By Monica Delgado

We knew the work of Virgil Vernier from acting and directing fictions like the great Mercuriales, so his new work with archive material gives us a different facet from the documentary side. Seen in the French films section of the recent Cinéma du Réel, Kindertotenlieder is a reconstruction of the riots in Clichy-sous-Bois, near Paris in 2005, taken from television news videos. The reunion with this material, set up chronologically and in response to the construction of an official television and journalistic discourse, is proposed as a way of rereading these contemporary historical events as a reaction to a vicious circle of power from official institutions.

All the weight of the documentary falls on Vernier’s position in the reassembly. Part of the incidents following the death of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, young people of migrant descent who were persecuted by the police in a suburb, electrocuted to death when wanting to hide in a high-voltage zone. This fact sparked a wave of disturbances in response to a repressive system that has already been in place for some months by actions of the then Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy. What Vernier achieves is to re-edit all this archive material to give a version of the events, free of sensationalism, frivolity and effectism in favor of the call for order to state power. Vernier edited the images, but also the sounds, since he stripped the television material of the voice of the reporters, the accompanying music or some noises that amplified the dramatic or that re-victimized some protagonists in the news. In this way, Vernier’s work is also a reform of television language, either as criticism, recomposition or negation. It is in this idea of the rethinking of the news and the transmission of facts that the interest of Kindertotenlieder resides.

The burning of cars (more than nine thousand at the time), especially at the hands of migrant adolescents, is observed by the media as an act of warning and terror; in Kindertotenlieder Vernier exposes this event as a ritual scale, of a new Code-based relationship between the enraged people and the hostile and racist police or state system. This archive material, which looks clean, as if it were a direct film record, is ordered according to some elements, such as the axis of the cars burned at night at the point of Molotov cocktails, the affectation of private property or even schools, and the fear of the neighbors, to turn the suburbs into a territory of combat and messages in code.

Curfews, Sarkozy press conferences where he speaks disparagingly about young Africans and Muslims protesting and the police deployment in the suburbs as control mechanisms are seen from this new Vernier perspective. Above all, there’s a look at the migrant population, in the neighborhoods of multi-family buildings that look like imprisoned spaces separated from the officiality. On the one hand, the fear of riots is shown, and on the other hand, the expansion of these protests against police actions at the national level. What is clear is that these riots were only the beginning of a wave of confrontations throughout France, where they emerged beyond the topic of criminal control, classism, xenophobia and racism, but also of public policies that promised a better world. A recent past that provides other types of responses to a reality that can explode in a similar way.

French section

Director: Virgil Vernier
Production: Petit Film (Jean des Forêts, Amélie Jacquis)
Editing: Charlotte Cherici
Sound editing and mixing: Simon Apostolou
France, 29 min, 2021