Film In Conversation
LART LE PLUS POLITIQUE
NICOLE BRENEZ with Donal Foreman
In an essay on Adorno’s relationship with cinema, Nicole Brenez proposes that “the fact that one can think with certain films, and not simply about them, is the irrefutable sign of their value.” Few critics have reached the same level of intensity as Brenez in thinking with cinema. Although her first book was published in France in 1995 (a study of Cassavetes’s Shadows that has yet to be translated into English), it was her contribution to the landmark book of cinephilic film criticism, Movie Mutations, in 2004 that introduced her to many Anglophone readers. She shares with many of her peers in that volume (such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, Fergus Daly, and Adrian Martin, who has translated much of her writing into English) an eclectic and egalitarian approach to criticism both in terms of the cinema she writes about (from Marcel Hanoun to Mission Impossible) and the range of stylistic and theoretical tools she employs, freely mixing infectious passion and lyricism with rigorous conceptual invention. This is a writer who, in her book-length study of Abel Ferrara, could place the director in a lineage of negation that includes Hegel and Bataille while also opening with the irresistible line, “Abel Ferrara is to cinema what Joe Strummer is to music: a poet who justifies the existence of popular forms.”
But Brenez’s work is also distinguished by the forceful political consciousness that permeates it, something which Internationalist Cinema for Today, the series of screenings she has curated for Anthology Film Archives (March 2 – 11), makes abundantly clear. Both in her writing and her equally prolific work as the Cinémathèque Française’s resident avant-garde programmer, Brenez has gone to great efforts to revive, preserve, and construct a film history of resistance and formal invention, explicitly opposed to the medium’s dominant, industry-centric narrative. This commitment is exemplified in her essential and inexhaustible essay on the history of modern French cinema, “Forms 1960 – 2000,” in which she asserts, “the less familiar the names and titles mentioned in this essay may appear, the more important they are in reality.” The 17 programs that make up the internationalist series persuasively illustrate this principle, with much that will be unfamiliar for even those well-versed in radical cinema; several titles, including all of the René Vautier films presented, have been subtitled in English specially for the series.
In one of her introductions at Anthology this weekend, Brenez emphasized her intent to convey the richness and diversity of this cinema more than trace any particular line or trajectory in its development. The resulting proliferation of times, places, and styles is perfectly in keeping with the mission she ascribes to internationalism: “to resist all processes of identification imposed by geography, history, and bureaucracy rather than existential singular free choice.” And it’s indicative of the enthusiasm and generosity that energizes all of Brenez’s work: a love for these films that are not as seen, as appreciated, or as “thought with” as they should be, and a desire to share them. This is coupled with a corresponding humility: The selection for Anthology is unabashedly incomplete, and Brenez is always, as she once put it, “prey to the intuition that she still knows nothing of all that remains to be done in this field, and aware that it will require a vigilant, collective, and infinite effort.”
This interview was first published online on March 6, 2012.
Donal Foreman (Rail): Why do you consider “internationalism” an important concept for cinema today? And how do you see your selection of films for the Anthology series in relation to the problems of internationalism raised in Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Here and Elsewhere (Ici et ailleurs, 1976), speaking about working in Palestine: “If we wanted to make the revolution for them, it’s perhaps because at that time we didn’t really want to make it where we are”?
Nicole Brenez: My basis for identifying an internationalist current in contemporary cinema is grounded in several determinations. First of all, the fact of having researched, for many years now, the history of politically engaged cinema, which often laid claim to internationalist movements: in 1930s Spain, in colonial Africa since the ’50s and in the Tricontinental countries during the ’60s and ’70s. The important historical figures in this scenario are essentially communists or communist sympathizers such as Joris Ivens or René Vautier, but also anarchists such as Armand Guerra or Armand Gatti. Next, the fact that the works of internationalist filmmakers, especially those without allegiance to any party or movement, are the most fragile and vulnerable to being forgotten. I’m thinking here of the still-mysterious figure of Edouard de Laurot, of Yolande du Luart, Tobias Engel, Jean-Michel Humeau. Some important works have in fact disappeared, although I’m optimistic that they’ve actually just been archived either too poorly or too well: I’m thinking in particular of Nossa Terra by Mario Marret, of which no copies exist in France but which I’m sure is sleeping somewhere in New York, no doubt in the archives of Third World Newsreel. All of these internationalist initiatives deserve to be passed on to contemporary protest movements: Their freedom and courage resonate with current initiatives, and these filmmakers are often the ancestors of those who fight through images today. Lastly, their example and their ideals allow us to fight the current reign of nationalist or even communitarian ideologies.
Here and Elsewhere is a very important film in this context, as are all the films of the Dziga Vertov Group for that matter, and the work of Godard in general. To me, the “failure” of their initial project, Until Victory (Jusqu’à la victoire), which was filmed in Palestine, resulted not only in a very beautiful film, but above all, in an ideological (theoretical) success; because if Until Victory does “fail” in the sense that it could not be completed and becomes Here and Elsewhere instead, it’s because, among other things, the filmmakers refused to obey the dictates of the political organizations with whom they had decided to work. As René Vautier puts it very well in his memoirs, Citizen Camera (Caméra Citoyenne), he had had the same experience with Frantz Fanon, 12 years earlier during the Algerian Revolution, with the film Algeria in Flames (Algérie en flammes). While filming the Algerian resistance, Vautier refused to subordinate his work to the political apparatus of the FLN at his friend Frantz Fanon’s request. Here’s how he formulates the necessity for a filmmaker to remain independent, even with respect to his own allies:
An Algerian in a position of authority speaks: Since you don’t agree with Fanon’s ideas, we’ll try to find another solution that works both for you and for us. What bothers you the most in Fanon’s proposal is the idea of going on the FLN payroll and depending entirely on us?” “Basically, yes.”— “Petit-bourgeois sensitivity? You don’t have a problem taking a bullet, but you want it to be known that you’ll die for ideas and not for big bucks?” He has a mischievous little glimmer in his eyes. I think it over: “That’s part of it, maybe, but there’s also the fact that I intend to participate to the fullest extent in creating meaning in the images I film ... in the editing, in the narration.…”—“That means that you alone will be responsible for what will be said about your images?”— “Not necessarily. I refuse to use images to illustrate a pattern or a pre-established thesis, because I think that can only result in a bad film. I film what I see, what hits me” (I didn’t realize how right I would turn out to be: I ended up filming the parachute sniper and the bullet that shot my camera a few months later!) “And afterwards I’m ready to discuss my interpretation of these images, above all with others who have very different information than I do about their social and political context”.
René Vautier, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jean-Pierre Gorin and their camera operator Armand Marco had the same experience and came to the same conclusion, mutadis mutandis: Though they were anxious to put themselves at the service of the struggle of people who had been colonized by their own nation, they refused nevertheless to let their images be controlled or dictated to them. (This is how Jean-Luc Godard’s manifesto, published in El Fatah in July 1970, begins: “We thought it would be more appropriate politically for us to come to Palestine rather than to go elsewhere, like to Mozambique, Colombia, or Bengal, because the Middle East was directly colonized by British and French imperialism [Sykes-Picot Agreement]. We are French militants.”) No matter how politically responsible and committed they are, one thing is of paramount importance: their expertise with images, the fact that images engender discussion and even create a conversation amongst themselves, rather than merely being the passive or even servile instrument of discourse. “Art is a dissident force,” wrote Herbert Marcuse—cases like this are a good example.
In addition they were all romantics, of course, but after the beautiful example of Friedrich Schiller, or Byron going to Missolonghi to fight for Greek independence: They were “the last/supreme romantics,” “ultimate romantics” as Peter Whitehead very aptly says about Godard. Their ideals of emancipation are indissociable from German Romanticism, and first among the direct heirs of the Athenaeum was the young Karl Marx; his later corrections and self-criticism notwithstanding, he was formed by the ideals of the original German Romanticism.
Rail: For this year’s Sight and Sound end of year poll, you listed Occupy Wall Street’s livestream feed as one of your cinematic highlights of the year. Do you have any reservations about this new proliferation of online political imagery? My concern is that most of what is produced is limited to forms that are journalistic or even pseudo-commercial—there seems to be a predominance of what Serge Daney called the Visual as opposed to the Image.
Brenez: On the contrary, the proliferation of images seems to me to be a wonderful phenomenon: more images and films in line with standardized forms, of course, but also more formal, visual, and logistical innovations. There is a sea of inventive and valuable proposals that we will need to start exploring. To put it succinctly, four important kinds of initiatives can be located on the Internet: images of counter-information, which are direct descendants of the Newsreels, the Cinegiornali, the Ciné-Tracts of the 1960s, the Revolutionary News (Actualités révolutionnaires) of Raymundo Gleyzer’s Ciné de la Base, or Sandinista filmmakers (who are represented in the Anthology program by three very different films whose material nonetheless all comes from footage shot on the frontlines: Mauro Andrizzi’s Iraqi Short Films, This Place is Iran [Cet endroit c’est l’Iran], and Anders Oestergaard’s Burma VJ); essays and critical overviews, some of them brilliant, heirs to the writing of Chris Marker, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, the Cinéthique groups, and Armand Mattelart; the immemorial and indispensable tradition of revolutionary songs and videos that often represent the most poetic and enthusiastic popular expression; and the development of hapax, of completely unique forms following the example of the films of Laura Waddington, Marylène Negro, or Florent Marcie’s Saïa, in Anthology’s program. This fourth aspect remains largely unexplored, and it would require a collective effort to identify, comment on, and conserve the memory of these films. To give but one example that establishes a direct link between the formal innovations of the ’60s (that drew much from sources such as Santiago Alvarez and Fernando Solanas) and contemporary ones: December Seeds, inspired by the Greek crisis, links Chris Marker’s style to the visual forms of popular expression on the web. (The film can be found on Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/34246811).
Because the film dates from 2009, we can’t exclude the possibility that its hybrid and musical stylistics directly inspired Jean-Luc Godard’s very beautiful movie Film Socialisme. Both emerge from a “republic of images,” in other words from forms of montage that de-hierarchize formats, techniques, textures, and qualities, to the benefit of a more far-reaching, more political perspective and at the expense of technophilic and economic criteria. For me, they constitute pieces of a symbolic utopia.
Rail: How do you see the relationship between your writing and your work as a programmer and teacher?
Brenez: Often I ask myself what my life would have been like if, in 1995, Dominique Païni had not proposed that I take charge of the experimental programs at the Cinémathèque Française. Because for me, to do justice to such an assignment meant actively contributing to the exploration of those parts of cinema history that remain hidden, to the defense of the most radical or the most fragile movements and to the critique of prejudices and clichés, through concrete action. At the time a schism prevailed that was fratricidal in my opinion, between experimental cinema (supposedly implying “the pursuit of formal beauty”) and political cinema (supposedly implying “fieldwork devoid of aesthetic ambition”). A large part of my work will have been to exhume and to highlight films that are as formally demanding as they are politically, a combination which should be self-evident since critiquing the world order entails critiquing the discursive order. So I showed forgotten works of Edouard de Laurot, the Medvedkin Group, Jean Vigo’s group, René Vautier, Yann Le Masson, Bruno Muel, Carole Roussopoulos, Yolande du Luart—and above all I’m happy to have done it while most of them were still alive, because since then several among them have left us. I don’t know what I can do that would be more useful, in my view, than to indicate to them, through my writing and through my programming choices, that their work is not only essential but much more important for the history of cinema than many of the over-exposed films that exist only as symptoms, whereas their films represent crucial actions, on aesthetic as well as political planes. Although, to be clear, the distinction between the aesthetic and political has no meaning other than an ideological and falsifying one. That’s why it was important for me to show, for example, Bruce Conner’s Crossroads andCinéthique’s An Entire Program (Tout un programme) in a single screening: both masterful films, both grappling with the military-nuclear industry, and each positioned at different extremes of a formal spectrum. One, Crossroads, based entirely on visuality and hypnotic effects, and the other, An Entire Program, based entirely on speech, demonstrability, and rationality. But Crossroads also creates a space for rational commentary (on the delirium of the American army that puts cameras in atomic mushroom clouds) and, symmetrically, An Entire Program produces delirious poetic effects with its Engelsian demonstration of the fascist nature of atomic fission.
So films that attack simultaneously on both formal and social fronts are much more numerous than we think. This tradition has its heralds: Dziga Vertov, Omar Amiralay, Tawfiq Saleh, Lionel Soukaz, Anand Patwardhan, Lav Diaz, Mounir Fatmi, Akram Zaatari, Amar Kanwar whose work was introduced to me by John Gianvito, Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar’s Otolith Group, Waguih Abdel Messeeh. For 17 years I have been looking, and I continue today to look for, discover, and program these kinds of works, past and present, and the corpus is inexhaustible, which makes me joyful and optimistic. This incessant research nourishes my work as a programmer, as a teacher, and as a writer simultaneously, and all my work is founded in the observation that the history of cinema is as unfair as the general history of humanity when it comes to recognizing its real heroes.
Rail: As a programmer and a teacher you work within, or at least in negotiation with, major institutions such as the Cinémathèque and Paris III University. I gather your political sympathies are very much on the anti-state/anarchist end of the spectrum, so I wonder if you view these institutional relationships as a compromise or struggle in some way, albeit a necessary one?
Brenez: The French university remains, even under our current government, a locus of critical freedom. There will be an attempt, like everywhere else, to subjugate and asphyxiate this freedom, not through laws but through administrative and economic constraints, which are far more efficient—similarly to the economic censorship of films, which is infinitely more powerful than political censorship. But for the time being the content of courses and seminars is still left entirely up to the judgment of the instructors. On the other hand, I note that Isabelle Marinone, one of my most brilliant and serious doctoral students, whose dissertation was dedicated to the history of the relationship between cinema and anarchy in France (she published a part of it in Portuguese thanks to the Cinémathèque of Brazil), can’t get a job. All signs indicate that her subject scares people, despite the fact that she has revealed an entire facet of film creation in France, and drawn attention to the fascinating efforts of technicians, screenwriters, directors, actors, critics, from Musidora to Maurice Lemaître. It is as if she were suspected of actually trying to propagate anarchy. There is no recognition of either the scientific rigor of her work or of what anarchy, in all of its diverse dimensions, really is: that is, its faith in the capacity of individuals to discipline themselves and to sacrifice themselves for the collective good.
As for the Cinémathèque Française, it was founded by anarchists, Henri Langlois and Georges Franju: I am but their humble, distant grandchild and every Friday when I arrive there, I ask myself if they would be happy with the screening that is scheduled. And often, leaving, I feel sure that yes, they would be, thanks to the films, to the filmmakers who are present, and to the audience, who are at times as brilliant as the directors.
Rail: In your writing, you’ve celebrated both independent, guerrilla filmmaking (of the kind that the internationalist series primarily consists of) as well as filmmakers such as Abel Ferrara who engage in the murkier world of commercial financing and Hollywood, and then even more “embedded” directors such as Paul Verhoeven and Brian De Palma. How do you assess the institutional negotiations or compromises that these filmmakers face?
Brenez: Guerrilla initiatives come from everywhere: from underground, but also from the heart of the fortress, which is called sabotage. When Paul Verhoeven makes Starship Troopers, a super-production based on all the necessary ingredients (actors, screenplay, iconography, props, marketing), in which he represents American imperialism as Nazism, he redirects the apparatus of production itself, and that is a monumental effort, much more complicated than making a radical film in your home. It is a major event, and disruptive, to have both critical and popular success for a film; it’s like the realization of all cinematic ideals at once. Directors like John Carpenter, George Romero, Brian De Palma, pick up on the great tradition of Hollywood critique sustained for example by Tod Browning or Douglas Sirk. To me, one of the most interesting trajectories in the history of cinema is that of Haskell Wexler, who participated in politically committed films with Emile de Antonio and Jane Fonda, directed Medium Cool, a self-critical essay about the role of the filmmaker, and then, as a cinematographer, illuminated the visual experiments of Norman Jewison and Michael Cimino. We owe one of the most revolutionary sentences ever spoken to Lacan: “to deduct nothing from one’s desire.” Or, in Adorno’s terms, to refuse mutilation.
Rail: It seems to me that many of the great political filmmakers of the ’60s and ’70s developed an attitude of resignation in later years, with even those that continue to make films removing themselves from surrounding political engagements. I’m thinking of filmmakers like Godard, Robert Kramer, or Jon Jost, who once wrote his work was a “total failure” in socio-political terms, “and perhaps an inherent, necessary, and required failure, having to do with how society is structured and how it speaks to itself.”What do you make of such an assessment?
Brenez: In 2002 I had invited René Vautier to do a master class at Paris I. I thought that, confronted with a room full of young students and filmmakers, he would infuse them with courage, through the tremendous example of his own historical relevance, tenacity, and ingenuity. But to my great surprise, he began his talk by saying, very gently and pleasantly, that what being a politically committed filmmaker meant concretely was to not know how to pay the bills, to not leave an inheritance to one’s children, and to risk seeing all of one’s work destroyed. He had come with a 16mm reel and we projected it in the classroom thanks to the members of ETNA, the Experimental Lab Group, Othello Vilgard, Hugo Verlinde, and Yves-Marie Mahé: It was the untitled film where we see him walking among his archives hacked to pieces and covered in oil by an “unidentified” commando, after he participated in the trial against then would-be presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, because he had filmed a number of Algerians that Le Pen had personally tortured. The reel, filmed by Yann Le Masson, was rose-tinted, silent, intensely emotional: A man walks among the debris of his work, he identifies a poster, a little bit of film. In this disturbing reel, we can read an allegory for the history of politically committed cinema: a field of ruins, both personal and collective.
This seems to me to go in the direction of Jon Jost. Except that René Vautier did not stop filming, even after this destruction, and that Jon Jost currently participates in the film collective Far From Afghanistan, with John Gianvito, Travis Wilkerson, and others. They always knew that something much more important than success existed—not in terms of commercial success of course, which is not even a concern but on the contrary is more often a model to flee, but in terms of victory in struggle or of success in the capacity to convince. The most important thing is to respond to a historical situation, to stand up against injustice and oppression—certain filmmakers will always remain lying down and others will always stand up, regardless of their fatigue, their health, or their spirit. René Vautier directed a very pretty fiction film about these “lying down” filmmakers who, when confronted with a concrete injustice (in this particular case an Algerian who was beaten up by police) will invent for themselves every reason in the world to do nothing. The film is called Remorse (Le Remords), and it mocks, with a lot of humor, all the French filmmakers who didn’t budge during the Algerian War, in particular the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague. Jon Jost, René, Guillermo Escalon, Frank Pineda, Jocelyne Saab, Arthur MacCaig, Bruno Muel, Margaret Dickinson, and many others are filmmakers who will stand up no matter what. The “until victory” attitude, typical of the 1970s, of Godard, Gorin, or Masao Adachi, does not aim for success, but is a mantra for self-protection when power struggles are not playing out to one’s own advantage.
Rail: There is an acute sensitivity in your writing to the catastrophic nature of our current society, what you call in your book on Ferrara the “inverted world of injustice and mutilated existence.” And yet, even when you are dealing with someone like Ferrara, who you describe as “entirely devoted to a description of the negative without the slightest utopian or messianic appeal,” you never seem to despair, partly it seems because of the very fact that these films exist. I’m reminded of the wonderful passages in Deleuze’s Cinema 2 where he talks about cinema’s capacity to produce a belief in the world, something which seems like a cornerstone for you as well; you have written that cinema verifies “that something else is still possible (a body, a friend, a world).” I’m wondering about the danger of this belief becoming a kind of pacifier, something that makes life in its current state more bearable—like the Newsreel collective said of the New York Film Festival, “a sop, designed to funnel off the dissatisfactions of an alienated intellectual elite[...]in much the same way that anti-poverty programs are designed to pacify the disaffected poor”—as opposed to something which contributes to and energizes further resistance and experimentation.
Brenez: Yes, the question of the effectiveness of cinema is a crucial one. There are many answers to this question. First there is Jean-Marie Straub’s beautiful and simple answer, in response to Simon Hartog in 1970, who asked Straub if he thought that cinema can have a political role:
Of course it has a political role. Everything is political, everything that you do in your life is political. Thus cinema, the art form that maintains the most direct relationship with life, is the most political art form. This doesn’t mean that so-called “agitprop” films are the most political ones—often the opposite is true. But cinema is the political art form par excellence.
Then we can distinguish between different temporalities: In its symbolic function, cinema produces immaterial effects, which are therefore difficult to establish. But like all work, it produces effects in the short, medium, and long terms, effects which often prove to correspond to one another but are sometimes also totally opposed.
A beautiful example of the short-term effects of directly witnessing images is found in Anne-Laure de Franssu’s Sou Hami, The Fear of Night (Sou Hami, La crainte de la nuit). Sou Hami comprises a fascinating experiment because it consists of following film activist Mory Coulibaly in Africa as he projects Look Dear Parents (Regardez chers parents). Look Dear Parents was filmed in 2006, at the heart of the struggle of the “Cachan Thousand” during which thousands of people were caught in the pitiless traps of the French government’s anti-migration politics. People evicted manu militari from Building F of the Cité Universitaire de Cachan and thrown into the street, many of them homeless, often also undocumented, had regrouped in the Cachan gymnasium. Several filmmakers followed this battle, including Mory Coulibaly, delegate of the evicted families and activist in the struggle. Mory filmed what happened, with help from Anne-Laure de Franssu and her organization, II mots en images. Then Anne-Laure de Franssu followed Mory Coulibaly during his trip to Mali, on a tour from town to village where he screened Look Dear Parents to spectators stupefied by the violence of the police state, and whose remarks, often less distressed for themselves than for the state of contemporary France, constitute one of the most powerful critiques to this day of the government’s politics. This amazing experience allows us to observe concretely what cinema can do in a specific situation.
In the long term, the effects of politically committed cinema resound infinitely and can emerge completely unexpectedly. One recent case is that of René Vautier’s A Man is Dead (Un homme est mort), a film of social intervention during a strike in Brest in 1951, during which police shot and killed a worker, Edouard Mazé. René Vautier recounted the story in his memoirs of how the 16mm reversible film was destroyed as a result of being projected. Many interventionist films are likewise destined to disappear in the heat of action, like combatants on the front. But since then, during the course of the 2000s, this lost film has continued to generate texts, thoughts, events, concerts, and a comic strip of the same name, A Man is Dead, by Kris and Etienne Davodeau. These disappeared images, because they have disappeared, infuse a whole new generation with inspiration and energy. They have become more alive than all of the “successful” films shot that same year.
A politically committed filmmaker is first of all someone who thinks of collective history, thus someone who thinks in terms of the future that he wishes to call forth, and who sows the seeds of justice in the form of images knowing that, at best, they will grow later. Let’s call them the “December seeds” to pick up on the Greek Markerian’s title.