Notes on the films of Claudio Zulian
Jeu de Paume is a centre d’art renowned for its exhibitions of photography and new media art. Its exhibitions, film cycles, publications and seminars are guided by a strongly transversal approach to the exploration of visual culture. In October 2013, Claudio Zulian will be showing his films there, including his latest project, "Power No Power", produced by Jeu de Paume. Here, film critic Antoine Thirion analyzes the director’s strategies of creative participation in relation to the concerns explored in his work: authority, emancipation, social transformation and power.
In 1967 the Canadian National Film Board launched “Challenge for Change/Société Nouvelle,” a scheme in which cinema was to be used to help improve communication between the state and the country’s more marginalised communities. Films would be made on a participative basis, then shown to those concerned in order to facilitate discussion. Documentary cinema was conceived here not just as a tool for locating and signalling social problems, but also as an active process that would have an impact on their resolution.
One of the first projects was organised on Fogo Island, off the north-east coast of Newfoundland. The severity of the recession was forcing the islanders to come to the mainland. Struck by the demoralisation there, Canadian director Colin Low made 27 films recording the words of the fishermen and showing scenes from everyday life. Low got the inhabitants involved in making the films, as actors, interlocutors and editors, rather than as simple witnesses. Public screenings helped institute a dialogue with the government.
In the end, the fishermen formed a cooperative to manage their profits and prosperity returned. The “Fogo Process” became a model for subsequent undertakings using cinema as a tool of social development, and the number of these multiplied with the availability of video. It instituted a change that documentary film-maker John Grierson summed up as the shift from “films made about people to films made with people.” However, Colin Low did not think his films had any cinematographic power. For him they were just politically effective. The exception was Children of Fogo Islands, which was perhaps the only one that fully substituted poetic quality for the imperatives of communication in its observation of children playing and building, as the best possible embodiment of hopes for the future.
In the diary that he kept for Jeu de Paume’s online magazine during the making of his latest film, Power No Power, with students at a school in Aulnay-sous-Bois, Claudio Zulian used a term which has no real equivalent in French: “Power No Power is a work around power but also an act of empowerment of a group of youngsters who, because of their social destiny, have only very little power.” This notion derives from the field of social development. Introduced in Quebec in the 1960s, and contemporaneous with the Fogo Process, it designates a process whereby an individual or group achieves emancipation by creating communities of interest and strengthening its capacity for action.
In a sense, Zulian’s work issues from this history of documentary filmmaking in which the Fogo Process represents such a crucial stage. First of all, because it organises the transferral of power from the filmmaker to the subject, completing a long process of development in anthropological filmmaking in which the director strove to understand and actually adopt the viewpoint of the host communities, to the point of wanting them to hold the camera – Jean Rouch called this “shared anthropology.” Secondly, this episode marks recognition of cinema’s social utility. Of course, this does not mean saying that a film can have a direct impact in the resolution of political problems, rather that the image opens up a symbolic space that each community must seek to construct for itself by appropriating the tools needed for self-realisation.
Zulian’s work is dedicated to inventing strategies of participative creation. Cinema is only one of the possible forms taken by a process that also takes him to video or photographic installations, theatre or books. Today, his work is organised in two main series, one concerning identification with place, and the other, more recent one with the imaginary of power among teenagers. For any given project, there will usually be a version for the theatre and another on simultaneous screens. What does not vary is the method, based on local investigation and exploration, the invention of participative processes, and the increasing delegation of authority for making the work to the people concerned.
In 1998, Zulian was contacted by a psychiatrist in Carmel who asked him to come and meet a community association in this poor neighbourhood on a hill overlooking Barcelona, where, under Franco, housing was chaotically put up during the 1960s and 70s. In 2003 Zulian conceived Visions del Carmel, an installation consisting of photographs meticulously conceived and laid out by the subjects – the disabled, schoolchildren, teenagers – which was then exhibited in galleries and museums but also on the city walls. This experiment in appropriation of the image by those usually excluded from it gave Zulian the idea of reproducing the event every year, “like a fête.” In 2004 he made Miradas estrañas with a group of teenagers who had been photographed in Visions del Carmel, and had come up with a fiction film scenario for the photographs.
This script, grounded in the life and aspirations of the teenagers, is a story of thwarted initiation. It recounts how two local youths try to get away from the almost atavistic violence of their home territory. Infused with the violence of crime or mob movies, the drama is acted out by the authors themselves. Zulian wanted to introduce the film with a short prologue: “This is the discussion we had with the educators. I argued for a classic idea of catharsis in which it is the representation that does the work, not the thing represented. I therefore felt that it was vital to stick to what the adolescents wanted to represent. The relation between fiction and reality is never given, it is always problematic. Representation always implies a choice, strategies. The fact of inserting snatches of the discussion that preceded the creative work is a Brechtian way of problematising what we are about to see.”
At Carmel, Zulian has worked constantly to explore and describe the physical and symbolic sites. After Miradas estrañas he made the full-length film A través del Carmel, conducting a visit in one virtuosic and carefully planned sequence shot in which the camera moves as if it had the dream-like power to go through walls, going from streets to apartments and from interiors to sweeping panoramas. This fantasy disappearance of walls is more than just architectural; it also provides access to the thoughts of the individuals, which can be heard in the movement of this exploration, overlapping and dovetailing and instituting an ideal space in which there is communication within this pensiveness that the artist requires from each participant.
The project has a twofold existence, as both a collective experience and an artistic creation, a festive moment and a pensive one; as a secular procession which invites its celebrants to look both back and forward, and as a train which embodies the passing of time by offering both a view of the past and a movement towards the future. A través del Carmel reprises and radicalises a method adopted two years earlier in Meurchin, a mining town of the Pas-de-Calais region. L’Avenir (“The Future”) is a sequence of visits to local inhabitants, starting with the poorest houses and ending up with the wealthiest, and taking in meeting places for associations, cafés and the mayor’s office, while their commentaries can be heard on the sound track. “For L’Avenir, we organised meetings with groups. My idea was to create photographic moments with the moving image, in order to see the context, not just the faces and persons. I told them to act as if I was taking a photo, apart from the fact that I would be moving around with the camera.”
A text by anthropologist Saskia Cousin relates the different incidents that occurred during the presentation of the film, a long way from the cordial, unifying communication of the Fogo Process. The point was that, in the tradition of cinéma vérité, Zulian’s directing was not about painting the desired image – the promoter’s image – but about questioning this desire in the context in which it came into being. The individuals spoken to really opened up about their hopes and questions, their joys and problems. But it is impossible not to be aware of the sensorial fabric these images emerge from, the shared space where they arise and collapse. It is impossible to conceive of the future without seeing the History this territory comes from. This is again the task taken on by the documentary 2031/2111.
Saskia Cousin shows clearly that, more than the opinions expressed here, it is the formal choices that disappointed some of the inhabitants: not only the black and white fixity, but the backwards movement of the camera: “I had the idea of relating this movement to what Walter Benjamin says in the ninth of his theses “On the Philosophy of History.” Benjamin interprets a painting by Paul Klee showing on angel with open wings, seeing him as the angel of history: behind him the angel sees mountains of corpses, and he would like to stop and gather the dead and bury them, but the wind is driving him towards paradise: this storm is progress. It’s a very powerful image which calls into question the concepts of progress and History.” Thus, Zulian is constantly digging into this desire that everyone wants from him, but without giving it concrete form in the kind of beautiful, empty image in which power would like to see itself represented. Zulian can envisage the collectively desired transformation only by re-posing the question of time at the point at which it seems to have stopped, where the question of the future is persistently raised and does not lead to any kind of revolution.
Whether the image of the place is drab or flashy, that is not really Zulian’s decision. Ultimately he fits in with the commonly accepted representations of the place in order to set up an interplay. This logic is pushed to extremes in Después de la violencia, where adolescents steeped in a strange light occupy the courtyards of apartment blocks, pose in the corridors of rundown housing, in which philosophers, sociologists and aestheticians analyse the causes and foundations of violence, while the montage creates disjunctions and desynchronisations, building a world of partitions which undermines stereotypes and expert opinion alike.
Just as the adoption of the common image of the place is the premise in a game between the real and the symbolic, so Zulian refers to the imaginary of the persons he is cooperating with in order to establish a shared territory: “Naturally, I am interested in what the media or genre movies produce as a repertoire of shared signs and images: this community is necessary when it comes to establishing a dialogue about representation.” His two most recent films, No será lo mismo (2011) and Power No Power (2013), use the same operating principle: the screenplay is generated by research groups who work on the way adolescents in problem neighbourhoods imagine their lives and try to take on the trappings of power. This produces a whole set of effects of distance – between the actor and the character, between real territories and symbolic ones, local and globalised ones, in which the context is revealed only in the time in which the subjects are exploring their imaginary.
But what differentiates the two films has to do with the relation that develops between the camera and the actors. In the first film, the characters are given over-size clothes which, while they play at being powerful property developers, ironically underscore the ineffectiveness of their acting. In Power No Power, on the other hand, the imaginary is a game that the actors fully take over, and the camera captures the overflowing vivacity of a performance that it cannot contain. “In my other films the directing was inch by inch. Here I tried to limit myself to giving precise instructions to the cameramen about how the camera should behave in relation to the field: the desire to capture the subjects, the logic of control and spatial exploration, imitating the movement of little drones or flies. But if, for example, the camera came in a long time before the planned scene began, it had to stay there, staring into the void, for it is impossible to have total control and the subjects won’t let themselves be hemmed in like that.”
The achievement of Power No Power is to have managed to transform the symbolic space of its actors into a concrete environment by taking teenagers to shoot in the abandoned rooms and corridors of the LTC post-production facilities in Saint-Cloud, which are slated for demolition. These places, corridors, junk rooms, these insignificant metal basements, are vaguely reminiscent as much of simple stairwells in dilapidated buildings as of the makeshift sets of the TV series (24h) that the adolescents tried to imitate by imagining hostage-taking, forceful liberations and speeches to the nation made by kidnapped politicians from some bleak basement. These adolescents’ capacity for play was manifestly liberated by the ruin-like appearance of the site, in which each vestige – the files, reels of film, etc. – inspired ideas for scenes which they immediately went about staging. The children did not try to imitate: they really were living out their imaginings by acting.
The radical seriousness of their acting recalls Zéro de conduite by Jean Vigo, and while the result is a long way from the fictions they are aiming at, they do project a higher idea in which the imaginary takes possession of minds, where the image is the place of their revelation, where the word is connected directly to the image, continuing the tradition of Jean Rouch’s Maîtres fous and of other artists and filmmakers who work with techniques of reenactment, or historical reconstitution through performance, such as Rithy Panh (S21, La Machine de mort Khmère Rouge), Jeremy Deller (The Battle of Orgreave) and Narimane Mari (Loubia Hamra). Here, the teenagers do not behave as the victims of a colonising and repressive imaginary, but reformulate it at will, replaying it like an old fable, fully engaged with the sensible.
Antoine Thirion, film critic, September 2013
Film critic Antoine Thiron was a member of the editorial board of Cahiers du Cinéma from 2000 to 2009. He is the cofounder and director (with Eugenio Renzi) of the journal Independencia and is involved with the creation of the company of the same name. He was the curator (with Danièle Hibon) of the James Benning retrospective at Jeu de Paume in 2009.
The quotations are taken from an interview with Claudio Zulian given in August 2013.