Session 2: (Re)-presenting the Present

  • Documentary’s Dreams of Activism

Jane Gaines

Moving image documentary movements seem to have been born dreaming dreams of activist interventions that could produce social change. Recall the social change legacy we trace back to Borinage (Joris Ivens and Henri Storck, 1933) or to Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1924). These thoughts about activist mythologies I began to formulate when I read the report from the Washington D.C.-based Institute of Peace (USIP) that concludes that the so-called “Arab Spring” media revolution was more of a new media phenomenon outside the region than inside it. Whose technological dream was this, then? So I wonder what happens when we start with operative mythologies of social change linked to technological advent. I lay out this case not to set up old media versus new media debates, or cyberutopianism vs. cyberskepticism, although the contrast does figure here. More importantly the recent social media-political activism connection allows me to rethink an earlier essay I titled “Political Mimesis” and delivered as a paper at the first Visible Evidence conference in 1993. The new idea here is to acknowledge the power of the utopian dream, especially as a challenge to the idea that with its empirical bent documentary is antithetical to myth and dream. This is to begin to open up the political contents of the dreamwork of social activism.

Jane Gaines is Professor of Film, Columbia University, and the author of two award-winning books, Contested Culture: The Image, the Voice, and the Law, and Fire and Desire: Mixed Race Movies in the Silent Era, and the forthcoming Historical Fictions, a critique of the “historical turn” in the field of film and media studies. She continues to write as well on the history of intellectual property (with implications for contemporary piracies), documentary theory, and costume and body. With Francesco Casetti she is co-chair of the Permanent Seminar on the Histories of Film Theories.


  • When the Square Rumbles: Tahrir and Maïdan, Two Contemporary Revolutions by the Prism of the Documentary Art

Antony Fiant

Distributed in movie theatres on january 25, 2012, Tahrir, directed by Stefano Savona shows the egyptian revolution which took place in january and february 2011 and which led Hosni Moubarak to give up the power. Shown in Cannes Festival and distributed in theatres on may 23, 2014, Maïdan, directed by Serguei Loznitsa shows the ukrainian revolution between november 2013 and march 2014 leading as for it to the dismissal of the President Viktor Ianoukovitch.

The thin gap between the dates of the shootings and those of the releases shows how it is an emergency for the two film-makers to testify to the fact that these revolutions are two major events of the 21st century with consequences spreading beyond egyptian and ukrainian borders. How to make possible and even necessary in such an emergency the documentary art ? Wouldn’t there be a kind of indecency in the affirmation of artistic ambitions when the fate of two peoples may be at stake and that demonstrators are dying ?

Through those questions, we will try to demonstrate how Savona and Loznitsa are able to film a piece of History while reaching to the status of documentary art. If their taken parts are different – extremely mobile camera in Savona movie, static shots in Loznitsa’s – both films constitute two fascinating immersions into the heart of the rising revolutionary process, where two public squares rumble, far away from the usually applied media coverage. The aim of this communication is to analyze and to collate these immersions through an aesthetic and dramaturgic point of view as well as through a political and ethical one. If both film-makers observe the events in a deceptive passivity, not rushing for explaining the filmed situation, they never intervene, they are never seen nor heard in the films, they never add any comments nor any kind of music; they make it clear, thanks to their qualities of patient observers that popular claims are legitimate.

Antony Fiant is university lecturer in film studies in Rennes 2 university. He works on the question of substractive and contemporary films, wherever they are fictional narratives or documentary movies. He contributes to some reviews (Trafic, Positif and Images Documentaires) and has written three essays : (Et) Le cinéma d’Otar Iosseliani (fut) (2002, L’Âge d’Homme), Le cinéma de Jia Zhang-ke. No future (made) in China (2009, Presses Universitaires de Rennes), Pour un cinéma contemporain soustractif (2014, Presses Universitaires de Vincennes). He also coordinated some collective works such as: with David Vasse, Le cinéma de Hou Hsiao-hsien : espaces, temps, sons (PUR, 2013), with Pierre-Henry Frangne and Gilles Mouëllic, Les œuvres d’art dans le cinéma de fiction (PUR, 2014).


  •  Plasticities of Political Violences in the Beginning of the 21st Century

 Bidhan Jacobs

What have we seen of the events – 09/11, wars, anti-migration policies – that have marked the beginning of the century and were caught in a network of meanings? In other words, what do we really know of the repercussions of some violent political decisions, in the short term on the populations they aim directly, but also in the medium and long terms on the existence of all? What plasticities the documentary art can create to visualize them? With what kind of investigations of the filmic technologies?

3 artists reveal part of the real we have not yet identified:

  1. Florent Marcie offers with Saïa (2000, mini-dv, 30′) a night perception of the front line nearby Bagram air base (Afghanistan) and the lifeworld during the civil war opposing the commandant Massoud forces against the Talibans.
  2. Laura Waddington find herself for Border (2004, mini-DV, 30’) in the Red Cross camp at Sangatte during fall 2001, just after the attack against New-York and the punitive bombings on Afghanistan.
  3. Jérôme Schlomoff describes in New-York zéro zéro (2006, super 35mm, 21’) the after-09/11 New-York of an America ruined by regressive domestic policy and belligerant foreign policy and preparing a new agression against Irak.

Marcie and Waddington experience their mini-dv cameras in extremely low light conditions; Schlomoff goes back in the history of technology by building his own pinhole camera. Slow shutter speeds create eruptive plastic forms in the works of Marcie and Waddington: the first merges the study of the fighters’ bodies and the figuration of a war that can only have international and irreversible consequences; Waddington analyses how the juridical, political, security and repressive arsenal affects the bodies of men, women and children cornered at the border. The vibrating forms with Schlomoff picture the desolation of a town crossed by shockwaves. Ultimately these three films, juxtaposed, communicate with each other and lead us to this chilling assessment: « history is blowing, like the winds, in cercles » (Waddington).

Bidhan Jacobs is a doctor from Paris 3 – Sorbonne Nouvelle University and curator, specialized in relations between technology, ideology and aesthetic. Currently teaching at Paris 3, he was Teaching and Research Fellow at Lyon 2 University and in the schools of cinema Georges Méliès, CLCF and l’Ecole de la Cité, redactor at La Furia Umana, Débordements and Turbulences vidéo, and coeditor with Nicole Brenez of the collective book Le cinéma critique. De l’argentique au numérique, voies et formes de l’objection visuelle (Publications de la Sorbonne, 2010).



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