Two Films

Non-Fiction Enigmas

Abhijit Ghosh-Dastidar

Many films feel like a movie made out of time, even though they may adhere to some aspects of classical narrative form. Perceived relevance arises from the drive towards the personal and emotional in the different realms of non-fiction.

Out 1
Jacques Rivette’s ‘‘Out 1’’ (France, b&w [and colour], 760 mins in 1971, 253 mins in 1972, 729 mins in 2016) is open-ended, developed in collaboration with their actors, relying to a greater or lesser degree on improvisation, and legendary in length. Rivette initially aimed ‘‘OUT 1’’ for television, dividing it into eight episodes, but it never came to fruition on the TV screen. The recent DVD release makes easy viewing of a twelve-hour motion picture. The title of the film refers to ‘‘outtakes’’. It also alludes to ‘‘out’’ jazz, with structural parallels between the movie and Ornette Coleman’s 1961 album ‘‘Free Jazz’’. The film has allusions to marginality, and the outdoors. The film maker’s desire to make a film with a collective protagonist resulted in ‘‘OUT 1’’.

Rivette’s project began with no story, merely some touchstones, like theatre and conspiracy. The director invited Michele Moretti and Michael Lonsdale to direct their respective troupes, in two plays by Aeschylus, ‘‘Seven against Thebes’’ for Moretti, and ‘‘Promotheus Bound’’ for Lonsdale. Three other actors : Bulk Ogier anchors the conspiracy element, something like a third troupe, and Juliet Berto and Jean-Pierre Leaud operate as floating characters, independent of the groups. The film-maker and co-director, Suzanne Schiffman, established a structure that took the form of a shooting schedule. This was the closest thing of the movie’s script. The outline of the ‘‘conspiracy’’ is based on Balzac’s ‘‘History of the Thirteen’’, when thirteen men come together in Paris under the Empire, equally possessed by the same idea. Rivettle keeps the play rehearsals authentic, and the actors’ lives invented. ‘‘OUT 1’’ is poised between fiction and documentary.

Both Lili (Moretti) and Thomas (Lonsdele) are members of the ‘‘Thirteen’’, as are Pauline/Emilie (Ogier’s character, the owner of a hippie boutique has two names, depending on the social setting). Etienne, a businessman (Jacqued Doniol-Valcroze), Lucie, a lawyer (Francoise Fabian), Sarah, a novelist who joins Thomas’s troupe, (Bernadette Lafonte), and Warok, a philosopher (Jean Bouise). In addition to these seven protagonists, frequent mention is made of Pierre, an architect, and Igor, a journalist and Pauline—Emilie’s husband, who never appears on screen. The conspiracy of the ‘‘Thirteen’’ surfaces in the second episode, after two hours. Colin, Leaud’s character, deaf-mute makes his living selling phony fortunes to cafe patrons, while blowing tunelessly into a harmonica. Doggerels on slips of paper, citations of Balzac, and scribbling on a blackboard conjure conspiracy and blackmail. The two companies rehearsals are documented at length. ‘‘OUT 1’’ was intended to be a chronicle of the time, and place of its creation, which are cited in the film’s opening titles. The climate of political distress and confusion gives rise to conspiratorial thinking. ‘‘OUT 1’’ is about the ambient state of mind in Paris, after the protests of May 1968, even though that time and its events are never mentioned.

What the ‘‘Thirteen’’ are up to is never made clear. They are clearly intended to have emerged from the hopeful turmoil of 1968, although by now some can barely remember their previous fervour and commitment. The three diverse in duration, ‘‘OUT 1 : Noli metangere’’ (1971), ‘‘OUT 1 : Spectre’’ (1972) and ‘OUT 1’’ (2016), were built from the same thirty hours of footage, and run in approximately the same order. The episodes of the serial begin with a series of stills, over a percussion sound track, that recapitulate the previous instalment. Cinematographer Pierre-Willam Glenn shadows every spontaneous turn with his hand-held 16 mm camera, pausing only to change magazines every eleven minutes. Collage–like intrusions, in combination with a purposely ragged-edge cutting style, quickly establish an atmosphere of conspiracy. ‘‘OUT 1’’ is an indelible record of the actors. Rivette encourages a kind of semiconscious immersion in the film. In the filming of ‘‘OUT 1’’, once the general drift of the film had been established, it was immediately shot, with no script or rehearsal.

I am not your Negro
Raoul Peck’s documentary film ‘‘I am not your Negro’’ (USA, b/w and colour, 120 mins, 2016) is intense as a portrait of James Baldwin (1924-1987), as the engaged black writer. Baldwin is the subject of conferences, studies and an academic journal, the ‘‘James Baldwin Review’’. He is quoted everywhere. Some of his words are embossed on a great wall of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Baldwin describes himself in his essays on race and American society. He observed that Martin Luther King Jr, symbol of non-violence, had done what no black leader had before him, which was ‘‘to carry the battle into the individual heart’’. He refused to condemn Malcolm X, King’s supposed violent alternative, because, he said, his bitterness articulated the sufferings of black people. Without the need of backup statistics and dates, even in his bleakest essays, the reconstruction of America was for him, a moral question and a matter of conscience. His ‘‘The Fire Next Time’’ (1963) was the evidence of his experience, and the truth of American history.

The film has no talking heads, no one else making judgements or telling anecdotes about him, or what he did. His public self was deeply personal. Footage from fifty years ago has King, Malcom X, Harry Belafonte, the head of a white citizens’ council, and J Edgar Hoover, talking to the camera. The film has little of biography, and is not structured chronologically. Peck’s commitment to Baldwin’s voice is total. Baldwin’s face is expressive, his diction original and precise. The film is divided into sections, and the screen states ‘‘Paying my dues’’, ‘‘Heroes’’, ‘‘Witness’’, ‘‘Purity’’ and ‘‘Selling the Negro’’. The title cards introduce different themes, but each section is composed of the same elements, old and new clips of police confrontations, shots of city streets at night, or river banks, or views of skies as seen up through the trees of different places, like France, where the restless Baldwin travelled.

The actor Samuel L Jackson, in an unhurried voice over, reads long passages from Baldwin. Moments of the blues music, alternate with show tunes, or Alexei Aigui’s music written for the film. The script is drawn from Baldwin’s collected essays. The film highlights ordinary white people, and their violent resistance to integration in the 1950s and 1960s. The violence is not choreographed, but is sudden and raw. The photographs of the massacre of Red Indians at wounded knee is a surprise. Before the film ends, actor Richard Winmark screams :  ‘‘Nigger, Nigger, Nigger’’ in a clip from ‘‘No way to out’’ (1950). Towards the end of the film, Baldwin says ‘‘I am not a Nigger. I am a Man’’.

Autumn Number
Vol. 50, No.12-15, Sep 24 - Oct 21, 2017