Sylvain George’s Minor Mode, or Cinema at the Margins of its Fragile Community
Sylvain George’s Minor Mode, or Cinema at the Margins of its Fragile Community
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores the ‘minor’ subjectivity of Sylvain George’s film-work, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of minor literature and Henri Michaux’s ‘left-handed’ poetics. It claims that George’s unstable camera work, combined with the oscillation between the objectives of documentary observation and the sequences of lyrical expressionism, disrupt the traditional topographer’s position, resulting in a dynamic relation of inclusion. It closes by suggesting that this ‘minor’ mode, marked by its recurrent estrangement from the ‘real,’ is a crucial vehicle for capturing the complexity of the contemporary landscape of informal refugee camps in and around the cities of northern France.
Pylons, poplar trees, a slight rise in the land to the left and right of the muddy path along which a man in walking away from us. The shot is silent. A panning shot of a mountain range, the summits fading into the haze of the distance. The shot is still silent. Prolonged. The film gives us no clues. It merely seems to be training the gaze on this: an empty, perhaps remote mountainside. Then a white screen and a different mountain range; the movement of the camera suggests it may be filming something very small, like an image, an etching. White screen again, and we are higher, moving faster over a vast area of landlocked mountains. The sound of gulls, the image looks like a photographic negative. Is it a mountain, a sand castle? We have no means of measuring the scale of what we are seeing. This is how Qu’ils reposent en révolte opens, its original English verse also present on the main title frame: May they rest in revolt. Two hours and 33 minutes later, the film ends with a similar panning shot as the camera moves through and across the landscape of a centre for asylum seekers, following the progress of someone through the maze of bunk beds to one narrow bed where the body swings across the frame, adjusts itself both in the bed and in the frame, then pulls a light, rough blanket over himself. The camera takes three steps further, zooming progressively into the texture of the material, as abstract as the folds of the mountains in the opening sequence, then cuts to credits.
(p.93) Nothing fixes the opening and closing sequences in a relation of narrative development, or conclusiveness. The film could continue, just as it could have been much shorter. Some of Sylvain George’s films are much shorter; the long ones are longer than the habitual documentary format.1 They do not educate, or not directly as a documentary might be expected to do; nor do they offer a particular vehicle – a character or a point of view – to follow through a succession of encounters or events. Instead they engage a series of modes of looking and hearing, abandoning the processes of representation whereby the components of the film are held within a causal development towards certain ends. Their mode resembles that of the topographer who, in Jacques Rancière’s words, is ‘voué à la tâche de prendre des mesures sur un terrain’ (2011: 74).2 For Rancière, writing about Tariq Teguia’s film Inland (2008), in which a topographer-character plays a central role, the topographic disposition in cinema disrupts further what Deleuze referred to as the ‘sensory motor schema’, or the habitual organising processes that condition our reactions according to certain principles (2011: 74; Deleuze 1983 and 1985). The optical and auditory stimuli that the viewer receives from George’s filmic work are severed from any presupposition about the connection between what is seen and the sense we are to make of it. The film simply sees what is there, in a series of frames that take apart the configurations we are apt to bring to the territory before us.
What is this territory? Its spatial continuity is as problematic as its temporal connectedness. We may want to assume that everything to be seen here sits within a reasonably restricted geographical zone, which we might refer to as the Lande near the city of Calais in northern France and the city of Calais itself. And we might be right. The film, however, offers us nothing to confirm this assumption and instead works hard to force a different construction of the spatial frame. It generates a new cartography, breaking continuous territory into fragmented spaces while still holding them in some sort of relation to one another.
The aim in this chapter is to explore this relation, or these relations. If the connectedness that is at work is no longer one of spatial homogeneity, nor cause and effect, what sort of articulations and affinities hold together the fleeting presences and bursts of energy that we see flash or linger uncannily across the screen? This question broaches the cohesiveness of the work. It asks whether we can begin to see some sort of singular filmic idiom emerging here, despite and perhaps through its processes of disruption. And in so doing, it also asks whether these new (p.94) articulations can constitute a common territory, removed or reserved from the habitual mapping of contemporary France.
The convergence between critical investigation into what I have just referred to as a filmic idiom and the question of national territory motivates my decision to organise the following reflection in relation to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a ‘minor literature’. It is crucial to underline from the outset that the notion of the minor here has nothing to do with lesser significance in some sort of hierarchy of place or position. Indeed, the continuing usefulness of this notion stems precisely from the pressure it places on any classificatory or differential logic. The minor is not conceived by Deleuze and Guattari as distinct from the major, defined in relation to a scale of prestige or quantitative significance.3 On the contrary. The minor is a process that operates within the major, what we might term a ‘making minor’. In Signatures of the Visible, Fredric Jameson stressed that ‘this theory of the “minor” has the advantage of cutting across some of our stereotypes or doxa about the political as the subversive, the critical, the negative’ (1990: 173). Rather, he continues,
The ‘minor’ – as Deleuze and Guattari codify it out of Kafka – works within the dominant in a somewhat different way, undermining it by adapting it, by appropriating part structures or hegemonic language (German) and transforming them into a kind of interior dialect (Yiddish), where selective modes of speaking are ‘intensified’ in a very special way, transformed into a private language. (173)
At stake in thinking this minor mode, then, is a refusal of the paradigm of marginality, both as the structure of political militancy and as the organising principle of social life, whether the focus be on the high/low distinction that governs cultural production or the insider/outsider dynamic that has also shaped the culture wars of recent decades. Instead, Deleuze and Guattari are pointing us towards processes of exacerbation, transformation, or heightening, but also attenuation, honing, paring …
Jameson writes of the limits of language. At these limits, when dominant discourse is on the verge of failing, you have to mobilise pitch and intonation, or raise your voice and in so doing distort it. He uses the adjectives ‘hysterical’ and ‘camp’ to describe this process of amplification. As notions, they work well to index the showiness of this intensification, its flamboyance, which already starts to extend the range of our enquiry beyond the impassivity of the topographer, introducing evocations of heat or brilliance, as well as a possible auditory component, into the (p.95) topographer’s sensorial apparatus. But we will need to negotiate with these notions such as Jameson invokes them. For the minor finesses its forms – its ‘private language’ – in the zones of indifferentiation between the landmarks of our terrain through processes of reduction as much as through amplification. To catch these processes of attenuation we will have to redirect some of the heightening or exhibitionism present in Jameson’s gesture towards ‘camp’ (what we might call its ‘drama queen’ implications), by exploring instead the lyrical impulse as it is operating in this cinema, and asking whether the lyric still offers transformative potential in the era of what it is habitual to call ‘late capitalism’. Our concluding discussion considers documentary as the form capable today of renewing the force of the lyric in a way analogous to what the encounter with prose produced for the great lyric poet of modernism, Charles Baudelaire, whose work remains a key if flickering presence for Sylvain George.
The operative notions for our enquiry are, then, expressive style, gesture, rhythm. Not hinterlands, banlieues, or even non-lieux, despite the evident relevancy of these designations for the material we will be discussing and their key role in contemporary critical analysis. If spaces of neglect remain the focus of our attention, it is not so much because George is acting on some commitment to reparative representation, but rather because his films take up the challenge of looking insistently, persistently, to the point where they enliven our gaze and attune our ear to the strange figures and forms that striate the landscape. Our capacity for neglect is general, in other words, when held in relation to George’s mode of attention, rather than a sociologically conditioned or ideologically inflected blindness. It is for this reason that the distinction between documentary versus aestheticising films has no definitive purchase here. This opposition is admittedly often the structure that prevails over the debate, and the critical reception of George’s work has been preoccupied with the way in which the beauty of his images could be construed as transfiguring the harsh reality of contemporary migration, thereby delegitimising its documentary import.4 But this approach to the quality of the imagery tends to obscure what makes these films so significant, which is precisely the way the estranging potentialities of poetry renew documentary possibility. So a secondary aim here is to reposition the critical debate away from an opposition between ‘art’ films and documentary, and indeed to suggest that this move is fundamental to what is at stake in the ‘topographic turn’ that is the subject of the present volume.
(p.96) Perhaps most fundamentally, this process will involve detaching our notion of lyricism from its association with the effusive expressions of an individual, or the outpourings of a subject moved to ‘song’ by the authentic stirrings of his or her self. For Deleuze and Guattari, the key premise of a ‘minor literature’ is precisely that the conditions are not in place for the emergence of an individualised expression which would be that of some ‘master’. They write provocatively that ‘les talents n’abondent pas dans une littérature mineure’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1975: 31),5 not pointing to the artistic ‘poverty’ of some pre-constituted community but rather insisting on the stuttering or hesitant emergence of an idiom that has yet to constitute itself. If talent is not prevalent, it is because this idiom is still embryonic. So too is the ‘community’: not an identity, but a possibility that is forged in this new idiom. The work of the artist is, then, in this disruption of the received patterns of the major modes, in the metamorphosis s/he inflicts on the shape of the language, gouging out of its structure new intensities and resonances. This corrosive exertion, which Deleuze and Guattari also figure as a bristling extension, places the artist in a liminal relation to his/her emergent community, ‘en marge ou à l’écart de sa communauté fragile’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1975: 31);6 not the forerunner, nor the embodiment, but precisely in his/her tangential bearing to a protean revolutionary force, the very vector of fragility, the projectile that traverses any effort at re-territorialisation.
This is dangerous, of course. The posture of the artist risks becoming fixed in its marginality; that is, inevitably located at the margins and as such as duly predictable as any particular location on the cadastral mapping of the moment. Henri Michaux is useful here, as he will be at a number of junctures in this chapter, for he rejects the cultivation of style as a ‘distance inchangée’ (‘unchanged distance’) in which the artist finds himself ‘blocked’ (1978: 43). Michaux refers also in this passage to the posture of the artist as one of ‘se camper’. Though the relation of ‘camp’ as Jameson is using it to the French ‘se camper’ is complex, the unchanging archness or distance of the artist that Michaux evokes in order to reject it certainly resonates with Jameson and confirms the need to tease out a different way of describing the mode of Sylvain George’s cinema.7
More directly in relation to George’s work, Georges Didi-Huberman has also preferred to steer clear of the designation ‘art’ in favour of ‘the documentary’ as the ambit within which to situate these films. For Didi-Huberman, the problem with ‘art’ in contemporary culture is (p.97) that ‘anything goes’. More specifically, he argues, in the case of artists who receive the consecration of major commissions, such commissions generally amount to a free hand and unlimited resources, with the result that the possibilities for disruption or intensification become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and not necessarily a critical effort.8 So while the Deleuzian emphasis on the artist’s withdrawal into the desert of language is important for us, we will approach Sylvain George’s minor mode following Didi-Huberman’s lead, from within the more ‘minority’ space of documentary idiom. We will underscore his concentration on the topographic facticity of the world while still observing how his process of measuring the contemporary landscape through an extensive range of distances, positions, and durations, also creates the object of measurement by its very modes of mapping/filming, an object that in this respect calls also to be considered as a creative or artistic endeavour, including at once the artist and the community on the threshold of which he stands.
So to Deleuze and Guattari, we bring also Michaux and more lengthily the text Face à ce qui se dérobe (1976), from which we will draw the dense, lyrical exploration of how he recovered the use of his right arm after breaking it in a climbing accident. In this text Michaux uses the image of ‘taking a bath’ to describe the experience of being handicapped and progressively discovering renewed but different mobility: ‘Cet état que la fortune m’envoya avec ensuite quelques complications, je le considérai. Je pris un bain dedans. Je ne cherchai pas tout de suite à rejoindre le rivage’ (1976: 7).9 The process is initiatory, transformative. It will result in a ‘gauchissement’, which we might translate as a form of deviancy that subverts Michaux’s dominant right-handedness, producing a revolution in his whole being.
The advent of ‘l’homme gauche’ (‘the left-handed man’) in Michaux’s work has been amply discussed.10 Here, I want to draw attention instead to this ‘taking a bath’, for something akin to it is at work in the sequence in which George films a group of men washing at the pump in the street and swimming in a small canal or wharf in the city of Calais. The camera is trying out movements. It is indeed gauche, even clumsy. It does not know how to manage itself in this new state of affairs, which is both disastrous and a strange blessing. For there is no getting away (p.98) from a disquiet at observing people stripping almost naked to wash in a public place, but at the same time the film stretches into a sense of new possibility and finds a way to handle this scene without being either voyeuristic or purely aestheticising. Instead the camera’s own hesitant apprenticeship converges with the makeshift way in which the people are doing their washing. In this sense the right verbs for its actions are those of rinsing, scrubbing, dousing, touching, with moments that are furtive and others that take pleasure and feel themselves through to the end of a process. Michaux uses the verb ‘fouiller’, or digging, as in an archaeological dig, to describe how something comes to the surface which is a new form of movement, one that he as subject was not able to call upon actively, but which comes to him: ‘Un quelque chose veut passer quelque part, chercher, ou forcer, ou trouver un passage; ici, puis là, encore ici, où?’ (1976: 37–38).11 Then a little later: ‘Fouilles se font en moi. Fouilles. Je commence à avoir la terreur des fouilles. Je n’en peux plus. Fouilles. Fouilles pour rien, pour agrandir le mal, pour le multiplier’ (39).12 This force, which is feeling its way out and forward, will be a new mobility in his arm, and Michaux’s description of it is both painful and terrifying, stretching the limits of the idiom as he gestures verbally towards the weight of his arm and gradually the means to move it again. His account is useful to evoke the various forays, or postures, that George’s camera tries out here. For, just as Michaux calls on a manual process (‘digging’) to account for the searching that precedes the actual recovery of physical movement, and thereby establishing a sort of anticipatory continuity with the rekindling of mobility, so too George’s camera operates as closely as possible to the gestures of bathing, not plotting them as much as enacting them, almost miming them, to produce the sensation of washed-clean exuberance that shines off the screen.13
The reader will have grasped that I find this sequence of Qu’ils reposent en lutte enlivening, even joyful. There is a strong sense here, and more generally at the beginning of this film, of a ‘zest for life’. Just prior to what I am calling the bathing sequence, and after the initial phantomatic images of lunar-like landscapes and hooded bodies glimpsed in a public park, the camera has stopped in fascinated immobility before a group of young men singing, Ethiopians as we gather from their song. The camera takes up position at about chest-height, almost as if it were a child looking up at their chins as they raise their song. The main singer struggles to hit a high note, and tries again, his rueful smile a brief flash of recognition of the wager that all this is, before they explain in a brief sally that their song is to God, and that they are ‘ready for loss. Okay?’ (p.99) (9.40). Then they bound away, the singer with his arms outstretched like wings around his two friends, as they dance down the path, drawing all the energy with them and leaving the camera bereft, before it throws itself skyward and effects its own plunge through the trees overhead, faster and faster as if it too were flying, into the abstraction of black lines coursing across the screen. When it comes down to land it is at a discrete distance behind a young man in underwear pouring water over his head and rubbing it vigorously. And this is the beginning of a long consideration (Michaux’s word), the first such sequence in the film, through which the film does not so much dig around as ‘take a bath’ along with the men negotiating their quest for safe haven in Europe.
Initially it is timid, a little studied or self-conscious, like the man washing himself, who seems to be clenching his buttocks, keeping his movements as limited as possible. But gradually the illusion that one could withdraw into the contours of one’s own body falls away, as other bodies cross the screen, tethering the camera in the same space, no longer apart as mere observer, but susceptible to the same distraction as the man it is watching when a young boy, perhaps 16 years old, plunges into the water and swims in their direction. The camera swings towards him and suddenly we are watching him splashing around below us while the water from those still washing alongside is splattering across the screen. And then we are spectators again, but differently: closer, moving in gradually on the body that had had his back to us, and whom now we see in increasing close-up, to the point of noting the slight abrasions on his skin. Then the mode changes again, multiplies the shots in different directions, across the water, along the quayside, at the pump, this variation accelerating the way in which the bodies run into and across one another. None of them stay at a determinate distance, and the camera is as much part of this loose choreography as the men accommodating one another in their shared reliance on the most minimal infrastructure. The space refuses to settle around one figure, as if to fix it as an entity in its surroundings.
In this respect the film-maker interrogates the operating principles identified by Rancière as inherent in the practice of the topographer, setting up his lens independently of any presupposition about what needs to be seen, and abandoning the steady purpose or systematicity which determines the topographer’s work. The effect is to release the cartographic process from any stable bearings, supplementing the impassivity of the topographer with the wild conjectures of the ‘new arrival’ who has no map in hand. But more importantly still perhaps, (p.100) these improvisational moves cancel any prospect of keeping the body out there, at a distance. No irrevocable separateness is sustained, as if we could strike up a position of mere acquaintance with the world, of mere observation of its contours. Instead we are plunged in, and the effect is an unstoppable empathy, a weird experience of community, through which the image of how another body looks generates an internal sense of what being in the body feels like. As a result, the process of ‘taking measurements of a terrain’ (Rancière 2011: 74) enters a different sort of dimensionality, abandoning the anchor from which all other objects and bodies are positioned (a prerequisite for two-dimensional mapping of the world) in favour of a fluctuating positionality.
Staying with Jacques Rancière, but drawing on a slightly later essay in which he refers specifically to George’s work, we find that he registers the same exuberant empathy, the same determination to ‘taste life’, when he describes how the film-maker achieves a proximity to these men who declare ‘I am losing my life’ at the very moment when their vitality is exploding the edges of the screen:
Aussi la camera excède-t-elle ce qu’on appelle ordinairement le gros plan, pour cerner leur visage ou même seulement une partie de leur visage, dans une légère contre-plongée, comme s’il s’agissait non pas seulement de donner de la solennité à ce qu’ils disent mais de surprendre le travail même de la pensée ou de la mémoire.
Rancière’s suggestion is that the topographic camera is now able to take a measurement of memory too. But whose thinking or whose memory, we might ask? The point is not simply that the young men’s own words are captured on screen as they speak them, although they are, but rather to observe the emergence of a shared intuition here about a particular historical moment, something analogous to Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘agencement collectif d’énonciation’ (1975: 31).15 There has been, of course, a vast proliferation of photographic and filmic images of the people gathered in the area around Calais, habitually called the Jungle, until it was dismantled in November 2016. The interest in showing what this part of France looks like even forced the people running language classes in the camps to hang up a warning: ‘no journalists during the classes’. But what distinguishes George’s work from this mass of documentation or ‘reportage’, a large portion of which is driven by the militant aim of shaping public opinion, is the way it works beyond the scope of the efficient image, or the image that depends upon the sort of talent that is so lacking in a ‘minor literature’. With its gauche (p.101) enthusiasms and sudden lurches, or what Michaux refers to as ‘évoqués déséquilibrants’ (‘unbalancing evocations’) (1975: 51), George’s camera has a quality of absolute distance and looming closeness, straining the patterns of syntax so that what we begin to see here is a new configuration of being in the world that is happening indistinguishably between what we are seeing and how we are seeing it.
Sylvain George himself associates this process of enmeshed experimentation with the social movement los Indignados, particularly active in Madrid where he spent a long period filming, and more generally with the forms of protest that have taken to public squares since the 2011, filling the space with relatively untrammelled speech and action. The real significance of these movements, for George, lies not in any measurable accomplishments but in their restless questioning, a questioning that he links to his own engagement as film-maker seeking new forms present to the world around him:
À partir du moment où on considère qu’un film n’a pas à expliquer quoi que soit, ou illustrer quoi que soit, qu’il travaille dans la sphère de la présentation et non de la représentation, des formes nouvelles peuvent émerger, qui attesteraient tout à la fois de certaines réalités appréhendées comme du questionnement de l’individu-cinéaste dans son activité et son existence.
By making the film ostentatiously part of what fills the space, as exuberant and resourceful in its ‘bath’ as the young men in Calais, George abandons the prerogatives of ‘traditional’ documentary cinema in the effort to achieve an immanence that is intentionally unproductive within the frame of dominant discourse but brilliantly effective in immersing the viewer in unexpected reality.
If water and the endless uncertain wash of the waves on the beach, bubbling and frothing in infinite variety, provide one of the strong tonal dimensions to this work, fire and the flicker of flame caught on faces and hands around improvised campfires generate a more uncomfortable sense of agitation when they intersect with the topographer’s objectives. Again the question is quite literally one of handling, as if the camera too is in dangerous proximity to the heat. What does it mean to suggest that these images are burning up in the same way that they offered us ‘a (p.102) bath’? I foregrounded ‘the bathers’ in the preceding section in an effort to express the sort of relation to bodies, to other bodies, that might be necessary to start to see these bodies released from the rules and forms that hold them within certain positions. That is, the way the topographer him/herself has to start breaking the rules of habitual positioning, or disposition, in order to take some new or ‘minor’ measurements of bodies as they move in our world. Focusing on fire in this section will enable us to look more closely at how George films the infrastructure of this world. Again the intention is to describe an exacerbation of a topographic posture, supplementing the undiscriminating gaze that merely seeks to see the landscape with a sort of combustion that dynamites distance and requires a desperate agility from the camera. And the same continuity, or anticipation, between metaphorisation as a critical strategy and the ‘object’ that is being brought into view is relevant here too, as it was for Michaux in describing his mental probing towards movement in his arms as ‘fouilles’ (‘digs’). Fire is out there, part of the minimal resources on which these men can draw, and a key meeting point where the camera can squat down alongside them and hold out its lens towards this focal element. But it is ‘in’ there too, not something that the camera holds at bay as one would a mere acquaintance, but a force that warms, and also enflames and scars.
Michaux is once more a useful resource for attuning our attention to this continuity. For fire cuts right across the sensation of bathing in the ‘Bras cassé’ text quoted previously, cancelling the writer’s placid calm and searing into the text. Now the lyrical form quivers under the force of the substance it is tending towards – fire, embers – where in the first passages they had felt their way inquisitively. The words come more quickly, intensifying, prompting a form of recoil: ‘Braise. Braise dans le bras. Braise et percements. Horrible cette braise … et absurde […] Feu. Feu sans flamme […] Feu, feu, feu incessamment répété’ (1976: 27).17 The definite articles are sucked up as the linearity of speech is consumed and the language curls up upon itself:
Paroles qui volent. Paroles qui veulent. Paroles qui ne peuvent me distraire des torrents de feu. Paroles qui dévalent … tandis que le feu, énorme feu …
Cuve. Énorme cuve que le mal, et je dois la tenir ferme, à âme tendue de façon que plus avant en moi elle ne pénètre pas, qu’elle ne fasse pas souffrance plus profonde.
(p.103) Je dois la retenir et ce ‘feu, feu, feu’, le signal de feu en moi sans cesse lancé, sans cesse à rectifier par mon cerveau, par mon cerveau lassé. (1975: 29–30)18
This dramatisation of syntax burns holes in the body of ordinary language, consuming its articulations and spreading by contagion between phonemes, as if fire itself were tearing a ‘minor’ cry from the remnants of poetry.
So Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a ‘minor’ literature, read in conjunction with what we might refer to as Michaux’s poetico-clinical method, remains our guide here. But where the evocation of the idea of ‘taking a bath’ has little precedence in the discussion of George’s cinema, it should be noted that fire is a much more explicit and perhaps recurrent reference, both in the actual work and in its critical reception.19 The reasons for this are no doubt to be sought in the elemental connection between cinema, light, and fire, more certainly than in some sort of primacy of fire over washing in the ‘objective’ condition of these men living in forced displacement in the camps and streets of northern Europe. Both cleanliness and warmth are essential, both are fraught with difficulties and dangers as well as moments of radiance. So it is not a question of orienting the ‘burn’ of these films towards militant documentation of an aspect of ‘bare life’ in the contemporary world, any more than it is to shift attention to aesthetic considerations, even though it is in the context of the way fire is handled in these films that we can best broach George’s treatment of light and contrast, including his choice of black-and-white, despite filming first in colour. Rather, the aim is to see how these fires engulf a literal description of geopolitical reality in a metamorphosis of that world by fire as a filmic or form-making action. It is in this ‘burning up’ that we can see best why we need a notion of lyrical documentary, of documentary that transforms as it reveals, that burns in dangerous empathy as it observes, inseparable from its fragile community.
The figure of the burner is a relatively familiar one in contemporary literature about clandestine migration. Burners of papers, path-burners, harragas: Boualem Sansal took up the colloquial term used for those crossing the Mediterranean in small crafts for his 2005 novel Harragas, in which he recounts the attempt by young Sofiane to flee the corruption and religious intolerance of Algeria for a better future in Europe. Since then, the term harragas (meaning ‘those that burn’ in classical Arabic) has frequently been foregrounded in film and critical literature. In Sylvain (p.104) George’s cinema, fire as both danger and purification is approached with the variations in distance we noted earlier, here resulting perhaps more strikingly still than in the bathing scenes in a constant and unstable veering between abstraction and embodiment. Fireworks from a 14 July parade flash across the screen and reflect in the waters of the Seine as strange luminous presences in No Border (2005), a ciné-tract of 23 minutes. A camp fire reflects in an old cathode tube television set staring back at the camera in a strange reversal of the image-making process in Éclats (2011).
But fire is also approached in a more studied fashion as the camera gets very close to the charred embers of a wood fire around which a group of men are sitting heating old nails and screws until they are white hot so they can scar their fingertips to the point where they are no longer identifiable. The burners in George’s films are self-burners, not merely destroying or blazing through the forms that shape citizenship (whether these be fences or identity papers), but moulding their bodies to the spaces where they can pass. And George pursues this moulding with the work of his camera, also pressing and applying it towards the objective of undocumented life.
The very first shots in the sequence that will interest here, a version of which also occurs in Éclats, operate a painful transition from ‘bath’ to ‘fire’, as we see in increasing close-up a man shaving the burnt skin from his fingertips in precise curving movements over which the camera looms. Then it drops to about waist height and we are looking up at two young ‘burners’ who hold their hands out as they describe the European system of fingerprint identification for asylum seekers as a form of virus – ‘this is virus, you know, HIV virus …’ (41 mins) – which has infected them to the point where he would be willing to amputate his arm if he could have a new one. ‘We have our techniques too’, he says, ‘the Europeans have developed techniques, and we have developed ours’ (42 mins). The tone is one of defiance and exposure: ‘I don’t know what happens to my hands’, the young man says, but he does know that fingerprints are a means of enslaving him to European regulations. Doing something to his hands is a bid for transformation: ‘they destroy our life, we can’t go, we can’t change our life’. The film slips into slow motion as he swings back towards us, then shudders slower still on his downward-looking face, crushed by the force of his disgust at how European prerogatives spread into the very patterning of his body.
Then the film cuts to a five-minute sequence of patient mutilation as men press their fingers against the ridged metal of the screws, producing (p.105) a pattern of short white dashes across the tough dark skin. All the while the voices off camera of those around the fire keep up undiminished banter (‘Africa unite!’) punctuated by the crackling of the burning wood. The camera is curious, not appalled. It watches, and waits as the nails heat. Eventually one man holds out his two hands with their redrawn marks. The fingers are puffy, and the patterns disconcerting: uniform and delicate across the whorls of the skin’s original markings, they tend towards the same evanescent abstraction as the dashes of firelight in the water on Bastille night, and yet they are also evidently seared into the flesh, which is rough. We are looking at fingers and yet the suggestion that they are crafted objects hovers too, complicating our perception, calling up other associations with ritual also invoked ironically by one of the voices: ‘I said, I said it, it is our tradition. (Laughter off camera) Because white men, they do it with our great grandfathers …’ (44 mins). The spoken words contribute significantly to making this a moment of undiminished vitality despite the scorch of horror that we are feeling, and this is perhaps one of the moments in George’s cinema when Jameson’s characterisation of the ‘minor’ as a ‘campness’ or a ‘hysteria’ has more purchase. The men do mobilise pitch and intonation, performing a sort of lamentation that is on the verge of laughter: ‘what can we do, what can we do?’ says one man off camera, ‘and I believe one day Africa will become Europe and Europe will become Africa, this is our prayer. One day we will see Europeans migrating to Africa to go and look for a job! Shame on Europe. Africa! Unite!’ (46 mins). But more perhaps than the irony playing here, the film establishes a fascination with the emergence of new and enigmatic signs across the continuous surface of body and land. And what this fascination produces is precisely experience of this continuousness, so the landscape is no longer the container for the body, nor the body the point from which the landscape is organised. Both are reconfigured so we are not looking at scenes of survival in the abandoned industrial lots of early twenty-first-century France (though of course we are doing this too), but at signs that expand our idiom and flicker with a sense of possibility, both desperate and vital.
Fire engulfs, just as the ‘bath’ immersed. It licks over familiar contours and reshapes them, transforming the lie of the land, razing the separations between elements (water and air) and between modes (abstraction and materiality). The radiance it generates in a (filmic) world that operates largely at night and as much as possible away from the floodlights of high-security sites such as the port at Calais, forces the reception I have just expressed, that is, of potential, of energy. The (p.106) metaphors of ‘éclat,’ ‘incandescence,’ ‘ignition’ recur in George’s own writing, and in that about his work. But ‘éclat’ also means fragment, and in addition to the ‘spark that remains alive’, as Gabriel Bortzmeyer has put it (2012: 84), fire also blisters the landscape, breaking apart the very continuousness that I have just emphasised.
So to conclude this process of reading the camera as an incendiary object in itself, let me turn to one final scene in detail, where the suggestion is still that the camera gets too close for comfort, though no fire as such is to be seen. It is a more difficult scene to broach, perhaps because it lends itself more easily to being read as a form of reportage. But the conjecture here is that the preceding analysis will help us differentiate its cinematographic mode more clearly from that dominant form, thereby offering some further delineation to the notion of lyrical or ‘minor’ documentary.
The moment in question follows a long contemplative sequence of the sea, of waves washing up, depositing scum and debris on the sand, which fades to almost silence and a graphic wash of inky clouds across the sky, before returning to the waves now in full silence (20 mins). The subsequent switch is abrupt, produced by noise as much as the transformation of the image from the incessant lapping movement of the waves to the stark lines of barbed wire and the concrete infrastructure of the port, briefly eclipsed as huge lorries roar past, seemingly running into one another, an effect that George emphasises by overlaying the images. Also converging in this space is a series of references spoken by a young man as we walk audibly with him along an abandoned train track: ‘five people, ten people, the police, Istanbul, Soufli, Alexandrouplis, Izmir, the Jungle. Twelve o’clock, three hours in the water … 32€ ticket for Athens. Camion, train, ship, go to Italy, 36 hours …’ (22 mins). This litany of names and numbers is recited until we arrive right next to the lorries and the camera spins on itself, seeking the direction that the trek along the train tracks had given it. Now the route could go in any direction. The noise of the lorries surges and subsides. The camera slows down, fixes on a series of angles, observes. It is back in its topographic disposition.
We see: the boy’s face between the leaves of a bush behind which he is hiding; the branches of a tree overhead; his trainers, his hands, the evidence of meals eaten in this hideout; the clouds racing across the sky. We learn that the other boy who has passed across our field of vision is 14 years old and he has not spoken to his family for over a month. Then the boy jogs away from the camera. A lorry has stopped, he peers underneath. Jogs back: ‘no chance’ (28 mins). We wait again, the camera (p.107) scoping the scene as he is also scoping it. He tries again. Too late. Then another lorry stops. ‘Matthews, Great Yarmouth’. We see him jog up, and disappear (under the chassis). The lorry turns the corner. ‘Matthews’ on the other side of the container. Then the shot cuts to an H&M bag hanging in a tree, and an empty stretch of road, an intersection of roads punctuated by floodlights, a road sign, a fence, a gull in the sky … The succession of distinct images speeds up, as if it is also dropping its definite articles, rendering its syntax staccato. And no bodies anywhere. Only the geometric patterns of surveillance mechanisms spanning the horizon. And finally the water again (29 mins).
At this point the film has no idea what sort of concatenation it can build. As in the bathing scene, but more obtrusively, there is no system or systematicity to hold the different lines of vision together. And importantly there is nothing melancholic about this disappearance. It has something of the order of incandescence too, but after the brightness, as if the empty frames of barren infrastructure still vibrated without actually glowing. So this unprepossessing landscape is no longer perceived with the passivity of the topographer in his traditional conception, but rather with the sort of numbness than follows a burn. With a palpable or vibrant numbness, in this respect akin to the pressing weight that his immobile – and unmoveable – arm revealed to Michaux.
I want to isolate the sensation of vibration, with its suggestion that something is animating the surface of things without necessarily being visible, from the more primarily visual phenomenon of the glow, the flash, or the flicker. The reason for doing so is that it can help, in conclusion, to return to the notion of lyrical documentary and ask what it might offer us as a critical resource for thinking today and, more specifically, how it relates to the question of community, which we began by approaching through Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘minor literature’. We dismissed from the outset what could still be considered as the readiest expectation we bring to the lyric, that of the effusive expression of the subject. Then, by emphasising processes of reduction as well as amplification, we proceeded to supplant the archness that Jameson brings to Deleuze and Guattari, which arguably also removes the ironic chord often associated with the lyric. So what remains? And how does it relate to other manifestations of the lyric? One of the key questions here will be precisely the (p.108) extent to which the lyric can be separated from a posture of melancholy and whether it can contribute to a formulation of renewal – of cinematographic energy, of social possibility – that does not depend primarily on the metaphor of light.
For the modern lyric is easily equated with loss, and even with nostalgia. Loss of the subjective origin of song, loss of recognisable form and rhythm, loss of its transcendent aspiration. The lyric is a destitute art today, reduced to seeking out what Lacoue-Labarthe has described as a ‘résidu chantable’ (‘singable residue’), paraphrasing or translating Paul Celan’s ‘Singbarer Rest’, the stuttering remainder that may save poetry from its inseparability from ‘l’immonde de ce monde désormais mondial’ (Lacoue-Labarthe 1986: 35, 38).20 George’s camera has an extreme affinity for these residues. It makes the scum intriguing, even marvellous, as it edges across the sand in almost robotic movements away from the retreating wave. It floods the viewer with joy when it films the rush of rain on eucalyptus leaves in a public park, despite the fact we have also seen people condemned to long hours on benches in this same park, with nothing to do except avoid the ever-present threat of the police. These moments, often quite prolonged, are vital. They tell us to expect the transfiguration of the world, to attune our eye to its possibilities. But then we find ourselves confronted with the relentless banality of fences and pavements, discarded tins of food, sodden shoes … All the spaces traversed by the sequences shot in and around Calais could be anywhere. Disused factories, abandoned train tracks, parking lots, and the port. Every now and then the materials or written signs, or the clock tower in the city centre, enable us to identify the landscape as that of a particular city in northern France, but these singularities quickly slip back and these spaces are zones of globalisation, relatively indistinguishable the world over. The loss that afflicts the contemporary lyric is not just that of the effusive force of the subject, but also the loss of specificity of place. And our question for it is, therefore, as much what distinctness of terrain – or what picture of France today – it can materialise as what sort of enunciation it can enable.
Writing of Baudelaire’s prose poems, Antoine Berman underlined the ‘lucidité prodigieuse’ (‘prodigious lucidity’) that the poet displayed in knowing that by choosing to narrate the trivial reality of his urban environment he would encounter what Jacques Roubaud called ‘sombre prose’, unrelieved despite his poetic ambition (Berman 1995: 212). The same could be said of George’s cinema: the moments of poetic release are few relative to the long walking sequences during which the film-maker (p.109) treads the same futile tracks as the men he is filming, or the restless surveying of a protest against the destruction of the Jungle, when the camera feels as directionless and as confused as the protest movement itself. Here prose seems likes the right analogy, and just as Berman suggests that ‘prose’ is the fundamental encounter in reading late Baudelaire, so it appears necessary to situate this work within the ambit of documentary with its emphasis on registering the facts of the world.
But the question of rhythm persists, as it did, of course, for Baudelaire. Question or crisis? For by entering into dialogue or ‘song’ with these ‘facts’, allowing them their rhythm and exacerbating their dynamics, George loosens the syntax of his film to absorb the discord around him. The long fluid traversals or sentences collide into dry observation, then the sequences of wind in the trees are slightly accelerated, increasing their agitation, before we get what is perhaps the most resonant of this film-work’s lyrical modes, which is deceleration. This takes the form of actual slow-motion shots as well as a lingering long beyond the need to fix the face or mouth or hands that have been telling us what the world looks and feels like from within its embodiment. The camera’s absorption here and its refusal to ‘respect’ some sort of intersubjective distance thickens the shots with the sort of vibration evoked above, as if there were a breathing in and out that holds the camera and the surface it is filming in a dynamic relation. Baudelaire’s notions of ‘vaporisation’ and ‘centralisation’ come to mind, and with them the same avidity for the world that pushed the poet towards the prose of the city, and a crisis in rhythm. The risk of dispersal is ever-present, but it drives towards an ever-stronger pull back into the singular expression of the subject. And the unrelieved forms of post-industrial waste – of people, of places, of goods – that cross all frontiers, appear with unexpected force precisely because they are caught by the specific dispositions, by the ‘private language’, of this camera that fully assumes, more even than its marginality, its captivation.
So it has been the aim of this chapter to suggest that it is the camera as bodily presence or vibrant probe, alive to its own engagement in these situations, that enables us to see and hear their specificity. The distinction between visual poetry and documentary ceases to be our guide once we approach this work through its rhythmic continuity with the world it films, with its lucidities and its monotony, its phenomenal reserves, its blindnesses, and its repressions. In the place of this distinction we are left with the unmarked position that characterises the topographic turn, where the aim is merely to register what is there without pointing (p.110) towards an intended end, whether that be sublimation or explanation. But if the turn to this position announces a neutral disposition, Sylvain George’s cinema oversteps the mark and bends into the fray.21
Antoine Berman (1995) Pour une critique des traductions: John Donne, ed. Isabelle Berman. Paris: Gallimard.
Gabriel Bortzmeyer (2012) ‘L’État d’incandescence (Sur le cinéma de Sylvain George)’, Vacarme, 59, 72–84.
Gilles Deleuze (1983) Cinéma I. L’Image-mouvement. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.
Gilles Deleuze (1985) Cinéma 2. L’Image-temps. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1975) Kafka. Pour une littérature mineure. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.
Sylvain George (2014) ‘En movement. Discussion avec Sylvain George’, Aleksander Jousselin, Independencia http://www.independenciarevue.net/s/spip.php?article1003 [last accessed 4 February 2019].
Fredric Jameson (1990) Signatures of the Visible. London: Routledge.
Laurent Jenny (1997) L’Expérience de la chute de Montaigne à Michaux. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (1986) La Poésie comme expérience. Paris: Bourgois.
Gregg Lambert (2012) In Search of a New Image of Thought: Gilles Deleuze. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Henri Michaux (1976) Face à ce qui se dérobe. Paris: Gallimard.
Henri Michaux (1978) Poteaux d’angle. Paris: Fata Morgana.
Pascale Molinier and Lise Gaignard (2014) ‘L’ordinaire tient à un fil …’, Raison publique, 18, 19–31.
Jacques Rancière (2011) ‘Inland de Tariq Teguia’, Trafic, 80, 73–78.
Jacques Rancière (2013) ‘Éclats de lumière’, Trafic, 86, 70–73.
(1) Sylvain George’s filmography includes five full-length films: Paris est une fête (2017), Vers Madrid – The Burning Bright (2012), Les Éclats (Ma gueule, ma révolte, mon nom) (2011), Qu’ils reposent en lutte (Des figures de guerres I) (2010), L’Impossible – Pages arrachées (2009); and a number of short ciné-tracts, including Ils nous tueront tous (2009), Contre-feux 3 – europe année 2006 (2006), Contre-feux 6: comment briser les consciences (2005), N’entre pas sans violence dans la nuit (2005), and No border (2005). Qu’ils reposent en lutte won the FIPRESCI prize and the prize for best film in the international competition at the BAFICI Festival in Argentina in 2011. All his films are produced by Noir Production.
(2) ‘Dedicated to taking measurements of a terrain’. This and all subsequent translations are the author’s own.
(5) ‘Talent does not abound in minor literature’.
(6) ‘On the margins or to the edge of his or her fragile community’.
(7) Michaux writes: ‘Le style, cette commodité à se camper et à camper le monde’ (‘style, the commodity of displaying oneself and making a display of the world’), adding to the idea of an affectation by describing the writer who ‘exists’ behind his/her style as living a ‘vie d’emprunt’ (‘a borrowed life’) (1978: 42–43). What is lost in this existence is precisely the capacity for transformation that is so important to Deleuze and Guattari.
(8) In a filmed discussion, Georges Didi-Huberman describes Sylvain George as ‘souverain’, in comparison to the documentary film-maker who still suffers from a form of de-legitimisation in the absence of the sort of consecration offered by art galleries and museums. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHHaoa7tJrc (48–52 min) [last accessed 31 July 2017].
(9) ‘I considered this state, and its subsequent complications, with which fortune had beset me. I took a bath in it. I did not seek to reach the shore again straightaway’.
(10) See in particular Jenny (1997: 184–185), who describes how Michaux’s process of observation as a newly ‘left-handed man’ designates a form of (p.111) distance, or cruel precision, and a ‘de-lodging’ of the self which cuts across the classic opposition between observed and observer by multiplying perspectives. See also Molinier and Gaignard (2014).
(11) ‘A something wants to get through somewhere, to search, to force, or to find a passage; here, then there, then here again, where?’
(12) ‘Digging is happening in me. Digging. I am starting to feel terror at the digging. I can’t stand it. Digging. Digging for nothing, to expand the malady, to multiply it …’.
(13) Michaux describes the sensation that his immobilised arm is a house, a huge iron chain used to anchor a steam boat, a wall – ‘Maillon lourd, ou meuble. Depuis hier c’est un vantail de maison de maître, mais toujours à tenir, et à bout de bras …’ (1975: 33) – reinforcing the sense that infusing his arm with renewed mobility is an archaeological process, a dusting off that will reveal partially preserved forms. Gabriel Bortzmeyer has also drawn attention to the way the small-format camera favoured by George enables a point of view that is fully immersed, but without going as far as to imply the sort of literalness that Michaux’s text explores: ‘George est à côté, avec ceux qu’ils filment. L’engagement cinématographique a rarement été pris dans un sens aussi physique’ (‘George is right next to those he films, and film-making has rarely been approached in such a physical way’) (Bortzmeyer, 2012: 76).
(14) ‘The camera exceeds what we habitually call a close-up, zooming in on their faces or sometimes only a part of their faces, as if slightly from above or below, not to shed solemnity on what they are saying but as if this were about catching the very work of thinking or of memory’.
(15) ‘The collective structuring of utterance’.
(16) ‘From the moment when one considers that a film has no role to play in explaining or illustrating something, that it works in the sphere of presentation and not representation, then new forms can start to emerge, which will attest as much to certain realities as they will to the questioning undertaken by the individual or film-maker in his work and existence’.
(17) ‘Embers. Embers in arm. Embers and pricks. Horrible these embers … and absurd […] Fire. Fire without flame […] Fire, fire, fire, incessantly repeated’.
Words that fly. Words that want. Words that cannot distract me from the torrents of fire. Words that run … while the fire, the enormous fire …
Tank. Enormous tank is this pain, and I must keep it closed, held at soul’s length so that no more into me will it enter, no deeper will it make suffering.
I must hold it back and this “fire, fire, fire”, the alarm of fire in me again and again erupts, again and again corrected by my brain, by my brain so wearied’.
(19) The essays by Bortzmeyer and Rancière cited here are examples of the tendency to read this work through analogies with fire. George himself points in the same direction, referring to his films as ‘an incendiary filmic poem’ in (p.112) an interview with Bortzmeyer in the Journal du Festival de Lussas (2010). The film Ils nous tueront tous also ends with a poem by George: ‘Voici, des mots de feu, des notes de feu, des images de feu […] Nous sommes des corps de feu’ (‘Here, words of fire, notes of fire, images of fire […] We are bodies of fire’).
(20) ‘The foulness of this world henceforth global’.
(21) The author would like to acknowledge the opportunities offered by Dr Claire Launchbury and Dr Alexandra Galitzine-Loumpet to share elements of this work through its development.