinema: Pedro Costa.

First, a film: Umiliati by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet.

And a single quote, written by Jean-Marie Straub.
“The spoken text, the words are not more important than the different rhythms and tempi of the actors, and their accents are not more important than their particular voices, caught in the instant, struggling with the noise, the air, the space, the sun and the wind; not more important than their unintentional sighs or any other small surprises of life recorded at the same time, like particular sounds which all of the sudden assume meaning; not more important than the effort, the work done by the actors, and the risk they take, like tightrope walkers or sleepwalkers, going through long fragments of a difficult text; not more important than the frame in which the actors are enclosed; or their movements or positions inside the frame or the background in front of which they find themselves; or the changes and the leaps of light and color; not more important in any case than the cuts, the change of images, the shots.”

Pedro Costa:
For me, every experience of the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet is the same as now, because this doesn’t change. It never changes. It’s difficult to talk about, because this very special film you chose is a very sad one. Especially for me, or for people who are experiencing what we are experiencing in the South, now with these austerity things happening — coming from here, from Brussels, actually. It’s very simple, and nobody does this kind of work today. So this doesn’t change. This kind of work is never done. I discovered that these films existed when I was younger. Now they do not exist anymore, period. And when I saw this for the first time, for me it had this amazing energy and sensuality….
The quote you read seems very concrete to me because I work in this field: I work with cuts, with this kind of rhetoric, so I know the procedure and sometimes I’m afraid. I do not take the risks that he speaks about, but sometimes I’m a little bit afraid. Whenever you do a cut, an infliction or an intonation, whenever you decide something, you have to assume that thing completely. And then I’m afraid. I think everybody’s afraid. More than before, more than yesterday. People do not take that risk anymore. So if we are here to talk about politics and ethics, I think that’s the main issue.
It is as if we are in the position of one of the people in this film, Ventura: “What can I say, what can I do?” Either you are charmed or seduced by something, or you quit and you are left alone. That’s what I feel, I’m really feeling alone. Not because I’m doing something special. Absolutely not. But I’m feeling alone. There’s no more people working in this way. When I was younger this seemed to me a way to make politics… not to make a film, but politics. And it’s the most beautiful thing for me. I was not at all seduced by the idea of making films or charmed by the guys with the guns. That’s not the charm for me, it never was. The charm was to do something as violent, as gentle as everything that Straub says in this way. Against the language of cinema. Because this is not cinema, or rather, this is not the language of cinema.

I never believed in working inside the system. Because this happens outside the system. I Always believed in the outside. It’s a position, and then you have to live with it. But you cannot turn the system around. I don’t believe in that. I’m not that kind of person, I’m not that kind of citizen, I’m not that kind of filmmaker. You cannot work inside the language, you have to invent something else. There are some things in this film, and I’m sure you all know more films by Jean-Marie and Danièle — if you don’t, I hope this one gives you some appetite — there are some things there that you have never seen before in your life, I’m sure of it. The guy knocking on the table: you have never seen this, never in this way. So it’s a way of saying: let’s cut the crap, we are trying to invent, we are trying to work, to search, find another way of pulling something from someone who doesn’t know yet what he is going to do. You have to pull something out that he doesn’t know he is capable of. That is the work, for me, that is the politics. To give appetite to the other one, so that he can go say something to his boss, his friend, his employee, his lover. He can say it in another way, not in the same old language.
They are the guys who have never let me down. I’m a fanatic. They are fanatics. I think it’s the only way to talk about this kind of work. There is no other way of working in cinema or art. Did you see these mysterious shots of wood? It happens two or three times in the film. It’s very strong. When you do things like that, you’re done for the rest of your life. It’s over. You cannot work in this town anymore. You have no more job in this town, in cinema. It’s going very far. Sometimes if there is no reason to do it, you have to go beyond your fear. I tell you, I cannot do it. It’s not a matter of talent. It’s just that I don’t work that much. It’s that simple, there’s no secret here. It’s not a question of being well practiced in the ways of writing scripts, it’s not the number of films that you have seen… It’s life, it’s taking a risk that has nothing to do with cinema. Because we’re not talking about cinema now.
It’s a tension that is very hard to maintain because it’s not in the films, it’s in life. We all know it’s very difficult to be in love all the time. At least, that’s how I feel. I knew Danièle and I was very close to her, perhaps more than to Jean-Marie, and I know they were in love all the time. I’m not saying that you need to be in love to make art, or to live, to be alive, but it helps. Again, there are things here that you have never seen in your life. It means that they try to keep this tension at the maximum level. It’s very young, very alive, very political, very resilient. All the words you want. But it’s in life, not in cinema. Actually this is one of the least visual of their films, I think. Everything is what it is. Like one of them says, “it’s here, it’s what it is”. So it’s not film, it’s something else. The difficult part is not making the film, it’s believing in the film. It’s believing that this is material, that this is more than material, that we can represent it in another way. The strength to believe in going from saying something to doing something. It’s like Ventura trying to get up. You cannot get up nowadays. He can’t get up, because he was seduced, charmed.
This is a film that has death in it, that’s why it’s a sad film. There’s something very “there”. You die. You die for some things, you die seeing certain films. When you go to films today you don’t die. But you have to die a little sometimes. Me, I died a thousand times. And I was not reborn immediately. Today it’s only ghosts. I’m tired of them. There’s no ghosts here. There’s no tricks. It’s something Jean-Marie always says, “you should never ‘faire le malin’ — play the smartass”. These films never do this. They don’t play the smartass. You choose this or you don’t. I’m also very sad because we didn’t win this. We lost.

There was a film before this one, called Workers Peasants (Operai, contadini, 2001), which is about what happens before. These people tried to reinvent everything: this village, this life, this commune. In this particular film they quarrel, they discuss, they fight, there are some love stories… This is the sad epilogue. It felt so sad today. But it’s so well done. There are no metaphors here. In films, there are usually constantly metaphors for everything, but they are the only artists I know who are beyond metaphor. It’s all crystal clear. It is as sad as — when I think about them in a historical context — the last films by Eisenstein or Vertov, they have the same effect. I see them dying, lying down, giving up, taken down by the forces of progress and power. So it’s a very sad film, but it’s a film that has to be done. It all comes from Italian writers who were very important — Vittorini, Pavese and others. They didn’t give up, but they were forced to stop writing. Pavese ended they way he did, Vittorini cried for the rest of his life. And we, we are still crying.
What they are saying is that they are a bit lost and don’t know their way. That was in the original text and it’s done perfectly: actors, camera, direction, flowers, rivers, things that pass… And ourselves: we are perfect in this film. When I saw From the Clouds to the Resistance (Della Nuba Alla Resistenzai, 1979) when I was younger, I fantasized that the movement in a film was not only there on the screen, but up here, in our head. So the work you have to do is not an intellectual work: if you understand, you understand, If you don’t, go home, wait, grow older or forget, go somewhere else. It’s a balance: you have the movement in your head, as if the camera is your head. For me, the camera was always in our eyes. That’s why I say that these films are the fastest for me, because they make me think so much. This never happens to me with other filmmakers. Sometimes even Godard seems very slow. When I was younger I was a lot into music, and this was for me the exact correspondence to the music I was listening to, which was very noisy rock music, very simple, tense, nervous. Even Godard seems a bit more rhetorical, more stuck inside cinema. Even if he appears to be more revolutionary, more of a genius than this couple — which I do not think — sometimes I thought he was slowing down because of the rhetorics of the language. It’s like poetry: they are poets. You’re stuck if you’re into language. Everybody knows that. At the same time you cannot do poetry with poetic words. You cannot write a poem with poetic terms. You have to escape, work, work a lot.
For me, work is, or at least it was the only thing left for me. I came a bit too late, at a very bad moment. The people I liked and the things I wanted to do were very “underground” — but not in the marginal sense, they were not fancy or elegant or making money: they were really despised. They still are, by the way: recently I tried to help produce a film of Straub, but I didn’t manage. Anyway, at the same time Godard was in that very political moment, so nobody cared about him. Those were the things that inspired me. I was never into the avant-garde or experimental film, I was never seduced by it, I always thought it was too easy. It’s my Capricorn side. When I go to museums and I see those videos, I always say “it’s too easy, let’s work a little bit more and be a bit more provocative.” To go beyond, you have to respect some things. It’s hard to say, to confess, but you have to observe, and not forget things. For me, in experimental cinema, they forgot everything: Chaplin, Griffith, … not the angles or the shots, but the spirit. I’m talking about politics. Experimental cinema pushed for a kind of politics that was not interesting for me. Guy Debord, for example, I was never into. Far from it.

When I started I was confronted with a big dilemma. I worked as an assistant for about ten years. It was a nightmare. I recently read some biography that said “he worked as an assistant and he gathered a lot of un-useful and traumatic experiences”. It was exactly like that. I realised I did not want to work in this kind of thing. But it’s not like I’m going to try to change the industry or the rules. No, I just don’t want to work this way. But it took me three films and a lot of years to really get out. For them, it was a bit easier. I shouldn’t be saying this, but in the 1950s and ’60s, it was somewhat different. Me, I had to spend the 1990’s trying to figure out how to get off this train. I had to find the people, the place, the story, the narrative, the politics, everything, to be able to start again. It’s about production, in the Walter Benjamin sense. It’s the nights you spend thinking about production. The mornings you think about the art mean nothing. Or the nights when you think about the shot, or the girl, or the flower. It’s not like that. It’s a little bit abstract sometimes: it’s money, it’s cars, aspirin, social security, going up a stair, making a phone call, those kind of things that have to do with real fear. Should I call, should I explain, expose, should I go — like in the Clash song? That’s the risk. I think today it’s very difficult and I’m not really sure if the best way is not to work inside the system again. Not for me, but for young people. I’m outside, I’m retired.
I work alone too much, that’s my problem. I would like to work a little bit more with the people I usually work with. Not with technicians because that’s not really possible for me anymore. One thing Godard once said is that you have to have people around you who do the same things, someone at the camera or the sound who are really working with you. I could be here telling you that I have some partners, but I just don’t. It’s not that no-one knows what I’m doing, that it’s a secret or a mystery. It’s just because film has become economically very violent. I can’t find anyone to stay with me every day for six months. It’s not possible in my situation. I really want to make films that compete with Tarantino, I’m not kidding. I will always try, just like Jean-Marie, to put my film in the same place as Tarantino’s: in the cinema, in the multiplex. To make the same kind of objects, tell a story, more or less in a kind of rich way. We want to do the same thing, we want to be judged or appreciated in the same marketplace, even Jean-Marie wants that. But I can’t find people from the industry to work with me. Jean-Marie can’t, because he doesn’t have the money or the patience. I have a bit more patience, I think, but I spend more time. I can still have someone for the sound, because sound people are more sensitive, more here on this planet, as sound is more concrete. But a lot of others I can’t have. They want to be somewhere else, make films in Africa or in Brazil, they need the planes, the cars, the girls, the small talk. It’s the mythology of film and it’s very difficult to fight against that.
When I’m saying I don’t work enough, it’s perhaps because I’m working too much “on the other side”. After my years working as an assistant and doing a lot of terrible things, I thought of only one thing: I have to demonstrate that film can be done in that place – Fontainhas. I have to tell these guys that film was born in this place. And it was so evident, so simple. Just see a film by Chaplin or Griffith: it was born there, in the street corner. So I spent a lot of years trying to explain ”this is a tripod, this is a camera, pointing there. And there’s a guy passing. We can go from here to something else and then there’s the sun and we can invent a scene…” Just telling a lot of people, friends, people that I like, that I wanted to do something with them. But in order to do that I needed them to understand. So I was making a transfer of everything that I knew to that place. We did two or three films that way. But I invested a lot in the production side of things, and perhaps that’s the good side of those films that I made. That they are made there, with those people. Something is felt, something comes from them too.

Everybody has one’s own secret awards, and mine is not the artistic value or compensation. It’s much more the work we did there — a lot of people worked for that. I don’t really like documentaries, I never liked them, but there is a certain documentation in what we did. And now it’s done, and people see it, they think and they reflect. And that has a value. It’s like Jean Rouch’s work: something that has value. It was important. But now it has become something else.
It’s the stupidity of me thinking that film was supposed to record human life. I did that, and now I’m stuck. I’m no place. Because I don’t like documentary — and it’s not that anyway. And I can’t go on recording something that doesn’t exist anymore. Fontainhas doesn’t exist anymore, physically, but most of all the soul is missing: they are broken, as broken as Ventura. So it’s too much for me to pull them back up again. I don’t know how. And now I’m into artistic deliriums, I’m afraid. I talked with Jean-Marie about that: we are doing things to forget, not to remember. First I was doing things to remember, now I ‘m doing things to forget. That’s my feeling. I cannot explain. Every time we get to something like the film you saw recently — Sweet Exorcist — I have the feeling we are doing films to forget a lot of things. Forget the life that went before, forget what we did, perhaps forget to start again. We have to start something new, but what? It has to be done, but I don’t see anything new in films.
I do not have the sets, the houses, the skies, the forest, the sea. They — Straub-Huillet — have taken that away from me. I cannot do a shot of the sea. I can’t. Even if the script says: “and then he looks at the sea”, I will never shoot a sea, I promise you. I don’t even have text to work with anymore. Because they, the people I’m working with, are forgetting. They have so many problems. Do you see what I mean? How do we start from here, alone, everybody alone, if there is no possibility of a collective thing. I don’t see it because I don’t talk with anyone. I don’t want to be in the film-film thing. I can’t. I can’t do a film like Olivier Assayas. I don’t know how. That mythology of film, for me it doesn’t exist. It never existed.
In Umiliati you saw the soldiers, the guys with the red scarfs. They say they come to charm, to seduce. I’m not seduced by that. I was never seduced by cinema. It’s so beautiful I have to tell once again the story of Rossellini. It was Truffaut — he made some nice films but his texts are really wonderful — who was talking about Rossellini, who he knew very well — he was his assistant for a while. He said: “you see, there are people who are not born to make films, Rossellini is one of them. Because he’s not stupid, he’s not an idiot. He hasn’t got the naivety to make a film. Because you have to be a little bit stupid.” When Truffaut says “stupid” I know exactly what he means. Anyone who has tried to be behind the camera knows what it means. Faking, being stupid faking, faking being intelligent, faking a lot of things. Rossellini couldn’t do that, he couldn’t say “and now you kiss each other and you say I love you”. He just couldn’t do that. He did several films like this. And Truffaut said that his work goes from the city of Rome — in Roma, città aperta — to a lot a little cities — in Paisa, a film shot all over Italy, from Sicily to the North — to an Island — Stromboli — and a continent — Europe 51, a very beautiful film. And then he wanted even more. Because he was loosing his beliefs, he was loosing it completely. You can see that in Voyage in Italy: It’s a magnificent film, but he’s completely nuts. You see him going away. And then he literally goes away to India — which is an amazing film. And after India, he goes to the abstract planet of ideas: Socrates, Jesus… He was out of his head, saying things like “TV is the future of democracy” and so on. What is nice about Truffaut is that he said: he was too stupid to be in this business. He never said he was too intelligent, too kind, too gentle. He never said that, but that’s what he meant. This kind of people, like Jean-Marie, are too kind for this world, for this cinema. Too gentle, too intense to make films. So we should say that films should be something else. But what?

I felt it was important for me to look for something new, just for me, privately. Which means a little place on this planet to put my camera, and for that I had to convince the people around me that it was possible. Because they were saying “don’t film this, this is ugly, this is poor, there is nothing to see. If you put a pistol, it will look much better”. My work was to try to convince them that we didn’t need a pistol, or somebody saying “I love you”. It was very difficult, it still is. It’s because of the mythology I was talking about. So when I did this part of the job it was obvious that I had to work with what I had, with what they gave me. One of them told me he wanted to do his text like if he was dying in the hospital. He really wanted to say his text that way. I resisted a bit, already thinking about the email or the fax stating “dear sir, we are doing a film … we want to ask your permission… etc.” I was already dying! I’m very lazy for this kind of thing. That’s the kind of work I don’t want to do. Because I think there are great things in not doing this work. If you don’t do it, it’s resistance. Even more so because you have to pay if you want to shoot in a hospital or a museum. For example, I wanted to film a painting in an art museum. They asked for 300 euro, I said “no, I won’t do it”. So I bought a book — from Taschen — and with a friend I cut out the thing and it’s exactly the same. They will see it, of course. I’ll probably put “museum” just to annoy them, but I won’t pay. Because it’s never used for the right purposes, it’s going into somebody’s pocket. To come back to the hospital scene: the guy had this idea to shoot the scene in a certain way — you never get this from professional actors or technicians — putting the bed in a certain position, putting something under the mattress so that he was bending a bit and so on. The shot is there, everything is white and there’s a big window with white violent light. And it’s a hospital. That’s what we’re doing now, trying to do something between extreme laziness and getting the things that are there.
Of course it’s more complicated than this, there is always some kind of fight. Of course they want to go to the real place. It’s part of our job to resist the institutions, in this case a hospital, or the government, the police. But it’s not that, It’s more about making them think about another kind of language. That’s what I want. It’s not a language, it should be something else. The experience should come from this kind of experience. This worked because he wanted to say something to his mother, it’s part of a very long process. This boy was in bad shape, because of drugs and so on. And me, I make films, I make something that people see and believe. So he took me as a postman to post a letter to his mother. “I’m going there to tell something to the mother. You will help me say that, you will put me in the right position. The best way for me to tell my mother some things: she didn’t help me”, “I’m dying. It’s your fault…” Very difficult things. This art direction comes from there, from a much more violent and difficult place. It always comes from a very serious thing. It’s not about faking, imitating or fantasizing. He believes in this, I don’t and when we get together, it works because he believes. That’s why I work with this kind of people behind and in front of the camera, because professionals do not believe. It’s always technological, technical, artistic. It’s never political.

I do not know anyone in this room who has seen more films by Andy Warhol than me, I mean completely. I challenge anyone. I always liked him, I really like the filmmaker, even more than Jean-Marie. He’s my kind of guy, as serious as Rocky, as strong, stubborn, as mellow as Straub. When he makes you cry, he makes you cry. I’ve seen Warhol’s films in film theatres, and I’ve been waiting in cues to buy a ticket and 10, 20 minutes after the film starts, everybody goes away, just like for a Straub film. And I stay alone with two or three guys, one of them sleeping… In the same way that when you say “Straub”, everybody goes away, screaming “marxist, terrorist, boring!” In the case of Warhol they say: “Rock ‘n’ Roll!”. Nobody has the patience to really see. They see a picture, something from a catalogue from a museum. They never see the complete film. Like they have never seen this film and sometimes they have never seen a Charlie Chaplin film. It’s that simple.
I made a film called In Vanda’s Room. I was suffering to make this film, thinking, dying, I really worked a lot on this film, editing for two years. The suffering was very material. Two or three years after the film was made someone asked me, “have you ever seen Warhol’s Beauty 2?”. When I finally saw it, I had the feeling that he did it just like that .. “let’s make a film”… he did and it was exactly the same as my film. So it took me two years, it took him in real time about one hour. It’s a beautiful film, it has the same thing that I tried to do. I keep seeing the film again and again. It’s a dilemma. I killed myself to do this and he doesn’t give a shit and he does it. He doesn’t give a shit, but he’s a great filmmaker. The core of what I and him wanted to do is the same. What he says is on the bed everything is sexy, even peeling a potato. I write 50 pages about my film. That’s the difference. Sometimes you have to go to the basic simple thing. There’s more examples, but you have to see it, experience it. First you have to see the film. I am convinced there is a cloud of fog and dust surrounding a lot of film art aspects.

I met Antonio Reis when he was a teacher at film school. I went to this school because of him. He made me stay because at that time I was more into music. It was a difficult moment in those years. It was the moment of Straub of Godard and there was nothing more exiting than that. There were a lot of things coming from Europe: this kind of poetic cinema from Budapest or elsewhere, the kind that still exists today: guys with raincoats in places where it rains all the time. And I hate that. But it’s also in music: I was into the Sex Pistols and my friends were into Joy Division. You have to choose. And at that moment film was like Joy Division. Very profound and artistic and philosophical. I’m joking of course, but I’m trying to define something that was awful for me. Everything that I didn’t want was there in that school, and this guy was the only one that saved me, pulling me through. Because I was only saying this kind of bullshit “I hate this and that.” I was just against. And he said “keep saying that, one day you will be tired of it and you will do something.” And I had to do something one day.
Antonio Reis was very important, also because he was the only one in my country who gave me hope. More than hope: he showed that it was possible to make a film in the Portuguese language. For me, films come a little bit from when I hear the words, what people say, the tone, how they pronounce. I hear a lot of things in films. I wouldn’t say “class”, but money. I hear how much they were paid: I see a film and the girl says “I love you” and I say “oh, 200 euro”. I know how much it costs. I’m joking, but there’s a segment in the film I made with Jean-Marie and Danièle in which they speak a little bit about this problem. Which is why sometimes when you work with non-professional actors — people who have other jobs in life and come to do this job as an extra thing — you get more, you get an accent. Accent is always a good thing. You get an imperfection, you get something less to get something more. And you fight with your imperfections. It’s like the guy in the hospital: “I don’t have to be in the hospital to tell you this. So I’m even more intense. See, I’m completely naked”. What you get is this naked rawness. It’s difficult to have this with an actor. I prefer this kind of surprises or accidents. I’m always challenged, amazed, surprised. It’s a life I want, a life of surprise.

I would like my films to be shown as much as possible. Why not in a museum, a gallery, a video on the wall? It’s all the same audience for me. When I started to make films as I’m doing them now I really wanted to have an audience. Now the people I work with are the audience. Each time I make a film, if it doesn’t come out on DVD, I have to make 5000 copies. This abstract neighbourhood I’m always talking about exists. The houses are not there anymore, but the people exist. Some died, some are no longer there, but they have sons and cousins. Again it’s this fascination for film: “I want to see my cousin, my dad’s house, …” So we make a film and we show it among ourselves. Some colleagues… I don’t know if they want this kind of thing. They are content doing the film and showing it in Rotterdam or Berlin. At that moment, ten-fifteen years ago, I needed this response. It felt incomplete if I was doing that kind of work to stop there. Now it’s even more difficult because there are no more theatres in that place there. No more neighbourhood, no more film theatres. When we showed the films there’s was still a theatre. It’s been torn down, it’s a supermarket now. Like I told you, I lost.
Jean-Marie and perhaps Godard — I don’t know him, with Jean-Marie and Danièle there’s also the sentimental thing — I think they belong to an age, time, moment when this kind of work was for you and me. It was for a lot of people at the same time. It could be philosophy or poetry for all young boys and girls. Me, I cannot go beyond “the one”. I can only attract one sad boy. Yes, There’s quite a few of us here, but we’re not a lot. If we pick up some sticks and fight, we will loose. Back then filmmaking and film experience still had some fascination, this kind of mystery that it always had: this emotion, this secret emotion just for you, when you see something and you think “this is made just for me”. People shared the same secret. Everybody thought “this is mine”, but actually it belonged to everybody. Me, I cannot belong to everybody, although I wanted to. Tarantino apparently manages to be shared.

This kind of work — I’m not talking about commercial success, not even critical success — is not there anymore. It’s not the same world. That’s my experience, from my mother and father and grandfather and what they told me and what I saw when I was young. The films I experience now, I feel the difference. Yesterday somebody asked me “how is your workflow?” Workflow today means: the film you’re doing. Just the word makes everything different: “flow”. In my time it didn’t flow, it just stopped. Today the work flows. Workflow today means you shoot something and you go to the end and you show it on DCP. It’s the movement you make from the moment you say “action” to the moment you see it on the screen. No more shooting or editing. Something specific is lost. There’s no more shots, the work or the intensity you have to put in something to be a part of you. It’s no more. It’s something else.
There is a part of work in film that is gone, because of the workflow: the part “flow” is fake, the part “work” is fake. When I go to a lab today it’s completely phony: to change the shot, it takes you ten seconds. It’s not the speed, there’s just no work. The guys working in the labs are not working, but just pushing buttons. Again, they have a language inside them, a digital language in their brains, their hands, their eyes. I’m afraid in their hearts, already, and that blinds them a bit from what I’m trying to tell them. So what I’m trying to say is that there’s not enough work in the films that I see. There are films here and there, the problem is that they’re not seen. Never in the theatre. I’m afraid of things getting exactly the same. If you see a Thai film, all of them are exactly the same, they’re all about ghosts in the jungle. If you see a Portuguese film, they’re all the same. Everything is becoming the same.
This kind of work, the kind that stops: it puts obstacles in front of me every time. But with these obstacles, you jump or you don’t. If you don’t, just go away. There are some films that I admire, but I don’t jump. This kind of work that I like is very useful. Jean-Marie and Daniele never liked it when we talked like this, but I think it’s very useful. Like I think Jean Rouch was very useful. There are no more works like Jean Rouch being made in the world today. No more. Perhaps on TV, but how can you see that when there are 100.000 channels? Somebody has to tell me where. If someone goes somewhere with a camera it’s always for a different purpose. I’ve seen that so many times with young people nowadays, they take their small camera, go to a small island or a desert and they come back with a desert. That’s what I’m pessimistic about. This workflow, this language. The battle that is won is saying that cinema is a language. I fought against that a little bit. Not enough. The Straubs have fought a lot, Godard fought a lot, Rouch fought a lot. It was supposed to become something else than a language. Breaking the grammar. But again: I don’t believe in working inside the language. I don’t even know if it’s possible anymore not to. I think it was, this film we have seen is the proof. Even today some other filmmakers, very few, prove that it’s possible sometimes. But it’s not possible to be seen. I don’t see how I can make a film and go to a theatre and people will come and pay a ticket to see it. No one will come. I know there’s the Internet, streaming, downloading, I get a lot of things from different places, but it’s a different kind of work… perhaps it will make me change something again. I don’t know.
Actually, this digital revolution saved me a little bit. I did films with 35mm with big crews, producers, the normal things. When I got fed up and didn’t know what to do, one of the things that saved me was those small digital cameras. I thought of doing something on 16mm with two or three friends, but even that was very expensive and technically too difficult for the thing we wanted to do. I did Vanda in 1998, a long time ago, and I guess I was one of the first to use those cameras. It’s a bit pretentious to say that the small camera was just the same as the others, but it was. I thought about it like the others. At first I didn’t believe in the digital thing, I thought it was very poor, but then slowly it became part of the day by day work. It dissolved everything that was technical, all the ambitions of having something else dissolved in this routine. What was good about it was that I found a routine that I never had in cinema. Every day, more or less, when I didn’t shoot I was doing something else. But it’s now been twenty years, and I see digital replacing the oldest ghosts of cinema again. Everything that I thought was over is coming back. Ghosts, projections… You have seen films by Murnau or Lang: it’s very different. You cannot fake it. You cannot do it again, you have to do something else, but you have to break a little, be a bit violent, not gentle. You cannot be gentle with Murnau or Lang. The way people are, speak, act: they are from today. This is today. That woman: I know her. And I don’t see that in today’s cinema. Films by Warhol or Straub: that is the revolution. Proof is: nobody sees them.

Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia videos


How to write about cinema today? “For whom? Against whom?” wondered French critic Serge Daney in a fervent 1974 plea for the rethinking of the critical function of Cahiers du Cinéma at the time. For the late Daney, beyond all possible aesthetic criteria and related ways of assessment, film criticism always implied an intervention in the political or ideological arena. From this point of view, it is not enough to simply explain what is being told in a film – a tendency in most contemporary film criticism – it is at least as important to lay bare where, how and by whom it is told. With his emphasis on the ethical dimension of cinema, Daney was explicitly following the footprints of the cinephilic tradition, based on the idea that each cinematographic work represents a voice and a standpoint, a vision of the world that at the same time legitimises and organises the work. This is the critical guideline that Daney, self-proclaimed “ciné-fils”, would follow his whole life, from the glorious days of the “Cahiers Jaunes” in the 1960’s, through the political and social deadlocks of the 1970’s, to the confrontation with the expansion of television and information in the 1980-90’s. Today, almost two decades after his death, a question resonates unrelentingly: where to find the “critical function” Serge Daney devoted his life and work to ? What is left of the cinephilic thought, now that the way we understand and experience cinema has undergone such fundamental transformations? In other words, what does the contemporary cinephile stand and fight for in the post-cinematographic era?

Following the publication of the first Dutch translation of the writings of Serge Daney (published by Octavo), we organised a series of events on the state of cinephilia and film critical thinking today. Here are the video’s of the talks and discussions:

Adrian Martin, Sint Lukas Brussels, 20th October 2011

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Cinema RITS Brussels, 27th October 2011

Jonathan Rosenbaum, KASK cinema Gent, 28th October 2011

Jacques Rancière (followed by a conversation with TJ Demos), Bozar studio Brussels, 18th November 2011

Jacques Rancière in conversation with Corinne Diserens on the work of Béla Tarr, Bozar studio Brussels, 18th November 2011