Friday, January 31, 2014

Fitting Andrew Bujalski

The films of Andrew Bujalski can be defined by their transitional qualities, or the difficulties one has in defining his films in relation to any certain period of American independent film. While he tends to get lumped in with the ‘mumblecore’ movement, those films are aesthetically defined by a cold, low-key but distanced approach. Bujalski instead has shot all but one of his films on 16mm film, which brings a warmth to his films that truly hits its peak in Beeswax (2009), as Bujalski explores the suburbs of Austin, Texas. There’s a mid-afternoon-in-summer feel in his work that can occasionally have a displacing effect as you watch one of his films, as the warmth of his films makes them feel much older than they really are.

Coupled with this aesthetic warmth is Bujalski’s affectionate approach to characterization, reminiscent of early Linklater. His characters are more inclined to say what’s important to them in a direct way and are charmingly assertive, compared to the early films of his contemporary, Joe Swanberg. While many mumblecore films use improvised dialogue and scenarios, Bujalski’s films are scripted with a certain type of contemplation that lends itself well to the warmness of his work. Even Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013), which is more surreal and cartoon-like compared to his previous films, has the ability to add an ounce of pathos to even its most silly characters.

Computer Chess marks an interesting break from Bujalski’s previous work. Shot on a vintage tube Sony AVC-3260 video camera and set in the early 1980’s, the film is also his first to be shot with an outline rather than a script. As the mumblecore genre expands to the noir mystery of Cold Weather, the Manhattan-esque Frances Ha and the horror genre in You’re Next, Bujalski’s Computer Chess is difficult to include in this expansion. It’s a film that doesn’t concern itself with the wealthy, social aimlessness of those films. Computer Chess also experiments with form in a far more conscious way, beginning with a mockumentary approach that feels genuinely convincing. When I saw the trailer for the first time, I was sure it was for a documentary. As well, the mannerisms of the period-piece affect in the film do not resemble the present-day setting mannerisms of traditional mumblecore films.

The transitional effect in the progression of Bujalski’s films feels natural and effortless, yet engaging in new and interesting ways. His first two films, Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2003), feel very much of a pair. They are immensely successful in establishing Bujalski’s nuanced and conscious approach to characterization. As well, these films feel a part of a lineage of American independent films of the late-1990’s and early-2000’s, films that might not have much in the way of traditional plotting and arc, but have a stronger insistence on thematic unity. With Beeswax, made 6 years after Mutual Appreciation, Bujalski takes a more direct approach to narrative that breaks away from his first two films, while still maintaining a direct approach to characterization. 

Bujalski will be in town as part of The Seventh Art - Live Directors Series presented by CINSSU on February 3rd and 4th at Innis Town Hall to screen Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation.  

Ben Harrison

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Faire Penser le Cinéma: Gérard Courant’s Cinématons

The filmmakers include Michael Snow, Marcel Hanoun, Manoel de Oliveira, Derek Jarman, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Kramer, René Allio, Roland Lethem, Jon Jost, Philippe Garrel, Wim Wenders, Raoul Ruiz, Maurice Pialat, Peter Kubelka, Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, André Téchiné, Volker Schlöndorff, Alexander Kluge, Terry Gilliam, Samuel Fuller, Barbet Schroeder, Claude Jutra, Lino Brocka, Marco Bellocchio, Nagisa Oshima, Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, Harun Farocki, Sergueï Paradjanov, Mike Kuchar, Pere Portabella, Jean Rouch, Ken Loach, René Vautier, Nico Papatakis, Gaspar Noé, Pip Chodorov, Gérard Blain, Yann Gonzalez, and Pedro Costa.

The French film critics include Jean Douchet, Serge Daney, Dominique Païni, Pascal Bonitzer, Serge Toubiana, Serge Le Péron, Danièle Dubroux, Yann Lardeau, Charles Tesson, Jean Narboni, Alain Bergala, Olivier Assayas, Michel Chion, Michel Mardore, Alexandre Astruc, Patrice Rollet, Pascal Kané, Noël Simsolo, Jean A. Gili, Jean-François Rauger, André S. Labarthe, Sébastien Bénédict, Jean-Sébastien Chauvin, Jean-Philippe Tessé, Jean-Pierre Rehm, and Michel Mourlet.

Cinématons are three-and-a-half minute screen tests that are shot in close-ups on a static camera with Super 8 film. Courant started making them in 1978 and since then on average has been making around 100 of them a year. The best period for them is the Eighties. First off for purely its visual pleasures: the anachronistic charms of the seeing the period details, the level of creativity in its participants, and for the heightened colors and the grainy texture of its film stock. Secondly for what is at stake in the project and the interesting people that decide to participate. The filmmakers that participate are the more political and challenging directors. While the many Cahiers critics that show up allows one to put a face to the writers of the time. They are also all be in their prime.

But there are more than just these two groups that are being documented. The Cinématons' near 3000 extended subjects, though principally from film, also include people from a wide variety of fields, backgrounds and nationalities. But a running constant throughout them is a creative personality. There are philosophers, writers and photographers. The actor ones are really good especially those in their early career by Sandrine Bonnaire, Laszlo Szabo, Julie Delpy, and Mathieu Amalric.

By filming these individuals there is something more than just their physical presence that's being caught. There is something that comes across between the lines. And that is two-fold: thought and life. By filming Straub or Garrel or Daney there is a certain idea of cinema that is reflected in their practices which is communicated by their presence. It is this ability to capture and incarnate such rich film thinkers and practitioners that make these Cinématons so rich. 

But if this was solely their reason of interest they would at best be just a footnote to film history. What truly makes them more universal than this is how they are able to catch something else that is happening between its images. An ephemeral moment of life is being documented: there are people standing in places who are being themselves - public persona's bleed into private selves. A fleeting observation can last forever.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

For the dreamers!

Ce qui fait la nuit en nous peut laisser en nous les étoiles.” - Victor Hugo

The Montreal director Sophie Goyette recently contributed an article À ceux qui rêvent to the Cinéastes invités section on the newly revamped 24 Images website. In trying to answer the question of what is the role of creativity and self-expression in contemporary filmmaking Goyette proposes a typically personal and thoughtful response which acknowledges the nervousness and audacity associated with any creative act but also the necessity and lyricism that drives them.

Since her last short-film Goyette has been developing three different projects. After the rural landscapes of La Ronde and the aerial perspective of Le future proche, Goyette’s next project will feature another natural element: water. The subject of oceanography has such rich cinematic potential and would be conducive to exploring one of the recurring characteristic of her films: that of a person who leaves society to grapple with an emotional crisis. Goyette nicely meditates on this project,
“I would like James Cameron to tell me in detail about his recent expedition in the Deepsea Challenger submarine, which allowed him to be the first to explore the deepest territory underwater … In exchange I can tell him about my childhood amazement of discovering and rewatching La Grenouille et la Baleine and its immersive capturing of marine life sounds, which is the first siren towards this hidden and mysterious world.”
Another one of Goyette's project is an independent documentary where she plans to take a group of people who have mental illnesses to visit the Spanish mountains. Some themes that it would explore include travel and self-exploration. 

One of the joys and advantages of Canadian cinema is its history and diversity where it's possible to discover such rich ambitions and visions. Goyette’s cinema and her future projects is just one particular example. But Québec in general offers many other examples especially since their films have some trouble crossing over to English Canada. Some of these films are by directors that include Gilles Carles, Claude Jutra, Michel Brault, Pierre Pierrault, Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, Robert Morrin, and Rafaël Øuellet. As well there is Jean-Claude Lauzon's whose classic Léolo will be playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sunday, January 26 at 7:00PM and which will be introduced by David Pike, the author of the great new book At the Heart of the World: Canadian Cinema since the 1980s. For the striving of a local film culture there needs to be the support of filmmakers that take risks and challenge themselves, and there should also be film writers there to follow behind them.

Monday, January 20, 2014

“J’ai Témoigné en Images” : René Vautier and his Militant Cinema

The thesis of this essay will be the question of politics and aesthetics in René Vautier’s anti-colonial documentary Afrique 50. To examine this I will do a formal analysis of Afrique 50 by examining what the film presents and how it presents it. I will argue that Afrique 50 is a significant contribution to the Classic Documentary movement by building upon Joris Iven’s The Spanish Earth. I will do a historical analysis of Afrique 50 by examining what is its social context. In regards to its social context, topics that will be addressed include French colonialism and film censorship. Vautier’s background and career will also be explored. Finally what makes Afrique 50 so valuable is how by being made outside of the traditional production methods it could have been as critical as it is.

In her article Inscribing the historical: film texts in context, one of the few English texts to discuss Vautier, Rosemarie Scullion describes the importance of a historical analysis, “film studies scholars have begun to consider the ways in which historical processes shape the meanings films generate and the contexts in which they are received." This is important to do justice to the historical complexities of the period. As well as to better understand the representation of the past and the culture that contributed to it. Scullion writes:

Films can display their historicity by capturing and conveying the sensibility of a particular age. Created in conditions that are, consciously or unconsciously, shaped by their own historical moment, the work of interpreting such films involves describing dominant conditions and apprehending the prevailing mind-set of the era while also examining how films engage that particular setting.

Scullion examines the defined absence of the French film industry, namely that of government censorship of films. This is particularly important in discussing the work of Vautier who has gone up against French censorship numerous times over his career. The political censorship of films was done by the French government agency of the Commission de controle des films cinematographiques (Film Oversight Board). Scullion describes its history and role as:

Although parity between government and industry representatives was restored in 1952, struggles continues over the constitution of a body that, in principle, held absolute authority over all fiction and documentary films made in France. In exercising its powers, the board had a range of restrictive measures at its disposal. The July 1945 decree, in conjunction with a more stringent order issued in 1961, allowed the board to restrict access to films deemed unsuitable for certain age groups, to issue warnings concerning content, to demand modifications and cuts, to ban films entirely, and to withhold the permit required for their foreign export.

Roland Barthes in Mythologies provides an example of the “official” portrait of French colonialism in his description of a young African soldier on the cover of a copy of Paris-Match. Barthes writes,

But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors.

It is against this public image of France that Vautier would be reacting to in Afrique 50 and throughout his career as a filmmaker. The government censorship institutions will also make it difficult for him to do so whether by confiscating his prints, prohibiting their screenings or by jailing him.

Afrique 50: History
Vautier describes his life story and the impetus for Afrique 50 in his autobiography Caméra citoyenne. In the chapter on Afrique 50, which was re-printed in Mémoire Populaire, Vautier describes how the project began in its original form. Vautier was twenty-one years old at the time. In 1949, the Ligue de l’Enseignement (French Educational Bureau) proposed to him that he makes a film for French students that would “show how the villagers in French West Africa live.” There was nothing revolutionary about the project. He was just supposed to go there, document the sights with his 16mm camera, and then to edit them. It sounds like what they wanted was something equivalent to a Gaumont-Pathé travelogue newsreel.
But once he arrived in French West Africa, with a group of peers that had similar diplomatic projects, the guide from the domestic government insisted Vautier to film the pineapples in the garden of the Niger offices… Instead, Vautier wanted to film the local dam workers that he thought better reflected the quotidian reality of the African landscape. Vautier asked an engineer about the worker’s harsh working conditions, and the engineer answered that it was cheaper to pay Africans to maintain and run the dam then it would be to set it up electrically (this anecdote would make it into Afrique 50). Vautier asked why they didn’t unionize, and the engineer answered that the previous men who tried to unionize were (wrongfully) arrested for three years. Agitated by what he was hearing, Vautier fought with this engineer. This led to him being kicked out of his group and wanted by the authorities.
Vautier’s desire to provide a testimony about this colonial exploitation motivated his journey through French West Africa. He had to travel with precaution, and was lucky to get help from some sympathizers, because the authorities wanted to arrest him since what he was doing was illegal. During his voyage he would film the dehumanizing realities of the Africans by French colonialism. Vautier’s hope was to eventually show this footage to reveal to his fellow countrymen what was happening abroad in the name of France. It was a lot of work and dangerous for Vautier to bring the footage back to France, edit it, and then project it for an audience. For example, a lot of the film stock was at first confiscated (Vautier only got a small portion of it back), to get it developed the film stock was attached to film-reels of pornography to avoid it getting caught by the censors, and it never got a projection visa so it had to always be projected illegally.
In 1950 in France there were voices of dissent about Colonialism in Africa, but these voices were not popular to express, and were at times suppressed. There was no anti-colonialism in French cinema before Afrique 50. The film historians attribute this lack of anti-colonialism in French cinema due to the previously mentioned hardship and censorship that was in place in order to prevent it. As well as to the fact that cinema’s methods of production demands more work, organization and collaboration (e.g. travel, processing, projections visas etc.) than say a personal speech or article. Though in recent documentaries about French colonialism there is now evidence that there had been some critical newsreels. For example, in one newsreel there are French soldiers going around shooting Africans.

Afrique 50: Film Form
The following is a description of Afrique 50’s formal qualities. Afrique 50 is around 18 minutes (there was more footage, which was confiscated by the authorities). Afrique 50 was filmed on 16mm film stock, it’s in black-and-white, and the shots aren’t long. It consists of many quick shots, edited together, in a rhythmic fashion. Its music is by Keita Fodeba and Vautier himself reads the voice over.
Its documentary formal qualities are in the John Grierson tradition of the classic documentary, like Industrial Britain or Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon, following the mantra of  “a creative treatment of actuality.” So it is similar in that respect but it would be unfair to compare Afrique 50 to these other works, as it would not be taking into account its militant and interventional qualities. The cited British documentaries begin with certificates acknowledging that they have been “Passed for Universal Exhibition” by the British Board of Film Censors. Song of Ceylon, which is about the Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka, never departs from being a cinema of attraction travelogue and presents its subjects, as would a good ethnographer, by just documenting them from an exterior perspective, presenting their ritualized customs as spectacle. This is very far from what Vautier was doing.
To better understand Afrique 50, it is also valuable to contrast it with Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous. Vautier has publicly argued about French censorship (“We talk about censorship – when we talk about it – only when it hits, cuts and destroys”) with Rouch, who, as Vautier as argued, with his films didn’t go against, therefore, maintained the colonial order. Where in something like Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous, which was made 5 years after Afrique 50 in 1955, there is the strong impression of forethought and pre-planning, which reflects its authorial perspective. One of Afrique 50 main attributes is its roughness. The filming conditions were hostile and this shows in the quality of the image. For Vautier there is an immediacy and urgency to his images. Where Rouch captures the Africans dramatizing their folkloric rituals, Vautier’s cinema does not allow for this theatricality and captures images that represent the site of crisis of colonial oppression.
            Vautier is actually closer to someone like Joris Ivens, a filmmaker who Kees Baker describes as “one of the most important documentary filmmakers of the twentieth century,” and in particular the documentary form of Afrique 50 owes a lot to The Spanish Earth. It is worth bringing up the scholarship around Ivens to better understand the documentary forms that Vautier, by way of Ivens, is working with. It is also interesting to note how both filmmakers have written autobiographies Caméra citoyenne for the latter and The Camera and I for the former, which illustrates how with these engaged filmmakers that their lives, practice and work are very much intertwined and that the process of filmmaking can be, and is, just as interesting as the final product itself.
José Manuel Costa, in his essay, Joris Ivens and the Documentary Project, writes about the creation and rise of the documentary in the Twenties and Thirties,

It is a way of seeking the renewal of the language of film, by coming out of the limitations of the studio, opening a new film practice, using reality – and the opposing resistance of reality – in order to achieve a genuinely new creative mood, one that is not overburdened by industrial conventions. In this sense, it uses the road opened by the genius of Flaherty, but it does so with its own new program, which includes confronting contemporary social reality and contradictions, the analysis of our present world.

Costa distinguishes between the key figures that contributed to the invention of the documentary form, during the transition to sound cinema,

All those three matrices (Ivens, Grierson, and Lorentz) were responsible for a common pattern of artistic search and social concern that has been definitely associated with the genre (the latter being what we could call a pattern of social productivity). But neither the Grierson public education approach nor the lyric Rooseveltian approach of Lorentz identified as clearly as did Joris Ivens with the very boundaries of that process and with the process itself – that is, the assumption of the avant-garde spirit and its progressive assimilation into a social, political, and historical intervention.

Costa situates Ivens work within the avant-garde tradition as well as with the political intervention. In particular Costa analyzes Ivens’ The Spanish Earth and his later Le 17e Parallèle and its engagement with war. Costa sees in The Spanish Earth one of the first cinematic documentaries where an artist (Ivens, but also Ernest Hemingway) goes to a war-zone, in this case the Spanish Civil War, and constructs itself, its narrative form, as the war is unfolding. Even though Vautier’s formation is different and even though Afrique 50 isn’t a war documentary, Ivens tradition of political engagement is the same lineage that Vautier is building upon when he makes Afrique 50.
While Georges Sadoul, a communist film historian, in his essay un maître du cinéma vérité puts Ivens in the tradition of vérité long before the popularization of the term. For Sadoul, “Vertov, Flaherty, Joris Ivens, these three major creators are the three “grands patrons” of cinéma vérité.” For Sadoul, by way of Ivens, vérité literally means truth. This is different then how the term is now traditionally known for where it applies more to the movement in the Sixties and Seventies sparked by more light and mobile cameras of the capturing of people on the fly in the immediacy of lived experiences. Sadoul quotes a text by Ivens from Les Lettres francaises in 1963 that elaborates on their definition of cinéma vérité,

In certain cases, cinéma vérité forces the creation of militant films. In this situations there are brutal forces that intervene to extinguish the truth through diverse forms: censorship, police etc. Also in a period where truth isn’t always easy to say, it is instructive and comforting to re-read Bertolt Brecht discussing the “five obstacles towards saying the truth,” it is this truth that would escape us if we didn’t have the liberty to express ourselves through screens, to share with a public our researches about the truth.

It is this militant film tradition, in the name of “truth,” that Vautier builds upon from Ivens. There is also another connection between Vautier and Ivens. In 1950 in Varsovie at the Festival Mondial de la Jeunesse the jury that was presided by Joris Ivens gave Afrique 50 the Mondial de Jeunes Realisateurs prize for the best documentary.

Afrique 50: Content
Afrique 50 opens on a positive tone: perhaps to not totally shock its potential audience at the time with the awfulness it will be critiquing by the end, or perhaps as a way to avoid censorship just by showing the start of it to people (though it would have already been censored), or perhaps to follow through with the original pedagogical goals of the project. But the tone of Afrique 50 at the beginning is positive. Children are looking at the camera and smiling and putting out their tongues. Women are grinding millets. Women are bathing. On top of this footage there is the discussion of natural resources. There are scenes of rope making. There are scenes of women with pretty hair braids and others of women cutting men’s hair. The voice-over is comforting as the speaker reassuringly guides the spectator through this community. There are fishermen, just like the ones in Brittany (where Vautier is from, a region in the northwest of France), who are making fishing nets. There are boating scenes. There are children that are playing and they go swimming in the Niger River.
Then, after six minutes of footage, the music gets faster and more intense, and the documentary starts to become critical. Vautier describes this community as being “very lucky in its misery, because it is peaceful.” He then contrasts it with another village, Fallaqa in the northern Ivory Coast. The city couldn’t pay the enforced taxes so the local forces, which are comprised of French officers, killed them. This is accompanied by footage of houses riddled with bullet holes. There are scenes of dying animals. Vautier says, “This is not the official image of the colonization.”
This critique of French colonialism becomes the direct subject of Afrique 50. Vautier compares French colonialism to that of vultures surrounding its dying prey. Vautier criticizes the exploits of these corporations who label their initiatives as representing “progress.” The accused’s are West African Commercial Company, the Companie Francaise de L’Afrique Occidentale, GABOME, The French African, the French Niger, The French Company of Ivory Coast, and Unilever.
The focus then shifts towards the Markala dam on the Niger River, which produces electricity for the French colonizers. The local Africans operate the dam manually because it is cheaper to pay them then it would be to set it up electrically. The Africans are made to work in dangerous situations. They are overworked and are underpaid. There is footage of the workers breaking rocks. They harvest and grind millet. They are out working in the cotton and peanut fields. It is not only the adult men that are working but also the women and children. They are shown working in plantations. The workers get paid fifty francs a day, and if they get killed on the job their widow are to receive five-hundred francs. All the while the profits at Unilever go up exponentially.
The narrator Vautier elaborates on how the French abolished slavery in 1946 but now charge taxes (and we’ve already seen what happens if they aren’t paid) so the locals are forced to work for these dehumanizing industrial companies. There is footage of the boats out on the coast waters that are ready to export the African natural resources.
            Following the intense footage of workers performing manual labor accompanied by an voice-over track critiquing French colonialism, Vautier ends Afrique 50 with inspiring footage of the people uniting, and protesting. There is perhaps the chance of a better future for them but the African people, with the help of the French, will need to protest and fight. The French population needs to see what is going on in French West Africa in their name. Vautier by making this film is doing his part. The people will need to be in solidarity with one another. Afrique 50’s conclusion is that of solidarity and activism. It has gone from idle observation to critical interrogation to unifying protest.

René Vautier
The classic story of Vautier is that he fought as a teenager during the occupation in the French resistance and when he was sent to Africa he fought there too. He was a communist then, and still is, and at the age of twenty-one years old in 1949 the Ligue de l’enseignement en Afrique sent him to make a pedagogical film about how people lived in the French African colonies. It was filmed in the Ivory Coast between 1949 and 1950 during the colonial repression. Vautier was angry at the hypocrisy that was ruling the African French colonies and the lack of information about it back in France. So he decided to fight back with a film camera. The filmmaking medium is a lot more cumbersome to work with especially for this kind of project. Some of the hardships Vautier experienced include how he had to film illegally in a foreign country where he had to put himself in danger and had to escape authorities. When he returned back to France with the footage (some of it was stolen), he still had to then process it (he did so by attaching the film stock to pornography, which wasn’t being checked by censors). And finally, after it was completed Vautier ended up getting a one-year prison sentence. 
Sadoul would hail Afrique 50 as the first anti-colonialist film and would speak highly of Vautier in his Dictionaire des Cineastes. The film did not get a theatrical release in a commercial cinema but instead played in political rallies, most notably by the communist, as well as in social meetings. Vautier speaks of the film being seen by a great number of people.
Afrique 50 was officially banned for fifty years. In 1996 Vautier, who thought the film to be lost, received a restored copy of the film from the French Ministery of Culture who wanted to show it in the French embassies in Africa as a sign that demonstrates that there was a pronounced anti-colonial tendency in France that goes as far back as 1950. The African film critic Paulin Soumanou Vieyra in Presence Africaine wrote about it, “The originality of the film is to be able to highlight the veritable causes of the African genocide.” 
Following the official (re-)release of Afrique 50 in 1996 there has been many new studies on Vautier’s cinema. There is an anecdote of Vautier who contacted the representatives of the Larousse Dictionary on Filmmakers asking them to be included in their volume and they turned him down. Their reason that they gave him was that he wasn’t a filmmaker but a militant. This has been for a long time the general perception on the subject of Vautier’s cinema. One of Vautier’s biggest supporters in this period of re-emergence has been the French film-critic Nicole Brenez who has famously said, "The most important film in the history of cinema is Afrique 50."
In this period Vautier also published his memoir Caméra citoyenne and Cahiers du Cinema also did a feature on him in their special issue on cinema’s relation to history. More recently L’association Mas O Menos restored his film Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès which played at the Venice Film Festival (and was positively featured in Film Comment) and Les Mutins de Pangée just published a new book on him. Many of Vautier’s short-films and documentaries about him are now also easily accessible on YouTube.

Vautier’s Films
It worth noting that Vautier was still a film student at the L'Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) when he worked on Louis Daquin’s La Grande Lutte Des Mineurs, which is is about a mass protest at a mine by its workers. The Daquin film, similar to Robert Ménégoz’ Vivent les dockers, were part of a genre of agit-prop films of the period whose function was to document social injustices and to promote solidarity and revolutionary protest. The majority of them were done in the name of the communist party and they reflected a Marxist approach to social change and class differences. These cinematic forms would greatly contribute to Afrique 50’s aesthetic.
To cite some of Vautier’s other films there is Un homme est mort, Une nation l'Algérie, Algérie en flammes, J’ai huit ans, Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès and Techniquement si simple.
Algérie en flammes is an anti-colonial documentary. It’s more traditional in its reportage than Afrique 50. Vautier’s footage was used in Yann Le Masson and Olga Baidar-Poliakoff’s J’ai huit ans, which goes from children drawings of African culture to harsh images of the war. In Techniquement si simple a gluttonous Frenchman talks about working at an oil field in Algiers and living with an Arab who he would come to despise for his poverty and life style.
Vautier’s most famous other film after Afrique 50 is Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès, which is a full-length fictional film made from real testimonies by French soldiers during the Algerian war. It takes place in April 1961 in the Aurès where a group of French soldiers confronts another group of the Armée de libération nationale. After a fight they pick up some of their soldiers as prisoners. Then they reflect on their time there and how their views on the war have changed as they have become more skeptical. Vautier had to go on a hunger strike to get the censors to allow it to be shown at Cannes.
In 1962 Vautier would also live in Tunisia to set up a film cooperative, the Algerian Audio-Visual Center, where he gave cameras to the locals for them to make their own films. This is why he would come to be known as the father of Algerian cinema. He would also create his own production company l’Unité de production cinématographique Bretagne where he would make his own films more freely.
But Vautier isn’t alone even though he might have been one of the first to make an anti-colonial film. Some of Vautier’s peers who made anti-colonial cinema include: Phillippe de Broca made a war documentary Algerian War, Pierre Clément was an important cinematographer who contributed to making anti-colonial films, and there is Yann Le Masson and Olga Baidar-Poliakoff who worked with Vautier on J’ai huit ans. 

All of this goes to show that Vautier is really conscious of the political and aesthetic context that his images contribute to. Vautier builds upon a rich history of political documentaries both in terms of the Ivens vérité tradition and within a communist agit-prop tradition. Vautier’s body of work as a filmmaker has evolved and grew over his life. There is also a cinematic and poetic quality to his images that is never used to undermine the radical politics that they want to convey.
Brenez compares Vautier’s films to Karl Marx’s early poems. “Ce picturesque cache bien une grande misère,” writes Brenez, “Vautier represents the archetype of an engaged filmmaker ... for Vautier, images can create and argument that can lead to a real critique in the visual debates of the world and its horizon would be a state where the world would be more just.” The variety of films that Vautier made from experimental shorts, traditional and poetic documentaries, to feature films display his experimentation with cinematic forms. He has built his own repertoire of gestures, images, and stylistics that conveys his power of conviction.
If late in his life he is now interviewed a lot about his body of work, he is finally providing a reverse-shot of the person who built some of film historie's most powerful images. The person responsible for the camera that fought back French colonialism with Afrique 50 and his entire body of work is now more freely able to communicate his views. Vautier’s anecdotes on the conditions of when he created his films are fascinating. His experiences, motives and politics are a guiding example. By finally having Vautier’s films more easily accessible they can be better studied and discussed. The hope of all of this would be to inspire and raise the level of integrity of its spectators to acknowledge crimes against humanity and to fight these injustices. Afrique 50 describes a crime of the past but it would be naïve to think that there aren’t still crimes like this happening today. The power of Vautier’s conviction in the film camera and in the moving images that it creates still continues to inspire.

*This an essay that I wrote for my Classic Documentary class at York University where I'm doing my Masters in Cinema and Media Studies. - D.D.

Friday, January 10, 2014

'Tout ce que tu ne peux pas laisser derrière toi' by Nicolás Lasnibat

Tout ce que tu ne peux pas laisser derrière toi by Nicolás Lasnibat is a touching medium-length feature about growing old, displacement and lastly love. It’s about an older Chilean man Roberto who after fifty years of service at a steel mill is being forced to retire because he’s too old, slow and has diabetes. What he decides to do with his severance pay is buy a bright red used van and, with the help of one of his friends, he learns how to drive. Roberto, with his wife Hilda, returns to their childhood home Taltal. They have a long journey ahead.

Similar to Nicolás Pereda’s ¿Dónde están sus historias? or Nathan Silver’s Soft in the Head, Lanisbat’s film begins with the crisis of a transitory life event. So when Roberto looses his job, what are his prospects other then further accumulating medical debt? He starts to obsess on two photographs: one of his wife in her youth at a political protest and the other of his childhood hometown. Roberto learns how to drive with the help of his best friend, and after just barely passing the driving test, he packs up all that can’t be left behind and, with some help on the road, makes it back to Taltal. But it’s the love for his wife that carries him through, and the beautiful view and traditional Chilean music, makes it quite an endearing journey.

In France, for a short time, you can watch Tout ce que tu ne peux pas laisser derrière toi on the Arte website.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Le Meilleur de Positif et Cahiers du Cinéma en 2013

A good year for both Positif and Cahiers!
Positif every month in their Actualité have around two to four Événement critiques and entretiens, and then around eight to fifteen Les Films critiques. Positif puts a special emphasis on the films that they give to their cover’s too – this year: The Master, Django Unchained, To The Wonder, The Grandmaster, Mud, Before Midnight, Beyond the Candelabra, La Vie d'Adèle, La Vénus à la fourrure and A Touch of Sin – and then there is the Événement and then Les Films critiques.
Since their beginnings Positif has always been a response to Cahiers. For example, Guy Jacob on L’Auberge Rouge: “Ainsi, dans la mesure où l’on peut attribuer une signification à un tel genre d’excercice, ce referendum nous montre statistiquement que le conformisme est toujours une valeur cinématographique sure. Nous sommes obligés de constater que l’échec de L’Auberge Rouge est parfaitement normal. Il y aura encore de beaux jours – et de la confiture - pour les gendarmes.”
The contemporary filmmakers received at Positif aren’t there necessarily for their medium-specific qualities but instead because they are more part of a literary-philosophical tradition. In L’amour du cinéma: 50 ans de la revue Positif one can see the evolution from their modest beginnings in the Fifties championing post-WWII art films discovered at Cannes, to the Sixties where they were evaluating the state of contemporary Hollywood cinema (Huston, Lewis) and discovering new world cinemas, which is pushed further in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties for the following generations of filmmakers.
The filmmakers that have been championed for a longer period slowly become one possible template to judge how other films are evaluated. A general model for Positif’s critiques, seriousness, and joy of elaboration can be traced back to Michel Ciment (and further to Bernard Chardère) and his famous writings on Stanley Kubrick (or any of the multiple filmmaker’s that he’s written about, with the latest entry being Jane Campion). But since it’s magazine with different generational writers, their taste and writing style differ. The Les Films critiques are spaces for the critics to elaborate on what makes these films great. The model is typically positive therefore the most interesting critiques go against the grain and create a dialectic by being critical too. Positif responds to a lack of serious film criticism in mainstream French press and its focus on world cinema and more adult films reacts to a standardized market that caters to adolescents.
Cahiers on the other hand regularly features less films: a more manageable three to ten new releases, with an average of six per issue. They instead write more about the films or subjects that they are featuring to emphasize their importance. For example, La Vie d'Adèle received a 23-page Événement with seven articles, for the Événement Coens-Polanski-JoonHo-Gonzalez they were all featured with multiple articles, and the Événement Cannes 2013-Convention Collective took up 51-pages (leaving only enough space for 3 Cahiers Critiques: Shokuzai, La Fille du 14 Juillet, L’Écume des jours). Their position is more critical and it takes more for a film to be included in their Cahier Critique section. Since their Hommage: Serge Daney (N.679) they have been more conscious of what to include in the magazine, since their Événement: L’amour des acteurs (N.691) they have been interviewing more actors and actresses, and since their Cinéma retouvé: Jean Grémillon (N.693) they have been better at appreciating the expressivity of feelings.
Cahiers has a more complex history.
Their current team of writers, for the most part, have been there for over ten years. During this period there has been a steady engagement with new technologies and mediums while also still being loyal to the classic cinephilia that the magazine is routed in and the movie theater dispositif. Its reference are more contemporary, which includes music, artist, video games and television series. Having grown up in the Eighties their loyal to the cinema of this period and that includes the films of Steven Spielberg. E.T. can be seen as their equivalent of the Daney-esque orphan film (e.g. The Night of the Hunter) for this generation. Philippe Garrel is an important reference too.
Cahiers’ inclusion in their 2013 Top Ten of Les Recnontres d’Après Minuit and La Bataille de Solférino builds upon their Événement: Jeunes cineastes français (N.688) that demonstrate their openness to help young filmmakers while also addressing the necessity of filmmakers to create more lyrical films. Since it’s a magazine that has a long history of reinvention, encouraging youthful iconoclasm and cutting old ties (cf. Bazin and Doniol-Valcroze against the young Turks on Hithcock), the current generation of writers under it’s chief editor Stéphane Delorme and adjoint Jean-Philippe Tessé have received some unfair animosity from old-guard critics and champions of the fringe of cinema.
There are also cultural differences between North American and French cinephilia. There is less a concern to promote more challenging films but instead to champion an enthusiastic, life-affirming, complex tone or spirit that can be captured in a film during filmmaking. Just because a film is in Cahiers Critique it does not necessarily mean that the review is positive but instead it could be ambivalent or negative – the Cahiers Critique is a section that just emphasizes the importance of discussing it.
At Cahiers the reasons for films being championed are clearer and the more important films reflect the current times. There is a clear hierarchy between the writers, with the summit being Delorme-Tessé, and then it’s just a matter of personal taste regarding what writers the reader prefer. There is a strong groupthink at Cahiers since its main crew of writers is so small (and I believe it's probably more challenging to join). Each critique presents itself as a potential Cahiers argument.
Either way, a stimulating year for French film criticism, and one can expect their dynamism to keep going in the new year. Here are my favorite Positif and Cahiers critiques of 2013. – D.D.
Meilleur Actualité Critique
-                Paradis: Amour (Ulrich Seidl): Ni blanc ni noir, bien au contraire par Ariane Allard N.623
-                Lincoln (Steven Spielberg): Les Moyens de la fin par Christian Viviani N.624
-                A la Merveille (Terrence Malick): Mont et Merveille par Stanislas Bouvier  N.625
-                A la Merveille (Terrence Malick): Une écriture de la mélancolie par Jean-Christophe Ferrari N.625
-                The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-Wai): Ne pas succomber sous le plaisir des regrets par Jean-Christophe Ferrari N.626
-                Pieta (Kim Ki-duk): Une Pietà sans Pitié par Stanislas Bouvier N.626
-                Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh): Un si doux visage peut en cacher un autre par Franck Garbarz N.626
-                Mud (Jeff Nichols): Le Père des Eaux par Jean-Dominique Nuttens N.627
-                Before Midnight (Richard Linklater): La guerre du Péloponnèse par Jean-Loup Bourget N.628
-                Before Midnight (Richard Linklater): Céline, Jesse et moi par Grégory Valens N.628
-                Un voyageur (Marcel Ophuls): Le beau rôle par Laetitia Mikles  N.629-30
-                Star Trek: Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams): Space opera revitalisé par Pierre Eisenreich N.629-30
-                The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann): En dépit du film… par Christian Viviani N.629-30
-                Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen): L’art de détourner le regard par Franck Garbarz N.631
-                Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh): Narcisse à Las Vegas par Jean-Loup Bourget N.631
-                La Vie d'Adèle, chapitres 1 et 2 (Abdellatif Kechiche): Plein la bouche par Fabien Baumann N.632
-                Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen): L’homme qui voulait vivre dans un monde qui se contente d’exister par Franck Barbarz N.633
-                Quai d’Orsay (Bertrand Tavernier): Tintin, c’est le rythme par Jean-Dominique Nuttens N.633
-                Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve): Just whistle par Nicolas Bauche N.633
-                Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón): Le numérique et l’incarné par Pierre Berthomieu N.633
-                Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen): Comme une pierre qui roule par Fabien Baumann Hors-Sére: Joel et Ethan Coen
-                A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-Ke): Le Chant du Shanxi, par Adrien Gombeaud N.634
-                The Immigrant (James Gray): Quelques nuances de Gray, par Jean-Loup Bourget N.634
-                La Jalousie (Philippe Garrel): Temps, Laisse ici ton fardeau par Jean-Christophe Ferrari N.634

Plus Bizarre Actualité Critique
-                The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson): Vous ne serez plus jamais le meme par Eithne O’Neil N.624
-                Les Misérables (Tom Hooper): Le discours chanté par Christian Viviani N.625
-                Stoker (Park Chan-wook): Les revelations insupportables par Hubert Niogret  N.627
-                Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn): Comme dans un rêve par Philippe Rouyer N.629-30
-                Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass): La loi du plus fort par Pierre Eisenreich N.633
-                All is Lost (J.C. Chandor): Foutu Container! par Pierre Eisenreich N.634

Meilleur Entretien
-                L’Histoire d’un amour impossible, Entretien avec Paul Thomas Anderson par Michael Henry N.623
-                Ce que mon pays a connu de pire, Entretien avec Quentin Tarantino par Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret N.624
-                Décrire un état d’esprit, Entretien avec Wong Kar-Wai par Michel Ciment, Adrien Gombeaud and Hubert Niogret N.626
-                Un monder privé d’âme, Entretien avec Kim-Ki-duk par Michel Ciment and Lorenzo Codelli N.626
-                Je plaisante, et je ne plaisante pas, Entretien avec Richard Linklater par Michael Henry N.628
-                Ça ne m’amuse plus, Entretien avec Steven Soderbergh par Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret  N.631
-                Créer un état d’étourdissement, Entretien avec Abdellatif Kechiche par Philippe Rouyer N.632
-                Quand les artistes se laissent piéger par leur sincérité our leurs obsessions, Entretien avec Joel et Ethan Coen, par Michael Henry N.633
-                Les transformations de la société, Entretien avec Jia Zhang-ke, par Michel Ciment et Hubert Niogret N.634
-                Le Metteur en scène est le filter ultime, Entretien avec James Gray, par Hubert Niogret et Yann Tobin

Meilleur Cinema Retrouvé
-                Le secret de la pyramide par Laurent Vachaud (Eyes Wide Shut) N.623
-                Devenir Humain, Sans se lasser Jamais par Adrien Gombeaud (Dust in the Wind) N.625
-                Chiens perdus dans l’anus du monde par Bernard Génin (The Plague Dogs) N.625
-                Castigat Ridendo Hitler par Marc Cerisuelo (To Bet or Not to Be) N.627
-                Retour sur une crepuscule oublié par Pierre Berthomieu (Twilight’s Last Gleaming) N.627
-                Le long songe de la catastrophe par Pierre Eisenreich (Heaven’s Gate) N.628
-                … Ne Reviendra jamais (dit la chanson) par Laetitia Mikles (Le joli mai) N.628
-                Un artiste et son modèle par Emmanuel Dreux (Jerry Lewis) N.629-30
-                La force des choses par Jean-Christophe Ferrari (Plein Soleil) N.631
-                Pourquoi aller à Innisfree? par Eithne O’Neil (L’Homme tranquille) N.632

Meilleur Dossiers
-                Figures et fleurons du studio Universal, dossier dirigé par Grégory Valnes eet Christian Viviani N.623
o        Lew Wasserman, le dernier des nababs par Baptiste Villenave N.623
-                Petits maître Hollywoodiens, années 1930 à 1950 dossier dirigé par Yannick Lemarié et Yann Tobin  N.626
o        De l’ambiguïtés du maître d'œuvre, John Farrow à Paramount par Pierre Berthomieu
o        Dictionnaire des petits maître par plusieurs.
-                Le néoréalisme: précurseurs, protagonists, héritiers, dossier coordonné par Michel Ciment et Jean A. Gili N.629-30
-                Steven Soderbergh à 50 ans, Dossier réuni par Michel Ciment N.631
o        Fémini Pluriel par Fabien Gaffez N.631
o        Absence de Remords: Soderbergh et l’évolution numérique par Pierre Berthomieu N.631
-                Chris Marker, Dossier coordoné par Vincent Amiel N.632
-                Le DVD, Nouvel état des lieux, Dossier coordonné par Philippe Rouyer N.634
o        Entretien avec Laurent Bouzereau, Faire un making of, c’est raconteur une histoire, par Laurent Vachaud
Cahiers du Cinéma
Meilleur Événement et Cahier Critique
-                The Master, Les désaxés par Vincent Malausa (N.685)
-                L'Odyssée de Pi, Entre deux mondes par Florence Maillard (N.685)
-                Lincoln, L’Impossible par Jean-Philippe Tessé (N.686)
-                Django Unchained, La Sauvagerie dans le boudoir par Vincent Malausa (N.686)
-                Zero Dark Thirty, Dark City par Joachim Lepastier (N.686)
-                Spring Breakers, Fluo et sang par Jean-Philippe Tessé (N.687)
-                Camille Claudel 1915, Les illumines par Stéphane Delorme (N.687)
-                No, Les couleurs de la victoire par Cyril Béghin (N.687)
-                À la merveille, Un coup en l’air par Cyril Béghin (N.687)
-                Bestiaire, Mécanique de l’absurde par Céline Gailleurd (N.687)
-                Promised Land, La ligne claire par Florence Maillard (N.688)
-                Mud, Grand frère par Vincent Malausa (N.688)
-                Star Trek: Into Darkness, La tête dans les étoiles par Vincent Malausa (N.690)
-                Frances Ha, Trouver son adresse par Joachim Lepastier (N.690)
-                L’Inconnu du lac, La compagnie des hommes par Jean-Sébastien Chauvin (N.690)
-                Only God Forgives, Oedipe trip par Joachim Lepastier (N.690)
-                Les Salauds, En eaux troubles par Nicolas Azalbert (N.691)
-                Monstres Academy, Féerie buissonnière par Vincent Malausa (N.691)
-                La Vie d’Adèle, Le Coeur battant par Jean-Philippe Tessé (N.693)
-                Gravity, Tombé dans le ciel par Mathieu Macheret (N.693)
-                Prince of Texas, La ligne jaune par Joachim Lepastier (N.693)
-                Inside Llewyn Davis, Like a Rolling Stone par Mathieu Macheret (N.694)
-                A Touch of Sin, L’oraison de la colère par Joachim Lepastier (N.695)  

Les Meilleur Notes sur d’autres films (qui ont un grand importance): Ca c'est une totalement different histoire!

Les films que j’aurait du voir (mes n’ont jamais sorti ici!): Mundane History, La Fille de nulle part, Le Congrès, Grisgris, La Bataille de Solférino, Haewon et les hommes, La vénus à la fourrure, Snowpiercer, Les Rencontres d’après minuit, La Jalousie, The Immigrant.