Q&A with Film Scholar Nicole Brenez
Published on February 29th, 2012 | by Ryan Wells0
Cinespect recently spoke with Nicole Brenez, who is a world-renowned professor of cinema studies at University of Paris 3/Sorbonne Nouvelle and a senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France. She is a film historian, curator, and leading specialist of avant-garde cinema. Her books include “Cinéma d’avant-garde” (2007), “Abel Ferrara” (2007), and “Chantal Akerman” (2011). Brenez has also been curating the Cinémathèque Française’s avant-garde film sessions since 1996.
Brenez is in New York for the opening night of “Internationalist Cinema for Today,” an Anthology Film Archives series she’s curated that runs from March 2-11. Brenez will also be taking part in two conferences during her visit, both of which are part of French Cinema: History, Theory, Politics, a cross-campus initiative for cinema research hosted by Columbia University and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Explain the concept of Internationalist cinema.
Internationalist cinema is a corpus and a tradition not yet considered as a whole. It’s been nourished by filmmakers who took their cameras to go and help people abroad struggling for their freedom. Some of these filmmakers went to fight on the side of the people that were oppressed by the government of the nation they belonged to. Take, for instance, the Dutch Joris Ivens helping the people in Indonesia (“Indonesia Calling”; 1946), the French René Vautier fighting on the sides of the people of the colonized Ivory Coast (“Afrique 50”; 1950) or Algeria at war for its independence (“Une Nation l’Algérie;” 1954, not to mention his short films with the Cinematic School of the Algerian National Liberation Front “Algeria in Flames”; 1958).
At first glance, it seems that the Internationalist cinema was developed to fight against globalized cinema and the falsification it serves. We can compare it to the International Brigades pushing back against fascism in Spain. But there is a big difference: no one can discipline and transform the Internationalist films and authors into simple tools of propaganda, as the generous and brave people who came to help the Republican Spain or those who found themselves trapped by Stalinism. Internationalist cinema acts against all kinds of normativity and power–nation, community, class, and so forth.
Really now, more than ever, we’re constantly having to reinforce our individuality whether by our own choice or through corporate techniques such as advertising. We’re always hyper-aware that we are–at least we think we are–unique beings. In a sense, Internationalist cinema is perhaps even more appropriate for times like these than ever before. Is this right?
Yes it is. Internationalist cinema, which has a rich, complex, and non-unified story, is always a critic of self-mutilation and ideology advocated by capitalism and its various political transcriptions, as we can see in the works of Masao Adachi, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Yolande du Luart, Peter Whitehead, or Antonello Branca. The same can be said about the filmmakers and artists who are critics against any oppressive power (explicit or implicit, political or economical, in the public or private spheres), their ideals and proposals could be very different, and sometimes contradictory and opposite. A traditional fratricidal division splits the hedonists (Masao Adachi, Koji Wakamatsu, etc.) and the “Jansenists” (e.g., Jean-Luc Godard). It’s a deeper division than between anarchists and Marxists, because there are many theoretical and practical forms of anarcho-Marxism.
At the same time, there is a degree of self-interest, especially in the younger generations today, that suppresses a lot of social activism like that you would have seen decades before. Do you feel that Internationalist cinema is far more appreciated when people are willing to push back rather than accept what they’re given as long as their freedom isn’t usurped?
Internationalism is a way to criticize the so-called “freedom,” that is mainly the freedom to exploit and alienate other countries and peoples, especially through historical forms like colonialism, neo-colonialism, and now neo-liberalism. It was the case of the filmmakers I mentioned, and now it’s true for artists such as the Indian Amar Kanwar, who’s making films for the Burmese and Tibetan people under severe dictatorships, the British filmmaker Lech Kowalski making films to help the Polish peasants or the American people in Louisiana devastated by the oil spill, the American John Gianvito filming the ecological devastation resulting from the American military bases in the Philippines with Filipino associations, or the French Clarisse Hahn creating documentaries and essays spreading information about the Kurdish people oppressed by the Turkish government.
Where do fiction films come into play? Is Internationalist cinema exclusively documentary-focused?
Internationalist cinema is mainly documentary-focused, but fiction films do have a place in the history of International cinema. For instance, we have “Sambizanga,” a fiction film made in 1972 by the French Sarah Maldoror who was fighting besides Amilcar Cabral and Mario de Andrade in Angola. It’s a fascinating film, notably because some true members of the MPLA (Angolese Popular Movement of Liberation) are actors.
And of course, there are many fiction films that are neither guerrilla films nor activist-focused, yet rather inspired by Internationalist ideals. Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” (1966) or his “Queimada” (1969), both written by the great Italian screenwriter Franco Solinas, are perfect examples of this.
And really a lot of first films within this movement took place in the mid-1930s with extreme forms of communism and fascism on the rise. Why was this so?
The history of the institutional Internationals, from the first to the fourth, is full of tears and blood. The mid-1930ss were dominated by the Third International, created by Lenin in 1919, but soon became a war machine in Stalin’s hands to fight against all the emancipatory organizations, including the national Communist Parties (as in Spain and France)–not to mention the anarchist movements themselves. But this era also marked the rising of liberation movements in the colonized world, such as Ho-Chi-Minh’s Vietnamese Communist Party in Indochina in 1930.
So there were many conflicts–of course, between the colonized, oppressed peoples and the imperialist nations, between the classes, and between the political regimes. But as far as cinema is concerned, there was also a conflict between the emancipatory ideals and the concrete action itself. In other words, in the name of efficiency, would you accept being embedded in a Liberation Army, or can you noy bear to obey any order or even instruction except your own? This is the usual dilemma for a committed artist: to be disciplined or remain undisciplined. This is, for example, the radical difference between two communist filmmakers: on one side, Roman Karmen, who shot with and for the Soviet Army and the Soviet power (and was the one who made false documentaries and true “remises-en-scène” of historical events, such as the rendition of the French army in Dien-Bien-Phû in 1954); on the other side we have filmmakers like Bruno Muel and Théo Robichet, who resigned from the French Communist Party because it ordered them to suppress a shot in their film “Chilean September” (1973) about the tragic fall of Salvador Allende in Chile. When they learned about the death of Allende, they immediately jumped into a plane to come shoot the events taking place: the people in the streets, the files of worried families all around the stadiums where the military junta detained the resistant Chileans, witnessing how the funeral of Pablo Neruda transformed into a political demonstration. One of the students they recorded spoke about the responsibility and failure of the Chilean Communist Party, a simple auto-critic that the French Communist Party wanted to remove from the editing. The filmmakers were so offended by the order of the FCP that they both resigned from the Party.
Discuss your approach to the Anthology series. Why did you choose these particular films?
There were a lot of different criteria: the films had to come from different places and times, various fronts, and various forms. I wanted to show the richness and diversity of this history of generosity and courage. This alone hasn’t been established yet; and many films have disappeared, which raises many questions.
But, in the ocean of possibilities, I also had to choose films in English or subtitled in English. And that’s a true difficulty, because the non-Anglo-Saxon committed filmmakers had no money to make subtitles. Fortunately for us, Patrice and Françoise Kirkpatrick recently began to translate René Vautier’s films with their students, and Sam Di Iorio has a similar project with his students for Bruno Muel’s films. These are wonderful gestures, and I hope that, thanks to them, soon René’s and Bruno’s bodies of work will be discovered and honored as they deserve to be. Let’s hope this will launch more energy to the cause with having other researchers or foundations collaborating to do the same for the fascinating Sandinist films, where Jonathan Buchsbaum is the American expert, or for Jean-Pierre Sergent and Marceline Loridan’s films, and so on. For me, these kinds of films justified the existence of cinema as an art.
Any personal favorites? What about new gems you’ve recently discovered?
I love them all, really. There are also many films I couldn’t show in this series because it would have been too long. For example, the amazing films by the Guatemalan Guillermo Escalon for the Liberation Front in El Salvador, especially “The Decision to Vanquish” (“La decisión de vencer”; 1983). Or the masterpiece “The Patriot Game” (1979), made by the American Arthur MacCaig about the IRA, and produced partly by ISKRA, the French collective created by Chris Marker to produce “Far From Vietnam” in 1967 (under its first name, SLON). There are so many more: works by Mario Marret, Cécile Decugis, Santiago Álvarez, Yann Le Masson, Pierre Clémenti, Piero Nelli, Jean-Michel Humeau, to name but a few.
It was smart to include a film like “Iraqi Short Films” in the series. So much global attention is on countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Afghanistan. Do you think we’ll see more Internationalist filmmaking coming from the Middle East in the coming years?
That’s a very good question. I do hope so. In the Middle East, there already exists a great Internationalist tradition. Take, for instance, Heiny Srour and her “The Hour of the Liberation Has Come” (1974), made with the Dhofar Liberation Front in Oman. It was distributed in France in the ’70s by the Groupe Cinéthique. Later, Srour made a TV documentary about the women who fought during the Vietnam War.
Jocelyne Saab’s work is exemplary. Also from Lebanon (like Heiny Srour), she made films with the OLP in Palestine, such as her film about two movements of resistance in the Western Sahara (“The Sahara is Not to Sell”; 1977).
Another very interesting artist is the Canadian Lebanese Jayce Salloum, who made a masterpiece about the Sabra and Chatila massacre with his “(As if) Beauty Never Ends” (2002), and is now practicing films and cultural activism with the First Nations (Syilx/Okanagan) people from his hometown (Kelowna, Canada). It was Salloum who wrote in his “Activating Culture”: “I see my role of an artist as being one of facilitation and mediation, and in many cases, helping to reveal systematic abuses, buried histories and to challenge the powers that be.”
And I hope there are filmmakers from all over the Middle East helping the Syrian people, especially in their current state.
Tell us a little bit about any effects that censorship had on the making of these films. They’re very anti-establishment. How were they able to get produced?
Worse than censorship and oblivion, there’s death. Several Internationalist filmmakers died for their causes. Take the French film critic Michèle Firk, who in 1968 committed suicide to avoid being tortured and executed by the Death Squadrons in Guatemala. Raymundo Gleyzer was arrested and disappeared under the Argentine dictatorship. Pierre Clément, Cécile Decugis, René Vautier, and so many others were imprisoned for years. The Japanese government still forbids Masao Adachi from traveling abroad. In a way, Japan is his prison. Censorship is the rewarding testimony that a film is important. For an activist filmmaker, it’s a label of quality.
Where would you like to see Internationalist cinema go from here?
To a world where there are no nations anymore.