By José Sarmiento Hinojosa
Claire Simon (Gare du Nord, 2013) has been dwelling in her own personal form of documentary for years now. “People ring true or false in fiction cinema as well as in documentary cinema.” Here, she embarks to a small Provençal village where a garage shop is run by a group of men. The main interest of this gaze is to make the patriarchal apparatus which works in any provincial town visible, but not in a tone of denounce and complaint, but stripping the system bare to allow the viewer to see how this very “male” environment of workers functions with its own rules, and is also subjected to certain mechanisms of power. The revealing side of this Garage, Engines and Men, lies in the careful way in which Simon places her own camera/body in the middle of the daily routines of this dynamics of male camaraderie, a place of empathy that shows this men in all their imperfections and clear inherited sexism, but also as every day workers with families who try to keep their work life functioning.
Thus, one is never antagonized against the characters of the film. It’s quite clear that the mechanisms of sexism and patriarchal structures are there for the watching (with simple things, like the Godfather ringtone of the shop owner, the disputes and conflicts among men, patronizing dialogue with women about family and kids, even some tense moments of intense discussion between former lovers). But Simon places her in a place of understanding which never excuses the attitudes of these men, but just shows them as they are and allow us to take our own personal position against this complex issues. It’s an exercise of observation. One might claim that presence is not enough, that certain position must be taken before these issues, but this documentary is not an exercise of disrupting but a chance of gazing in the problems that arise within a system that upholds men to certain standards of conduct and certain conflicts of character.
Garage, Engines and Men (2021) also feels quite “provincial” in its treatment, and somehow gravitates around this universe of small-town European people, which is interesting to see, but falls a little short of being more incisive in certain structural issues of manhood and working class. Still, an interesting documentary to watch.
In the other side of the spectrum we have Saxifrages, Four White Nights by Nicolas Klotz and Elizabeth Perceval, a film that works inside this atmosphere of “gothic romanticism” (not my term, but Clémence Arrivé and Catherine Bizern’s). The work opens with a poem by surrealist poet René Char, and immediately drags us into a limbo of dark atmospheres which invokes the spirits of Straub-Hulliet, Bresson and Costa. « In the shadows of Low Life, a secret ceremony dedicated to thirteen guardians of humanity’s common treasures, love and resistance, youth and poetry, equality and difference, insurrection and revolution.» explains the introduction of the film for Cínema du Réel and it’s certainly the start point of this wondering around a non-zone of different characters, which enunciate their monologues as living dead inhabiting a certain circle of hell.
Klotz and Perceval are by any means new in this labyrinthine way of placing their characters in a non-space. Films like Mata Atlántica (2016), Low Life (2011), and Klotz’ own La Blessure (2004), among others, deal with these spaces inhabited by the disenfranchised, the artist, the minorities: the other. This exercise of denounce is incredibly powerful because it reaches a neuralgic place of birth which relates to art as a form of surviving, of existing in a place against all odds, of declaring life as a mere act of resistance, of poetry as a political action. Klotz and Perceval’s characters live not as dwellers of a dantesque inferno, but as dark angels who have rebelled against the designation of someone bigger than them. Fallen angels that speak and interact with poetry as a final resource of survival.
A hybrid of fiction and documentary, Saxifrages, Four White Nights cements Klotz and Perceval’s position as two of the most extraordinary political filmmakers of the 2000’s. Their Saxifrages, slowly breaking apart the fabric of society, are the pivotal point where their cinema begin: mankind in resistance. Saxifrages … These rootless plants’ windblown destiny is a soft perseverance doubled by an imperceptible intransigence, which, in time, imposes on the hardness of stones a patience that can break them.