Filmmaker Emmanuelle Demoris and critic Aaron Cutler led a discussion following the screening of two seminal short French documentaries that each take a singular approach to reality. Both films document their subjects in stunning ways, giving them a poetic and surrealistic dimension. In town to show her Mafrouza films at MoMa, Demoris reveals how those films enriched and changed her perspectives on life and cinema.
The Blood of the Beasts (Le Sang des bêtes, 1949), Franju’s first film, documents a Parisian slaughterhouse and its surroundings. The uncanny contrast between the peaceful Paris suburb of Canal de l’Ourcq and the slaughter and butchering of animals, narrated without emotive language, allows the film to function on realist and surrealist levels simultaneously.
Jean-Daniel Pollet’s L’Ordre (1974) is a 41-minute documentary showing the isolation of lepers on Spinalonga, a beautiful Greek island. Repetitions, jump-cuts, accelerations, and close-ups of walls and windows show how lepers were kept away from the wider population, and confined to this small piece of land. Managing to organize their lives and to resist rejection and abandonment, the lepers stayed until 1956. More than a movie on sickness and exile, L’Ordre explores the way we look at illness, and the idea of betrayal.
L’Ordre, Jean-Daniel Pollet
Aaron Cutler (AC): [Watching the films,] I thought about how society often seems to be very interested in trying to help me forget that I have a body—that there is something uncomfortable and taboo about the reminder of that. When you are eating a piece of meat, you are supposed to forget that it comes from an animal; the same way you are supposed to forget about sickness. I’m just thinking out loud, but this phrase resonates: “nothing that can be shown is obscene, the only things that are obscene are hidden.” I hadn’t really thought about these films in that way before.
Emmanuelle Demoris (EM): I would agree that both of them obviously show something that we tend not to look at. I’ll say that both of them do it the same way, and that they had the same effect on me. They made me see some things like I had never seen them before.
For instance, after L’Ordre, I’ll never see a gate the same way, or a road, or a wall, or the way some spaces lock us up.
I’ll say the same about meat, after The Blood of the Beasts. It has to do with animals, but it also deals with the surroundings of the slaughterhouse. The way he films a train [for example]. There is this cruelty [Franju] shows in the world, which is totally normal. We eat meat, that’s fine, but [the film] makes us see the grace in the world around us. It starts in the beginning with the combination of objects he shows at the flea market that seem to be together by chance. Little by little he displaces the way I can look at things. He changes the usual arrangements of things in the same way he arranges the landscape little by little. It becomes a human landscape and transforms into something much more touching than what we see in the beginning. For instance, the boat we see in the end makes me nearly cry. I don’t see it the same way because I have been through all the things I didn’t want to see. Both of the films make me want to love the world more, starting with the details I didn’t want to see in the beginning.
One moment I think is very strong [in L’Ordre] is when Pollet pans to the microphone. It is a very strong point in the film to me, without which the film wouldn’t be the same at all. It is very simple, and he is not using [the technique] several times, just this once. He is speaking and representing something, and knowing also that the guy in front of him, Raimondakis, is also perfectly aware of what they are doing together.
AC: Yes, I feel [Raimondakis] is addressing me as well as Pollet when that happens. It reinforces the point that I can not see it as a fiction.
ED: The fact of including the process, including the viewer, is something I sometimes like.
I’ll also say that these films show me the binary distinctions that I have in my mind. In L’Ordre, at the end, he shows how the opposition between being healthy and being sick isn’t meaningless, but that it is also only one way of thinking. It is not the only one. It makes me think beyond the question of sickness, how not to oppose two things in a binary combination.
What happens in The Blood of The Beasts isn’t exactly the same. It is the opposition between a possible cruelty and a possible grace in daily life. It changes all along with the film. In the beginning it seems that those animals are so cruelly killed, but little by little, it changes. Moreover, the dangers of the job also change my point of view. Both films do this.
The Blood of the Beasts, Georges Franju
AC: The urge to suppress sickness or to call something sick becomes itself some kind of sickness. The rhythm of these films is really important to that.
In The Blood of The Beasts, what struck me before and what strikes me now is that yes, this is a slaughterhouse and these animals are being killed, but this is also one form of work. You see it within the larger context of the Parisian day. You understand it as being connected, as being a part of many other activities that are happening throughout the city. Without the film having to pull out and show you the view, you make those associations for yourself. Similarly, to condemn the practices that these workers are doing is to condemn the workers, is to condemn yourself for eating the meat, is to condemn the way that many people are functioning in the society. The way that the film works, it all seems to me to be part of the day.
In L’Ordre it is very striking to me that you go between close-ups of lepers and depopulated views of the island. That you never see people in landscapes. Because I’m also making the connection for myself between these people and this place and thinking about how they fit into this place. I find the island very beautiful, and it resonates with me when [one of the lepers] says that even though they were condemned to be sent away from society, in a way happiness was possible in Spinalonga. That it was a society to be inhabited. The film leaves you enough imaginative space to think in a way that is not necessarily problematic.
ED: In the beginning Raimondakis says “Maybe you pity us,” and he adds “but we pity you because you die alone in hospitals.” He is not just saying that they could live together on the island. He is saying something very precise about our society. It is something that isn’t so easy to hear from someone you have difficulty watching.
In The Blood of The Beasts, I like the way the music is used as a counterpoint, never just to dramatize what is happening in the slaughterhouse. Franju finds that everything is beautiful, which I can feel in the movie. To film an island like this, or even somebody who is damaged by sickness, I’ll say Pollet has the same feeling. That is something they have in common. When Franju says that everything is beautiful, then only the truth matters, but by truth he doesn’t mean things to be genuine or not. What he means by truth isn’t opposed to falsity. Franju believed in the truth of feelings, not only of real fact. What he calls reality is not just the reality of fact. To move the object and put it in another place so we can see it, so we can see the essence of the object, to find his own quality as an object. He’s speaking of the essence of the object. He started as a theater decorator, and was close to Duchamp, which explains why he speaks in terms of conditioning and reconditioning the object. For example, the boat in the end, having it appear in the middle of the earth makes you see it in a way that is taking you out of your habits.
It is in a way completely linked to surrealism, to Bunuel’s Chien Andalou.
AC: I’ll add to this that it’s not right to say that nothing is manipulated in these films. Every time you film, things are being manipulated, but what is happening is that there is an essence that is being achieved and shown. So for instance, in L’Ordre, much of the time you have the lepers presented in isolation–especially at the end when you have this succession of images of lepers. That may not be the way that they actually look all the time, but the point that is being made is that these people are beautiful, so he is presenting them in a beautiful way. This is true in the film.
ED : It is good to remember that film is, in a way, manipulation. What we see here hurts, but I find it less obscene than many things that we see everyday on TV or in fiction. Seeing this [film], I realize that I am used to seeing images of horror happening around us—that we have seen worse but without questioning our capacity to see. Whereas here, showing something which is not so terrible, [Pollet] plays with our own difficulty to deal with it. I find it very honest—neither making it something common nor overdramatized—just putting us in front of the world.
There is a very harsh relationship with reality and at the same time something which is clearly assumed as poetry—a balance that I don’t find very often. [Typically] you either have something very rough playing on your nerves or you have some poetry that can be very heavy, sentimental. But finding a way to do them both together is something I haven’t seen in recent years. It is a part of what Renoir did in his films, like La partie de campagne, and also Jean Vigo, who also worked in a surrealistic way. With L’Atalante, he said he was not making a documentary, but a movie in a documented way. It is important to know that the anthropologist who worked on L’Orde knew only one thing about documentary: it was Vigo and this sentence! He told Pollet immediately. It is the point where the anthropologist and the filmmaker could meet. I’ll say that this kind of poetry is something that I haven’t seen, at least in French cinema, for quite a long time.
AC: I recently spoke to a filmmaker who said he valued movies where you sensed a relation between human time and cosmic time. That may be a way of putting what I see in both of these films: that even though there is a voiceover, you are sensing throughout them that there’s a lot of space that these words can not explain—that there are a lot of things that your eyes are perceiving that your mind cannot articulate. Which is why these film strike me on such a deep emotional level in addition to any kind of intellectual one, why they move me in ways I can’t explain. I think these days people tend to explain things too much.
Perhaps this is one way in which these films have a relationship with [Demoris’ film cycle] Mafrouza (2007-2010). For the Mafrouza films Emmanuelle lived for two years in a poor neighborhood in Egypt. It is one large film split into five parts. It tells many stories of her developing interactions with the inhabitants of the neighborhood. You never see her in front of the camera, it is pretty much a camera eye following whoever is leading it or exploring the neighborhood. Initially my relation is as one with the camera, discovering this new space, discovering these new people, but at a certain point I realized that she has an intimacy with whoever she is talking to, that I, as a viewer, do not. Suddenly I feel uncomfortable and I have to question myself as to why. I have to deal with my own discomfort. As in both of these films [tonight].
I find The Blood of the Beasts very unnerving. I’ve seen the film several times and I still find it very unnerving. But what does that say about me? If it’s something happening as just part of the workday, why does that bother me? If [in L’Ordre] these lepers are human beings, as worthy of respect, worthy of love, as any other human beings, why should seeing them and listening to them be uncomfortable? So, in all three of these works I need to confront my own unfamiliarity with something, and I’m forced to confront the fact of my own discomfort with being unfamiliar in a place.
Something that happens in all three of these works is that over time, if I’m a patient viewer, not all, but a lot of that discomfort goes away. Returning to the example of L’Ordre, the images of people at the end, I think it is a very intelligent move on his part, to present that rush of people at the end as opposed to the beginning. You are now ready for that.
ED: What I like in the end is that [Pollet] films Raimondakis, who did the interview, smoking his cigarette. You have a great smile with this, which you couldn’t feel before. You had to see all this, to share their experience. Not thinking of yourself as a leper, but finding a possible part of a leper in you. It is not identifying. It is close to identifying, but it is not sentimental. Then when you reach that point, the moment where he is smoking is like a small smile. I see it like this.
Audience question #1 : In the Beast film, the beginning is shot almost like a commercial: you see this blond woman with her hair kind of glowing. I did not understand the juxtaposition between those images of seeing just the beauty of the space and the carnage of these herded animals.
ED: The film shows that there is this, and that [then] there is this. There are no other links. The link is something we can make by ourselves if we want to. But there is no relation from cause to effect. There is the flea market around, so there are are various objects that can go together in the disorder of the world. [Franju] opens like this to show how some objects can be set close to one another merely by chance. The blond woman arrives in that charming little place close to the canal. She is part of the charm of life.
AC: In a fiction film the main character is supposed to have some experiences that make him undergo some kind of fundamental change, so that he is somehow a different person at the end of the film that he was at the beginning. When you are watching a film that person is represented by an actor going through these actions on screen. But in these films the hero’s journey is actually happening to the viewer. So I feel fundamentally different at the beginning of the film than I do at the end. In this external world, I move through the slaughterhouse and at the end when I go back out to Paris, I find the world different. Calling the woman beautiful for instance. She is beautiful in the eyes of someone who says she is beautiful and the slaughter of the animals is carnage because to you it is carnage. These are evaluative characteristics, and I think, as Emmanuelle is saying, that the film isn’t necessarily opposing them as that different. It is not necessarily making a contrast. They are each held up with some kind of equal value. When I watch these films, I can even see the work that those men are doing as beautiful. I can see actions like cutting throats as having some kind of poetry.
ED: I’m not sure the woman is shown as exactly beautiful, she is given as a standardized image of beauty. I mean the kiss is not a kiss for a filmmaker who is interested in the truth. You say it starts in a way that is a bit artificial. When he films all the objects, you can see that it is a real composition each time. For the blond woman he is more giving the cliché of a loving couple, not showing the real thing. He is not going to document a loving couple. He is more describing an atmosphere. He knew very well how to film women. So when he films a woman like this he is not giving her as really beautiful, he can do better. He is playing with that.