Les États généraux du film documentaire 2008 Forms of struggle and the struggle of forms - Traps of formating or promises of form?

Forms of struggle and the struggle of forms - Traps of formating or promises of form?


The Repercussions of the Slightest Gesture

Film and politics? After May 68 there were a few of us who claimed that we were going to completely change the order of things. The idea was that instead of making political films, we would “film politically”1. The latter term, however, could have been misunderstood. Did it mean filming according to a given political line? Or did it mean to do more than convey politics and move towards implementing politics? Let me reply by quoting Guy Debord, “One can never truly question how life is organized without challenging all of the language forms that are part of said organisation.” The phrase is spoken by Debord in the 1959 film On the Passages of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unit of Time accompanied by the following information: “Blank screen”2. Ten years later, those of us who were far from being the proponents of the blank screen made the following question ours: How can one fight a form of domination without using the language proper to domination?
What is becoming clear today is that the destructive rationale of capital with respect to pictures and sounds has led to the destruction of all forms of freedom for the spectator. I am taken by the hand, summoned to listen attentively to the authoritative commentary of a journalist (the “guide”) as he voids the images of all mystery and appeal. The spectator is seen as nothing more than a consumer being asked to limit himself to committing that most compulsive of acts: paying for goods. The imagination is mapped out and indexed. The various formats used for television programmes — and for the major media, and in schools, and in companies, and in the world of leisure, with its ever-present sports rhetoric — are there to standardize the subject matter, a fact that is no longer kept secret. To make it conform by locking it into narrative rhetoric, explanatory diagrams and language forms that shape ways of acting and thinking. The language of the capitalist firm has become that of everyone. The same is true for visual language. Just as business heads and the masters of the world, we speak in terms of performance, efficiency, success, profiles, and profits. Advertisement, information, leisure, and entertainment fill the thick clouds of images and the thick clouds of sound that make up the atmosphere through which we breathe and through which we see and hear the world. What is happening to public television in our country is a frightening example of this. Is there any other purpose to the systematic “formatting” of fiction and documentary programmes other than to bring to book anything that could threaten the established order, be it economic or aesthetic? Is not formatting putting in one’s own terms one’s “willing submission” to entertainment. Is it not alienation?
It would be naïve to believe that ideas, themes, and declarations of rebellion will be enough to spark rebellion against the masters. We are locked in a content culture, in positivism of meaning. The role played by forms seems merely decorative: “design” politics, in short. And yet, declarations are conveyed through sign systems, through their positions, through the forms of images, sounds, stories and language. If we fight against prevailing ideas using their forms, the forms that grant them a dominant position, we simply take over for them and assure their power. Can we conceive of political films that would fail to create upheaval, in one way or another, because of production conditions, of their structure, or of the ideology that underpins them? Would it not be best for documentary films to break with the prevailing journalistic form — reports, magazines, etc. as typified by The World According to Bush and Fahrenheit 9-11? The news as marketable entertainment that has taken over television and imposes a piecemeal, disembodied, mapped out, highlighted, promotional, and marketable view needs to be disposed of urgently. The West has never before seen an effort of this scale deployed to control people’s consciences through discourse and pictures. Religious practices were not as totalitarian.
Television and film can treat all subjects; it can dare all types of transgression, including the treatment of subject matters described as “difficult” — as long as the form is composed and canonical. To extract the essence of the conflict in a reassuring manner that tames the “savage” problem. A destructive subject treated familiarly becomes less destructive: it has been acclimatized, made healthier, ridden of hazards, and is ready to be presented to the public for their enjoyment. Spectators have been spared the risks of being displaced from their seats and of having their order shaken. Film has a demiurgic and consoling function because it is never satisfied with things such as they are, already shaped and formulated; and because it strives to rebuild the world, to show it as still under construction. Utopia borne by film and we can also beautifully name this “politics”.

Jean-Louis Comolli

1 Our discussions on Cahiers du cinéma, and Cinéthique, with Jean-Luc Godard and the Dziga Vertov Group.
2 Cf. Guy Debord, Œuvres, Quarto, Gallimard.


During the sixties direct cinema freed speech; picture and sound were recorded at the same time without necessarily being edited together. This made it possible to film people and what they had to say to us directly. It also created enormous opportunities. With documentaries, direct cinema put an end to the dictatorship of the commentary from above; the voices of experts who spoke in others’ stead. Up until then they had spoken as if from the pulpit. They soon had to give up their position to the multitude of filmed bodies expressing themselves freely in their place of work and in other spheres of life. It led to a surge in accents, intonations, and parlances that could be likened to flights of balloons. The gurus were silenced by the polyphony of humble and ordinary people. It was no accident that this new form of song first came from Africa (Jean Rouch), Quebec (Pierre Perrault) and the working class (the cinema of the Medvedkine Group). These were real places where humankind had been asked long ago to keep quiet and had been deafened by the language of the powerful –colonials, English-speaking neighbours and bosses. To these filmmakers, and their contemporary Fernand Deligny, making documentaries took on the same significance as social utopia; it offered the power of existence to those who were not heard, and offered “to write the history of those who do not write”. Cinema proposed new rules to the game, a form of collective joy to all of the people being filmed in their reality, inside their stories, lies, and caught between the gravity and pleasure of recreating themselves. It was simply their turn to become actors in their lives on film. In this sense direct cinema prefigured May 68, which is why, in its own way, it was a revolution.
Is this the hypothesis of an iconoclast? We directly need to see Jaguar, its editing was not completed until 1967. Everything found in this film evokes the aspirations of the actors of May 68: the explosion of the spoken word; the inversion of roles; the advent of actors come screenplay writers; the exit of assigned functions; the break with the established division of labour in industrial cinema; and the doing away with of the professional format (the CNC had categorized 16mm as the “amateur format”). As for the film that is emblematic of the period, Reprise du travail aux usines Wonder, in its own way, is it not “trans” film? And what of Pierre Perrault’s trilogy, the Île-aux-Coudres? How could one not see that it too is celebrating a sovereign language defined by its values, by what it establishes and enriches, by what it starts in the film and subsequently allows for outside of the film? Here again, one does not ask for permission to speak, one seizes the right just as one seizes destiny, because when one speaks it is first and foremost to build something, to commit to building the future. Subsequently May 1968 gave language another function. Speech is used to put into play, to put in place, to put in working order the things that are relevant to everyone and is linked to a common destiny. In the beginning there was the Word should be the rule as a matter of policy, a principle for staging.
May 68, as a matter of fact. Contrary to preconceived notions, the June legislative elections did not seal the faith of the May 68 movement. In political terms the cause seems to have been heard; cinematographically, however, things were not over that quickly. The scene lasted twelve years: from 1967 with the birth of the Medvedkine Group in Besançon, through 1979 Lorraine, cœur d’acier. It finally dried out in the salterns of Mitterrandism. Activist cinema, the term one would use if the intention were to bury under disdainful epitaphs (“boring”, “dogmatic” and “obsolete”, for example) or to negate the existence of the missing link between the pioneers of direct cinema and the famous “documentaire de creation” of the eighties, an institutional catch-all concept. Activist cinema might also be referred to as “partisan”. And so what of it? An activist film is as any film that has nothing to hide, and yet is not ostentatious, and that because of its ingredients lets itself be worked on under our very eyes. An activist film is any film that brings to the fore questions and reasons and that make us think, that work on us, as we watch it in the theatre. The teams at ARC, Ligne Rouge and Cinélutte in particular, are openly involved in activism. They also work for love of cinema. The beauty of great, activist films lies primarily in their frailty: the ever-present gap between a political platform in real terms and a film project, between the inflexibility of the prevailing idea and the flexibility of the documentary. Lenin, Che Guevara and the Great Helmsman never wander alone through these uniquely peopled film. They constantly come across Howard Hawks, John Ford, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, the great Soviet films, and neo-realistic melodrama. Un simple exemple, one of Cinélutte’s major films, can be seen as a proletarian musical comedy: speech enchanted by the fact that it finally dared to express itself.
According to this conception of cinema, verbal expression and film always progress together, never separately, getting to know each other as they travel the road together. It is matter of trust. The making of documentaries is intrinsically linked to the forms of verbal expressions it allows for. Speech acts as yeast, it physically transforms the world; it is medium for Revolution.

Patrick Leboutte


Guy Debord’s emblematic text provides strong critical direction: the mobilization of gestures and thinking not only to combat economic and political domination but also to forge the arms needed to emancipate all individuals deprived of voice and power. Debord sharply sensed that the world of audiovisual communication was evolving, moving away from being the ideological superstructure of capitalism — as Marx could have described it — and becoming the very infrastructure of capitalism. Images are a structural component of capitalism’s control of subjects whose thinking is progressively taken over by the industrialization of all symbolic operations with nothing more in view than profits and the market. How can one, given these conditions, resist or fight? How can the arms of the oppressor be used to change the world? Under these conditions filmmaking becomes impossible, Debord believed. He expressed this idea in his writings and, paradoxically, in films in which attempted to escape all of the accepted forms of fiction and documentaries. His films were attempts at cries for rebellion and weapons for protest meant to change thinking and to transform the world by transforming the way people see and hear. Debord did not think it possible to use visual representations as weapons to free the mind and build a new way of seeing things. He condemned all forms of display because the world of display is entirely devoted to visual pleasure and to the uninterrupted renewal of goods that are rehashed and for which time frame and duration are wholly determined by the pace of consumption and forecasted returns. Should we do away with representation and simply bury spectators?
At Lussas, we will attempt to reconsider the possibilities of this half-century old critique with a view to understand its possible uses and limits in today’s world. To what extent can visual representation industries and the film industry specifically, constitute a terrain for rebellion? In what material conditions would it take place and what would be the formal requirements? If we see symbolic operations, creative gestures, and critical energy as exclusively resting on the unquestionable foundations of the power of our imaginations and on our capacity to produce visual representations, we must then admit that it is by defending the art of visual representations, rather than massively condemning it, that we can build the prospects for another world. To banish visual representation is to do away with the freedom to envisage possibilities and to confine the subject to a present without a future where he is nothing more than a consumer and an immediate market agent. We need to constitute the critical resources that will enable every individual to resist the confiscation of dignity and freedom. We also need to determine new conditions for representations of the world; ones that will make the spectator the subject of discourse and the terrain for promise. The idea is to reflect on the political significance of the aesthetic and material factors that jointly determine the condition of the subject of belief as well as that of the citizen. Art only exists when physical pleasure is an opportunity for freedom of thought.
Within the framework for reflection that is specific to Lussas, this means that at the same seminar one can come across the words and practices of the people involved directly in making documentaries and those of the people who work in the outer spheres, be it as critics or from the singular and unascribable position of philosopher. The latter, however, would need to see the issues and problems of visual representations as being inseparable from those of the people who give existence to the subject of desire and of thinking in a world that the same subject wants to share and transform. As for me, I have made visual representations and operations that generate visual representations central to anthropological concerns and to politics. The situation the spectator finds himself in is none other than that of any human subject who distances himself from what he is looking at to produce a sensitive and reactive visual representation and to choose the type of bonds he is going to create with the world through the representation.
During the three-day seminar, I have decided to look at specific themes that I believe will affect the way we see and react and will give shape to unique models for the struggle against any mechanism aimed at containing any commotion of the imagination: firstly, the relation between silence and sound and voice in certain documentaries, which is intrinsically linked to the treatment of time in visual representations; secondly, the mixing of genres as a form of resistance to formatting and to compartmentalized commercial categories; and thirdly, the use of comedy, laughter, irony, and humour as revolutionary energy. The films and excerpts to be presented do not deal with these themes in an isolated manner. For example, the film Tableau avec chutes by Pazienza uses a blend of laughter and calamity. Changer d’image by Godard also does, but in a very different way. Les Mots et la Mort by Bernard Cuau uses picture, voice, and discrete structure; while Berzosa always lays his path between irony, cruelty and calamity alternately. How could we categorize Film by Samuel Beckett and its staging of the silent frenzy of Cartesian doubt? With the aim of defending, more than ever, the art of visual representation and of film against new, murderous market rationales, against industries referred to as cultural, and against programmes described as entertainment, we are going to take up again all of the exercises in insanity that Debord in his lucid madness started. By watching, and watching again all of these films, which relentlessly struggle to fill us with hope and aspiration, we will build together new models for struggle. Bamako by Abderrahmane Sissako is, in my opinion, representative of the issues we will consider together.

Marie-José Mondzain


Coordination : Jean-Louis Comolli, Patrick Leboutte, Marie-José Mondzain.