By Monica Delgado

How to establish a relationship between memory, archive and the present that escapes the usual common meanings of historical documentaries? How to approach the biographical genre without appealing to the classic narrative elements where the interpellation is left out? How to describe the sensitivity and baggage of the archivist in this process of recovery and reinterpretation of memory? In Un souvenir d’archives (2021), Christophe Bisson proposes a particular aesthetic, with detailed voices that create a sense of the world and the characters he approaches. In some way, the questions I propose appear as part of the devices that Bisson chooses to enter the figure of the philosopher Sarah Kofman, who committed suicide in 1994.

In the French films section of the recent edition of Cinéma du Réel, I was able to see this new medium-length film by Christophe Bisson, artist, teacher and filmmaker, who through forty minutes shows the archivist and researcher Isabelle Ullern reflecting on passages in the life of the French philosopher, daughter of Poles, Sarah Kofman, while reviewing her files, agendas or photos in a reading room of some institution. From very close shots, both of Ullern’s face and of the objects or papers that she reviews, the film is made up of the relationship between the researcher’s impressions and Kofman’s scribbles, drawings or notes.

From these reflections we get closer to Sarah Kofman, whose life was marked by the disappearance of her father in Auschwitz and the consequences of the Holocaust. The archivist considers that this fact definitely marked her, in addition that it was the main theme that runs through her autobiographical book Smothered Words, published in 1987 and that could glimpse the climate that governed her life until her last days. Although the same philosopher said in several interviews that the best autobiography of her was in her works such as her essays on the work of Freud and Nietzsche (the first scenes of the film refer us precisely to annotations by Kofman to editions of these publications) .

The filmmaker is located inside the reading room, in the Abbey of Ardenne, in the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine (IMEC), where Isabelle Ullern reviews the archives of the philosopher that are kept there. The act of touching, of seeing, of reflecting delicately from these vestiges is what Bisson tries to capture in a very close and sentimental way, from the hands and magnifying glasses of the archivist. And at times it seems that Bisson is more interested in Ullern’s sensitive appraisals of her work as an archivist, in a job that requires slowness, observation, giving new meanings to objects a thousand times listened to. However, little by little, Ullern gives in to what these objects intimately awaken, from humanity, sadness, dedication or compassion from her and from the remarkable eye of Bisson. And so the figure of Kofman emerges, from the small details, from texts in her own handwriting, from her vision of the world constructed from the familiar, private, but also, inevitably, from horror. Both Bisson and Ullern willing to contribute their views from the strategies that hang on the past.

French selection
Director: Christophe Bisson
Screenplay: Christophe Bisson with the participation of Isabelle Ullern
Photography, sound: Christophe Bisson
Editing: Claire Atherton
France, 2021, 45 min