Les États généraux du film documentaire 2011 Viewing Experiences

Viewing Experiences

On the art of narrating and transmitting

In October 1936, Walter Benjamin wrote an article entitled "The Narrator". In this text, he spoke of the fundamental role played by the narrator who draws from his own experience a way of casting light on the world and its events. By assuming his own representation of the reality he has witnessed, the narrator allows free rein to the interpretation of facts that can be drawn by the reader, the listener or the viewer; these in turn become those who relate what they were told, imbued with their own experiences.
The narrator in this sense is the individual who ensures the transmission of the experience of reality and of our lived experiences.

In this essay, Walter Benjamin also wrote: "The art of narrating is being lost. {…} The value placed on experience has dropped. And it does seem as if it will continue to plummet indefinitely. {…} It is as if we were henceforth deprived of a faculty that once seemed inalienable, the most certain of all: the faculty of exchanging experiences."

Seventy-five years on, Walter Benjamin's observation on the exhaustion of the value of experience and the threat to our possibilities of exchange and transmission unfortunately remain relevant, particularly in view of the world which is ours today, marked by individualism, the dogma of free market thinking, the control and evaluation of our acts.
The notion of difference, not only cultural but also philosophical or reflexive, has become secondary, indeed a threat, for all forms of power and is no more seen as the possibility of a dawning, an awakening, a questioning of their triumphs or errors. This notion is nonetheless the keystone of any form of exchange, transmission, transformation of human beings and their societies.
Information as transmitted by the media is caught up in the dynamics of the immediate, the quantifiable, of extreme over-simplification, and has shown in addition complicity with the dominant conception of government founded on the need to react quickly, to respond to the ever renewed emergencies created by social and economic disruption.
In this context, the importance of culture as apprehended by our governing powers is weakened. It is the object of austerity measures which, taken as exceptional, end up transforming the norm governing both funding and content. This levelling of cultural norms has perceptible consequences on the form of contents, and on their transmission.

Documentary cinema like all acts of creation constitutes a counterpoint to this obscuring of thought. While it draws from "the Real", it stimulates the workings of our "Imaginaries" which, as Gaston Bachelard put it, "more than invent facts and dramas, invent new life, new spirit, revive our capacity to feel wonder, give movement to our thought."

The "cinéma du réel" does not only document. It unveils realities that have become opaque under the blinding spotlights of hyper-realism. In response to this scorching of the eyes, constantly submitted to the spectacle and the spectacular, documentary film invites us to plunge again into the lights of night-time, standing by the wayside, those which are only perceptible by opening the eyes wide.

If documentary film is sometimes considered a complex cinematic form, it is precisely because it leads us into zones of discomfort, through its formal and narrative procedures. By allowing spectators to move freely within the narrative — at the risk of unsettling them — documentary invites each viewer to put their eyes and ears to work, in the search of meaning.

Documentary filmmakers fully subscribe to the conception of art suggested by Walter Benjamin. They are the narrators of our day. They assure the transmission of representations of the world. They testify to the extent that the act of creation is eminently political.

Receiving more than a thousand documentaries produced over the last twelve months for this programme is already a sign of the flourishing health of this cinematic form in the French-speaking world.
We were only able to select a limited number of films. Nonetheless a significant portion of registered films were evidently the result of a desire, a will to transmit different points of view on today's realities.
Most of these films were self-financed or made with limited production support, and most of the time outside television production circuits.
It can also be noted that most of these documentaries concentrate more on the internal life of the filmmakers than on the subjects and issues of our societies. At the same time, this trend is probably the expression of the need felt by young cineastes to question themselves above all on what links them to the world and to others, what unites and what divides.

This selection of twenty-six films is not an overview of the diversity of documentary styles today, nor a selection based on excellence.
We wanted to select above all films which fully assume their role in a process of transmission, which, in a powerful act of creation, propose explorations of reality through questioning of the experience of the eyes.
These documentaries are above all works of cinema for each time they create tension between the desire, the belief, the doubt filmmakers feel facing the reality they film. They experiment with the direction of voice, the relation between words and character, the texture of the image, the visible and the invisible, sound narration, the staging of oneself and others, the permeability between the Real and the Imaginary.
Through these formal proposals, the Real once filmed comes back to us somewhat transfigured. Whether the situation be close or distant, we discover it, or rediscover it, with a new, engaged viewpoint.
In these twenty-six films, we see, amongst other things, states of war and resistance, of heritage and transmission, exile and solitude imposed and desired, mechanisms of control and domination, desires of liberty and independence, the indescribable and the invisible, emancipation and renaissance.
So many states of our time. So many films that incite us to abandon our position as spectator and become actors of the world and of our own lives.

Pierre-Yves Vandeweerd and Philippe Boucq

A part of the "Viewing Experiences" programme will be screened by the association Les amis des États généraux de Lussas, accompagnied by Marie-José Mondzain.

Coordination : Directors and producers will be present at the debates.