Having been recently interested in how transcendental power is operated in human interactions in a variety of ways was the motif to re-visit two texts I have written one year ago, on the occasion of a Film Festival in Paris. Completely different in their methods of filmmaking, subjects, themes and aesthetics, Jesse McLean and Ben Russell's oeuvres are rarely associated (if they ever been) and - I guess - it would not be an exception here. Yet, despite the use of different techniques and means and major differences as the disparate geographical locations of the works in these two artists and the fact that one uses the media effects and the other uses the globalism effects to portray what they may have in common : the observation of power relations, the relation between dominant and dominated, the integration of religious realms in our quotidian capitalist present and the investigation of our mysterious relation to control powers. Often one can experience ambiguity feelings such as anxiety, fear, overwhelmingness and deceptiveness in relation to the things that are more close to us but that we not aware of their effects,

 

Let us Persevere in What we Have Resolved Before we Forget

 

Before watching Ben Russell’s Let us Persevere in What we Have Resolved Before we Forget, I did not have much information about the Vanuatu Islands and about the cargo cults. I did need to research a little to better understand the film, yet without this research, we are still sensitive to its energies and its earthly and aquatic ghostly presences waving between the marks of globalism presented in the quotidian and in the ritual.

 

Deliberately painted ‘‘against’’ this light, Angelico’s fresco obscures the obvious fact of its own presence. It creates a vague impression that there isn’t much to see. After one’s eyes have adjusted to the light, this impression is oddly persistent: the fresco ‘‘comes clear’’ only to revert to the white of the wall, for it consists only of two or three stains of attenuated color placed against a slightly shaded background of the same whitewash. (…) The trip to Florence, the monastery’s transformation into a museum, the very name Fra Angelico: all of these things prompt us to look farther. (…) At this moment, the perceived fresco becomes really, fully visible—it becomes clear and distinct as if it were making itself explicit. It becomes legible. So here we are, capable, or supposedly so, of reading Angelico’s. (Georges Didi-Hubermann1)

 

Vanuatu is a group of islands located in Oceania in the South Pacific Ocean. Vanuatu was first inhabited by Melanesian people. Spanish people were the first to arrive in Espiritu Santo, the largest of the islands, in 1605. At the end of the XIX century, the island was fought over by France and the United Kingdom that administered separately from there until its independence in 1980.

By the time of the Second World War II, the cargo cults arose after the passage of American troops parked their planes in Tanna, one of the islands of the group and the location for the film shooting, with huge supplies (called “cargo”). The Vanuatu population was confronted with a wide range of products that could not understand very well, given the isolation that they had been through, both in its own way of functioning as well as in its abundance. This time of abundance for the people of Tanna ended suddenly after the disappearing of the troops, and so appeared the cults in which their believers claim these lost goods, they think they’re unfairly controlled by foreigners. Since then the people of Tanna imitate foreigners, they build fake objects to possess the real ones, owned by the foreigners, blessed by God (they believe) in order to be awarded the assets they own. As the inhabitants of the island of Vanuatu do not have advanced technology to build most of these goods, they believe they were sent from heaven by his god, and that Americans are his messengers.

The island of Tanna is presented to us in mysterious ways, revealing itself slowly through plans where fog and smoke unveil a universe that seems so primitive and yet contemporary, where various forms of time seem to hover.

The film deals with the construction and investigation of a collective memory and imaginary and the spiritual and religious foundations of the population of an island depicted through the point of view of someone who knows more than the agents of the "story", leaving unclear what is fiction or tested and what is real. The culmination of this mix of fiction and reality comes in the end with the last speech seemingly rehearsed, there is no quote from Brecht (the translation is handled by Russell) so one wonders the existentialist content of it - "What are we doing here?” which seems to lead us to the sense of loss or camouflaged identity on the island of Tanna. Other acts take the shape of this theatre of the real where one cannot tell what was planned and what was not, such as the flag raising (or rather the black man dressed as an American in military uniform) seems to correspond to the ideal of John Frum, and the man lying near the volcano. The three characters are between reality and fiction.

The barriers of time and space seem to crumble and mixtures and contaminations take place, showing border areas that become marshy territories where different periods can exist in the same time and different technologies can co-exist in the same space. We can notice a few examples of that in this film: the American flag is flown/ we hear a traditional song; the landscape is huge and old/human marks are perennial and based on a simple wooden architecture; a native wearing a U.S. Army uniform to later take it off; or even a native wearing a Nike vest) ... The question of what is the original culture and what is appropriated or imposed (even if this “imposed” is accidental or non-intentional), what is natural and what is a constructed body in these men seem to lead us to a sometimes mechanical subject, driving prescribed tasks2.

While the director puts up words in the man that he observes and films, these words are what the director sees in his body, his emotions. It is a way, and it is Russell’s view, through which we can access his thought/his conscience, materializing this invisible and impalpable instance.

These words are the spell of Ben Russell on the viewer leading him to fall into the trap of the cinematic illusion, fake globalism, fraud word, such as - in a way - were the appearance of goods brought by airplanes during the World War II - coming directly from the sky to the island. It is the authoritative word. These words are the code that the director establishes between the man he filmed and his viewer to extend the same feeling regarding magical and mysterious appearances.

Filled with images of an immense and overwhelming landscape, present both in its imagery as in its sonic landscape, suggesting that the presence of the nature is stronger than the human activity and even existence, exposing us to an existentialist side that derives from its transcendental search: what are those men doing there, what's their place in the world.

The whale drawn in someone's hand in the film has inevitably transported me to the aquatic religious odyssey Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick: the belief of a fearless man who thought would win a whale-monster and the own nature. My line of thought, however, should not be so different from the captain Ahab himself and also seems correlative to the thought of the people of Vanuatu. The whale meaning the invisible and the object desired; while Ahab stands as a messiah possessed of divine powers. Ahab's irrational courage is almost equivalent to cargo cults' believers in Tanna. Ahab's perception modes can be seen as equivalent to the perception modes and transcendental thought of Tanna population on American planes.

This force emanating from nature that at the same time gives and takes, creates and destroys. Simultaneously, they are obedient to symbols such as the flag worship and to a "civilization" that arrived back in the time ... What meaning do they retain from that? Thus, it is pertinent to ask who or what is in ruins? Who is the boat we see abandoned on the coast? Of the current inhabitants? Of the ancient culture? Of the American civilization who passed by?

Next to the images of a volcano exploding, life being created out of the earth, we see the same man of the early film talking about John, John as a messiah. The cult of John Frum implies the rejection of all aspects of the coming cultural and economic life in the West, but, paradoxically, all worship (desire) is based on the adoration of the United States of America, its economic power and general abundance, as well as in their everyday life which is invested by western objects, resulting in a hybrid and contradictory culture. We see cars, mobile phones, newspapers, American uniforms and other clothes.

 

As soon as I fix the essence of the thing, as soon as I apprehend it as table or inkwell, I am already there in the future: first because its essence can only be a co-presence to my further possibility of not-being-any-more-than-this-negation, and second because the permanence and the very instrumentality of the table or inkwell refer us to the future. (Jean-Paul Sartre3)

 

Their thought hovers somewhere in a search for an answer from his strange loneliness, their beliefs and disbeliefs, and replacement of beliefs. It's just one man talking to the camera, isolated and "inquiring".

In his existentialist crisis, the inhabitant of Tanna does not identify with any of the cultures because they want to get rid of the marks left by European to further possess Americans goods in order to live the very oldest and "real" culture of the island . The inhabitant looks inside himself and wonders where he is.

Russell does (does really?) the inhabitant looks inward, realizing the events by himself. The artist himself as a magician.

The man is Dasein4, a being such that his being in the world, such as the mode of being of the being different from himself, is 'forever' in question in its own being. 'Within': a sense of possibility, or whose meaning is outstanding.

So this man, this inhabitant is identified as one of the two modes of existence proposed by Heidegger, which is the one living in a "non-authentic way": humans can take their existence as their non-self, following other modes or models, may they be imposed or not. People exist in both modes and both have their existence, but the first involves an element of choice that is clearly not present in the latter (as it's the case of this man and Tanna population).

The film revolves between a prophecy of the past in which a new messiah would set the island free of the American presence, yet they still do the reverse movement and removing all those presence marks does not seem so easy. Thus, the film begins in the same way that it ends: a movement of crisis. Every day the flag is raised. Each day that the flag is raised it's to remember, petrify and crystallize a day of the past and hoping he/it will come back. The body here, soul/thought elsewhere.

 

It is truly strange to no longer inhabit the earth,

to no longer practice customs barely acquired,

not to give a meaning of human futurity

to roses, and other expressly promising things:

no longer to be what one was in endlessly anxious hands,

and to set aside even one’s own

proper name like a broken plaything.

Strange: not to go on wishing one’s wishes. Strange.

(Rainer Maria Rilke5)

 

 

Filipe Afonso

 

 

1Georges Didi-Huberman (1990), Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art, Penn State Press, Pennsylvania 2005.

2From Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s perspective, all human behaviour is natural and cultural at the same time, never less or more natural, never less or more cultural:It is impossible to superimpose on man a lower layer of behaviour which one chooses to call ‘natural’, followed by a manufactured cultural or spiritual world. Everything is both manufactured and natural in man, as it were, in the sense that there is not a word, not a form of behaviour which does not owe something to purely biological being—and which at the same time does not elude the simplicity of animal life, and cause forms of vital behaviour to deviate from their pre-ordained direction, through a sort of leakage and through a genius for ambiguity which might serve to define man”Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945), Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge, London/New York 2002 , pp. 220.

3Jean Paul Sartre (1943), Being and Nothingness, Washington Square Press, New York 1976

4As defined by Martin Heidegger in Sein und Zeit (Being and Time, 1927)

5 Rainer Maria Rilke (1923), Duino Elegies, The First Elegy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, North Point Press, New York 2011