In relation to a wide expose of Eric Baudelaire’s works in NYC (e.g., his film The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years without Images (2011) is currently shown in Art of the Real 2015, a program of screenings curated by Rachael Rakes and Dennis Lim at the Film Society of Lincoln Center), I decided that it is a proper time to publish my notes on his artist talk that took place at New York University on October 1, 2014.
“Today you are going to hear a presentation about non-existing things.” With these words, Assistant Professor Toby Lee introduced Eric Baudelaire, guest speaker in a series of New York University Department of Cinema Studies events. Baudelaire is an American-born, Paris-based visual artist and filmmaker, whose films and visual installations—all intermixing documentary and fiction—focus on underexposed, politically intricate personal stories, each evolving in ideologically and geographically different contexts.
The artist talk entitled “Unrealized Films, Unravelling Armies, Unrecognized States” started with an introduction that was organized in a manner comparable to a technique of assemblage: three seemingly unrelated image-and-text-based examples taken from divergent sources were exposed, letting the audience actively participate in interpreting the meaning of the artist’s presentation.
First, Baudelaire showed a few diagrams appropriated from academic articles dealing with the topic of terrorism. Graphical answers to the questions like “What are, from the perspective of game-theory, the main motivating factors for engaging in terrorist activities?” or “What days of the week for committing suicidal acts are statistically the most popular among terrorists?” interestingly resonated with the second exposed piece of information—an excerpt from Michelangelo Antonioni’s first feature film Story of a Love Affair (1950). The opening scene of the Italian film illustrated how an investigation of someone’s past could generate totally unexpected and unimagined results. Finally, Anabasis, an epic about a military expedition to Persia written in 401 BCE by Greek soldier and historian Xenophon, was brought to the table as an example of a failure of teleological intentionality, demonstrating to us that the one who left his home-country could forget the reason that motivated him to do so. Moreover, as an example of the epic revealed, he/she can also remain unaware of an ongoing journey back home until it eventually ends.
These three introductory examples can be construed not only as an underlying basis for understanding the themes and questions Baudelaire is concerned with, but also as a conceptual metaphor standing for a creative process of documentary production in general. As Baudelaire demonstrated, the process of documentary production consists of a few interrelated phases: first, a collection and analysis of information on the subject matter; second, an understanding that theoretical research will not necessarily lead to the preconceived “truth”; and, third, an awareness of the fact that the author’s intentions do not preexist a finished work itself.
The introduction helped Baudelaire to establish a strong foundation for the talk about his own works. In what follows, I would like to palpate only one, yet, in my view, very important aspect of Baudelaire’s multi-layered presentation: an argument for a creative filmmaker’s position in dealing with a representation of the person’s past. Revealing his long-term interest in ideological and psychological motivation that led a young Japanese student, Fusako Shigenobu, to become one of the leaders of the Japanese Red Army (JRA), to travel to Lebanon—where she organised a few violent terrorist acts in the 1970s—and, subsequently, to come back to Japan in the 2000s, Baudelaire touched a perennial question in the world of creative documentary: where do aesthetic (and ethical) limits of representation of the other’s life lie?
While discussing his 66-minute film/installation work The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years without Images (2011), which reveals the history of the JRA through the reference to an Anabasis-like biography of Shigenobu and her daughter May as well as through the memories of Masao Adachi, the artist, ex-member of the JRA, and long-time collaborator of noted Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, Baudelaire demonstrated that a filmic investigation of the past events should not necessarily follow the representational conventions that prevail within the tradition of expository documentary. Instead of interviewing Shigenobu or Adachi, the artist created a film based on the landscape images that surrounded them as adolescents, long before they joined JRA. According to Baudelaire, peripheral images can affect the viewer as much, or even more, than a direct storytelling based on representation of the protagonists.
However, the French artist also mentioned that a close collaboration with the subjects of his projects is an unavoidable part of the production of experimental plots. In The Anabasis of May and Fusako… Baudelaire had set up a deal with Adachi (who is not allowed to leave Japan), agreeing to record some shots in Beirut for the Japanese filmmaker’s new work in return for Adachi’s assistance with two of Baudelaire’s productions. The cooperation, as he said, resulted in a conflicting contribution: Baudelaire was shooting the footage for his artistic partner according to his own sensibility, without following instructions given by the Japanese filmmaker, whereas, Adachi was reading a voiceover and writing a script for Baudelaire in a way he wanted to do it. As the artist added during the Q&A session, his collaboration with the subjects of his own works ussually give a multi-temporal nature to his films. In the case of The Anabasis of May and Fusako… the images are concurrently Adachi’s lost memories of Beirut and Baudelaire’s present view of the city.
Such a principle of dual temporality with the tension between “now” and “then” is also noticeable in his later works, such as The Ugly One (2013) and Letters to Max (2014). The Ugly One is characteristic of Baudelaire’s counteremployment of another Adachi’s script on the political situation in the Middle East, whereas, Letters to Max is based on a postal correspondence between Baudelaire and Abkhasian ex-diplomat Maxim Gvinjia. Like his Anabasis, Letters to Max is also an artwork of a dual nature: it has screened in international festivals—including New York Film Festival “Projections” program of 2014—as a feature-length film and was exposed in museums and contemporary art galleries as a performative installation.
Letters to Max, a poetic and contemplative movie, poses a question: what does it mean to be a diplomat representing a disputed and unrecognized territory? The epistolary relationship between the artist and the diplomat, according to Baudelaire, was treated by him as a time-machine connecting two different places in two contrasting times and political situations. The temporal nature of this correspondence led Baudelaire to choose specific film aesthetics to tell the story of Gvinjia. In the film we see images shot in Abkhazia, which are combined with a voice-over recorded by Gvinjia himself reading his letters to Baudelaire, written long before the actual shooting took place. It is in such a dialectical relationship between the contributors and between the different layers of spatiotemporality the most interesting outcomes of Baudelaire’s works emerge. That dialectic endows the work with a form that embraces significant themes concerning the subjectivity of one’s memory and the complexity of the relationship between “here” and “there,” moment and duration, subject and object, the artist and his work. There is never a categorical judgement given on the part of the author, rather the author is in constant dispute with subjects/collaborators in his own works. This kind of partnership with the performers and artistic partners—balancing between cooperation and antagonism, and oscillating between one’s present and the other’s past—speaks about the possibility of Baudelaire’s creative documentary as a collaborative medium that overcomes ideological partiality and ethical biases. (However, a political impartiality in Letters to Max could be questioned for a lack of reflection on a wider scale. The idea of an ethnic need for Abkhasia’s independence is taken for granted without any contextual references about why only three countries and Russia—which continues to pressure Georgia by keeping a strong military presence in Abkhasia and South Osetia after the Russian-Georgian war in 2008—recognized Gvinjia’s country as an independent state).
Baudelaire’s talk brought forth the idea stated by Gilles Deleuze that a closed representational circuit of cinematic images could be broken for the sake of creative and critical reflection on the past. The artist-lecturer showed how the portrayal of what Deleuze called “any-space-whatever” (espace quelconque)* and cinema’s progression towards a direct representation of time can lead to a new conception of political cinema. The one that starts from a premise not on the “already existing,” but on the “yet absent,” not on the conventional linear representation, but on a creative spontaneous exploration of the past. In short, Eric Baudelaire’s artist talk on his conception of filmmaking was, for me, an inspirational discovery, restoring my hope for potentiality of creative documentary, one that today is finding a new vivid place amid the fields of cinema and contemporary art.
* In his Cinema books Deleuze argues — via philosopher Henri Bergson and anthropologist Pascal Augé – for a cinematic space’s autonomy from characters’s actions and states that with the emergence of a modern cinema a closed representational circuit of cinematic images is broken. The status of cinematic space changes when “purely optical or sound situations become established in what we might call any-space-whatever, whether disconnected or emptied” (Cinema 2: The Time Image, p. 5). For more on the derivation of “any-space-whatever” and Deleuze’s influence on film theory generally, see Jeffrey A. Bell, “Thinking with Cinema: Deleuze and Film Theory,” Film-Philosophy 1.1 (1997), which summarizes the special journal issue “Gilles Deleuze, Philosopher of Cinema,” Iris 23 (1997), edited by D. N. Rodowick.
The Gilles Deleuze books are Cinema 1: The Movement Image and Cinema 2: The Time Image. London: Continuum, 2005; first published as Cinéma 1. L’Image-mouvement (1983) and Cinéma 2. L’Image-temps (1985).
For more on Eric Baudelaire, see the artist’s website, http://baudelaire.net.