The first frame of Paris est une fête – un film en 18 vagues is entirely black specked with light dots. Where is this eerie scene? Living far from Paris in New York, I do not recognize the city in Sylvain George’s new black and white documentary work, and that is the point. It is not a Paris we have ever seen before—not in a century of cinema. This does not appear to be that Paris. But let us also admit our nostalgia for Paris shot in black and white. Motion picture cinephiles will always long for Paris rendered in black and white-- the Paris of Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle/Breathless (1959), Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (1960), and Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1960).
Paris est une fête is not that Paris. Never before has Paris been rendered in such high contrast—in a blacker black against a whiter white.i Against that blacker night sky, centuries-old French monuments appear streaked with tar. Rendered in black and white, these streets seem covered by an oil slick. But this is no abstract study in light against a night sky backdrop. Sparks, then car headlights, Christmas lights and neon lights, amusement park lights, and stadium lights, cut into the darkness. More ominous than illuminating, harsh lights threaten to expose the subjects of the film--immigrants in Paris who live “under cover of night,” so to speak. The darkness “swallows them up,” as we say, as though night is both menace and protection. Even more strangely, at the same time that this Paris is peopled, it also seems to have been evacuated or even deserted by its former inhabitants. The streets appear emptied but yet are peopled with street dwellers who have arrived from the far-flung empire-- Guinea, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Morocco. Something has gone terribly wrong. What is this strange sunflower at night doing in this moving image work? Like a freak of nature it opens in the night, not turned towards the sun but towards a glaring spotlight, an image over which we hear buzzing and screaming.
Here is perhaps a new genre in which the black and white newsreel meets the low budget black and white horror film. That the scene is Paris, 2017, is especially disturbing given the legacy of Paris on screen. In no other moving picture of Paris does the city appear so stained, dirtied, really, by the militarization of the streets. I strain to grasp what is going on in Paris est une fête. What is it like to be homeless in Paris, capital of the Francophone world? To barely live and to fitfully sleep on the hard streets of what looks like an urban horror film set? Strangely, however, the life of the homeless is oddly enriched by the high contrast aesthetic, given that for these impermanent residents it is always night in their Paris street life. They come alive at night, temporarily protected, as I said, by the darkness that obscures them but that also so obfuscates them that they are confused with the city street trash. There is so much trash, trash “with” people and trash “without” people: debris, leaves, paper plates, a fork, a spoon, rats, pigeons, and people sleeping. In the tent city with a statue in foreground, plastic bags blow around. So many discarded objects in close up have no apparent relation to one another except as refuse. There is so much shiny plastic and so many foam mattresses. The foreign viewer cannot but feel that foam and plastic are cheap shields against the elements and cruel, begrudging comfort for the displaced.
Then the nightmare newsreel begins. In, Paris, the nightmare, riot police burst upon the scene with tear gas. Marchers call “Freedom!” Libertie/Equality/Fraternity is invoked. A shoe. A tank. The police call “Disperse! Arrest them! The camera cuts to statues in silhouette. Then a flag. “You are Citizens Too!” “Resistance!” A female protester is injured and is carried away. From the crowd we hear “Leave her alone. You Monster.” “We want justice.” “I am Paris.” The images of police confrontation with protesters come in waves, the confrontation and protest appearing again and then again: “One Future, Not Their Profits” These are riot-geared police and someone in the protesting crowd shouts “Tear Gas!” We see police beating someone and hear: “We are living in a police state!” The police lead people away. On the street, in the aftermath, we see rubbish: goggles, plastic bottles.
But there is another “film” within this “film,” one signified by a black hand in close up filling the frame. It’s a small study of black hands in movement, their transformation into the pattern of a silent fist, boxing, dancing, political body artistry reminiscent of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic homage to black skin. In an extended section, a refugee tells the filmmaker a story about the job he had in a fishmeal plant from which he saved money to go to Europe. The small boat he took was overloaded. After eight days in the desert, it was difficult to get on the boat, and once on the boat it was discovered that the boat leaked. Then the boat became lost and ran out of fuel. Because there was no fuel the captain told them that someone had to be sacrificed. One man was told to jump to save the rest, and they finally threw him overboard. Was he eaten by a fish? the survivor wonders. The refugee had made his way to Paris from Spain where the boat landed and where he had to learn another language.
Here, within this interview, is a small island of connection within Paris, the nightmare, hostile, belligerent, and indifferent. The cinefile recalls the interviews in Moi, un Noir and Chronique d’un été. Of this legacy, French filmmaker and theorist Jean-Louis Comolli once said: “When I see Moi, un Noir, La Pyramide humaine, or Chronique d’un été (Rouch), when I see Pour la suite du monde (Perrault)—films of the end of the 1950s, of the early ‘60s—I’m struck by what could be defined as a community of desire; those who are filmed, whether from Africa, Paris, or Québec, clearly share the film with the one who shoots it. Sharing means that they’re wholly present, without reserve, that they are giving what they have and also what they don’t have: what they know they have and what they don’t have as much as that which they don’t know they have and have not.”ii Sharing? Recent debates within the academic field of documentary studies have focused on the inequality of the interview format--“us” versus “them”-- reinforced by the inequality of technological expertise. Perhaps Comolli is describing both the inevitable cultural obtuseness of the maker as well as an ideal towards which the documentary about others still strives. Yet he offers a definition of “share” as a magnanimity of presence. That such magnanimity stops short of sharing technological resources, however, is not a reason to give up on connection. Politically astute audiences will always want the dispossessed or exploited to make “their own” moving image work, a high standard seldom met. Yet work emerging from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings challenges us to reconsider the critique of documentary power relations.iii
Actually, every new documentary work challenges us to rethink the tradition of documentary activism.iv Paris est une fête makes exceedingly difficult demands on the historian and theorist of this tradition. We are we at a loss as to how to respond to these newsreel horrors: In a silent Paris full of dirty blankets and plastic bags, dark people board a bus. Then, as dawn arrives, a dump truck moves in to clear the refuse and white-suited workers appear on screen to sanitize the area. The truck picks up a mattress, trash, and shoes, sweeping up garbage as though this is what the sanitation department would like to do to the people as much as the refuse. Workers walk over the sign: “I Am a Refugee.” The screen goes to black over which is heard a thump and an echo.
Later, we see another wave of protest and conflict between people and the police, more inky statues and a dark screen: “Revolution is now!” “Paris Rise up!” Trash cans are kicked over. Bomb smoke hangs in the air and we hear the clatter of fence barricades, see police car windows smashed, and more barricades in frozen frames. An injured woman wrapped with silver plastic is thrust into an ambulance. A bonfire in slow motion fills the frame. Then: “People Have to Rise Up!”
Perhaps a U.S. citizen living in New York is an ideal viewer for Paris est une fête. Why? Because, as I have said, this moving image work appears to us as scenes from newsreel coverage of events in a completely strange and unrecognizable European city. Learning that these are recent events in Paris, we are astounded. We wonder if the inauguration of Donald Trump in January, 2017, eclipsed these Paris events in the mainstream news. Or if it was the women’s marches the day after the inauguration, the largest one-day protest in U.S. history, according to The New York Times.v How, we wonder, could the permanent state of emergency in Paris, the transformation of Paris into an armed state, not be international news?vi Here revealed is the reluctance of mainstream world news to add up the surge of anti-government protests worldwide.
Why must we insist that Paris est une fête is a documentary? What distinguishes documentary as a mode from melodrama, its supposed antithesis, is the reception frame. That is, the frame cues the viewer to expect images that either are or were historically immediate. The politics that follow from this expectation may go further. Documentary work in the radical tradition is an incitement to the viewer to take action in the world of the moving image—the same world he or she inhabits, whether the world of urban Paris or the world of Washington, D.C. Ironically, the earliest documentary protocols dictated the non-intervention of makers who pledged to only observe the subject whose lives they were actually affecting. Paradoxically, events invariably tainted had to be untouched by the makers. In contrast, the radical tradition descending from the Soviet Dziga Vertov has urges intervention, that is, engagement before, during, and after the making. And why? Comolli says of this political tradition that “…the documentary film draws its power from its very difficulty, wholly derived from the fact that the real doesn’t give film the time to forget it, that the world presses on, that it is through contact with the world that cinema is made.”vii
Thus the move from the myth of non-intervention to documentary as strategic intervention; to real historical bodies in contact with the machine as well as with each other, “…contact with the world.”
Today one wonders about the power of documentary to move viewers to action. Documentary footage of riots is so ubiquitous on the internet that one U.S. critic has called it “riot porn”.viii Mainstream public broadcasting documentary makes mush of the issues with its outdated journalistic “balance” and facts to-be-checked. Something different, however, is required of documentary work as a radical political aesthetics, something that goes beyond outrage against injustice to humanity. Documentary has been used to observe, to witness. But not in these times. In these times, something more is urgently needed. Documentary will need to be deployed as provocation, used not just to tell or to show, and not even to speak out. Beyond that, it must be used to stir and to “trouble,” in all senses of that word. In Paris est une fête we have documentary as intervention but more importantly documentary as disturbance. This is to acknowledge how deeply disturbing a portrait of Paris today we have in this profoundly moving work.
Jane M. Gaines
i Paris est une fête was shot on digital video in color and re-created in black and white in post-production, which explains the starkness of the black/white contrast effect that one could not achieve with photochemical film. E-mail exchange with Sylvain George, April 6, 2017.
ii Jean-Louis Comolli, “Documentary Journey to the Land of the Head Shrinkers,” Trans. Annette Michelson. October 90 (Fall 1999), p. 45.
iii Alisa Lebow, “Filming Revolution: An Interactive Database Documentary about
Independent Filmmaking in Egypt Since the Revolution”: www.filmingrevolution.org.
iv On the legacy of documentary activism see Jane M. Gaines, “Documentary Dreams of Activism and the ‘Arab Spring.’” in Un art documentaire: Enjeux esthétiques, politiques et éthiques/Documentary Art: aesthetic, political, and ethical issues. Eds. Aline Caillet et Frédéric Pouillaud. In French translation. University of Rennes Press, 2017.
v Tina Brown, “After the Surge, What’s Next?” New York Times (2 April, 2017), p. 4.
vi An exception to the coverage of the political situation in France is Cécile Alduy, “Fringe no More,” The Nation (April 24/May 1, 2017), p. 13.
vii Comolli, “Documentary Journal to the Land of the Head Shrinkers,” p. 40.
viii Chuck Kleinhans, “Subversive Media: When, Why, and Where.” Jump Cut No. 56 (Fall 2014): www.jumpcut.org.