By José Sarmiento y Mónica Delgado

Translation: Mina Blumenfield

The mastermind behind the dyptich “Qu’ils Reposent En Révolte (Des Figures De Guerre)” and “Les Éclats (Ma Gueule, Ma Révolte, Mon Nom)” has just released his new documentary “Vers Madrid” in which he returns to the social problems of the new Europe, now focusing in the 15-M movement in Spain. He shared some words about it and his body of work with Desistfilm.

Desistfilm: Sylvain, tell us about how you landed in the filmmaking world. From what we’ve read about you, it came as something unexpected. Is that so?

Sylvain George : Actually, I decided to make movies in my late teens, when I was 18. Cinemas were kind of safe  places of retreat and exhibition: the soft darkness the way the lights hit the room, then the light on the screen… Movies seemed to put together all of my interests ; philosophy, litterature, painting…

I wished I could make movies which did not exist yet, which were not already in cinemas. Films about “social” or “political” causes, like the French suburbs (French ghettos are not in the city, as the Anglo-Saxon model, but have been pushed out of the city by the 60’s urbanism due to significant migratory movements) and at the same time, formally extremely rich.

But for many reasons, I could only start to make movies years later. Only six years ago, in fact, in 2006. This was mostly because I could not focus my energy, or should I say, my anger, a certain “complexity of life” as much as the fact that I didn’t know anything about the codes and tools of cinema…

All this time was not lost however ! I crossed twisted paths, spent time with existential wandering, earned professional experiences (all of those “slave away” jobs that people with no degrees can do, then more skilled ones, especially in the fields of substance abuse and people leaving prison) I studied philosophy, law and political science, and earned a master’s degree in history … I also watched several films.

As you can see, unlike most French and European directors, I do not come from a favored/high social environment nor from cinephilia.

All of these experiences helped me to construct who I am and, in 2006, as certain kinds of familial, economic and political conditions were ready, I could start to make real this desire for a cinema which was a part of me, a desire that had never left me for 20 years; to make faithful movies to a certain expectation I could have when I was 18 and enjoy a maturity I didn’t have then; movies that come from within. A vital necessity.

Desistfilm : How did you decide that the migratory problem was something you wanted to focus on? Was there other material available for you to talk about? Did you make a conscious decision to make this film about migration?

Sylvain George: The subject  quickly became obvious to me when I started my film activity. Migration issues were pervasive in the speeches of politicians, many laws concerning undocumented migrants were passed, immigrants were friends directly affected by the arrangements put in place by the government (raids in neighborhoods with high concentrations of immigrants in them to expel people from France; placement of people in detention centres etc..). The media were accomplices in power and condemned immigrants. Cinema did not speak about any of these questions. Maybe documentary did a bit more, but often extremely badly.

The issue of foreigners is a perfect indicator of the state of our Western democracies. The relationship that they have with foreigners is also extremely revealing of relationship they have with themselves, the way they are.

More than ever, the prey of foreign ultraliberal ideology, of predatory capitalism is cannibalizing everything. The issue of foreigners is exploited for the sole purpose of entertaining and diverting people from their most immediate and legitimate concerns. The facts are clear: in France as elsewhere, the middle class getting poorer, working classes are barely making ends meet, while a minority, rich and powerful, is growing. To this is added a xenophobia that is more inhibited as the days passes.

Through migration policies, you can measure how current policies are likely to be and how they may create states of emergency. In specific locations in a given time, with certain well-defined categories of persons (unemployed, strikers, poor, migrants), states of emergency are created during which the law is suspended and individuals deprived of their most basic rights .

It seemed crucial to work on these issues, and so my film work started from them.

Desistfilm: Tell us about the shooting process. Was it difficult to interact with both the migrants and the police? How did your crew react to this?

Sylvain George: The working process and the relation created between myself and filmed people,or those likely to be filmed, results from my conception of cinema, of the movie, of the camera. Cinema is for me a dialectical method, a medium, a tool that allows me to construct a critical and dialectic relation with the world, to set up a relation with it and then, with myself. It’s finally a “means without end” (Giorgio Agamben) which allows me to work on several levels of representation. Representations that build us, sometimes unwittingly go through us; a means that allows us to throw into doubt those representations that a family circle, a society can have of our ancestry or ethnic roots -representations that we can obviously make our own (“symbolic violence”, as Pierre Bourdieu said) and that each individual has the duty to examine; to get free of it, to liberate from it, to define one’s self as a person, independant and acting.

From then on, such a conception of cinema understood as a relationship, a meeting, implies the setup of an equality, of an ethical and political plan with filmed people.

Thus I try, as much as possible, to introduce myself, to explain what I’m doing, what kind of film I’m trying to construct, its aesthetic, its financing, it’s distribution, so as it people can have at least a minimum of information about me.

This also implies a certain kind of behavior: at Calais, it’s not unusual to see journalists or cineastes using police dispositives to obtain images faster (they hide behind trees, shoot without people’s knowledge, and so on…) my approach is in contrast to that. I spend a lot of time in places, with people, but without filming. At the opposite, some very intense moments of shooting can happen.

Migrant people are used to seeing video cameras. They know very quickly to whom they have to deal with, and decide if they want to be filmed, or not. When you are respectful of the people, of their actions and are mindful of them, there’s no reason why, according to a principle of elective affinities, you can’t build something and shoot them.

Regarding to the police, the problem is slightly different. They don’t want to be filmed. However, French law is very clear: you have the right to film people in public spaces. So you have to constantly explain the law to the ones who are responsible of its enforcement. Each time the police appear in the film, it means that I had to put up with an identity check. In three years of presence at Calais, this happened at least fifty times.

Desistfilm: Sylvain George Noir Productions seems like almost a statement, a compromise which you follow to make your films. Even the genesis of your work is a compromise to use noir as an element of world representation.  Are you committed to this aesthetic choice, and will you pursue it in further works?

Sylvain George: Yes, you’re right somehow.

Concerning Noir Productions, it’s a tool I provided for myself, that I created, because I was in conflict with the production company I worked with when I started to work on my films. A real weapon that should allow me, allowed me and still allows me to work independently from people who don’t know anything, don’t understand anything and wallow in a position which is not theirs. (Working with, or even finding a producer who truly understands the artistic, creative and political processes of a film maker is something extremely hard. However, I maintain hope for projects to come…); and to define with a certain flexibility some working rhythm, some cinematographical forms in relation to subjects, events, experienced feelings…

The word “black”, as a name, imposed itself very quickly. I found it simple, sober and extremely meaningful from a symbolic and political point of view: black is associated with sobriety, elegance, the unknown, mystery, revolt and anarchy… This name allowed me at the same time to sign an extremely strong emancipative act, considering the difficulties I was in (conflict with my production company, my financial situation…) to be self-sufficient and to declare myself independent.

These motivations obviously appear somehow in the movies I do and are, for the most part, in black and white. (Referring to the next question)

However, there’s no systematic “thing”. I’m not in a thought barred on itself and that would established black and white as an absolute value: authority, as a system. I never thought of or imagined making movies only in black and white (some of my films are in color, or have moments of color). Actually, B&W seemed better to plastically translate the realities I was confronted with, or that I wished to present at the moment.

As I work on subjects that participate in what’s called the “extreme contemporary”: migratory questions, social movements…

My project is, in the meantime, to try to understand what these policies are, how they work, how they are applied, their consequences on the people concerned. It’s about how to produce some “knowledge” and at the same time to deconstruct dominant representations. Because these subjects can give rise to media and political representations which are mostly stigmatizing.

One of the build-up ideas had been to create a plastic and critical deconstruction of these representations by the exploration and the game of resources and the power of the used medium (I originally wanted to work with argentic to create a plastic distance with the main medium: the digital. As the project developed over time and became more and more expensive (filming “May They Rest in Revolt” lasted 3 years, with a year and half in post-production) I could not, for financial reasons, work on argentic. I finally chose digital. An interesting choice: working in video, using this “shared medium”, to plastically deconstruct the dominant representations through work on the power of the aforementioned media, seems to me maybe even more relevant than the first idea to work with argentic.

The black and white, the slowed down or sped up footage, the still images… are some elements allowing to realize this plastic deconstruction, this critique of dominant representations and to realize new presentations.

It’s also a way to work on time, on the concept of document, of stain, of archives, by rerouting a stereotype connected to black and white in the main/dominant doxa. This one is actually systematically associated to images from the past, linked to outdate times. Produce black and white images from extremely recent events allows me to turn round the dialectic, to operate a radical critic of usually admitted “lectures”, to realize dialectical connections with problems and themes linked to other times, other countries, etc… It’s then a way to de – compartmentalize times that a persistent myth of progress tend to enclose ones against the other.

B&W is also for me a way to question, to revive, to redefine an aesthetic category that would be an allegory.

As well, I use it in a very metaphorical way. For example, the theme of burning is very present in migratory policies: the Morrocans who burn their ID papers before they come to Europe are called “burners”; the migrants burn their digital prints to escape the Eurodac system; policemen burn the mobile homes, the clothes… So I used very dark and sooty blacks, sometimes heavy whites, and played with over and underexposure…

As well, B&W allows me, currently, to express and translate at best my emotions, my feelings. The sensation, the aesthesis, directly refers to the etymology of the word aesthetic. Aesthetics as a science of beauty does not interest me. However, aesthetics as an opportunity to translate the feelings of a character interests me at the highest level. An artist, a writer, a filmmaker cannot really define their own language, its own singular aesthetic through the dialectical link established between his sensations and his cultural and intellectual resources.

Desistfilm: In your films, using that kind of black and white, in most cases saturated and with heavy grain, gives us the sensation of being always in a state where day and night are no different. The characters look trapped in this absence of a full day. This use of light seems appropriate for these characters, which are without papers, without home, without country, looking to erase their identity. How did you come to decide on this kind of light? Could you tell us about the process of finding this aesthetic in your documentary?

Sylvain George: Calais is for me emblematic of what public policies currently are, and the states of emergency they can create. At Calais, as in other places, the law can be suspended and peoples rights stripped from them, which make them runaways from the law. As I said before, using black and white or playing with time is a method to present, in a plastic and sensory way, this state of emergency and the consequences of the migratory policies established in Europe, in France, and elsewhere…

But at the same time, I try to move the centres of gravity, to create junctions, to change a plane of immanence: I show the vanishing lines, the resistance and survival strategies, the acts of survival, the insurrectionary acts and movements. The city of Calais is soaked by security measures, but the people can, and come to thwart police measures. They create dreadful countermeasures which answer to the violence of the State : they burn their digital prints, jump over guardrails, climb on trucks, sing, dance, laugh, keep themself clean and finally come to England…

Minor movements considering of the forces there, but real, and fitted with an indisputable subversive charge.

It also was to express my vision of the world at a specific moment, as the cinema is for me, as I said before, a total, global experience : existential, metaphysical, poetic, political… Movies are then also the result of what I could feel in regards of encountered events, of people I met (Some of whom have become close friends, and who have lived through incredibly hard things): at the same time some moments of fear, blues, mourning, pain, melancholia, joy…

The cinema plays with this dialectic : cinematography of experience / cinematographical experience;  the creation of a singular and space-time, that moves and breaks the limits of traditional admitted experiments : movies are temporal bombs.

Desistfilm: Des figures de guerre, as a title, seems to give an idea of a battlefield or a walk into a gallery of horror. Nonetheless, we’re situated in Calais, a territory that seems dehumanized as a consequence of the French migratory politics, a politics that creates desperate and sad characters. They are not forgotten, since they’re always present as prey for the police raids and as guilty characters of migration policies, even also as possible culprits of the raise of criminality rates. They are there, powerful, looking for something to eat, to think, to decide, in a film where the persecutors are barely seen, almost diffused. Was it inevitable that you would end up representing a world like that, masculine, with men without papers, of eternal fugitives?

Sylvain George: It was unmissable for me to present some situations from Calais in all their violence, their crudeness or their beauty.

But my approach excludes any form of pathos, compassion, pity… these feelings that only a “hierarchical” position or, to resume Rancière, a certain “place” can allow to experience. My approach is “political” in the etymological meaning of the term: the life of the city and  people amongst themselves. My films are thus interested in people, in characters, in uniqueness and not in generic beings. They approach and work the realm of the sensible and the intelligible, of poetics and politics.

The migrants are not victims but people, they are political subjects like you and me. Subjects who are, certainly, exploited for the purpose of low politics, subjects who are certainly mistreated by strictly unacceptable politics, political subjects considered as social outcasts, full-fledged political subjects nonetheless. Men and women who fight and cannot resolve themselves to passively accept the violence of the State. They fight with their own strength and resources, and draw and promote at the same time  different visions of the world, as real as necessary.

Desistfilm : It’s amazing how your presence constitutes the perspective of the film, as if you were a live reporter. However, we can’t really determine if there’s a connection between the filmmaker and the characters. Did you have a personal connection with the migrants, and what was the connection you felt as a filmmaker?

Sylvain George: As I have outlined, the camera is a tool that allows a dialectical dialogue with the “world” as with oneself. The film is therefore the result of meetings, dialogues and time shared with migrants. All persons who appear in the film know what were filmed. Nothing was done without their knowledge. This is all the more eloquent regarding the Eritreans. Generally they do not want to be filmed. Whenever you see a person of Eritrean origin in the frame (and there are many), this implies that a dialogue has been initiated before.

As I sketched out, the camera is a dialectic tool that allows to start a dialogue with the world as with oneself. The film exists in that it is the result of meetings, of dialogues and of time shared with migrants. All the people who appear in the movie know their have been filmed. Nothing have been done without their knowledge. This is all the more eloquent regarding the Eritreans. Usually, they don’t want to be filmed. Thus, whenever you see one of them on the screen, it means that a dialogue had been initiated before.

The film, then, expresses my own point of view about the situation at Calais, about the migratory policies, about a certain state of France and of our western civilisations.

Desistfilm : In Les Éclats there seems to be a more optimistic finale, one that’s almost bucolic despite the darkness. Was this the intention?

Sylvain George: Your appraisal is very interesting. I got the opposite impression and felt like the film “The shards”, apparently more calm and peaceful, was actually quite more violent than “May they rest in revolt”.

I made “The shards” because there was a lot of unreleased material I hadn’t used for “May they rest in revolt”. Not because this footage was less important but because it didn’t find a place in the last film due to questions of narrative construction, of spirit of time… This footage seemed very important to me, and I had already made commitments to some people.

I tried to work these materials and to give them a singular shape, different from “May they rest in revolt”. Unlike that one, the sequences do not dialectically jumble together; they are more linked by a game of visual or musical connections, by a flow of plastic patterns. It gives a more “organic” and maybe more classical aspect to this film compared to the previous ones.  As for the final scene: a migrant looks at the boats going away to England before he turns his back to the sea and goes back to the infernal Calais presented all through the movie. It was clearly lain down by the feelings of this young man I filmed repeatedly for several months: feelings of despair, of anger, of revolt…

Desistfilm: In Qui’ils reposent en révolte there’s an evident ethical compromise in giving a point of view about a complex European problem. The others exist; there’s a limit between Europe and the others. In some shots the distance even seems obscene (people burning their fingerprints to disappear from the world). How did you give birth to this film?

Sylvain George: The film is born from this absolute urge to take a position in regards to unacceptable politics and the visions of  the world they promote ;  from the thirst to present and amplify the beauty of characters as the darkest side they can provide ; from the desire and unmeasured necessity to take a position to define myself as an individual and a free man from and with the help of the cinematographical medium.

Desisfilm: What projects do you have in hand now? What are your new interests? Are you pursuing the documentary style still? What about fiction, is that something that attracts you?

Sylvain George: I’m finishing the editing of a movie about the events that occurred in Spain, at Madrid, in 2011 and 2012 and which gave birth to the “Occupy” movement all around the world for a year.

When those events started, I felt the necessity to move on and see what happened there. As a lot of people, I wondered if we were going to assist to the first revolution of the 21st century in Occidental civilizations.. What I could see was very exciting to me: the re-appropriation of public areas by the “people”, the surfacing of political discourses… political experiments which examine and revive the concepts of logos, demos, revolution…

I took a video camera with me so I could film a lot of things even if I didn’t plan, at the beginning, to make a film. Some of the material seemed very important, so I took the decision to try to construct something with it.

Unlike “May they rest in revolt” or “The Shards” which were made in three years, during a period of complete immersion in space and time, this movie is composed with some material filmed in a very short time, between 2011 and 2012, as I had nor the financial ability nor the time needed to stay for a very long time.

The film is going to rework the concept of “Newsreel” invented by Robert Kramer and takes the form of an experimental newsreel. The idea of the newsreel seems interesting to me in what it worked well with the working process, of production of the movie, first but also in what it is a way to answer and takes the opposing view to the disinformation surrounding the events in Spain.

Two or three versions of this film have already started to circulate at festivals in Europe. This has allowed to highlight and talk about the Spanish revolution. It is entitled “Towards Madrid – The burning bright! (Scenes from the class struggle and the revolution). “

Finally I have several “fictional” films projects, I cannot speak about them for now, but they will soon become a reality …