On the Borders of Fiction

A Conversation with Jacques Rancière

How can cinema challenge us to imagine something other? This question has occupied Jacques Rancière ever since he was swept up by the wave of cinephilia that rolled across Paris in the 1960s. From his first interview in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1976, to the articles he regularly contributed to that same magazine between 1998 and 2001, to the publication of La fable cinématographique (2001) and Les écarts du cinema (2011), cinema has remained an important presence in his work, linking his longtime research into the scenes of social emancipation with his dwellings on the shores of politics and his ventures into the realms of aesthetics.

What all these areas of research have in common is an attention to what he has called le partage du sensible, usually rendered in English as ‘the distribution of the sensible’. What Rancière means by that are the ways in which forms of practice and knowledge outline a certain cartography of the common world, which we use to make sense of our world and how we take part in it. This cartography, according to Rancière, is articulated and established, among other things, by way of fictions, meaning ways of framing and narrating the time we live in, with all its inherent possibilities and impossibilities, and how we are in tune or out of tune with that time.

During this conversation, a selection of recent film works served as a starting point for an exploration of the relations between cinema and fiction, and the workings of fiction in the art of cinema.


Stoffel Debuysere: Today, we seem to be confronted with a certain skepticism with regards to the notion of ‘fiction’. There is of course the idea of ‘post-truth’, which has become a commonplace in recent months. And, in the arts in general, there is a growing fascination with the so-called ‘factual’ or ‘documentary’ turn. This seems to resonate with David Shields’ often-quoted idea of the so-called ‘reality hunger’ that has supposedly taken hold of contemporary literature, with its preference for the testimonial and the confessional, and its openness to contingency and serendipity over contrived plots, characters and dialogue. The appeal to the authority of ‘real’ experiences is thus set against the artificiality of imagined plots and scenarios. Counter to these tendencies, you have in recent years chosen to continue to explore the spaces of modern fiction. What was for you the impetus to analyze the logics of avowed forms of fiction? How do you situate your research in relation to the so-called ‘reality hunger’?

Jacques Rancière: For me, ‘reality hunger’ is a dubious notion, because it tends to equate itself with the taste for the documentary, the desire for the flesh, for the ‘reality’ of reality shows. For me fiction doesn’t mean the invention of imaginary beings but the creation of a certain structure of rationality, a structure for presenting facts, characters and situations, for connecting events, let’s say. There is fiction everywhere, even in the news that we hear every day. So fiction in general is what creates a sense of reality. For me the idea that people don’t want fiction because they want reality is actually rather strange. In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), Shields basically offers two arguments, and they are not consistently related to one another. The first argument is about artifice: it says that people now live in a universe of techniques and screens, and consequently they want reality as a compensation. That’s a rather weak argument. The second argument, for its part, is quite different, and deals instead with the distinction between invention and imagination, and suggests that the documentary is on the side of imagination, while fiction is on the side of invention. Now, it is true that the documentary doesn’t invent characters, situations, and so on, but what is important about documentary is that it is also a kind of fiction, one in which you don’t have to act as if it were real. This shift is important: the point is not to create credible characters, situations, and connections between events, because in a way they are real, so you don’t have to prove that they are possible. Which is to say that in the ‘documentary turn’ there is no obsession with the flesh, or with the real. The question is not, “Is it real?,” but: “What kind of reality is at play here?” It is not, “Is it real?,” but: “How is it real? What does this kind of reality mean?” If you think of some authors who work between literature and cinema, like W.G. Sebald or Alexander Kluge, you could say they are part of some kind of documentary turn, but dealing with this question: “How is it real?” If you think about the photographs in Sebald’s book, it is clear that they are supposed to document what is being said, and clear as well that they have no real relation, no authentic relation to what is being said. The question they raise, then, is this: “What kind of affect does a photograph produce?” The answer to that question is more complex, more subtle, than the ‘flesh of reality’, or ‘reality hunger’.

I think documentary is not about confession, but about what it means to confess or to testify. My own position trades on overturning the question, on saying that it is not true that people want the real, that it is not true that they don’t want fiction. Fiction is everywhere. The question is: where do we situate the starting point of fiction? What kind of arrangement makes something happen? In a way, we can say there is fiction whenever there is some kind of narrative that tells, or shows, us that something is happening. That’s why, in my recent work, I have mostly been interested in exploring the edges of fiction, the edge between nothing happens and something happens. I think it is time to dismiss all these suppositions that people are stupid, that they don’t want fiction anymore because they want flesh. They don’t want flesh, they want emotions. The question is what kind emotion is produced by what kind of fiction. That’s what I’m working on now. Indeed, I just finished writing a book called Les bords de la fiction, which deals precisely with this really tiny distinction or invisible border between nothing happens and something happens.

In Délit de fiction (2011), writer Luc Lang explains the inflation of fiction and the tendency to insist on the factual as symptoms of a wider cultural phenomenon, as reactions to the proliferation of ‘true’ stories, first-person journals, and faits divers that saturate everyday life. As he sees it, the ‘literary democracy’ of modern fiction has become the brouhaha of intimate stories, and these come down to a recitative polyphony of one and the same discourse, one that is well suited to the dominant ideology. This argumentation echoes other recent tropes of criticism, like Adam Curtis’ charge that individual self-expression feeds the conformity of our time. Is your investigation into the forces of fiction also a way to displace and question this atmosphere of disenchantment and skepticism?

Basically, if you are a Jacotist, if you follow Jacotot’s ideas about intellectual emancipation, the question is about the starting point. Either you start from inequality or you start from equality. On the first side there is the argument which says that that people are stupid, that they want ‘flesh’ but are offered ‘real’ stories that are entirely stereotyped and in synch with the dominant ideology of individuality and individualism. Democracy is supposed to mean that everyone wants his or her own story. Everyone wants to express her- or himself, but all they do is reproduce the dominant ideology. This sort of disdainful analysis is very prevalent in the so-called intellectual world. My starting point is precisely the opposite: to say, first, that there is fiction everywhere, and that in fiction there is an effort to make something of one’s own life. What interests me more specifically in fiction is this link between the fiction of the author and this capacity to fictionalize that belongs to everyone. For my book, I did of lot of research on the Brazilian novelist João Guimarães Rosa, who wrote very short stories about this edge of something and nothing. I did that precisely with the idea of restaging the capacity of all peoples (in this case, peasants in Brazil) to invent their own stories, their own fictions. We also have a striking example of this in the films of Abbas Kiarostami: there is in most of his films a kind a tension – sometimes it’s tension, sometimes it’s collaboration – between the design of the filmmaker and the capacity of anyone to construct a fiction. A famous example of this is the film Nema-ye nazdik [Close-Up] (1990), which is about a guy who passes himself off as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, because he wants to be recognized as a filmmaker. But even if you think of the films about the young boys and what happens in the villages after the earthquake, you always have this tension between the work of the filmmaker and the capacity of the boys and girls of these faraway villages, who want to have their characters, their own way of being in front of the camera that follows their stories.1 The question is whether you think fiction from the presupposition of inequality or the presupposition of equality.

Why is it that artifice, or al least certain kinds of artifice, seem to have become so hard to bear? In 2000 you wrote an article for Cahiers du Cinéma in which you analyze how certain fictional forms of cinema – entanglements of the ordinary and extraordinary, of proximity and distance – have lost their bearings and their credibility. “Something has happened to the real,” your write, and this ‘something’ has called into question ‘the real of fiction’. What was, in your observations then, this ‘something’ that has upset the relation between the real and the fictional?

The article you’re referring to is about Nadia et les hippopotames (Dominique Cabrera, 1999), which is typical of a certain kind of political film: it wants to be strong in its political commitment, but at the same time follows the idea that one must not be too political. So politics – but not too much politics. Or politics mixed with some kind of story, politics happening to people who are not politically committed. The film was about a single mother who happens to be near a train station in Paris during a big strike. There is an encounter between this single mother with her child and the strikers and unionists, with the effect that this woman who was there essentially by chance becomes politically conscious while, simultaneously, the unionists who were politically rigid become more human. What is really at issue here is not artifice in general but a certain kind of artifice which I call ‘the real of fiction’. There is this ‘real’ which tries to create a coincidence between political belief and fictional credibility, to arrive at a balance that makes a film political, but not too political, and achieves this coincidence and this balance by using fictional plots to create a distance from politics through the idea that the rigidity of political ideals or strategies has to be erased to allow people to be seduced by the emotional aspect of the story. I said that we can’t stand that anymore. But not because we can no longer stand artifice in general. What has happened to the real is not that it has vanished, but that it has become a matter of inquiry. It is no longer something to attest to, but something that you are in front of, and the question you ask yourself as you stand before it is: “What sense of the real, exactly, is being constructed here?”

We can no longer stand this kind of ‘political’ fiction, because, as it happens, some filmmakers have started making political films that are based on the opposite idea. That is, based on a direct contact between real bodies and political words, statements, ideas, and ideals – without the mediation of a story, feelings, and so on. Think of the way in which Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet put the words of Vittorini or Pavese in the bodies of people who are, simultaneously, working ordinary jobs in a little village in Tuscany, and acting in local theatres. Straub and Huillet use this capacity of anybody to be an actor to create a direct relation between political statements and bodies. You can also think of what Jean-Luc Godard does with the traces of history, in front of the building that used to be a Renault factory, in Éloge de l’amour (2001). We can think of a multiplicity of films of that kind. Think of the work of Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas or Kamal Aljafari: their work deals with disappearance, it looks into how politics is inscribed in the landscape, in the presence or absence of traces. In that same article I deal with Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), which takes the words of some witnesses and tries to stage the power of those words in the present, within certain landscapes. I think what has happened to the real doesn’t have to do with the loss of the artifice, the privilege of the visual, and all the rest of it. It has to do with the fact that we have been accustomed to seeing those films that try to deal directly with politics – in our bodies, in our faces, in our voices.

(1) Cavalo dinheiro [Horse Money] (Pedro Costa, 2014)

You have written and spoken on many occasions about the work of Pedro Costa, in particular about the series of films he made with the inhabitants of Fontainhas. His latest, Cavalo dinheiro [Horse Money] (2014), is certainly the most abstract of all his films. Spaces and times are distorted beyond recognition and the tales and memories of its protagonists take on the form of fabulations or hallucinations. His work seems to gradually remove itself from the chronicle form, as if the influence of Jacques Tourneur’s fantastic cinema were becoming more and more pronounced. The world of Fontainhas is transformed into a shadowy world of night creatures brought about by way of an expressive use of lightning and as well as a kind of feverish rhythm of moving and gesturing. What is the importance for you of this growing ‘fantastical’, or ‘mythological’, dimension?

It is true that there has been a certain shift from the beginning Pedro Costa’s cycle, which now consists of four films. The very first film, Ossos (1997), was still a kind of conventional fiction, while the second one, No quarto da Vanda [In Vanda’s Room] (2000), looked like a chronicle, following the character in her room, her drug addiction, her conversations with other drug addicts. Then, in the following film, Juventude em marcha [Colossal Youth] (2006), it appeared more and more clearly that what looks like a chronicle of the life of some migrant workers was entirely a fiction, meaning that it was composed, if you will, of theatrical performances, of little scenes that have some kind of Brechtianism about them, though not in the same way as in Straub. Scenes in which the characters play or replay moments or episodes of their own life or the life of their friends and acquaintances, of all the people who came from Cape Verde to work in Portugal. With each new film, these theatrical performances become epic – something that looks like a journey into Hell, something reminiscent of the journey into Hades in the Aeneid or the Odyssey. That’s what Pedro Costa wants to show: these people are in our world, living amongst us, even though, at the same time, they don’t really live amongst us, they are a kind of living dead. There is a moment at the end of Juventude em marcha when they appear to be ghosts and this ghostly presence becomes a way of illustrating their situation.

In a way, the hospital in Cavalo dinheiro is something like the unconscious of our world – of neoliberalism – though, for Costa, it is also the unconscious of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. In this cycle there is always the obsession with migrant workers, because even if young boys like him were happy with the Revolution in 1974, migrant workers were hiding, because they were afraid of revolutionary militias. What you have here is a kind of remembrance of that moment. The last film is of an extreme abstraction. From the very beginning it is clear that the hospital where the film is set is a double place: it is a normal hospital, where people like Ventura and his friends, who worked a lot and took a lot of drugs, now find themselves. But it is also a two-story building – though we never see the exact division – where the underground becomes a place of the dead. As a matter of fact, there is a scene where you see a truck driving into what is in fact a morgue in Lisbon. So what is interesting in this film is that the quasi-chronicle aspect has almost entirely disappeared. People fashion different kinds of fables about their lives, but with characteristics pushed to the extreme. It is impossible to tell what in it is reality, what is hallucination or memory, present or past. These people are supposed to be in a hospital in the second decade of our century but, at the same time, they remember scenes from the 1970s, from when they were young men competing for the same woman, I suppose. You don’t exactly know what happens: is it just a scuffle between two young workers who play at being lady killers or if it is an aggression by the soldiers? There is an indiscernibility, an indistinction, about what happens in this place.

What I think is interesting is that the fantastic doesn’t depend on any recourse to ghosts, but depends instead on the bodies of those people, which are the bodies of the workers who have been working, drinking, and sniffing for forty years, and now bear the stigmas on their body, but on their body they also wear the clothes of young men. You see Tito’s red shirt, and in the scene just before that you see the extraordinary embroidered shirt of the young Ventura, now worn by the old Ventura. There is a relation between the real stigmas of a life, on the one hand, and a disguise, on the other. They are both at once: people wearing history on their body, and people playing history as actors. I think that is something really strong. And certainly something Pedro Costa wants to show is what the real living conditions of these people actually are. So in a way fiction – a rather sophisticated fiction – is needed to account for the reality of their lives.

In Juventude em marcha, Ventura was still able to traverse different spaces, which evoked different sensible worlds. Cavalo dinheiro mostly takes place in a hospital or an asylum, a space of confinement and hauntings. Does that indicate for you a difficulty of creating possibilities for movement between different worlds?

The fact is that Pedro Costa has been working with the same actors, the same characters, like Ventura and some of his colleagues, for many years. What happens is the exhaustion of those people. Pedro Costa, when I saw him, said that it was more and more difficult to work with Ventura. It is a problem. You cannot imagine Pedro Costa hiring an actor to play the role of Ventura. As long as it is possible those people have to play their own life. One of the people you saw on the screen died last year in Germany. We must think it is a kind of end of the story for those people. I don’t know if it was Pedro Costa’s intention from the very beginning to make a film in this space of confinement. But with those workers, with Ventura, it was a kind of space where it was possible to move on, to follow the fiction. It seems to be a fiction of the end, but with the idea that it is possible to overturn things. Ventura and his colleagues are increasingly weak, it is hard for them to stand up; by the same token, though, this frees up Costa to leave the chronicle behind a bit and play with this trembling of the hand, for example, which is, I suppose, a trembling of the hand of Ventura today. But we see it in this shot, which is supposed to show something that happened forty years earlier. There is a kind of abstraction in this relation between present and past, between the so-called real and the imaginary. A kind of radicalization. Costa, it seems to me, thinks that he is now allowed to stress this kind of mythological aspect, to put a stronger stress on the situation of these people, who are invisible, who have lived for forty years in our world, and are dying just as invisibly. They’re a sort of hidden secret of our world. That is why, in the end, I would say there is kind of settling of scores with the Carnation Revolution and with leftist enthusiasm. One of the very last scenes of the film takes place in an elevator: Ventura is in his hospital pajama, and with him is a former soldier of the Portuguese revolution, covered with gold, like a statue. It is a dialogue that is a non-dialogue between an exhausted worker and a soldier who has become a bronze statue of the revolution.

At the same time, Costa never stops mentioning the influence of photographers like Jacob Riis and Walker Evans, or filmmakers like Charles Chaplin or Jean Renoir – a certain realist tradition of photographic and cinematic representation of ‘the common man’ or ‘the other half’ – have had on him. Costa finds in their work a degree of concentration and condensation that brings out a participation in a common humanity. Would you yourself situate Costa in this lineage, and what do you think is so specific – in aesthetics terms – about the works of this realist tradition?

It’s really difficult, because, yes, there is this homage to Jacob Riis in the first shots of Cavalo dinheiro. Towards the end of the 19th century, Riis took a series of photographs, eventually compiled in the book How the Other Half Lives (1890), that show poor people living in poor tenements in New York. In the middle of the film you also have some shots that seem to be modern replicas of these images that show the hidden side of the world in the suburbs of Lisbon. So you have the political reference to people dealing with ‘the other half’, yes, but what also strikes me are the images Costa selected. They are not so much about misery as about people not exactly fitting into their space: think, for example, of the big black man who seems to be too wide for the screen, or of those close-ups of Ventura in the hospital from a high angle. And there are also, conversely, people who do not seem to be occupying the space at all. All of which to say that it seems to me that what he takes from Jacob Riis is more some kind of formal framing than a political stress on misery. There is also some kind of joke at work, I think, because at the beginning of the film you see a photograph by Riis of two people in a boat under a bridge. The photo doesn’t connote or denote misery, but it has a similar framing to the scene at the end of Juventude em marcha, in which Ventura and Lento go under a bridge in a boat. At this moment the boat is not a signifier of misery or poverty but of the river of death.

Earlier you spoke of emotion. What kind of emotion does this kind of framing, this kind of relation between figure and frame, bring out, according to you?

For me, the emotion is of being in front of these people who, at one and the same time, share and do not share the same world. They set to work the same capacity and at the same time are not seen setting to work that capacity. People who simultaneously fit and don’t fit the spaces. They occupy the space but, in Cavalo dinheiro in particular, they are always on the edge of leaving, meaning on the edge of dying. I think there is something of the last performance, something that might remind us of Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), the last performance.2

How to think about cinematic approaches to limit situations of injustice and desperation in aesthetic terms? I’m thinking, for example, of the documentary work of Wang Bing, particularly of Feng ai [’Til Madness Do Us Part] (2013), another film that, like Cavalo dinheiro, deals with imprisonment in a hospital. Bing’s camera drifts from one figure to the other, capturing their movements and expressions in long takes that constantly walk a thin line between respectfulness and intrusion. In that regard, his work has often been evaluated in moral terms and criticized as ‘voyeuristic’ of a misery too vast to fit into an image. Is there a way of taking the measure of a film’s experience of distance and proximity in aesthetic rather than moral terms?

There are two positions. One says: this is aesthetic and not moral. For filmmakers like Wang Bing or Pedro Costa, aesthetics and morals are in a way the same thing. The point is to know how you deal with the characters in front of you, how you deal with their bodies. Where you put your camera, but also how much time you spend with them. And there is a certain madness in Wang Bing’s film about the asylum. It might seem quite unbearable to stay in front of those people for four hours. But what is important is the time taken by Wang Bing. The point is to turn what seems like symptoms of delirium or madness into some form of action. In a way, it’s also about the capacity of the bodies, of the persons themselves. There’s a scene at the beginning with just a form under a sheet. There seems to be some kind of discussion between two persons about whether they just go to bed or they do something else. And it seems that Wang Bing’s decision coincides with the decision of these people, which is to do something rather than simply staying in bed. What Wang Bing does is spend time to transform what can be a manic ritual into some form of action, and to transform their discourse into a history that is told.

There is this episode in which a young man is running around the floor. It’s as if he were doing some kind of morning jogging. And there the guy we see standing by his bed, rubbing his face: we don’t know exactly what he is doing, but later on we see him writing things on his legs. What I think is important is that Bing takes enough time to transform this unintelligible manic ritual into some kind of performance. Which doesn’t mean he transforms them into actors, like Pedro Costa does, but there is this aspect of taking enough time. The question, then, is not about voyeurism, but about what kind of look is given. A clinical picture is turned into some kind of performance. And I’m also struck by the way in which the camera walks with the characters, sometimes runs with them, as if to open the space. What is very fascinating in the film is the way the camera all the time seems to open the spaces, which are very confined, so precisely, to transform the closed space into an open space of some kind of action. The most desperate part of the film is a scene about a man who can go back home for ten of fifteen days. It’s the worst moment, because this man is at home and doesn’t know what to do, and his wife and the people around him don’t know what to do with him either.

(2) Feng ai [’Til Madness Do Us Part] (Wang Bing, 2013)

As you mention, one major difference between Costa’s work and Bing’s is that in the first the characters are restaging, and in doing they are also transforming their lives, in a way. In Bing’s case this element of performance is absent, so the task of aesthetic invention and transformation is much more on the side of the filmmaker. Doesn’t that also make the exchange more fragile?

If we think of the short scene where we see the man writing on his leg, I’m struck by the respect of the camera. In this instant, I think that the camera has to be close if it wants to show what the man is doing – writing on his own body. Of course, that is not the kind of performance you can ask of someone. Pedro Costa asks his characters to repeat words, to play scenes, to add gestures. That’s not the case here. There is a given. Nobody knows exactly why this boy is doing what he’s doing but for him there is something important about doing it. Likewise, when he writes “virtuous thought,” there are two possible attitudes: one says that it’s nothing, that it’s only voyeurism to look at it. Another position says that this is something important for this person. Bing selects the points where the gestures, the behavior of the mad or the criminal – because there are all sorts of people in this institution – can be connected, because similar, to the gestures of normal men. Again, not by making it a kind of repetitive ritual, but by making it something that happens as if at this very moment they were performing a very specific action. Of course, he cannot ask them to do this or that. It is their invention, but, and that’s the important point, Bing turns it into an invention, rather than treating it simply a clinical symptom.

Cavalo dinheiro is perhaps Costa’s most melancholic and mournful film, since it evokes the anguish felt by those who are trying to come to terms with the prolonged fallout of imperialism and the collapse of revolutionary struggles. On the surface, its form – ‘a Baudelarian night’, as Costa has called it – might seem inappropriate to accompany the urgency of our times or the forms of resistance that we see rising today. And yet, you see in Costa’s cinema an actualization of the stance taken by Straub and Huillet: that of non-reconciliation. Where does its force of non-reconciliation and affirmation situate itself, do you think?

Non-reconciliation means several things. For me, it means no explanation. You cannot say that we all know there is capitalism, relations of production, and migrant workers coming into Europe under bad conditions, etc. No. In a way, what Costa does is dismiss this attitude. We are not allowed to feel comfortable simply because we know the causes of what we see. Also, there is a visual aspect of non-reconciliation: people who are visibly in our world and are also, at the same time, not in it. There’s a contradiction at the very surface of the image. Especially when the necessity to show the unseen in fact tips over into the fantastic. 

(3) Lu bian ye can [Kaili Blues] (Bi Gan, 2015)

The intertwining of different temporalities is central to Costa’s latest films, and is also at the heart of what might be one of the most remarkable debut films in recent years: Bi Gan’s Lu bian ye can [Kaili Blues] (2015). Made on a small budget, mostly with non-professional actors and a first-time cinematographer, the film manifests an admirable imaginative boldness. The fantastic and the real, the past, the present and the future are interwoven with one other. This ‘drifting’ form, which interlaces several times and spaces, finds a synthesis in the extraordinary, epic, 40-minute single take that travels through space, time, memory. Do you see this ‘drifting’ form as a cinematic prolongation of the inventions of modern fiction in literature?

The answer to that, of course, is yes and no. It is true that this sort of drifting form – I’m not thinking only of the long take and its technical performance, but also of the kind of narration – has some features that really belong to the tradition of modern fiction: dealing with so-called details – spaces, gestures, objects, emotions on a face, etc. – rather than with big plots. Secondly, there is a sort of continuum, not unlike in Pedro Costa’s work, where the present and the past, and, in the case of Lu bian ye can, also the future, are mixed up, as are so-called reality, imagination, memory and hallucination. All is taken in the same continuum. The difficulty is that in the novel it’s relatively easy to deal with this kind of difference of time and temporalities and levels of reality. The writer can shift his or her position, sometimes getting into the mind of a character and seeing things through that character. Which means that the synthesis of past and present, perception and memory, can be effected in one mode of enunciation. We saw this for the first time with Flaubert’s ‘free indirect style’, which was a model of modern narration. The problem is that, regardless of what Pasolini and Deleuze have said about cinema and ‘free indirect style’, it doesn’t work in cinema. It is not possible for the camera to play the same game of proximity and distance between the narrator and the character. Which means that the synthesis of times and levels of reality cannot be done by some form of subjectivity. You know that the attempts with subjective camera – when the camera plays a character – were all pretty much failures.3

So what is important is that, in films like Lu bian ye can, the synthesis must be done from the outside and, notably, by the role that the words play. This is most evident with all the poems in the film. It’s quite interesting, in fact, that the words in the film are in the space, that you don’t really see them in the mouth of a character. There is a very striking sequence when the character Chen (who is now a doctor but who had been in prison for ten years for being involved in a crime) has to go to a village, where he is supposed to meet the former lover of the old doctor and bring him a shirt and a tape. And at this moment he also meets a person who had been an accomplice in the crime Chen had committed. They are in the car and he is telling his story, but we don’t see his face or the face of his companion. What we see are the curves of the road. The words that tell the story are in the space. That is one of the procedures that allow the synthesis to be made from the outside. There is also the role of objects, which are sometimes part of the decor, sometimes memories of the past like the shirt and the tape, and sometimes take part in a form of exchange, because at the end he wears the shirt himself and he gives the tape to someone he meets in the village.

The second point is that the space itself must have several uses: it must be the place for what happens now, for what happened in the past, and for what will happen in the future. In this long shot there are a lot of metamorphoses. In the village we see Chen telling his story from afar, in the mirror, but during the same process he becomes the young man that he was in the past, and the young man who is now the nephew that he is looking for. There is this confusion: we don’t know exactly if he is performing his role in the present by remembering his past, or if he’s anticipating the future of the young boy. What is interesting is that, in a way, it is normal that a shot, an image, a sentence never tells, all by itself, whether it is current, a remembrance or hallucination, whether past or present. In classical fiction there are marks of distance, of shifts. In Hollywood films for example the image starts trembling to announce a remembrance of the past. Here there is a mingling of times with no signs of distinction. So it is ‘fantastic’, but with quite simple means. There are no ghosts, no Uncle Boonmee…

Still, Lu bian ye can has often been compared to the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Like Costa’s films and, on the surface perhaps, also like Weerasethakul’s, the world Bi Gan constructs is an enigmatic world of ghosts and phantoms, haunting memories and historic traumas, where the dead and the living share a certain commonality. It is as if the enigmatic has come to save fiction from the exhausted narrative laws of necessity and catharsis, of social codification and legibility, in an effort to account for the reality of our time. As if it is the only mode left in which different worlds can encounter one another. Does this particular sensibility towards the enigmatic say something about our actual sensible landscape?

We must remember that it takes place in China. On the one hand, there is a reference to a specific form of Chinese poetry; Bi Gan says that he modeled his film on poetry from the Song Dynasty. There is also a reference to Buddhism and the idea that there is no distinction between past, present and future in thought. There are these references to Chinese culture, and it is clear that these references are increasingly coming to the fore in the period after the Cultural Revolution. Also, it is clear to me that the enigma is not so much evidence of a taste for the enigmatic in itself, but the interrogation of a young man – he is 28 – about the world he lives in. Most of the shots in the first part are visual interrogations of the world he lives in, and that is followed by the interrogation about the past. The enigma is also: “What kind of history do we inherit?” There is always this relation between the personal story of the characters and the Cultural Revolution. There is a moment in the village when we see a young man, left in the middle of the road by thugs, with a bin on his head. It is clear that this is a reference to the Cultural Revolution and to the kind of punishments that were inflicted on ‘counter-revolutionaries’. 

So I think that the enigmatic aspect of the film is linked to the enigma of the communist or post-communist world and history. There are some filmmakers who put the stress on the continuity of situations of destitution and injustice, like Wang Bing, or on continuations of situations of violence, like Jia Zhangke. What Bi Gan does is focus on time itself. How to tell a story? When I was watching this film, I remembered a film from the 1960s that I really hated: Alain Resnais’ L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961). There is the idea that Resnais’ distorted temporality is appropriate because it is a story of well-off and idle people gathered in a palace. But this kind of ‘appropriation’ between the complications of temporality and complicated ‘elite’ characters does not work at all. Conversely, the confusion of times works perfectly with the ordinary people in Bi Gan’s film, because they inherit a twisted history that they don’t know how to cope with.

(4) Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016)

Fiction bordering on non-fiction: this can also be said of the work of Kelly Reichardt. In her latest film, Certain Women (2016), she chronicles a few days in the lives of four women who are struggling to stay afloat and to connect in the small towns and ranches of the rural Northwest of the US. Her characters – like those in the Maile Meloy’s short stories that the three episodes are based on – are animated by a kind of quiet desperation as they go about their daily routines and wander about the vast landscapes. Reichardt herself says that her films are “just glimpses of people passing through.” What about these ‘glimpses’, do you think, makes these drifting bodies ‘stand out’ of the landscapes that is always threatening to swallow them? What is it in their performance and in their mise-en-scène that establishes their singularity?

What is interesting is that three of the four women in the film don’t really stand out. They’re mainly there to ask the question: “Is this a real world?” Only one of those women is a married woman, and she is cheated on by her husband and despised by her daughter. So it’s not about the domestic oppression of women. Rather, the women in the film are at the edge of several worlds. One of them is a lawyer with only uninteresting cases and, more specifically, that of a worker who had an accident at work and wants to sue the company, which is not possible because of an earlier settlement. So the case is entirely desperate, and at a certain moment he takes her hostage. The second story is about a woman who dreams of living in the countryside and having a natural life, with a house made of sandstone, etc. She seems to be entirely alone with her dream. The third story is that of a lawyer played by Kristen Stewart who is likewise seen as going to a non-place to give a class to teachers just for money. But there is a fourth woman, the Indian rancher who, one day, without knowing why, walks into that classroom. In a way, I would say that she is really the character who stands out, because she is not simply a sociological character. Nor is she here to show loneliness or desperation. She is a character who is perfectly adapted to her routine but who, at a certain moment, deviates from her normal life. You see her doing her job, and doing it well. In the classroom, though, she sees this elegant lady from the big town. She’s fascinated, and that last story is about this fascination, which at the end turns out to be deceived. There is a kind of imbalance in the role played by all these women: three of them attest to a certain state of social reality in a certain geographical zone. But this other character is a real cinematographic character, a character in line with some other characters in the history of cinema. I’m thinking of The Postmaster from the anthology film Teen Kanya [Three Daughters] (1961), by Satyajit Ray, which has a young girl who works a servant for the postman who starts teaching her to read and write, but at the end he leaves. It is the same kind of one-way love story, because the other one, the learned person, is absolutely unable to see what is at play in their relation. In both cases, it is the illiterate person who is able to feel something different, to get out of her line. In most cases, characters of this sort, who are faithful to a deviation, are women: think about Ginnie in Vincente Minelli’s Some Came Running (1958), or about girls like Estike, in Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994).

The characters in Certain Women are constantly craving connection – even on the radio we hear the voices of people calling in to connect over the airwaves – but are somehow confirmed in their solitude. It’s something that strikes me quite often in contemporary cinema: a sense of rootlessness and desolation, a difficulty to become – visually and fictionally – associated with collective life. What do you think about this relation between isolation and community in contemporary cinema, in relation to, for example, the ‘social’ cinema of the 1930s, of Jean Renoir and co.?

There are different kinds of contemporary cinema. You can find certain kinds of cinema where there is community, where there is an attempt to revive the kind of social cinema from the 1930s and such. It’s certainly not a general case, a majority. But it is true that many films today that try to deal with a certain question, with the sense of what is our world today, are not simply concerned with solitude, but with the idea that collective life is not given, that it has to be won. What is striking about Certain Women is the way it shows these little towns in Montana. If you type ‘Belgrade, Montana’ on Google, you see that there is a big stadium there, so it’s more than a hamlet with a few houses and a snack bar.4 The film, though, shows Belgrade, Montana, as a kind of non-place. So you have characters who are engaged in relations that are not real relationships. What is interesting is this idea that there must be some kind of miracle to have real encounters.

I think there is a relation between contemporary cinematographic fictions – or, at least, their most acute forms – and the problems of contemporary politics. We are in a time when big collectives no longer exist. Political relations have to be constructed by encounters. This is something that has been very important to the different Occupy movements, or to the movements on squares that we’ve seen in recent years. There is the idea that the community between those who are in the street is no longer given by a certain state of social relationships, that idea that that community has to be built, and this can be done only through singular encounters.

  • 1Jacques Rancière is probably referring to Abbas Kiarostami’s so-called ‘Koker Trilogy’, consisting of Khane-ye doust kodjast? [Where Is the Friend’s Home?] (1987), Zendegi va digar hich [Life and Nothing More…] (1992) and Zire darakhatan zeyton [Through the Olive Trees] (1994).
  • 2Although it was not quite his last film, Limelight’s story of an old comedian doing one last performance is often considered as Charlie Chaplin’s farewell.
  • 3‘Free indirect style’ (or ‘free indirect discourse’, or ‘style indirect libre’) refers to a style of writing in which the voice of the narrator and that of the character merge together, doing away with the distinction between the narration of the character’s silent thoughts and the rendering of spoken discourse. It is generally acknowledged that Flaubert was the first to consciously develop this style as a literary technique. The possibility of ‘free indirect discourse’ in cinema was initially articulated by Pasolini in his 1965 speech ‘Cinema of Poetry’ and later taken up by Deleuze in his Cinema books (1983-1985). Deleuze draws on Pasolini’s theory to describe forms of cinema that dissolve the distinction between what the character sees subjectively and what the camera sees objectively, by allowing the camera to assume a ‘subjective presence’ and acquiring an ‘internal vision’. By making use of the ‘free indirect discourse’, claims Deleuze, cinema is able to go “beyond the subjective and the objective towards a pure Form which sets itself up as an autonomous vision of the content.”
  • 4Jacques Rancière here seems to make the same mistake that the character of Kristen Stewart makes in the film: she mistakes Belfry, where her classes are actually taking place, for Belgrade.

Conversation held on 30 March 2017, at Minard Ghent, as part of the Courtisane Festival 2017.

In the framework of the research project ‘Figures of Dissent’ (KASK / School of Arts Ghent, HoGent).

Many thanks to Jacques Rancière and Emiliano Battista


Image (1) from Cavalo dinheiro [Horse Money] (Pedro Costa, 2014)

Image (2) from Feng ai [’Til Madness Do Us Part] (Wang Bing, 2013)

Image (3) from Lu bian ye can [Kaili Blues] (Bi Gan, 2015)

Image (4) from Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016)

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.