Les États généraux du film documentaire 2017 Territories of memory

Territories of memory

Three filmmakers, three acts of remembrance rather than commemoration connected to territories scarred by “history with its great axe”: as a kind of mirror reflection of the workshop “Memories of territories”, the workshop “Territories of memory” will bring together Ruth Beckermann, Sergei Loznitsa and Susana de Sousa Dias, whose recent films mark the culmination of a long-term search into the writing of history through the voices of literature, the materiality of archives, the words of witnesses, and the exhumation of traces of the past buried within present landscapes. These three cineastes have devoted themselves to a labour of “restoring” memory, each with their own tools and on different scales; a practice which consists in digging into the temporal strata of territories, probing the gaps within history, rebuilding bridges, however fragile, between past and present in order to bring about the co-existence of heterogeneous and apparently irreconcilable times, those of memory and of the forgotten.
“Between our today, our yesterday and our day before yesterday, all bridges have been burnt”, wrote Stefan Zweig at the beginning of The World of Yesterday. Ruth Beckermann’s entire production consists in an attempt to reconstruct those bridges: she belongs to a generation of Viennese Jewish writers and artists who launched a reflection on their identity at a moment when Austria’s Nazi past made a brutal return to the political scene. She is the daughter of Holocaust survivors – her father grew up in Czernowitz, Bukovina – who came back to live in Vienna after the war, a city that haunts her films and writings, the focal and vanishing point of her work, the space of a memory that knocks against the amnesias of history that she tirelessly maps out. Paper Bridge (1987) appears to be a kind of differed response to Zweig’s despair and the central piece of a trilogy of memory that begins with Return to Vienna (1983) and ends with Toward Jerusalem (1990). This collection of traces and narratives shows “how the death of close ones is linked to the fear of forgetting and, reciprocally, the fear of forgetting is connected to the death of an entire generation”, Beckerman observes off-screen. One has to keep in mind that this relation of memory to forgetfulness is doubled by a permanent tension between history and the present: in the background of Paper Bridge, the campaign for a presidential election was taking place during which a scandal erupted around the candidate Kurt Waldheim, finally elected, and whose compromises with the Nazi regime were aired. The resurgences of the past in the film’s present do not contribute to a fatalistic contemplation of the tragedy of history as unavoidable repetition: rather they illuminate the complex weave of memory and its inscription in the present. In her latest film, the filmmaker has set out to bring to the screen the correspondence of poets Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. The Dreamed Ones borrows its title from one of Bachmann’s letters and suggests the possibility for the film to create the tangible space of an encounter, both between the separated lovers and between them and us. But above all it establishes a community of the dreamt and of those who belong to nowhere (unzugehörig), among whom Beckermann counts herself. The themes of travelling and wandering indeed compose a particularly enlightening paradigm for her work, understood as displacement (hence as a feeling of never belonging to the territory where one lives) and as a quest for one’s identity and memory. [1]
With Sergei Loznitsa, who has been accompanied by the États généraux du film documentaire since his first films, the territory of memory belongs to the dissonance of times that probe the rift in the present. Archives are the first tool, because they are the most obvious, for this archaeology of images of history’s forgotten. But archives are never treated as documents of the past, testimonials without mediation: they operate in the present within a montage that causes them to resonate with our age. In this play of orchestrating times, the soundtrack plays a decisive role. It confers to the images a sensory quality by never being immediately synchronized with them. But memory also shows itself in “present” images, in particular those of Loznitsa’s last two documentaries, The Old Jewish Cemetery (2014) and Austerlitz (2016). As Arnaud Hée very pertinently observes, “these two films are united by the fact that they take place in sites of memory where, precisely and paradoxically, memory is hindered”[1]: the burial of tombstones in the old Jewish cemetery on the one hand, the transformation of camp ruins into a tourist attraction invaded by blind masses who, on the other hand, are nonetheless ceaselessly taking pictures of themselves on the site, here are forms of forgetting that Loznitsa’s camera encounters to oppose, through the composition of his frames, the fixed nature of his shots, his work on sound and the flow of montage, a form of remembering which makes it possible to feel, in the depths of an image, the presence of ghosts. Does Béla Balázs not describe with troubling premonition, in The Spirit of Cinema, the gesture of the filmmaker when he distinguishes the poet from the visual reporter? “The simple reporting of tangible things is not enough to organize them. For it is sometimes necessary to have a poet’s sensibility and images as powerful as his to recreate the intangible atmosphere of reality.”
With Luz Obscura, Susana de Sousa Dias closes a cycle on the memory of opponents to Salazar’s regime in Portugal. The starting point of the filmmaker’s work – which she calls, with historian Enzo Traverso, a history of “weak memories” – were photographic archives in which the faces of men and women tortured and assassinated by the dictatorship’s political police look at us. Their memories sketch out the cross-angle view of the “strong memories” that write history. Inaugurated with Still Life, Faces of a Dictatorship (2005) and continuing with 48 (2009), this set of films gives once again a voice to the political prisoners through a series of direct or indirect testimonials of the regime’s victims, superimposed on portraits of themselves or those close to them. In Luz Obscura (2017), three children’s voices in the present recount a biographical chronicle based on family photographs taken in the courtyard of the prison where their parents were imprisoned. In the place of the infamous iconography of anthropometric head shots, the filmmaker substitutes the singularity of memories and biographies. It is the memory of the dead that flows from the words of sons and daughters, a memory that has no other place of expression than the words of witnesses. The present of the enunciation conjugates with the archive image to dig a crack in the line of time by means of a montage which is based above all on the vertigo of memory, a paradox which ties the intimacy of family narratives to the redoubled violence of the disappearance of the dead, twice killed by the dictatorship and by being forgotten.

Alice Leroy

1. The full version of this analysis of the work of Ruth Beckermann has been published in number 14 of the review Hippocampe: “Celan, Bachmann, Beckermann. Correspondance des rêvés” (June 2017).
2. Arnaud Hée, “La caméra à remonter (dans) le temps”, Images documentaires, 88/89, July 2017, p. 45.

Workshop led by Alice Leroy.
In the presence of Ruth Beckermann, Susana de Sousa Dias and Sergei Loznitsa (to be confirmed).