Vincent Meessen • Director of Just A Movement
"I try to shift documentary ethics away from reporting truth to reporting otherness"
- BERLINALE 2021: We met with the contemporary Belgian artist who spoke to us about his new, hybrid film which hovers between documentary and filmed essay
We took a moment with contemporary Belgian artist Vincent Meessen who was selected to take part in the Forum section of this year’s Berlinale by way of his new film Just A Movement [+see also:
interview: Vincent Meessen
film profile], a hybrid cinematic offering that’s part documentary and part filmed essay.
Cineuropa: How did this unusual project come about?
Vincent Meessen: A few years ago, while reading the latest edition of La Revue Internationale Situationniste, I came across a photo of the Senegalese activist and intellectual Omar Blondin Diop. At the time, I was looking at Congolese students’ participation in an avant-garde movement, which sought to use culture to carry out political work at the end of the 1950s, within the context of Venice’s Art Biennale which I was taking part in on behalf of the Belgian pavilion.
La Revue Internationale Situationniste had a huge impact on how we thought about form, on the relationship between daily life and political life, and art and culture. I soon realised that Omar had also starred in Jean-Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise. Two interesting rays of light were revealed to me, even more so for the fact that when I started to take an interest in him, Omar’s family had just asked for the enquiry into his death, which had occurred in 1973, to be officially re-opened!
I wanted to paint a portrait of all this, in relatively traditional fashion, using documentary protocols and ethics. But the idea was less about offering up the truth of the character and more about putting him into perspective, re-establishing his complexity, piece by piece.
Had this always been the angle you wanted to take?
Of course, we’re dealing with a compilation film here, but I was driven by the idea of a double film from the very beginning.
It was unknown territory when I set out to film it. The first time we shot, which was supposed to be a simple scouting mission, we came back with a lot of material. It was at that point that I decided to radicalise a position taken by Godard: the slogan "a film in the making".
It takes groundwork, preparation, but you also need happy coincidences, luck. The Chinese VP’s visit, our encounter with the Senegalese Kung-Fu champion... We couldn’t have planned these things, but their presence really adds to the story. In that sense, we also applied the Godardian method in the way we worked. Such risk-taking results in creativity and joy.
Different layers are superimposed on top of one another, but the idea was to make an accessible film, especially for viewers who had never heard of La Chinoise.
Could you talk to us about how you staged the interviews with witnesses from the time? We feel as if they’re looking elsewhere, at a ghost or a memory.
When we gathered their testimonies, we wanted to film around the witnesses without necessarily catching their eye. There’s a kind of circularity: we film around an absent character who acts as a nodal point, of sorts. We know that we’ll never manage to construct a truth out of it. It’s an unattainable vanishing point from the outset.
This question of a contract with reality is something I’ve been working on for a long time. I’ve seen it as a problem in all of my projects. There’s a documentarian and investigative ethical code that is really important to me, and which helps viewers feel confident that we’re not lying to them as they watch these witnesses speak. A contract does need to be established with viewers on this basis. After that, you can add another layer, complicate the film’s relationship with reality, which can’t only be a reporting of truth. I try to shift documentary ethics away from reporting truth to reporting otherness. It might seem abstract or conceptual, but that’s what I tried to do.
We also used the half-light to re-create an almost ghostly space, where witnesses offer up their testimonies in a transfer of memory. And in a space with somewhat faded colours, as opposed to the colours in Godard’s film.
There’s a very open space in the film, in terms of the town, the modern-day, and what’s taking place in the present. And then there’s a confined space, a place for a form of grief which had been unable to express itself until now, and where the character of Omar continues to haunt the political and even the artistic scene. That’s how I reconstructed the character, anyway, knowing from the outset that I was doomed to betray him.
(Translated from French)
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