by Tara Judah

“Something has happened to the real,” Jacques Rancière told the room.
“What has happened to the real is that it has become a matter of inquiry.”

No capital R here, just a term that has something to do with historical (maybe indexical?) truth. No documentary turn to refute, just a new line of inquiry and a desire to find out how, not what, we understand.

The dissemination of technology does not necessarily democratise the playing field: I have a camera but not everything I shoot will or should be seen. Access cannot eliminate the modes of production that result in unequal power dynamics and, true equity, Rancière believes, lies elsewhere. It is the capacity for fictioning (not even fictioning itself) that belongs to everybody.

Fiction calls for an absence of politics (although, paradoxically, politics may participate in fiction, and exist in its modes of production) and allows inquiry into political material through the creation of a space and time that documentary does not have access to – unless, of course, it engages elements of fiction.

Fiction allows the inquiry to exist somewhere else; on the bodies, in the faces and through the time taken by people to do something, or nothing. Rancière’s examples included the work of Pedro Costa, Wang Bing and Kelly Reichardt.

The inquiry, of these makers of meaning is not simply to document reality but to construct images of how reality persists.

Bitter Money (Wang Bing, 2016)

Wang Bing’s Ku Qian (Bitter Money, 2016), which screened as part of the official selection at Courtisane, served as a post Rancière exemplar. Beautifully and thoughtfully gliding from one protagonist to the next, capitalist fiction is exposed through seamless camera work. Bing reveals the modes of production through a cine-map of East China’s geographically motived socio-economic inequity: each person’s story has threads tied to someone else’s. Via an incredible feat of fluidity, so gentle in motion it defies the 155-minute run time, Bing shows how every bead of very real sweat that is poured into the rag trade’s incredible system of exploitation persists in the fiction of the final product.

Ogawa Productions’ epic, obfuscating and mesmeric Sennen kizami no hiokei – Magino-mura monogatari (The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches – The Magino Village Story) further illuminated Rancière’s conception of how fiction is a welcome disruptor of time. Dramatic (and melodramatic) re-enactment sit alongside observatory images of rice farming, allowing one to prove the importance, credence, manufactured essence and painstaking truth of the politics in social, economic and cultural production for the other. The time taken to show these things seems lengthy for cinema (the film runs at 222 minutes) but the fiction, here, lies in its brevity; time-lapse, ellipses and the noticeable camera movement through rice fields at a speed decided by the physical forward trajectory of a cinematographer.

The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches – The Magino Village Story (Ogawa Productions, 1986)

Elsewhere in the programme Courtisane gave completely new meaning to Dušica Dražic and Wim Janssen’s Projektor (2017), shown in February this year as an installation at IFFR’s Nuts & Bolts exhibition. An historically resonant 35mm projector – the NP-21 (Narodni Projektor, the ‘Projector of the People’) – was dismantled and a mould was created of each individual part, cast and finished in bronze, filmed and then projected through the sum of its parts. A conceptual project in both spaces, Projektor is also, simultaneously, the revelation of modes of production and the presence of utility and completion within a given space. In Rotterdam, the focus was on the concept of completion; the gallery (no seats in sight) invites us to look but not to stick around. In Ghent, the film was further immersed in the fiction of duration; Vrijeme 1 (Time 1, 1977) and Vrijeme 2 (Time 2, 1980) by Mladen Stillinovi? and Harun Farocki’s magnificent Schriftsteller und Schmied (1988), a portrait of Georg K. Glaser, writer and metal worker, each went to work on the audience before the story of the bronze beauty – stood staunchly in their midst – was allowed to unfold.

The physicality of the thing sparked a provocation about the tangibility of conceptual art: is its ontology an inherent truth or another line of fiction? Echoes of this haunting question cropped up in other areas of the festival’s official selection.

Jean Matthee’s Neon Queen (1986), though loaded with feminist protest and acutely attacking racism was also born of a formal inquiry into the utility of film. Whether or not one recognises the material as a manipulated scene from Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956), one nevertheless feels Matthee’s rage against inequality through the fiction of the colour red and the construction of an image wrestling loudly and violently through the parity of a bored, peppy or overwhelmed Hollywood heroine dancing to the sounds of searing jazz. It is the interrogation of the format; two and three colour separations, and the interruption of narrative fiction by the colour red that affords the film its sensory affect, and that further allows viewers to investigate the politics of the situation, regardless of its relationship to the real.

Sunset Red (Laida Lertxundi, 2016)

Also in red was Laida Lertxundi’s Sunset Red (2016), a personal attempt to interrogate how her practice relates to her embodied being, “It’s a set of echoes of an upbringing by communist radicals, not as nostalgia but as a way of making sense, finding practical applications of the past in the present.” Her menstrual blood, poured onto paper and the pavement, is not just the reality of her being, it is also a fiction that lets us think about the intersection of body and story: the corporeality of the film.

Courtisane, as a festival, far more than most, creates its fiction with all the skill and care that curation ought. The films are selected – not for their timeliness or premiere status, but for their ability to engage and provoke curiosity – and are shown in the hope of sharing something as simple yet powerful as “notes on cinema”. The notes, with all the hallmarks of great fiction, are quite simply an invitation to inquiry.