Found Letters and Lost Images: Eric Baudelaire

How is a nation experienced as real?

AV MARIA MOSENG

Denne teksten stod opprinnelig på trykk i Wuxia 1–2/14. Filmen Letters to Max vises på Tromsø Internasjonale Filmfestival 18.–24. januar.

letters-to-maxThe mission of writing about the latest film of French artist Eric Baudelaire in Norway, a young country celebrating the 200th anniversary of its constitutional founding, is not devoid of resonance. As a personalized portrait of the Caucasian state of Abkhazia, Letters to Max (2014) is a reminder of the recklessness of history, and the elements of chance that often seem to encompass both the construction of a nation-state, and the diplomatic ease a country like Norway takes for granted. But it is also a testimony to how intensely the identification with the nation can increase when it is in constant threat of disappearance. While Abkhazia seceded from Georgia during a civil war in 1992–93, it was not recognized by any other nation-state for nearly 20 years. To this day it remains unacknowledged by the vast majority of countries in the world, with the exception of Russia, Nicaragua, Vanuatu and a few others. Abkhazia is thus a nation caught in an ontological paradox: A piece of land on the border of Russia and Georgia, but not an official country in the legal sense. According to many, it remains torn between the choice of liberation from Georgia, and secession marked by dependence on Russia.

 

Images and invisibility

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Most of Baudelaire’s photographs and essay films over the past ten years have revolved around issues of representation, and how reality is staged through images. In Letters to Max (2014), these questions are further elaborated to include the notion of the nation-state and its representation, pointing to the decisive question: how is a nation experienced as real? To the unaccustomed ear, there may be something about the name, Abkhazia, that almost sounds invented. And we remember what we tend to forget – that all nations are invented, before their inventedness disappeared into a cementation of inevitability: the efficient mythologization that places their origin in a distant past. This brings a haunting sense of both utopia and nostalgia to Letters to Max that touch upon the inherent contradiction in the idea of the nation state and national identity: As a modern concept, the nation is part of an idea related to progress and rationality. At the same time, nationality is fuelled by the nostalgia of its ancient roots in this mythical past, perpetuating the cultural and sentimental idea of its Volk.

Baudelaire’s Letters to Max first evolved from an impulsive experiment when the artist sent a letter to his friend Maxim Gvinjia ­– Max – with no hope that the envelope would ever reach him, Abkhazia’s lack of a national postal service being only one of the obstacles. But Max somehow received the letters, which became the start of a complex temporal dialogue; Baudelaire writing and Max making audio recordings of his replies to the questions posed. In the film, these recordings become the narrative voice-over, which accompay images Baudelaire then captured in Abkhazia after the correspondence ended.

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As recognized by only a few, Abkhazia is not ‘interpellated’ as a state, to use the expression of Louis Althusser, about the act of making something or someone a subject. But as an imagined community Abkhazia remains informed by reality: physically and geographically, as well as by its people of roughly 250 000. It also, however, remains informed by the dreams, memories and affects of this people. To portray Abkhazia then, is to face the challenge of portraying an entity that may be geographically solid, but in other senses still an imagined entity. And this imagined status of Abkhazia would seem to exist in a twisted temporal loop, its justification as something of the past, its fulfillment as something yet of the future. Exploring, though not indulging in nostalgia. And thus, the central question is: How to portray this imagination through images?

The concern with how to choose the right images to represent Abkhazia is indeed a very explicit part of the discourse in Letters to Max. The artist is  asking Max, his subject, what he should film, willingly allowing for the loss of control over the motives. In the letters, Baudelaire describes how he didn’t know what to photograph when he was there ten years earlier. He recalls photographically framing ruins and neglected buildings as if they were monuments, looking for manifestations of time itself. He asks Maxim about an old shipwreck parked for years on the beach, a widely circulated image that had become iconic for Abkhazia, at least for its ‘google image’ presence: A clichéd image, like the Eiffel tower, capable of substituting the actual site with its strong metaphorical capacity.

This hesitation might represent an attempt to escape the consumerist glance of the tourist. But it also signals a preoccupation with the image that we encounter in many of Baudelaire’s films, recounting personal biographies through landscapes. Perhaps most strikingly in his earlier film, impressively titled The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images (2011), where the destiny of the Japanese Red Army is unraveled through two of the movement’s associated characters – the daughter of a terrorist and a former radical filmmaker-turned-revolutionary. We never see these characters in the visual track of the film, which instead shows present-day Japan and Lebanon – mostly anonymous and generic images of streets and buildings shot in the intimate format of super 8. Invisibility in this context, the context of being fugitives and ex-terrorists, is thus related to the necessity of fictionalizing identity as an existential condition.

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Pretty much off the map, the invisibility of Abkhazia, is more related to the lack of TV-images and news reports, which is to say there is a lack both of mediated images and virtual representation in common records or collective imaginations. What we see in Baudelaire’s images of Abkhazia, is a geographical space somewhere in between nature, urban desert, domestic space and commercial everyday life. In the beginning there are trees, a road, and a green field that could be situated almost anywhere with a temperate or subtropical climate, until a moss-covered military vehicle in the background is disclosed. An ensuing flow of images convey peace, leisure and joy – people relaxing and playing cards, chess, swimming. Hanging out with their family. Clean streets. Ikea. Symbolic actions pointing directly to iterations of nationality are few, and the images of celebrations with flags, marching bands, military uniforms and official salutes form the minor part of the film. However, the uncertainty of the images, manifested in a confusion of their authorial origin, is a question that continuously imposes itself, imprisoned in the subjectivity of this report from ‘a country far away’, as Chris Marker might have described it.

This uncertainty is a result of the epistolary structure created by the recounted letters, which puts the experience of simultaneous layers of time at the centre of formulation of nationality itself. In the age of digital communication, there is a certain anachronism connected to the letter, which makes the return to this old form somewhat nostalgic. It is a medium of distance and of longing, and it is a medium of formality. But in addition to being of the past, letters are also of the future: Every letter that arrives for Max is in some way a confirmation of Abkhazia, not only as a geographical location, but as an official country. If the image of Abkhazia is somewhat lost on the collective world map, it is somehow re-found by the letters.

 

The essay film as time machine

More than a question of finding the right images, the preoccupation with representation is then a preoccupation with issues of temporality as it relates to individual experience – understood both as historical presence and as fundamental in perception. A common trait in personal essay film or diary-film is to use of voice-over narration as a revisionist soundtrack, the filmmaker looking back at the time of shooting, and recounting the experience that has escaped the images. In the case of Letters to Max, the sense of time is often reversed. The letters give the strong impression of having been written before the images we actually see were captured. These images thus seem to become detached from their inherent temporality, lost both in space and in time. This temporal asynchrony is beautifully addressed in the narrative of the film itself, which makes a reference to the exchange of the letters as time machines.

This kind of reflexivity leans on the essayistic – a form that can expand on the philosophical mind, and a form that can carry doubts. «A testing of ideas» according to 16th century writer Michel de Montaigne, or «a form that thinks», which is how Jean-Luc Godard described the essay-film. Being a discourse of modern experience, doubt and hesitation, the essay film is a form of expression often related to the experience of trauma and crisis of representation following WW2. Historically expanding on such crises, many of the most charged essay films often return to the experience of the colonial and postcolonial in a questioning and rethinking of the self. The emblem of the essay film is for many represented in the French filmmaker Chris Marker (or Guillaume the cat, one of his many avatars) – a fact that can be attributed to a review by the French film theorist André Bazin, who in writing about Marker’s Letter from Siberia from 1957, described the film as a visual essay, defining its primary material as a verbal intelligence. He called Marker’s method a «horizontal montage», «as opposed to traditional montage that plays with the sense of duration through the relationship of shot to shot» [1].

Letter from Siberia (Chris Marker, 1957)

Letter from Siberia (Chris Marker, 1957)

Bazin thus accentuates the political potential of the essay film as distinctive and different from conventional film practices and their ideological and political strategies of argumentation and representation. The political core of the essayistic remains more closely related to creating ideological instability, through the subversion of a coherent subjectivity, which is also a subversion of the public experience of the everyday. From an ethnographical perspective, it is interesting that the travelogue in film history over time evolved into a branch of the essayistic, often highly dependent on self-description (as the writings of Knut Hamsun and Ryszard Kapuściński are early examples of, where the meeting of other cultures became a means of autobiography, the latter also writing about the Soviet Union in Imperium). This development is to a certain extent intertwined with the crisis of representation acknowledged in postmodern anthropology. Here the colonial gaze seeks to be replaced by auto-ethnography or experimental ethnography, bordering on art practices, in an articulation of identity and difference centered in phenomenology and a subversion of dominant language.

It is this field that Chris Marker so eloquently explored, in his continuous effort to create a space and a time in-between the images, and in the consistent occupation with memory, loss, history, and how our fragile subjectivity can survive and acknowledge these experiences. ­The prospect of increased access to the world by travel and images, experienced as confusion. In his seminal work, Sans soleil (1983), the cinematographer appears as a fictional character in the film. We hear his letters read aloud, though not in his own voice, but in the voice of a woman, possibly his lover, waiting for news from his journeys around the world: «In the nineteenth century, mankind had come to terms with space, and the great question of the twentieth was the coexistence of different notions of time» reads the now famous beginning. Throughout the narration, Sans soleil is in a way a visual travelogue or postcard, replacing the idea of an objective truth with the idea of looking, studying, and interrogating. Marker’s film is the struggle with experience, as something that needs to be fictionalized, dispersed through different subjectivities, to become possible to convey and mediate.

If Marker’s approach is that of enveloping the images in fiction as an excuse for his personal aphorisms, Baudelaire seems to have a different epistemology: He is using his own memory and imagination in dialog with the memory and imagination of others, in order to investigate history and identity as embodied memory. When Max talks about the war, it is not as drama and destruction, but as an everyday event: As successive change rather than breaks and ruptures, and as something people get used to, like the rain. Although it also means the loss of dear ones, war is far from one single thing. Abandonment for instance, can be just as destructive as war, he rationalizes: When in war, you have an enemy, which means having a goal. When war is over, it is implied, things are back in shades and colors, where there before was only black and white.

This is the revision of the narrative, and the images we see, as they appear. It asks us to experience the world through a thinking mind, and it points to the efficiency of the deceiving correspondence of image and voice, as a relationship that continuously changes. Instead of creating the idea of a centered subject, structuring the elements into a logical form, the acknowledging of different temporal existences introduces new elements of thought that are capable of questioning each other.

 

When change was possible

To call the letters time machines, is in some way a metonymy of the experience of time. But as Baudelaire himself has remarked, this kind of monologic conversation is also an allegory of a country isolated from the outside world. While there are two acoustic tracks in the film – the contentum sound, and the voice-over, the different figurations of space-times are more numerous. There’s Eric’s letters, Max’s recordings, and then the recorded images, which combined serve to inscribe distance as a fundamental experience in the film. In addition, images of water, rain, the sea, waterfalls, and hot springs fill the screen ­­– images of nature in general, not so much in grand views, but in close-up. This may serve to describe the specificity of Abkhazia and its ecology, but at the same time the growing, organic character of things also refers to a cycle that represents its own time – though not untouched by war, still independent of official territorial names. This brings the idea of the past as something fluid into play. What is captured in an image only represents a version of itself, intimately bound to the fabric of the present. And it also applies to the image of hope and of change. One of the most sentimental sequences in Letters to Max, is the description of the moment when Russia announced its embracement of Abkhazia as a legally defined country. A single instant of the past, so strongly pointing towards the dreamt future, which Baudelaire and Max have set up as a reenactment in the film: Max watches Medvedev’s speech from 2008, and in voice-over commemorates his happy memories of the day, followed by images of people dancing in the streets.

As with another happy moment, where Max is speaking about his joy of being appointed as foreign minister, half-heartedly performing the moon-walk he would have liked to do back then, the temporal figures that are insinuated could maybe best be described as «the past glimpses of future». Not the realization of possibilities, but a meeting of virtual images: Max of the past, dreaming of the future, reunited with a Max of the present, sustaining the virtual dream. A moment when change was possible.

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Letters to Max (Eric Baudelaire, 2014)

Rather than reproduce events and render them imaginable and cathartic, the film brings together traces of the world in images, with the personal and recounted ones of Max, and even suggests how it might look when put into the cinematographic image. It establishes Abkhazia both as a place that is there, and as a place that is unimaginable yet, that is to say, beyond visibility. The images connect with virtual images, dreams, fantasies, and the sense of a general past. Like the water in the film that keeps flowing. Looking at the images, one might think, what would change, if Abkhazia was in fact recognized. How would it look different?

Fictions, as another Frenchman, Jacques Rancière reminds us, are not opposed to facts, but are ways of constructing the arena in which knowledge and facts are given meaning [2]. Fiction is the material rearrangements of signs, images and relationships between what is seen and what is said [3]. This, one could say, counts in the construction of the nation as well as in the construction of film. It connects the politics of the documentary film less to its explanatory power than to the forms of community that are implied by the possibilities of identification in the film. The aesthetic regime of art, according to Rancière, is also a new regime of historicity, in which the future is defined by restaging the past. This is where the personal account becomes important, because the production of meaning from fact is a capacity that belongs to everyone, and this capacity is also the possibility of creating new common worlds; of creating memory.

 

Notes

[1] Bazin in «Lettre de Sibérie. Le Cinéma francais de la liberation à la nouvelle vague (1945–1958)», Cahiers du Cinéma, 1983.

[2] As formulated by Nico Baumbach in «Jacques Rancière and the fictional capacity of documentary», New Review of Film and Television Studies 8: 1, 2010.

[3] Rancière in Film Fables, trans. Emiliano Battista, Berg, Oxford, 2006.

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