Alison J. Murray Levine, Vivre Ici: Space, Place, and Experience in Contemporary French Documentary (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018), 303 pp. £90.
Alison J. Murray Levine’s highly absorbing and convincingly argued study, Vivre Ici. Space, Place, and Experience in Contemporary French Documentary, is the fiftieth volume in Liverpool University Press’s landmark collection Contemporary French and Francophone Cultures, which has contributed in probably the most sustained and diverse way to opening new horizons for English-language study of the French-speaking world. It is also the first volume in the series that foregrounds a compellingly unstable phrase in French as its title, an unintentional marker perhaps of the work this collection, under the editorship of Charles Forsdick, can claim to have accomplished in loosening the constraints on canon and modes of expression while also mapping multiple points of resistance to dominant anglophone cultural production, including in the academy. Somewhere between an instruction, a statement and possibly even an expression of disbelief, ‘vivre ici’ designates an open space, one towards which we as readers have to move in questioning expectation. The chapters that follow guide us in this move, instantiating the ‘ici’ in a range of explorations - from the ocean to the beaches of Calais, from heating vents in the streets of Paris to remote mountain farms - that are both tightly localized in the works discussed and potentially endlessly extendable. Although this volume chooses to restrict itself to films produced and largely shot in metropolitan France, its effort and success in charting new territory does make it a very fitting expression of the broader aims of this collection. These aims are also ones that Murray Levine states as her own in her concluding remarks by inviting more diversification still within English-language scholarship on French culture, particularly in attention to often overlooked forms of production, such as documentary cinema.
‘Vivre ici’ is also an echo of the name of the hugely influential production company Les Films d’ici, which was founded in 1978 on the back of post-68 extreme-left experimental cinema and has since gone on to contribute very significantly to shaping ‘documentaire de création’ as an increasingly visible vehicle within a lineage of critical artistic experimentation. This evolution, which Murray Levine discusses as a ‘renaissance’ in her first chapter, anchors her project in a well-documented sociology of production and transmission. It also enables her to establish the key premise of her approach to this field as a ‘cinema of experience’ that engages a complex ecology of relation, stretching from workshops, production companies, and increasingly programmes of study, to spaces and networks of reception and discussion. Film, as it is discussed in this volume, is not a finite entity, but an unfolding occasion for experience and connection. Although each chapter singles out a smallish range of individual films and offers finely pitched discussion of particular scenes and filmic strategies, the broader picture is never lost from sight. In this way, the reader discovers or rediscovers these works as the results of long initial frequentations and/or preoccupations on the part of their directors and producers, which are moved through the various phases of creation by a multiplicity of different participants, including the ‘subjects’ of the films, before becoming, in their afterlives, the ‘product’ of changing awarenesses and concerns on the part of the expanding audiences that continue to seek them out. ‘Ici’ is ultimately where we are, with a combination of intransigence and openness that enacts our locatedness in time rather than pinpointing it on a map. It is part of the great richness of Murray Levine’s work that she stretches the time of these films back to the conditions of their emergence, slows it sufficiently to give us readers some sense of the defining experience of immersion in a dark space before an animated screen, captured by the closeness it offers us to people and species we will never meet and spaces we will never visit, then speeds it up again so that we hear some of the proliferation of commentary and retelling that sends the work in all sorts of new directions.
The analytical emphasis on experiential reception also determines the originality of the corpus hereby constituted. Rather than working with a particular geographic or thematic grouping, Vivre Ici draws together works of quite varied trajectories, from the relatively mainstream ‘nature films’ or wildlife documentaries, made with sizeable budgets discussed in the chapter ‘Planet’ (Perrin and Cluzaud’s Ωcéans/Ωceans (2010) and Le Peuple migrateur/Winged Migration (2001); Jacquet’s La Marche de l’empéreur/March of the Penguins (2005); Nuridsany and Pérennou’s 1996 Microcosmos: le peuple de l’herbe/Microcosmos) to shoe-string productions made by people whose own relation to film-making is often circumstantial (including Sylvain George’s avant-garde cinétracts made by a production company he launched himself, Noir Productions, or the work of Alice Diop who says she came to film-making ‘despite herself’). Some of the filmmakers, like Raymond Depardon in particular, are discussed in several chapters while we only learn about one film by other directors. Some of the films were made for international release and have garnered substantial audiences around the world for their English-language versions. Others were made for French public television only, while some aimed for the minor audiences of the festival and museum circuit. Some are anchored in environmental discourses, some in revolutionary politics, others in a posture of quiet humanism. And the critical reception of these works has tended to approach them, and distinguish them, in these terms. By contrast, Murray Levine builds a critical framework that posits a complex possibility of ‘contiguity’ that is neither all-knowing nor fundamentally thwarted, despite the radical distance of social inequalities and biological differences. This results in a possible being-together which enables her to suggest that though these films do not share a political or didactic stance, and most of them explicitly refuse such a stance, they are capable of moving their audiences in ways that are also of critical and political significance.
One important consequence of Murray Levine’s interest in the relation to cinematic space created by these works is the relative sidelining, or reconfiguring, of the question of ‘the real’ and related considerations of what modes of authenticity govern the works under discussion. Rather than engaging in debates about the beauty of the images, with the possible charge against them of aestheticizing the real, Murray Levine is more focused on what sort of transformation of awareness such images can generate. This allows her to consider the effects produced by innovative camera technology, particularly in the discussion of the wildlife films, without deeming such reliance on ‘special effects’ to be contrary to the veracity of the images. Equally her attention to the intimate camera work in Nicolas Philibert’s massive 2002 success Être et Avoir/To Be and To Have is not construed as a nostalgic fascination with a disappearing way of life, but as a means of soliciting emotion as a political intention. The blocked horizons of many of these young learners in a remote school in the Auvergne region are not obscured, she claims, by a complacently affectionate filming of older ways. Rather this sensual proximity and emphasis on experiential detail allows us ‘inside’ where we can ‘press up against the experience of learning’ and achieve some sort of ‘co-presence’.1 She sees similar strains of this empathetic proximity running through other examples from the substantial range of films produced in and about schools in France over the past twenty years. This prompts her to suggest that while there is little reason for optimism about the core Republican institution of the national education system, which has still not managed to reduce the disparities in achievement that make French schools some of the least egalitarian in the world, the sense of connection established with these individual pupils and teachers for the duration of the film, and beyond, engenders a sense of (political) possibility. The same structure of argument is also invoked in relation to the transformation of agriculture in France and the desperate levels of farmer suicide and depression. Here Murray Levine develops a reading that distinguishes the viewer’s relation to ‘her own historical space’ or her ‘pays’ from an abstracted ‘landscape’ or ‘paysage’,2 before describing how this affective, lived relation can be perceived in the repeated demands for further screenings of these films, in expressions of recognition of self from within the farming community, through to the much more general increasing interest in local sourcing of food. Against the suggestion that the sustained interviews with aging or embattled farmers, such as make up the substance of Raymond Depardon’s Profils paysans trilogy (2001; 2005; 2008), are fuelled by nostalgic interest in a dying form of life, Murray Levine offers an account of active engagement in the transformation of the urban-rural divide and the sort of shopping and living patterns that structure it.
The limits and shape of this optimism become a more explicit focus in the final chapter, entitled ‘Edge’ and dedicated to films from a more unstable ‘ici’, spanning embedded French homelessness to scenes of refugee abandonment. Through an illuminating discussion of Sylvain George’s work, relayed by commentary on it from Jacques Rancière, this volume closes on a vital discussion of the stakes at play in the making and viewing of activist documentary, against the odds of shrinking funding structures, precarious living conditions, and the powerful industrial complex that makes the locations explored here such punitive environments. The same could be said about Vivre Ici itself as an example of sustained compulsion to be alongside this fragile material and to think with it towards other instantiations of here and now.