Matadero Madrid center for contemporary creation
For a period of four years, Eric Baudelaire paid repeated visits to a group of students from the Dora Maarigh School in Paris to shoot a film with them. What Is To Be Done? During those four years, which was long enough to see them grow, change, mature, move away and reattach, neither Baudelaire nor the students ever stopped wondering what they were doing, or what a movie is and what it is for. The old revolutionary question of "What Is To Be Done?" came up again and again, questioning the cinematographic structures of power, identity, and representation. It was 2015, and the entire city was in shock after the November terrorist attacks. Violently shaken in their awakening to the world, these young bodies tuned into the shock waves of pain as they struggled to find the right cinematic form: the one that represents them both collectively and individually. The one that respects them, interrogates them, recognizes them. Who does what, why, and for reason? What is a movie, what is a documentary and what is a fiction? The result of this complex interrogative and collaborative process is Un film dramatique (2019), Baudelaire’s most recent feature which is screening in Madrid for the first time. It forms the centrepiece of the film installation being held at Nave 0 in collaboration with Documenta Madrid y Cineteca Madrid, which also includes three other recent moving image works by Baudelaire that explore related themes, often also drawing on similar formal means in the process: perambulations through the cityscape in times in crisis, the simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar gaze conveyed by the vertical format of the mobile phone camera, the subtle ways in which the real can be augmented or heightened by simply playing around with sound, movement, props, or framing. At a time of unprecedented restriction and state control, perhaps the best way to grasp France today is to wander its streets.
Schoolchildren are the body and soul of Un film dramatique (2019), which entails twenty pupils from the Dora Maar Middle School on the outskirts of Paris documenting themselves and their everyday lives. They thus explore the school, their homes, the surrounding area and the wider, as well as their own desire to perform for or speak to the camera, with their own material being supplemented by discussion sessions with Baudelaire which casually zero in on the debates at the heart of contemporary France, whether terrorism, the rise of the Front National, racism, difference, and the intricacies of origin vs. nationality, all of which carry an additional charge given that only a few of these children’s parents were born in the country. In the process, they never stop talking about the project itself and, by extension, cinema, an ongoing meta-discussion which Baudelaire feeds by having the kids reenact scenes from classic films or goof around with the conventions of synchronized sound. The children keep asking what sort of film they’re actually making and it’s a question with no simple answer: a chronicle of modern France from the margins, a playful exercise in meta-filmmaking or a choral diary would all be equally apt descriptions. But as the years pass, the shaky camerawork grows more assured, and pupil after pupil disappears from the project, the true drama becomes time itself, which neither life nor cinema can escape.
As its title suggests, Prelúde a Un film dramatique (2019) does indeed function as an entry point to the subsequent feature, even as it diverges from the latter film considerably in both form and intention. Black leader alternates with brief impressionistic snippets of video shot in the vertical format of a mobile phone, as familiar schoolchildren’s voices pipe up on the soundtrack, sometimes on the right channel, sometimes on the left, and sometimes talking over each other on both. Everyday shots of school, streets, parks and market squares segue into more lyrical passages of passing foliage from a train window, seagulls perched on a lamppost or even a volcano eruption, while the constant chatter that accompanies them jumps back and forth between personal matters and the necessities and ramifications of the project. If the feature is a document of the collaboration over time, this short is a more abstract evocation of all the competing thought processes and images it unleashed along the way.
Walked the Way Home (2018) is shot on the same vertical mobile phone format as Prelúde a Un film dramatique while turning its attention to a different facet of everyday life in Europe today: the presence of heavily armed soldiers in almost every public setting. Yet Baudelaire doesn’t merely present his casually captured compilation of guns, uniforms, and solemn expressions on the streets of Paris and Rome as is, but rather slows the footage down to an eerie crawl, with the otherworldly quality of its movement becoming further amplified further by the composition by Alvin Curran placed over it on the soundtrack, which also gives its name to the film. With Chantal Akerman’s editor Claire Atherton on hand to create the same effortlessly fluid flow of images that also characterises Un film dramatique, Walked the Way Home is a at once a sobering reminder of how easily we get used to things and an illustration of how even the simplest of cinematic manipulations can allow us to see them as they actually are.
The streets of Paris during a different state of emergency from the backdrop to The Glove (2020), which Baudelaire shot during the spring lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. A white surgical glove filled with air bounces out of a Parisian apartment, jumps out of a window, lands in the courtyard, and sets off for a stroll, finding a sunny city of pigeons, parked cars and shuttered shops, where crowds are a thing of the past. Propelled once again by Alvin Curran’s music and Claire Atherton’s editing, this wry miniature is another reflection on everyday life in exceptional times and how an absurdist intervention brings the feeling of these times into even sharper focus.