Les États généraux du film documentaire 2013 Scam Day

Scam Day

Of the past and community among filmmakers

814 projects aided to this day. 64% of the films have been made. Half broadcast on a television station, the others projected in cinemas or independent circuits. A certain number are visible on the internet or other supports. These figures on the aid fund for creative documentaries and filmed essays give a limited idea of the immense wealth created over the past twenty years. The two years I have spent on the fund selection committee have really been learning experiences, not in the sense of reinforcing my eye for criticism already too sharp and cutting. When you are handed power, you are always ready to cut others down to size. No, they have been lessons of modesty. I have seen myself reflected in all the erring and wrong turns that abound in the scripts of our authors' submissions. Are vanity and blindness not common errors? Our images, our films becomes mirrors of our narcissism, just like these written proposals which repeat themselves and go round in circles as if the authors wanted to convince themselves of the pertinence of their developments and characters, as if the latter had become their spokespeople and representatives. The illusion of renewing documentary film with one brilliant stroke is one of these little conceits, the need for total mastery also. The least word or image closes in on itself, leaving no space for improvisation. You can feel the fear that freedom or the unexpected might take over the film being made, as if the free speech of the characters and their actions threaten to send the whole project hurtling down the wrong way.
Among the reading commission and the jury, I have had the impression of participating in a kind of open academy where everything was redefined between the pleasure of assent and the rigour of criticism and disagreement. I much appreciated the absence of pretension among my colleagues who remain – in spite of the considerable number of works they have accumulated – searchers of reality. Their films, the films we have supported, are powerful revealers, a kind of social conservatory of the lives of women and men. Our time's entire field of imagination finds refuge there; filmmakers have recorded human realities which, without their action, would have escaped us and been erased into emptiness, nothingness, the unknown. Making a film requires an ecstatic effort, self negation. We are practically obliged to abstain from living our own lives normally, and if we reveal what's going on in existence today, is it not at the expense of what we used to be and sometimes of what we used to think. Each project saves us from our past. It pushes us forward, renews us, renews our images when we apply ourselves to making visible unperceived universes peopled with singular and non-conformist individuals. We open eyes, our own and those of other people, we violate our states of passivity.
For many filmmakers, thanks to our cooperative, the Scam, this society that belongs to us, their dreams have been transformed into concrete films where bursts of inspiration combine with the transmission of knowledge, where unexpected encounters shake up the world that we know. The aid given to authors is far from being only financial, it is above all critical. What we say to creators is rooted in our experience but also, and especially, in our fraternity. At least this is our aim, assisted by the modest and obstinate work provided by the Scam staff.
The films of these last two years have been driven by the desire of their creators to reveal and to know. What struck me, among other things, was their passion for their family pasts with its hidden drams, its missing persons, its silences, and also the worried search for a community, the one which enables one to confront reality together and freely. The intersection between History with a capital “H” and the solitary individual, in its isolation, is difficult to pinpoint. It is difficult to apprehend the totality of an individual. Only the novel or a film sometimes manage. If documentary can open the path to new knowledge about an individual and their society, it goes further through the powers of amplification provided by aesthetics. Sometimes aesthetic research is present through the use of sound, of words, sometimes by the evocative power of images. This combination ties and unties the narrative, allowing us to deduct ideas and pleasures in phrases that multiply and overlap. Family history with its obliterations constitutes a past by surprise. Once again, making a film is way of soothing a sore point by conferring on it an element of universality. That particular story intimately belongs to us but also to all humanity. That something that our memory did not want to erase is the famous "remains of being" which haunts us because it is already inscribed in one of our projects without our being aware of it. Tearing from the nothingness of the past a series of faces, presences, testimonials, thoughts, is a way of re-establishing the dialectics between the past and the future to which our films carry us. The cineaste's point of view on things and beings allies itself with the public's point of view on the filmmaker, their film and characters, the public being that "third agent" in whom we place our hopes for creating the tension between the contributions made by the film and our insufficiencies, questions and uncertainties. Work of art, work of thought.
Many of the projects I have read focus on these tenacious investigations of our reality, the reality at the centre of our conscious attention which pushes us to assume control of it. More than a piece of work, the film is often an imprint made by our conscience and our knowledge. Even if the camera is not interested in abstraction, the film makes abstract thought possible. A film must be thought, but what it highlights first and foremost are individuals circulating in the world they live in.
Many filmmakers examine cities and the gaps that exist between them and the living beings who inhabit them, these gigantic communities where we live amid systems of trade, communication, production, subservient to the media, to money, to the administration. These communities are geared to impersonal ends, to which we participate as means — we have no choice — not as free subjects. How can we escape from those looks that freeze us, those masks of stone that transform us into objects in the metro? How can we live other community experiences where exchanges of solidarity and reciprocity link us together within collective action for the common good and our own. How fine a point of view is that of a woman filmmaker discovering amid the rush of the megalopolis, the din of traffic, little structures where men escape from the burden of indifference and alienating looks.
Often filmmakers are interested in micro-communities appearing in circumstances that made their creation necessary, rural communities which they describe with respect, whose participants attempt to abolish the distance between the world of material survival and the universe of the spirit, of the imagination. The attempt to merge these two domains pushes women and men to mark their environment with their artistic production. A collection of statues evokes a sacred bestiary. Rhythms and rites are based on voice, body and dance. These original communes, creators of a truly indigenous art, strive to escape from the process of an imposed reality, that of objects.
And all these in depth examinations of poverty, as it is suffered and lived. But it is the alternative that interests our authors, not the crushing oppression. Sometimes in front of the camera groups of solidarity form where the wretched debate their poverty. Instead of blaming outside circumstances, they imagine what must be changed; they project a future for themselves and wish to resituate it within a world of humanity in which their present wretchedness will be perceived by all, including by themselves, as intolerable. Some films lead us to this tipping point. Instead of excuses which people give themselves, the poor combine their know-how and work in marginal circuits of the economy like the recuperation and reparation of manufactured objects.
I would like to evoke the emotion of a woman filmmaker working with prisoners serving long sentences who know they are going to die in prison. They get together and attempt to write their autobiographies with the help of the filmmaker. From the process springs forth the singularity of their universes, their human realities. In one stroke, their past rehabilitates their future, their story rejoins History. The filmmaker reconciles them with the world and with time that carries off everything.
And then some films focus on flamboyant communities of active citizens when groups in fusion engage in a revolution against mafia dominated dictatorships or broken democracies. Arab revolution, revolt of the rebellious. The project of each one becomes the project of all. By following those who made these revolutions and this Spring, cinema allows us to understand these ideal and ephemeral communities. Ephemeral because their participants are carried forward by action and movement, by a project of universal emancipation, but the groups disperse as quickly as they formed because it is difficult to completely melt into a society, whatever it is, because their revolution ends up escaping them. But the engagement of these revolutionaries engages more than themselves, it is everybody, humanity in its entirety. In the insurgent community of citizens, living together has no limits. Those who risk their lives by participating in the revolt must after bear the risks of its political annihilation. For the revolution inevitably is followed by days of gloom, conservative forces come into play, revolution is replaced by counter-revolution. But the rebels who carried it forward have won a historical victory against humiliation and powerlessness. And that moment, nobody will forget, it will condition the future. That moment when the freedom demanded by all had as its condition the freedom demanded by each one! The words and acts recorded by filmmakers, their films are part of that very moment.
Filmmakers also incite us to indignation when they lead us to very old communities which have withdrawn in on themselves. The difficulties of daily life have led them to renounce politics and democracy, they are susceptible to the influence of fascist and xenophobic groups, communities where hatred has replaced traditions of solidarity and where the "other" - migrants, foreigners - are designated as objects and no more as women and men.
A major effort, both individual and collective, involving both self knowledge and knowledge of the other, permeates documentary cinema. Documentary does not capture a reality outside us or which can remain foreign, but the reality of a humanity to which we are closely complicit, chosen and defended.

André Dartevelle
Filmmaker, historian, member of the Belgian Committee of the Scam
and of the "Brouillon d'un rêve" seedfund jury.

Debates in the presence of the filmmakers.