Les États généraux du film documentaire 2013 People on the Screen?

People on the Screen?


Representing the people

Within documentary film, the question of the people and how to represent it has often been a major issue. Again and again, we stumble on that question: can one really represent the people? The aesthetic and political arguments mingle within the problem to the point of becoming inextricable. For each representation implies two sides: representing someone means speaking in their name, in their place and stead, and making their rights heard. But making someone's rights heard, and that's the second side, also means making the person's voice heard, making it perceptible and making the audience aware of its history and story. Very often, the political or legal issues are played out in this dimension of aesthetics and perception whereas on the contrary, what is presented as a simple choice of form already supposes a political choice: it is true that there is a politics of framing which starts out by setting up a separation between those who are seen and heard and those who remain off screen. In comparison with a tradition of representation in fiction film which is built around a few privileged characters and the staging of their intrigues, documentary cinema has on the contrary often preferred to explore the margins, seeking to make heard the voices of people whose stories are rarely told. Vanguard movements like the Dziga Vertov group in the sixties for example, who referred to the soviet aesthetics of the kinoki, conceived their militant documentary filmmaking as an attempt to replace representation by documentation, transmitting the voices of the people actively engaged in social movements, and not of those who claimed to speak in their name. However, it is not easy to shake off all discourse by procuration or preconceived habits. That is what Jean-Luc Godard, in spite of being one of the instigators of the Dziga Vertov movement, has never ceased stressing since that period, in particular in Everything’s going fine, which can be analyzed as a criticism of a cinema blinded by the idea of "direct transmission". Criticism of the discourse of representation has for a long time been limited to one side of the problem: it only imagined representation as an unjustified operation of substitution, an usurpation of sovereignty. Transmitting the words of the actors of social movements would put an end to all representation. That was also the opinion of Foucault and Deleuze who argued, against Sartre and the figure of the intellectual who believed he was able to speak in the name of proletarian truth, that the masses needed no one to know what they wanted, that they "knew it perfectly [...] and said it extremely well". (Les Intellectuels et le pouvoir, 1972). But what does "saying extremely well" what one wants mean, when the problem is no longer that of accessing to means of communication (from the vox-pop to the explosion of the blogosphere, there has never been an era when the opinon of the "ordinary" citizen was so intensely sought after) but rather that of the way in which certain discourses can be heard or not. In an essay which attracted attention among departments of postcolonial studies (Can the subaltern speak?, 1988) the Indian born philosopher Gayatri Spivak criticized Foucault and Deleuze for having reduced the problem of representation to that of substitution (Stellvertretung) and for not having given enough importance to the perceptive dimension (Darstellung). Any discourse, even direct, inevitably adopts a certain form and in order for it to be heard, you have to speak quite well — and this is precisely what a subordinate man or woman does not know how to do. What form of documentary could, escaping the alternative of a discourse by procuration or the fantasy of an absolutely authentic discourse, make room for minor, peripheral and marginal realities? What kind of cinema could — beyond the alternative of representation or transparency — allow the audience to become once more conscious of certain realities that usually escape unseen? And finally, to adopt the fine expression coined by Francis Ponge, what would it mean to "find words to express the minority within ourselves"?

Emmanuel Alloa

File a complaint

People shouldn't complain, they should file a complaint. In order to do that, they have to engage thought, writing or the image in a gesture which consists of making perceptible our historical world. What does that mean? That does not mean, no offense to the narrower versions of contemporary platonism or nationalism, making things unintelligible. If Walter Benjamin constructed his entire approach of the "readability of history" around the notion of the dialectic image — and not, for example, on that of the "dialectic idea" or indeed the "idea of the dialectic" — it is certainly because the historical or anthropological intelligibility of history cannot exist without a dialectics of the image, resemblance, appearance, gesture, way of seeing... Everything that we could call sense transmitted events. As for the power of readability carried by these events, it is only effective because it is part of the very effectiveness of images to make them accessible, to record and transmit, not only the appearance of things or states, but their "sensitive points", as we say so accurately when we indicate zones where that function is excessive, where something is possibly wrong, where the entire dialectical panoply of memories, desires and conflicts splits and divides. Making something perceptible means therefore making things, beings, events accessible to the senses, and even making accessible elements which our senses, or similarly our intelligences, are not always capable of perceiving as "making sense": something that only appears as a break in meaning, an indication or a symptom. But in a third sense, "making perceptible" also means that we ourselves, before these breaks or symptoms, become suddenly "sensitive" to something about the life of peoples — something within history — which escaped us up to that moment but which "concerns" us directly. Thus we are "made aware of" or sensitive to something new in the history of peoples that we desire, as a consequence, to know, understand and accompany. Consequently we find our senses, but also our signifying production on the historical world, moved by this "making perceptible": moved in the double sense of stimulating an emotion and putting thought into motion. Before the people's "declaration of powerlessness" — such as is made perceptible in the montage of texts by James Agee and photos by Walker Evans, or communicated in a film by Wang Bing or many other filmmakers — we find ourselves grappling with an entire world of dialectical emotions, as if that particular affective disposition which grips us when we face dialectical images were necessary in order to perceive history: the formula with the pathos by which however it is divided, the intelligible with the perceptible by which nonetheless it is shaken. File a complaint: placing collective emotions at the very point they are targeting ("The emotion does not say I", noted justly Gilles Deleuze), or more precisely the demand of peoples to be represented with dignity.

Georges Didi-Huberman

Filming the people: a job for dropouts and idiots?

Filming the people? Is it even possible? Nobody has ever seen the People, and its invisibility makes it unfigurable, unrepresentable. And yet the People will find form, figuration and voice in the bodies filmed by filmmakers whose eyes accept the most irreducible singularities and lend visibility to this invisible community. Which would seem to mean that the People can only be embodied in cinema if the cinematographic gesture is free of all generalisation, all attempt to represent number, multitude or mass, making available to sense perception the universal power of the most highly individuated particles, in their irreplaceable distinction, even if this should be in their most meaningless apparitions, those most given over to silence and to disappearance. Eisenstein looked at each face, each body born of poverty and revolt with such keen attention that the People could only express itself by way of faces and proper nouns. It is thus that the People has become in turn a proper noun and as such has earned a capital letter. This proper which is the conquest and property of the People is welcomed by documentary film and given a visible form under the sign of the infinitesimal and the particular. Greek thought named this singular subject as idiotes whose particularity has developed throughout literature, philosophy and cinema under the sign of the Idiot, in other words the simple minded, characterised by its distance, its solitude, silence or folly. The name of idiocy taken in all its complexity is the knot that ties together poetry, liberty and exclusion. From Dostoievski's idiot to Ninetto Davoli in Pasolini's films, the People becomes visible in the zone where the off-screen effects of its innocence and powerful lucidity can be felt. Filming the People is therefore not only filming the most extreme of singularities but also inscribing their incomparable destinies in specific sites of indetermination; inhabitable zones peopled by beings escaping all identification, all police. In Antiquity, the "idiots" went to the desert; today they are in the suburbs, clandestine or marginals, others stray around empty lots, find shelter in places of ruin or exile even in the heart of cities. That is why the image itself becomes marginal when it tries to transmit the visibility of the People in that zone where each figure embodies the perceptible and luminous form of what philosophy aims to understand under the heading of "human condition". The People is often mute and yet these filmed bodies resemble so many crystals, they are bearers of meaning and vision. The People filmed in this way, in each "idiot" body, becomes incarnate in the image of an incandescent presence, at once illuminating and visionary. Is this not the radical question which cinema and philosophy share, that is to be one and the other practices of what is counter-evident, and the perilous exercise of those who wish to simultaneously respect the order of reason and the disorder of truth. This, in its twisting tension, is the emancipatory task of any image which offers, in turn, the transforming power of the People to spectators.
I propose to share this reflection around the work of some documentaries by Wang Bing, Artur Aristakisian, Ritwak Ghatak and by Mary Jiménez and Bénédicte Liénard.

Marie-José Mondzain


Seminar schedule
- Tuesday August 20 at 10 am, Salle 2
Presentation by Emmanuel Alloa
- Tuesday August 20 at 2:30 pm, Salle 2
Presentation by Georges Didi-Huberman
- Wednesday August 21 at 10 am, Salle 2
Screening of the film "Sur les braises" followed by first part of a presentation by Marie-José Mondzain
- Wednesday August 21 at 2:30 pm, Salle 2
Continuation of presentation by Marie-José Mondzain followed by a debate with Emmanuel Alloa and Georges Didi-Buberman


In the presence of Emmanuel Alloa, Georges Didi-Huberman, Marie-José Mondzain.