A Second Century for Cinema
The Films I’ve Made and Don’t Exist
To see and hear
To see is not enough for me. For me, to film is first and foremost to show what I’ve seen and thus to share an experience and give back what I’ve taken, that which already existed and that I’ve found or (re)constituted: transmission, mise-en-scène, creation.
These sights and sounds – pieces of life/fragments of time – are then gathered by the other – the spectator, the audience – who in turn catches and transmits them. And so on.
To film is of course to capture on film, on a (celluloid or magnetic) support. But often technology isn’t ready, isn’t there when I see something. The film unrolls without the possibility of capturing it and the sight soon disappears. Thousands of images are thus seen and vanish, lost forever, along my daily path.
But I have no regrets. The adventure begins once the realization of losing them forces me to search and find them again.
Only some films are born in this way, and they attest to all the others that don’t exist. The work always refers to something external to it, something more essential that remains elusive. The lived original.
It would be useless to implant a camera in my eyes in order to film all the time. Because filming everything boils down to filming nothing at all. I don’t care about all those contemporary techniques (video, for example) that allow me to “film better and faster”. The time to create can never be cut down.
How I’ve made some of my films
Apart from the issue of the impossibility of sexual relations, the central question in my films is: what to do with the ashes of what goes up in smoke, how to ensure they’re not scattered, how to transmit them? It’s not a concern for permanence or eternalization, but for traces, for remnants, for memory. My filiation and fatherhood, as it were. I don’t film the ephemeral to make it eternal. It’s a gamble of transmission; I’m throwing bottles into the sea.
Today, more than ever, everything quickly disappears, right before our eyes. Acid-consumed books, pulverized films, erased magnetic tapes, houses, monuments, landscapes threatened with destruction and collapse, human bodies ravaged by cancer and AIDS... Powerless, we witness the loss of origins and the impossibility of a future. Nothing but a hurried present, an accelerated read, a life reduced to consumption from which all thought and pleasure have been banished.
I’m constantly filming this present while it’s disappearing. In spite of myself, I become tomorrow’s archaeologist. In L’homme de terre, Paulus Brun sculpts my double in clay and I film this construction before destroying it, erasing it, obliterating it. Likewise, the carp from my movie Muet comme une carpe is first caught, then cut into pieces and eaten.
Something always appears, then disappears. I’m strewing numerous fragile mirrors on my path, which eventually shatter and carry along fragments of myself, collected and reconstructed by someone, somewhere, one day.
These recorded, captured and subsequently preserved frayed ends of the present resemble the bones paleontologists patiently study to reconstruct a lost or extinct animal.
How to say how I do it, what I want? I don’t want anything. I can’t say. Because saying is not doing. I go for it, that’s all.
I’ll see, and I’ll manage.
For a second, fear and anxiety are overcome.
Filming, waiting, often going to the same places ... I make connections, I film something which allows me to film something else, to return, to continue my work.
It’s a timid and gradual approach. I begin by filming the easiest, the most obvious and without a doubt most superficial of things. I need to reassure myself, to practice, to test myself. If it doesn’t work out, I don’t push on; I give up and move on. Otherwise, I persevere, I return, I turn around what’s facing me, then end up merging with it. My vision is cosmogonic. When I film a cup of coffee, I film the universe.
No doubt I’ve set myself an impossible task. Each of my films is a challenge, a utopia, a megalomaniac project. My desire for totality and my tendency for encyclopaedism, coupled with my fear of missing everything, bring me into a kind of trance in which only cinema is capable of saving me from my discouragement, my dissatisfaction, my despair. I immerse myself in tons of work, without beginning or end. I no longer begin or end anything. I continue, without the wish to stop.
The misunderstandings will remain
They’ve called me a “filmmaker”. “He’s made a film about Arié Mandelbaum.”
No, I’m not a filmmaker. You’re asking me what a filmmaker is? Without falling into word play, I’d say that I film – that I don’t stop filming, even. With regard to making films: to me, that has always seemed to be a job doomed to mediocrity, necessarily part of a market and/or artistic system.
If I am nevertheless a filmmaker, then I’m a filmmaker unlike any other. A hollow and pretentious expression, no doubt, which can be uttered by anyone without involving anyone. Filming has become such a sacred and daily act to me. Such a necessary act, on a par with moving, eating, sleeping. Can you believe that I travel ten thousand kilometres to film a close-up of a drop of water, that I wait ten years or more to film a shirt button or a fragment of a wall, that I even need a camera when I go to the doctor?
Images, I make them every day. No need for a scenario, an assignment or an advance, nor for copyrights or a Palme d’Or. What’s there is enough for me, like apples were for Cézanne.
I don’t make my films; I’m made by them
I would like to remove any useless intermediary between the image and me. Let the project be the film, stripped of any burden — such as money, intentions, pretensions, art, psychology— in order to wrestle only with the archaic system of the cinema mechanism: heavy, repetitive, hypnotic and noisy. The solitude – and suffering – of filmmakers (and therefore their joy) begins with the weight of the reels they’re carrying around. Carrying the raw material of my work (I don’t know why, but I’ve always tried to imagine how Beethoven carried an entire symphony inside of himself) and carrying the camera and sound equipment allow me to feel what point of view and movement actually mean. For me, a shot and a camera movement should be a reward for physical effort. You’re shaped by what you carry. Heaviness has always been a positive thing, I think. Just look at the photographers of the past century, the first to capture the world around them on film. They had to place the device on a tripod and pose for a long time without moving. The images gained in strength, precision, self-evidence and truth. Today there is a tendency for laziness and speed. We no longer touch our equipment. If the result is too immediate, it’s immediately forgotten. Without any delay, no dream or magic is left.
To walk, to film
To the cameraman who asks me, “What are we shooting?” I can only respond, “We’re shooting!” Before imagining my film, I need to experience it.
And in order to do that, I need to take the winding road, to leave, to move, to take a thousand detours, to return to the same places several times, to wander off...
Walking is my natural mode of operation. Is not a stroll the prelude to (real or imaginary) travel, as well as a kind of unveiling of being? As we walk, we move forward, from birth to death, we emerge from the shadows, from obscurity, from our hiding place, from our lair, so as to wander off into nature and the world like thoughtless Tom Thumb. To walk. To stop and watch. A virgin vision, without a script. Thought comes while walking. Peripatetics. Herzog, Rousseau, vagrancy, Walser, Lenz... Aren’t pedestrians a literary matter (while cinema inevitably relies on other means of locomotion: horse, train, car and plane)? Am I not actually only a writer of cinema?
One of the most beautiful ways to respect nature is to film it. To capture it without capturing it, to caress it without touching it, without tearing out its plants or killing its insects. To transport it while leaving it intact. Just a trace of my passage, a footprint. An act of love.
What have I done? What have I thought? What have I been? Here now and there once. What remains of my wanderings and sensations?
If I don’t film, I don’t see anything, I don’t remember anything, neither trees nor faces. If I film them, I can forget them. My film is my memory, a catalogue of facts and gestures, a (very incomplete) inventory of my life.
To be there at that time
“Why did you show us that?” (This is the spectator’s usual question, but it’s the editor’s and the producer’s too.)
I did it because I was there at that time. I didn’t know I was going to do it before I did it. “In short, what are you interested in?”
In everything that passes through me. I’m curious about everything.
I’m not particularly interested in my birth, nor in the Beguinage neighbourhood, the preparation of stuffed carp or Arié Mandelbaum’s painting. All these films arose as a result of encounters, discoveries, circumstances. In each case it took me a stimulus, a certain production, discipline, stubbornness and a lot of patience... I’ve never asked myself the question of the subject. The real subject has always been me.
I don’t want to have anything to do with this image of the “filmmaker” who makes and shows films. Even when I stop filming, I’m still making cinema. My films don’t end with the shoot. They go on, always, at all times. I never take a rest from filming. When I go for a walk with a friend, I’m still filming. When I eat a piece of pie in my favourite pub, I’m filming, making new plans and future appointments.
Neither preparation nor rest. My films accompany me all the time.
I don’t prepare a shoot. It comes, it occurs. We should rather speak of waiting: I’m waiting for the shoot to come to me. Although we shouldn’t confuse preparation with preparatory arrangements.
This preparation, this maturing, will not come true through laziness, but through active idleness, a compulsory passage of time. More precisely, through a tension reaching its peak. Like a spotter lying in wait, hoping to see a raptor swooping down on its prey or hear a deer’s bellowing. You need to be there, in the right place at the right time.
I repeat: without a scenario. Because there’s a need to keep the idea as well as the fear and anxiety of exposing this idea new and intact. A filmmaker cannot be turned into a writer, an accountant or a sales representative (even though I sometimes combine all three of these functions). The script is but a safeguard, a tool of seduction or a comprehensive insurance for the officials in charge of judging them, of classifying them (according to their viability, their profitability, their chance of success, etc.), for directors incapable of directing, and for producers, in order to protect their capital against the unexpected, against whims, against bad weather.
Well, every creation consists only of the unexpected, of trials, of hesitation, of errors and of improvisation, of intuition, of poetry and inventions, of everything that cannot be explained or controlled, prepared or mastered.
In my case, the stages of production are intimately linked, inextricably mixed: writing, location hunting, production, research, shooting, editing and script-writing happen simultaneously and gradually. Preparation is also part of the film. Ideas constantly pop up. There’s not one thing and then another and then another. The film is always subject to transformation, a film in the making. The road towards the subject is itself part of the subject, it is the subject even. More important than the subject itself is the search for it, the quest, the revelation.
Who’s making the film?
Cinema, a collective art. Film credits listing all participants – and forgetting many of them – consist of hundreds of names. These names are accompanied by functions. What have they done? Who are they? Where is the author?
In my films there is hardly a division of tasks. Everyone does a little bit of everything. Of course, for the sake of convenience, it’s best to indicate who’s in charge of the image and who’s in charge of the sound. And “the person who has the final responsibility”, the last person on the ship (or the barge) who’s either loved or hated once the film is finished. Then there are roles that appear on the screen and roles that help me organize, orchestrate, pull the strings and hold the key to the puzzle: assistants, managers, producers, directors.
Everyone appearing in my films somehow plays “their own role” – I don’t work with professional actors. These people give me a part of themselves, which is more than a scenario for me, it’s a true gift. It’s the very part of myself that I’m trying to capture, that attracts me and that I can only find through others.
To put an end to film as a product
To the question, “What do you do, Boris?” I have always felt I was able to answer both that I’m shooting, that I’m very busy and that I’m not doing anything, that I’m totally available. In fact, it amounts to saying: “I’m alive, I’m breathing.” People want work to be separate from life, an “aside”, a “hobby”, “leisure”, a “profession”.
“My life has become the scenario of a film that has become my life.”
To film my life, or rather to live by filming: that was my motto and my poetics when recording Babel – which lasted for ten years – a motto that has echoed on in my other films. The confusion or even fusion of what you experience and what you film obviously renders any notion of norms, genres or duration obsolete. My films are neither short nor long. They are neither documentaries nor fiction films. They form one and the same film, a unique film, a film diary written day by day, by small pieces and accumulated crumbs (my motto: “a little every day”).
I don’t see anything particularly modern about that, but it’s true that this artisanal approach is close to that of Jonas Mekas, Joseph Morder or Chris Marker. My difficulties in planning, hiring technicians, providing my cinema with a professional practical organization (film crew, work schedule, production) are obvious. Almost everyone rejects the total availability that I demand, this time-to-lose, as it goes against all cinema ethics, aesthetics and economics.
What does my cinema look like? What is Boris Lehman’s cinema?
Perhaps it’s a cinema looking for its very definition, hesitating between ethnographic documentary, scientific film, experimental fiction, therapeutic film and autobiographical film? It’s an uncomfortable cinema, falling between two stools, disturbing. I’ve always wondered why. I’m the complete opposite of a provocateur. I think people blame me for my behaviour, my disorder, my rebellion, my resistance, and also for the unfinished nature of my actions, the fact that it all lasts, that they don’t know when or how it will end.
Indeed, I’m drawn to extreme and primitive forms of cinema, towards a zero point that’s perceptible especially in early cinema, in amateur cinema or in a certain avant-garde cinema.
But that’s just the formal aspect. There’s something else. My images aren’t so different from those of other filmmakers.
In general, artists feel compelled to make works, and once finished, their works detach from their makers, who are thus dispossessed of them. Their films can be shown without them, that is, away from them. I couldn’t accept that, for I am my work.
This text originally appeared as ‘Un second siècle pour le cinéma. Les films que j’ai faits et qui n’existent pas’ in Artpress 14 (1993).
With thanks to Boris Lehman
This text is published in the context of the online première of À la recherche du lieu de ma naissance (1990) and Mes entretiens filmés (1998), tonight at 20:30 on Avila. On the occasion of this release Sabzian translated two texts, ‘Why Boris Lehman Makes Fiction Films’ and ‘A Second Century for Cinema The Films I've Made and Don't Exist’ into English. Sabzian previously published an extensive dossier on Boris Lehman's cinema which is available in Dutch and French. You can find more information on the event here.