The Accumulation of Rage: The cinematic explorations – and some letters – of Sylvain George

Feuilles d'or 2BY MARIT KATHRYN CORNEIL

This article was first published in Wuxia 1/2013.

I was first introduced to the work of the young French filmmaker, Sylvain George, at the 2012 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. Held in the lazy June heat in the small town of Hamilton, New York, Sylvain George with his Noir Productions, brought to the seminar a distinctively European and Internationalist point of view. His films suggest an innovative form of political cinema that addresses the current global economic and geopolitical situation, where the question of immigration and the laws that regulate it, and the plane of immanence here underscored, becomes the litmus for the state of democracy today in the Western neoliberal state, the status of the current state of exception. [1] As Jacques Rancière puts it: «The question today is no longer immigration; it is circulation. It is the manner in which the right to circulate is made rigid, the correlation between the circulation of humans and the circulation of capital. This cannot be thought at the level of politics of a government. The nation states reinforce even within this internationalization a system of borders.» [2]

During post-screening panel sessions, Sylvain George speaks in a calm voice. Articulate and thoughtful, he stands out as a ciné-philosophe, someone who observes and listens, considers and deliberates carefully. With his background in philosophy, political science, film, and, as a social worker, he lives and breathes the particular set of ideas that he is working on, and is rigorous in his method for working through philosophical problems that have urgency in today’s complex world, with cinema as his tool. Using camera, sound, editing, participation and observation, both ethnographic and reportage, he engages intensely with the people he encounters. The singular lives he meets translate into embodied testimonies of the effects of the darkest sides of global capitalism, neoliberalism and its militaristic underbelly. Blending intimacy and distance, discipline and chaos, he takes the viewer along on an arduous journey that is in many ways the same journey as his subjects: the migrants, refugees from the wars over resources that pretend to be in the name of religion, democracy and human rights.

Eclats 3Repository for rage capital

Over a period of three years (from July 2007 to February 2010) Sylvain George filmed undocumented immigrants in and around the mythical zones of the final frontier of Europe, Calais, France. His first project, L’Impossible: Pages Arrachées (Songs From the Protest, 2009) is a film in five chapters, moving between Calais and Paris. Each of the chapters, shot in different mediums and styles (super 8, DV, black and white, color) focuses on different aspects of the oppressive regulatory systems of the neoliberal welfare state. George’s camera explores these mythic zones: the hiding place called the ‘jungle’ and abandoned warehouses of Calais, with its traces of lives on the run, the mass demonstrations of undocumented Eclats 2immigrants, workers and students who protest in the streets of Paris, finally occupying the Hôtel du Ville. The protesters rage against funding cuts to education and social programs, evoking the Paris commune. He films from the midst of these unfolding events, his camera is on the barricades, in the fugitive hiding places, running after or encircling the police lines as they form. The final chapter uses compilation and stock images to launch a critique of the Left, a sort of punk diatribe against the ‘68 generation left-liberal radicals, who became the political establishment/elite (and more ‘right’ than the right) in the 1980s/90s.

Eclats 12George’s camera alternates between distance and intimacy, influenced by the music of free jazz and punk. Fragmentary lyrical glimpses of nature, birds, waves, and trees, take the viewer on an unexpected journey. From the beach we see dreamy ships (the dream of escape) in the distance. Moving between black&white and colour, film and video, silence and sound, the film creates «multiple games of temporality and spatiality». [3] He films the daily lives and movements of the undocumented migrants in Calais, building up in a sedimentary way a thick description of this zone of the ‘impossible’ (what Jacques Rancière has called the «intolerable») of the in-between. The film miraculously reveals the hidden and diffused enforcement of inhuman European immigration policies, what are in effect, the politics of erasure. As George puts it, the film «shows how the policies engaged by modern police States extend beyond the law, and cause grey areas, cracks, zones of in-distinction between the rule and the exception. Individuals see themselves thus treated like criminals; they are stripped, divested of the most elementary rights that make of them subjects of law and are reduced to the state of ‘pure bodies,’ or ‘bare lives’». [4]

Eclats plage 2George’s method evolves from going over the same material in each new film, again and again, drawing out meaning from gestures, remnants, places, itineraries in time and space, never stopping, all day, all night, he is there, living and breathing the space of his subject. [5] Other cameras are there too, and George films these as well, but somehow, his camera sees something different than other news reporters and storytellers. His camera sees beauty, working on the image that is at once aesthetic, political, plastic and material. His films are both pacifist and interventionist, defying the normal circulation of image as commodity and the distribution of the sensible, the propensity to narrative and identity production, and consumption that reifies bare life. This propensity in the mainstream consumer media most often helps contribute to the current state of exception, a state that allows inequality to continue and grow, making bigger and bigger circles in the name of global finance, at the same time regulating and disciplining its effects. It is as if George is creating a repository for rage capital, necessary for reaching the critical mass required to break these circles of global inequality. [6]

Divine violence

In the film Qu’ils Reposent en Revolte (Des figures de guerres) (May They Rest In Revolt, Figures of War 1, 2010), a central scene is with a shot of hands, where a man is using a razor to scrape off his fingerprints. This is followed by images and sounds of a group of men sitting around a fire, heating up screws, using them to burn gashes all over fingertips. The gashes form a mesh pattern in white crisscrossing the fingers, echoing the many images of wire fences in the film that denote entrapment, the barricading of Europe. The community of migrants represented in George’s films are males of various ages, from as young as fourteen, to older men with hardened faces. These faces and the images of the places they inhabit: the makeshift tents, shacks, mattresses in vacant buildings show the traces of times past. A teddy bear, a poster, a tin can, enhanced by the contrast black and white, remind one of Walker Evans and James Agee’s inherently vexed project of another representation of migrant workers in their 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on the impossible but necessary job of representing the «cruel radiance of what is». The act of burning fingers to efface the fingerprint, one of the forms of control in the global policing system, this ‘branding’ brings up recollections of slavery, at the same time functioning as an undermining of these processes of enslavement. Effacing the marker of identification, denying the immigration system that relies on the control and regulation of identity, enables the migrant to express his freedom in the face of that control. Albeit a freedom that creates suffering, is an example of what the German philosopher Walter Benjamin calls divine violence.

The opening sequence of the film, Qu’ils Reposent, is comprised of ambiguous, impressionistic images in black and white of a mountain range (recalling Mt. Sinai – the site of exodus) followed by a quote from Benjamin from his Critique of Violence: «Divine violence, which is the sign and seal but never the means of sacred execution, may be called sovereign violence.» [7] This sets up the first scene of the film which outlines the contours of a space defined around a park in the town center, where young men assemble, sing a song, tying in sonically the imagery of exodus, and then break apart, scrambling into the bushes, as the police drive up in their white vans and begin rounding up these scattered strands of bodies. The contrast (in black and white) between the white vans, the dark faces of the migrant youths, and the trees against the sky, underlines the impression of conflict and violence. Curious about this relation, I asked Sylvain George to explain more about his use of Benjamin’s Critique of Violence.

Eclats 4Sylvain George: Benjamin, in his text, makes a critique of violence by appropriating a conceptual definition operated by Max Weber about violence: ‘law-making’ violence / ‘law-preserving’ violence. In short, a law is founded by an initial violence that erupts against a system established by example (Benjamin relies on the example of the general strike as a possible law-making event.) Once the law is founded by law-making violence, it is, thereafter defended by another type of violence: law-preserving violence. This is the state violence applied by its armed wing: the police. This violence, which of course can be deadly, is called «mythical».

At this, Walter Benjamin tries to answer with another type of violence he Eclats 6describes as «divine». It is not a transcendental violence. It is a radical violence, extreme, which tends to reverse in a dialectical way the course of history, but is not expressed in the same terms as the mythical, police violence. It does not kill. It doesn’t produce blood. It doesn’t take lives. It operates on the scales of the plane of immanence and at the level of reality, comes striking out, crossing over, reversing the order of things, in order to bring to light the hidden lining, the concealed, the negated.

I believe that Benjamin’s text and the concept of divine violence prefigures his redefinition of the state of exception in his «Theses on the Philosophy of History». The example is without doubt to take the side of carnival, with the theme of a Eclats merturning upside down, of the carnivalesque reversal of the tide of history. Or how the violence of injustice, the arbitrary violence, is battered by a breach violence, equally radical but registering on another plane of immanence, another ethical plane. Or how the recognition of the irreducibility of the individual, his deep sovereignty «as a badge and seal» is able in fact to destroy this mythic violence by making apparent that minority actions, gestures, visions can never be prescribed, flouted or erased.

The themes described here can be seen as the major thread through the Calais films, including Les Eclats (Ma gueule, ma revolte, mon nom) (The Outbursts: My mouth, my revolt, my name 2011) and up to his latest project, Vers Madrid The Burning Bright! (2012–2013). This most recent project set in Madrid, focuses in on the dramatic events in Spain in 2011 with the mass demonstrations against austerity measures, corrupt government and the bailout of criminal financial institutions at the expense of the working poor, what has come to be known as the 15 de Mayo. The questions of violence, of sovereignty and of revolutionary actions permeate, employing a necessarily politicized aesthetics, taking and pushing the spectator and the distribution of the sensible, towards an imperative ethical and political stance, in the face of current momentous and historically resonant events.

Politics and aesthetics

QRER Doigts brûlés

Vers Madrid: The Burning Bright! (2012–2013)

Sylvain George’s films take up this agenda of radical critique, while remaining poetic. They also contain aspects of longitudinal observation that function as the material basis for this critique, as well as aesthetic experimentation with the medium, employing acts of intimacy and distancing effects, the lyrical and the abstract. I asked him what the relationship of his version of political cinema is to that of say, Jean Luc Godard, and further back, the Avant Garde and the Surrealists. In short, what is the relationship of aesthetics and politics in the films and is the ‘aestheticization of the real’ (or of violence) a problem?

SG: The cinema is necessarily political. There is no cinematic form that is not traversed by the vehicle of representation. Moreover, there is no art form that builds, based on philosophical, political, aesthetic presuppositions, a form that does not commit a certain conception of the world, relations between individuals, and of individuals to their selves. I believe a filmmaker, a writer, an artist who is in denial of this is duplicitous.

This is not even a dogmatic or doctrinaire position, but simply a question of honesty, and common sense. It turns out that the majority of cinema today, ‘mainstream’ but also ‘author’ or ‘avant-garde’ is a cinema that is often extremely conservative, when it is not actually reactionary. It does not put under scrutiny the «distribution (partage) of the sensible» to borrow a phrase from philosopher Jacques Rancière, it does not address certain topics considered taboo (neo-colonialism, immigration, social and political injustice, etc.). Or when these topics are covered, such an approach is overshadowed by the privileged dominant viewpoint of the humanitarian, charitable, romantic ‘bourgeois, etc. Finally, more generally, a certain ‘Greenbergian’ conception of art as ‘autonomous’ is still dominant, and the film is full of this design – which has everything to do with a certain interpretation of modernity in the early twentieth century. And it is the interest of the mission of Jacques Rancière for example to deconstruct these dominant patterns.

From the moment where aesthetics is separated from politics, we live in a certain aestheticization of reality, which is not far from what Walter Benjamin called the «aestheticization of politics». These are the current dominant conceptions of cinema. These conceptions tend to classify and categorize cinematic forms, consistently demonizing the cinema that is ‘political’, ‘militant’, and other sub-genres of cinema. At this, Benjamin responded with the «politicization of art» which is another way of stating that art, movies, are related to life and labour categories that are both actual and fortuitous.

It is the work of immanence that interests me. And the work of immanence is necessarily political, plastic and poetic. Art and life, cinema, poetry, and politics are intrinsically linked. Rimbaud in his «Letter of the Seer» wrote that he wanted to perform ‘Psalm news’. Jean-Luc Godard stated somewhere that all his films were attached to a description of the «actualities» of a nation. In Jean Vigo’s talk «Towards a Social Cinema» (today he would use the term ‘political’, the term ‘social’ is more contaminated by the politics of welfare), he wrote that the cinema would «open the eyes», «reveal the hidden reason of a gesture», extract from a person their «inner beauty or its caricature», address some intolerable situations that would force you to become «accomplice of revolutionary solutions». These works of great formal rigor, extremely rich and powerful, are working on the dialectic of the actual and fortuitous, they dive into the heart of history, reviving old utopias, and re-emphasizing the possibility of a philosophy of justice and equality.

Image5

Vers Madrid: The Burning Bright! (2012–2013)

In May 2011, George headed to Madrid to make a ‘newsreel film’ in the tradition of Kramer, and Vertov, on the events happening in the Puerto del Sol, that demonstrators had occupied. He wondered if what was growing there after the Arab Spring, was the first real revolution of the XXI century, in the sense that there was a complete rejection of the non-democratic organizational structures of government and politics that people were brought up with, and a desire to create something fundamentally different, egalitarian, and non-racist. He understood the sense of social justice in a society that has yet to deal with the past, driven by the grandchildren of the civil war and grandparents who were brought up under Franco, people who have never before been able to articulate their disagreement, to formulate their claims or desires, under Franco, post-Franco, under neoliberalism. George says, «Once on the scene I was struck by the atmosphere of the place, the energy that could be deployed there, a few weeks building a utopian island in the center of Spain in which people are experimenting with new forms of life, which was putting into question the conditions of common life. It seemed absolutely extraordinary that so many people could talk politics: it was possible to find neighbourhood assemblies, ‘commissions’ gathering in the streets surrounding the Plaza Puerta Del Sol, equity, spontaneous utterances.»

The first part of Vers Madrid shows scenes of protest marches and the peaceful gathering of people of all ages in the Puerto del Sol. Eventually a camp city grows up, and neighbourhood committees take on various tasks, distributing food, medical aid, writing manifestos and defining the movement. We meet one immigrant in his room explaining how he came to Spain from Morocco by hiding under a truck. We see him move out in the street with his bottles and cans that he sells in order to survive. A group of people of all ages sit in a circle on the pavement to define their cause in a manifesto: concepts like ‘solidarity’, and the inclusion of ‘migrant’ as a special clause, are contested, debated. People rally, demands are made. For now, the police in riot gear make line-ups, but gradually, they begin to behave aggressively toward the protesters. Over time things begin to deteriorate, real violence is documented both by George and by cell phone videos he collects from YouTube. Finally, we read, the reactionary government and judiciary quietly instigate what they call legal ‘reforms’ that include extreme measures, harsh penalties (a state of exception: four years in prison for participating in a public protest, two years for using the Internet to start a public protest). The migrant hero is back trying to sell his coke cans for pennies in the empty plaza.

The climax of the film occurs when the tension between protesters and police reach a boiling point at the barricades. In front of a row of police in riot gear, shiny black helmets and shields, two men in a rage tear off their clothes, rip their identity cards out of their pockets and wave them in the faces of the police, naked, screaming, gesturing, «I don’t want a citizen ID. I want to be a HUMAN.» This is the irreducibility of the individual, his fundamental sovereignty, bare life in the face of exceptional power and mythic violence. This stands out as a true image of divine violence as described by George above.

While the aesthetics are similar to his earlier films there is a new urgency and intensity to this latest piece. The conditions of production had changed for George in Madrid, now he was there as a foreign observer, unable to speak the language, and with less time to film. He adopted the Newsreel format as a way to get in to the heart of the dramatic events.

AssembléeSG: Very quickly I thought working on a form which updates the idea of ‘Newsreel’ as Robert Kramer had been able to provide (a form which refers of course to earlier proposals, the Kino in the early twentieth century Russia) or contemporary (cine-tracts of Dziga Vertov, experiences of groups Medvekine, etc), a form which also refers to some footage with mobile phones or a small camera that can see posted on internet by people revolted and who wish to testify.

It seems to me that this idea of ‘Newsreels’ may be an even more interesting method to explore the misinformation that circulates in Spain and Europe. Major Spanish media are beholden to the corporate media who misrepresent reality, they do not reflect what is actually happening on-site in the neighbourhood committees. By adopting this form, and making an ‘experimental newsreel’, I wanted at the same time to avoid the pitfalls of building character and story. I wanted to work on singularities, people, discussions, and political struggles, without borrowing Aristotelian poetics.

At the same time, this film is definitely not exhaustive, it does not show all aspects of 15 de Mayo, it definitely does not ‘represent’ anything that is or could still be 15 de Mayo as a whole. The film expresses, as a contra-reportage, political moments as full and complete as I have perceived and understood them. This is how I make my contribution to the ‘Spanish revolution’ and more generally a process of emancipation more necessary than ever, in the balance of power established today on the entire planet, with the global systems of exchange, and the enforcement of the state of exception and the new media-ocracy, with laws derived through projected terrorism and the culture of fear.

It turns out that we are very few filmmakers who try to work ‘politically’ on this kind of topic. It is also linked to a crisis of political representation. This affects not only the political parties. A large number of people in the film industry do not know the crisis, and the social and political injustices that exist. There is no necessity for them to work on such representations. Quite the contrary.

Although George has won numerous prizes and has shown work at film festivals and museums across Europe and the Americas, he has also made efforts to distribute the films theatrically within France. Theatrical distribution has proven to be increasingly difficult inside the stronghold of the crisis climate that has been growing across Europe the last few years. The films fall into a category of art cinema, most of them are beyond 2 ½ hours in length. They are not designed for commercial or television formats. But they have been released locally with some success, mostly through arranged screenings with after-film discussions, a format that increasingly works, in conjunction with Internet mobilization, for documentaries and experimental works with a social agenda. This cooperation of philosophers and social theorists, academics, festival programmers, filmmakers, workers and concerned citizen groups, at a local level, has a long tradition within documentary history, not just with Dziga Vertov’s kinoki, but within the British documentary pioneer John Grierson’s original conception of the British Documentary Movement. The public screening of experimental documentary films in conversation with contemporary thinkers and a concerned public becomes the forum where the intimate connection between the ‘cinema’ and philosophy becomes apparent, where working on images and sounds in motion becomes a specific mode of working through philosophical problems or ideas.

Eclats feuSG: A philosopher works with concepts. A filmmaker works with moving images. Images, plastics etc. are also ‘images of thought’. Images construct and convey presentations, performances, ‘visions’ and ‘conceptions’ of the world. Images can reinforce an existing world or rather put in motion, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes blatantly, this game of performances. This movement into the unknown is a movement towards the impossible within us, making us all a territory still to explore and discover. Yes the cinema is the best way to put in motion this movement, which is deeply philosophical, dedicated to the discovery of self and others, and that subsequently can destroy the physical or symbolic walls that are so strong that they make us walk on their thresholds and edges.

Eclats railsBut perhaps more importantly, the positioning of the films in the cinema, especially in the digital era, becomes a political act in its own right. George explains, «I thought it was important that people who don’t normally frequent the festival, museum or cinemathèque, have the opportunity to see the films in the cinema. A film in the cinema will be made known to those in power, the media and the police. So even if the films don’t reach thousands through the mainstream media, the existence of the film, it’s political content, is made known to the government and the media.» By circumventing the dominant channels of media consumption, George is able to break the borders between life and art, politics and consumption, the distribution (partage) of the sensible, that these channels are constantly trying to regulate.

Here I imagine Sylvain George as clandestine, with his films, these ‘repositories of rage capital’, under his arm. He jumps the fence, hides under the truck, crossing the borders, between the mainstream and the periphery. He arranges screenings and debates, offering a forum for the mutual accumulation of this rage, a kind of ‘bank’ that is not financial but human. The act of screening in the public domain here becomes an ethical and political imperative, an ‘emergency’, in which we are all implicated.

 

Filmography

Vers Madrid: The Burning Bright! (2012–2013)
Les Nuées (My black mama’s face) (2012)
Les Eclats (ma gueule, ma révolte, mon nom) (2011)
Qu’ils reposent en révolte (Des Figures de Guerres I) (2010)
Ils nous tueront tous… (2009)
L’Impossible: Pages Arrachées (2009)
No Border (Aspettavo Che scendesse la sera) (2005–2008)
N’entre pas sans violence dans la nuit (2005–2008)
Série des Contre-feux (2005–2008)

 

Notes

[1] See Giorgio Agamben (2005), State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
[2] Jacques Rancière in «Savoir où l’on place l’intolérable dans nos vies». Interview 16/11 2011, with Carine Fouteau and Joseph Confraveux, Médiapart.fr
[3] http://www.diagonalthoughts.com
[4] Ibid.
[5] It is perhaps difficult to label the work of George documentary. As Jacques Rancière describes, «It’s not a documentary, but the result of a work of research, of presence, of formulation, of a formulation that is changing.» Jacques Rancière: «Savoir où l’on place l’intolérable dans nos vies». Interview 16/11 2011, with Carine Fouteau and Joseph Confraveux, Médiapart.fr
[6] See Slavoj Žižek (2012), «From Democracy to Divine Violence», and other essays on the state of democracy today, in Democracy In What State? Agamben et al., Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 100–120.
[7] «The Critique of Violence» in Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Trans. Edmund Jephcott, Schocken Books, New York. p. 300.

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