On the borders of Fiction. Conversation with Jacques Rancière

8 Sep, 22

This conversation took place on the 30 March 2017, Minard Ghent, on the occasion of the Courtisane Festival 2017.

How can cinema challenge us to imagine something other? This question has
been stirring Jacques Rancière ever since he was taken in by the wave of cinephilia that churned through Paris in the 1960s. From his first interview in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1976, via his own series of writings for the same magazine between 1998 and 2001, to the publication of La Fable cinématographique (2001) and Les écarts du cinéma (2011), cinema has remained an important strain throughout 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” or “the distribution of the sensible:” the ways
in which forms of practice and knowledge draw out 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 Jacques Rancière, is articulated and established 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 were chosen as a starting point for an exploration of the relations between cinema and fiction, and the workings of fiction in the art of cinema.

SD: Today we seem to be confronted with a certain scepticism in regards to the notion of “fiction”. There is of course the idea of “post-truth” which has become a commonplace in recent months, but also within the arts there is a growing fascination with the so-called “factual turn” or “documentary turn”. This seems to resonate with David Shields’ often quoted idea of a so- called “reality hunger” that has supposedly effected contemporary literature, favouring the testimonial and confessional and an openness to contingency and serendipity in opposition to 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 ever deeper 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”?

JR: I think “reality hunger” for me is a dubious notion. Because it tends to equate the taste for documentary with this reality hunger, 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. 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 has something strange about it. In the book of David Shields (Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, 2010) there are basically two arguments, which are not really consistently related to one another. The first argument is about artifice, saying that since people now live in a universe of techniques and screens, they want reality as a compensation. That’s a rather weak argument. The second argument is quite different. It deals with the distinction between invention and imagination. The idea that documentary is on the side of imagination and fiction is on the side of invention – meaning that one has to invent characters, situations and so on. That is indeed not what documentary does, but what is important in documentary is that it is a kind of fiction in which you don’t have to make 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 means that in the “documentary turn” there is no obession with the flesh, or with the real. The question is not “Is it real?” but “What kind of reality is at play here?” 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 of those photographs in Sebald’s book, they are supposed to document what is said but at the same time they have no real relation, no authentic relation, so the question is precisely “What is the kind of affect produced by a photograph?” And it is something that 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 is to overturn the question, saying that it is not true that people want the real, that they don’t want fiction. Fiction is everywhere. The point 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 when there is some kind of development of narration, telling or showing us that something happens. This is why in my recent work I was most interested in the edge 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. This is what I’m really working on. I just finished writing a book that is called The Edges of 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 a symptom of a wider cultural phenomenon, in reaction to the proliferation of “histoires vraies,” first-person journals and faits divers that saturate everyday life. In his account, the “literary democracy” of modern fiction has become the brouhaha of intimate stories which comes down to a recitative polyphony of one and the same discourse which is well-suited to the dominant ideology. This argumentation echoes with other recent tropes of criticism, like Adam Curtis’ denunciation of individual self-expression which supposedly 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 scepticism?

[1] Jacques Rancière is probably referring to Abbas Kiarostami’s so-called “Koker Trilogy”, consisting of Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987) Life and Nothing More (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994).

JR: Basically, if you are a Jacotist, if you follow the ideas of Jacotot on 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 saying that people are stupid, that they want flesh but they are offered “real” stories, which are entirely stereotyped, following 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 they only reproduce dominant ideology. There is this kind of disdainful analysis which is very influential in the so-called intellectual world. I decided to start from the opposite side: saying first there is fiction everywhere and in fiction precisely there is an effort of making something of his or her own life. What interests me more specifically in fiction – perhaps we’ll see some examples later – is this link between the fiction of the author and this capacity of fictioning that belongs to everybody. In my book I did of lot of research on Brazilian novelist João Guimarães Rosa, who wrote very short stories about this edge of something and nothing. Precisely with this idea of restaging the capacity of all the people, in this case peasants in Brazil, to invent their own stories, their own fictions. We have also a striking example in the films of Abbas Kiarostami. In most of his films there is precisely a kind a tension — sometimes it’s tension, sometimes it’s collaboration — between the design of the filmmaker and this capacity of anyone to build a fiction. There is this famous example of the film Close-Up (1990), which is about this guy who passes himself off as Mohsen Makmalbhaf, wanting 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 have always this tension between the work of the filmmaker and this capacity of all 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 own stories.[1] The question is whether you think fiction from the presupposition of inequality or the presupposition of equality.

SD: Why is it that artifice, or al least certain kinds of artifice, seem to have become so hard to bear? At the end of the 1990s – beginning of the 2000s, you have written a series of articles in Cahiers du Cinéma in which you’ve analysed 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 wrote, which 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?

[2] See for instance Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil’s A Perfect Day (2005) or Je Veux Voir (2008) and Kamal Aljafari’s Recollection (2015).

JR: This article was about a kind of political film, Nadia et les hippopotames (Dominique Cabrera, 1999), which is typical of a certain kind of film with strong political commitment, but at the same time following the idea that you 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 ad random becomes politically conscious while on the other hand the unionists who were politically rigid now become more human. What is really at issue here is not the artifice but a certain kind of artifice which I call “the real of fiction”. So there is this kind of real that tries to create this coincidence between political belief and fictional credibility, a balance of making a film political but not too political, using fictional plots to create a distance from politics with the idea that you must erase the rigidity of political ideals or strategies to have people seduced by the emotional aspect of the story. I said we don’t stand it anymore. Not because we can’t stand artifice in general anymore. What has happened to the real is not the vanishing of the real, but that the real has become a matter of inquiry. No longer something to testify to, but something that you are in front of, asking what sense of the real is exactly constructed here.
We can no longer stand this kind of “political” fiction, because it happens that some filmmakers have started doing political films with the opposite idea, meaning by way of direct contact of political words and statements, ideas and ideals with real bodies, without mediation of a story, of feelings and so on. Think of the way in which Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet put the words of Vittorini or Pavese in bodies of people who are at the same time doing ordinary jobs in a little village in Toscany and are at the same time actors in local theatres. They used 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 in Eloge de L’Amour (2001) with the traces of history, in front of the building that was previously the Renault factory. We can think of a multiplicity of films of that kind. Think of the work of Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjitomas or Kamal Aljafari, who are dealing with disappearance, inquiring how politics is inscribed in the landscape, in the presence or absence of traces.[2] In this particular article I dealt 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 happened to the real doesn’t deal with the loss of the artifice, the privilege of the visual and so on: it deals 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.

SD: You have written and spoken on many occasions about the work of Pedro Costa, in particular about the series of films he has made with the inhabitants of Fontainhas. His latest, Horse Money (Cavalo Dinheiro, 2014), is certainly the most abstract of 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 ascendancy of the fantastic cinema of Jacques Tourneur is increasingly creeping in. 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?

JR: It is true that there has been a certain shift from the beginning of this cycle, which now consists of four films. The very first film, Ossos (1997), was still a kind of conventional fiction, while the second one, 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, 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 it was made of some kind of theatrical performances, some little scenes which have some kind of Brechtianism about them but not in the same way as in Straub. Scenes in which they play or replay moments or episodes of their own life or the life of their colleagues, all the persons who came from Cape Verde to work in Portugal. More and more this theatrical performance becomes epic — something that looks like a travel into the Inferno, which stems from ancient epics, notably of Vergil, but also the Odyssey. This is what Pedro Costa wants to show –— that these people are in our world, living amongst us but 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 Colossal Youth when they appear to be ghosts and this ghostly presence becomes a way of illustrating their situation.
In a way the hospital in Horse Money is something like the unconscious of our world, of neoliberalism, but for Costa it is also the unconscious of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. In this series there is always this obsession with migrant workers because when young boys like him in 1974 were happy with the revolution the migrant workers were hiding because they were afraid of the revolutionary militias. You have here a kind of remembrance of this moment. The last film is of an extreme abstraction. From the very beginning it is clear that the hospital where it all happens 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 find themselves now, but it is also a two storey building — though we never see the exact division — where the underground becomes a place of the dead. As a matter of fact, in the scene you see the truck driving into a place which is in fact a mortuary in Lisbon. So what is interesting in this film is that the quasi-chronicle aspect almost entirely disappeared. People make some kind of fables about their own life, but with characteristics pushed to the extreme. It is impossible to tell where it is reality, hallucination or memory, present or past. These people are supposed to be in a hospital in the 2010s but at the same time they remember scenes from the 1970s, the moment when they were young men competing for the same woman, I suppose. You don’t exactly know what happens, if it is just a scuffle between two young workers who play ladykillers or if it is an aggression by the soldiers. So there is an indiscernability, an indistinction of what happens in this place.
What I think is interesting is that the fantastic is not made by any recourse to ghosts but by the bodies of those people which are the bodies of the workers who have been working, drinking, sniffing for forty years and now bear the stigmas on their body, but on the body they also wear the clothes of young men. You see the red shirt of Tito and in the sequence just before you see the extraordinary embroiled shirt of the young Ventura but now worn by the old Ventura. There is
a relation between real stigmas of a life on one hand and a disguise on the other. They are both people wearing history on their body and people playing history as actors. I think this is something really strong. This is something Pedro Costa wants to show: what is the real condition of the life of these people. So in a way fiction — a rather sophisticated fiction — is needed to account for the reality of their lives.

SD: In Colossal Youth, Ventura was still able to traverse different spaces which also evoked different sensible worlds. Horse Money 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 transgression between worlds?

JR: 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 those people you saw on the screen died last year in Germany. We must think it is a kind of end to the story for those people. I don’t know if it was the intention from the very beginning of Pedro Costa 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, and unable to stand up, but in the same
way Costa is more allowed to leave the chronicle and play with this trembling of the hand, which is I suppose a trembling of the hand of Ventura now. But we have it in this shot which is supposed to show something happening forty years before. There is a kind of abstraction in this relation between present and past, the so- called real to the imaginary. A kind of radicalization. I think that Costa thinks that he is now allowed to stress this kind of mythological aspect to put stronger stress on this situation of these people who are invisible, who have lived for forty years in our world, dying in an invisible way. Being this kind of hidden secret of our world. This is why at the end I would say there is kind of settling of scores with the Carnation revolution and with leftists enthusiasm. The almost last scene of the film takes place in an elevator with Ventura in the hospital pyjama with 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 that has become a bronze statue of the revolution.

SD: At the same time, Costa never stops mentioning the influence of photographers such as Jacob Riis and Walker Evans, as well as filmmakers such as Charles Chaplin or Jean Renoir — a certain realist tradition of photographic and cinematic representation of “the common man” or “the other half”. Costa finds in their work a degree of concentration and condensation which brings out a sharing in a common humanity. Would you yourself situate Costa in this lineage, and what do you think is so specific — in aesthetics terms — in the works of this realist tradition?

JR: It’s really difficult, because yes, there is this homage given to Jacob Riis in the first shots. Riis was a photographer who at the end of the 19th century made a series of photographs which were compiled in a book How the Other Half lives, showing poor people living in poor tenements in NY. In the middle of the film you also have some shots that seem to be modern replicas, showing the hidden side of the world in the suburbs of Lisbon. So you have the political reference to people dealing with “the other half”, but I am also struck by the selection of the images that Costa made. They are not so much about misery as about people not exactly fitting in their space, for example this big black man who seems to be too wide for the screen, or these close-ups of Ventura in the hospital from a high angle. Or on the contrary, people who do not seem to be occupying the space. So I think there is some kind of formal framing that he takes from Jacob Riis rather than a political stress on misery. There is also some kind of joke, I think, because there is also this photography of Riis in the beginning where you see two people in a boat under a bridge, it doesn’t connote or denote misery but it has a similar framing than the scene at the end of Colossal Youth with Ventura and Lento going 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.

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

[3] Although it was not quite his last film, Limelight’s story of an old comedian doing one last performance is generally considered as Charlie Chaplin’s farewell.

JR: For me, the emotion is of being in front of these people who at the same time share and 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 fit and don’t fit the spaces. They occupy the space but, specifically in Horse Money, they are on the edge of leaving, meaning at 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 [3].

SD: How to think about cinematic approaches towards limit situations of injustice and desperation in terms of aesthetics? I’m also thinking of the documentary work of Wang Bing — in particular ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (Feng Ai, 2013), another film that, like Horse Money, deals with imprisonment in a hospital. Bing’s camera drifts from one subject to the other, capturing their movements and expressions in long takes which constantly negotiate a distance that balances on a thin line between respectfulness and intrusion. In that regard, his work has often been evaluated in moral terms and criticized as “voyeuristic” in the face of a misery which is 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 aesthetical rather than moral terms?

JR: There are two positions. There is the position: this is aesthetic and not moral. For filmmakers like Wang Bing or Pedro Costa, in a way aesthetics and morals are quite 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 some kind of 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 seem 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. In the beginning there is a scene with just a form under a sheet. It seems there is a kind of discussion between those persons whether they just go to bed or they do something. And it seems like Wang Bing’s decision coincides with a decision of these people to do something rather than simply staying in bed. What Wang Bing does is spending 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 with this young man running around the floor. He’s there as if doing some kind of morning jogging. And this guy we see standing at his bed rubbing his face, we don’t know exactly what he is doing and afterwards 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 in 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. Which means that the question is not of voyeurism but 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 and it is the worst moment because he is at home and he doesn’t know what to do and his wife and the people around him doesn’t know what to do with them.

SD: As you mention, one major difference between Costa and Bing’s work is that in the first the characters are restaging and in doing so in a way also transform their own life. In the case of Bing this element of performance is absent, so the task of aesthetic invention and transformation is much more the filmmaker’s. Doesn’t that also make the exchange more fragile or inequal? How to attend to that inequality so that the characters get a force of their own?

JR: If we think of this short excerpt I’m struck by this respect of the camera. In this instant I think the camera has to be close to show what he’s doing — writing on his own body. Of course it 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 in doing this. Also when he’s writing “virtuous thought” there are two possible attitudes: either one says it’s nothing, it’s only voyeurism to look at it. But you can take another position and say: it is something important for this person. Bing selects the points where the gestures, the behaviour of the mad or the criminal — because there are all sorts of people in this institution — can be connected, can be similar to the gestures of normal men. Again, not making it a kind of repetitive ritual, but making it something that happens as if at this very moment they were doing a specific action. Of course, he cannot ask them to do this or that gesture. It is their invention, but precisely he turns it into an invention and not simply a clinical symptom.

SD: Horse Money is perhaps also Costa’s most melancholic and mournful film, as it evokes an anguish that is 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 actualisation of the stance taken by Straub and Huillet: that of non-reconciliation. Where does its force of non-reconciliation and affirmation situate itself for you?

JR: Non-reconciliation means several things. Non-reconciliation, for me, means no explanation. You cannot say 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 dismissing this attitude. We are not allowed to feel comfortable because we know the causes of what we see. Also, there is this visual aspect of non-reconciliation: people who are visibly in our world and at the same time are not. A kind of contradiction which is at the very surface of the image. Especially when the necessity to show the unseen in fact tips over into the fantastic.

SD: The intertwining of different temporalities which is central to Costa’s latest films is also at the heart of what might be one of the most remarkable debut films in recent years: Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues (Lu Bian Ye Can, 2015). A film that was made for a small budget with mostly non-actors and a first-time cinematographer, but which manifests an admirable imaginative boldness. The fantastic and the real, past, present and future are interwoven with one other. Do you see this “drifting” form, interlacing several times and spaces — which finds a synthesis in the extraordinary, epic 40-minute single one-take shot which travels through space, time, memory — as a cinematic prolongation of the inventions of modern fiction in literature?

JR: Yes and no — of course. It is true that this kind of drifting form — I’m not only thinking of the long take and its technical performance, but rather of the kind of narration — has some features which really belong to the tradition of modern fiction: dealing with so-called details, with spaces, gestures, objects, emotions on a face rather than big plots. Secondly, there is a sort of continuum, not unlike in Pedro Costa’s work, where present and past and here also the future are mixed up, as well as so-called reality, imagination, memory, 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 and sometimes get into the mind of a character and see things through a character. Which means that the synthesis of past and present, perception and memory can be made in one mode of enunciation. This was performed for the first time by Flaubert and his “free indirect style,” which was a model of modern narration. The problem is that in spite what Passolini and Deleuze have written 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 rather failures in general.
So what is important is that in films like this the synthesis must be done from the outside and notably by the role played by the words. It is more evident with all the poems in this film. It’s quite interesting that the words in the film are in the space: 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 has been in prison in ten years for being involved in a crime, on a certain moment 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. At this moment he also meets the person who was an accomplice in the crime. 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 from which the synthesis can 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 and be the place for what happens now, what happened in the past and 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 either 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, remembering his past or 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 by itself whether it is actual, remembrance or hallucination, 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 “Unclee Boonmee”…

SD: Still, Kaili Blues has often been compared to the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Like Costa’s, and on the surface perhaps also like Apichatpong’s films, the world constructed is an enigmatic world of ghosts and phantoms, haunting memories and historic traumas, where the deadand 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, to account for the reality of our time. As if it’s the only mode left where different worlds can encounter one another. Does this particular sensibility towards the enigmatic say something about our actual sensible landscape?

JR: We must remember that it takes place in China. On one hand there is a reference to a specific form of Chinese poetry — he says that the film has been made like 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 those references to Chinese culture and it is clear that those references are increasingly coming to the fore in the period after the Cultural Revolution. Also for me it’s clear that the enigma is not so much a taste for the enigmatic in itself but an interrogation of a young man — he is 28 — about the world in which he lives. Most of the shots in the first part are visual interrogations on the world in which he lives, after which comes the interrogation about the past. The enigma is also: “from 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 with a bin on his head left in the middle of the road by thugs. It is clear that it is a reference to the Cultural Revolution and to the kind of punishments that were inflicted on the “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 of continuations of situations of violence like Jia Zhangke. What Bi Gan does is focusing on time itself. How to tell a story? When I was looking at this film, I was remembering a film of the 1960s that I really hated which is Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (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. On the contrary the confusion of times perfectly works with the ordinary people of Bi Gan because they inherit of a twisted history with which they don’t know how to cope.

SD: 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 Midwest of the US. Her characters — like those in Maile Meloy’s short stories on which the three episodes are based — 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 is it for you in these “glimpses” which makes these drifting bodies “stand out” of the landscapes which always threaten to swallow them? What is it in their performance and in their mise-en-scène that establishes their singularity?

JR: What is interesting is that three of the four women in the film don’t really stand out, there are mainly there to ask the question: “Is this a real world?” Only one of those women is a married woman and she is deceived by her husband and despised by her daughter. So it’s not about the domestic oppression of women. Women are rather here 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 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 will take her hostage. The second story is about a woman who has a dream of living on the countryside and having a natural life, of having 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 Kirstin Stewart who in the same way is seen as going to a non-place just for money to give a class to teachers. But there is a fourth woman, the Indian rancher who on some day, she doesn’t know why, goes into that classroom. In a way I would say she is really the character who stands out because she is not simply a sociological character . Nor is she here to show solitude or desperation. She is a character who is perfectly adapted to her routine but at a certain moment deviates from her normal life. You see her doing her job, doing it well, and in the classroom she sees this elegant lady from the big town. She’s fascinated and this last story is about this fascination, which at the end is deceived. There is a kind of imbalance in the role played by all these women: three of them are testifying to a certain state of social reality in a certain geographical zone. But this other character is a real cinematographic character who is for me in the line of some other characters in the history of cinema. I’m thinking of The Postmaster (1961) by Satyajit Ray, which has a young girl who is a servant for the postman who sets out to teach her to write, but at the end he leaves. It is the same kind of one-way love story because the other one who is 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 this kind of characters faithful to a deviation are women, like Ginnie in Vincente Minelli’s Some came running (1958) or girls like Estike in Bela Tarr’s Satantango (1994).

SD: The characters in Certain Women are constantly craving for connection — even on the radio we hear 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 sensibility of rootlessness, solitude and desolation, a difficulty to — visually and fictionally —become associated with collective life. What do you think about this relation between isolation and community in contemporary cinema, in relation to, for example, the “realist” cinema of the 1930s, of Jean Renoir and co.

[4] Jacques Rancière here seems to make the same mistake that the character of Kristin Stewart makes in the film: she mistakes Belfry, where her classes are actually taking place, for Belgrade.

JR: There are different kinds of contemporary cinema. You can certainly find certain kinds of cinema where there is a commonality or where there is an attempt to revive a kind of social cinema of the old times. It’s certainly not a general case, but it is true that many films which try to deal with a certain question, with the sense of what is our world today, are not simply dealing with solitude but with the idea that collective life is not given, that it has to be won. What is striking in this film is the way how these little towns in Montana are shown. If you type “Belgrade, Montana” on Google, you see that there is a big stadium, so it’s more than a hamlet with a few houses and a snack bar.[4] But in the film it is shown as a kind of non-place. So you have characters who are engaged in relations which 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 more exist. Political relations have to be constructed by encounters. This is something that has been very important in the Occupy movements or the movements on the squares in recent years. There is the idea that the community between those who are in the street is no more given by a certain state of social relationships, it has to be built, and this can be done only through singular encounters.

An edited version of this interview was published on www.sabzian.be.
A video registration of the talk can be found on www.diagonalthoughts.com.
Thank you to Jacques Rancière for the corrections.