Cultural Guerrillas

The fundamental questions of a cinema of intervention
by Nicole Brenez and Philippe Grandrieux  posted March 1, 2012
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In the following piece, the critic and scholar Nicole Brenez and the filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux explain why they have created the series of films on radical filmmakers "It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve." The first film, on Masao Adachi, was shown at the Museum of Moving Image in the First Look series in January 2012, and will be screened at Brenez's Internationalist Cinema for Today program at Anthology Film Archives this month. The text was translated from French by Andréa Picard.

The German poet Schiller, one of the leading thinkers on the role of art vis-à-vis emancipation, magnificently defined beauty as the refusal of subordination to an external order, seeing it as a plenitude transcending regularity. As a manifestation of a glorious fully realized self, the work of art introduces the observing individual to a moral emancipation: the individual sees, thanks to the work of art, how beauty is delivered from all constraints and is nurtured solely by freedom. Thus, he understands what it means to "gradually actualize all of one's potentialities"1

It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi

It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi

Consider the work as a laboratory exercise with a liberated play of faculties, thus as an introduction to emancipation: this proposal2 will be taken up under numerous forms and guises throughout the history of the avant-gardes, most notably under the term "the suppression of art." Case in point is visual artist Julio Le Parc's pamphlet manifesto entitled "Cultural Guerilla" (1968). It concludes with the following clarion call:

Reignite [the] power of aggression against existing structures. Instead of seeking out innovations in art, change, whenever possible, the fundamental mechanisms which condition communication....Organize a sort of guerilla warfare against the present-day cultural state of things, highlight the contradictions, create situations in which people can regain their potential to effect change. Counter tendencies that opt for stability, the definitive, all that breeds a state of dependence, of apathy, of passivity tied to habits, to established criteria, to myths and other mental schemes born of a conditioning complicit with structures of power. The systems of life, even during political regime changes, will continue to be maintained if we do not question them.3

Avant-garde cinema is not primarily defined by its economic origins, nor by a doctrinaire platform, nor a singular aesthetic: it diverts a technology born of military and industrial needs, reinscribes it within a dynamic of emancipation and therefore participates in a vast critical movement that culminates in the 18th century with the philosophy of Kant and the Enlightenment.4 If the work of art's primary territory is that of the conscience or the work of faculties, its challenge consists of continuously reconfiguring the symbolic, to question the division between art and life, such as the humiliating division between the ideal and reality. For an avant-garde artist, art only has sense in its refusal, in its contesting, its pulverization of the limits of the symbolic; it exists as an end within itself or as a means of directly intervening in the real.

A bias (quite useful for refusing to consider a work) would rather a socially engaged cinema be caught up in the material urgencies of history, while remaining indifferent to aesthetic issues. This is a rather piteously decorative conception of formal exigencies and considerations, since, on the contrary, the cinema of intervention exists solely to pose fundamental cinematographic questions: Why make an image, which one, and how? With and for whom? Be it an image of an event (the death of a man, a war, a massacre, a fight, an encounter), how to edit it and decide in which context and perspective to place it? Which other images does it confront? Under history's gaze, which are the missing images and which will be the indispensable ones? To whom should one give the right of speech, and how to reclaim this right if we are refused it? Why? In other words, what history do we want?

I. The Collection

It may be that beauty has strengthened our resolve." Pronounced by one of the characters in Masao Adachi's film Prisoner/Terrorist, such an approach helps us to surmount a mutilating disjunction between a combatant function and a poetic one. In response to André S. Labarthe and Janine Bazin's wonderful series Cinéastes de notre temps, dedicated to classical auteurs described by their spiritual heirs from the Nouvelle Vague, our series pays tribute to known and unknown filmmakers who have participated with guns, cameras, or both simultaneously, in the struggles of resistance and of liberation throughout the 20th century, and to those who today continue to fight against all dictatorships. Fearless and often heroic auteurs, they are examples of relevance and courage for which the cinema thankfully represents their collective history; filmmakers of the struggles for liberation, often with romantic trajectories, are also those who have most encountered censorship, prison, death, and today are consigned to oblivion. —Nicole Brenez

The series does not stem from a dogmatic list of the rules of the game. It is precisely the opposite, which conducts the movement of films; a gesture of freedom, without weight, by which the filmmaker can witness the work of another filmmaker, of his aesthetic, ethical, and political engagement, of his struggle with the world and with himself. In other words, at which point is the cinema at the heart of the project, the cinema and friendship.

Each film from the series is thus in itself a particular object which will have been thought out, produced, and realized according to the necessity that it brings. Each film addresses a common concern shared by all the others—that of transmitting the power of cinema when cinema and life are so deeply affected by one another. It is this concern that forms the unity of the series.  —Philippe Grandrieux

II. Masao Adachi by Philippe Grandrieux (72', 2011)

It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi

It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi

I met Masao Adachi in Tokyo during a retrospective of my films organized by the French Embassy and the Uplink Factory. There, Adachi saw La Vie Nouvelle. He then participated by my side in the post-screening discussion with the audience. I felt that we shared the same taste for things of great radicalism. It is this collusion that fuels my desire to engage with him and his work. Such elective affinities must decide the particular nature of each of the films in "It May Be That Beauty has Strengthened Our Resolve."  —P.G.

The portrait of Masao Adachi by Philippe Grandrieux is a result of several logistics and necessities.

- The first arose from the contemporary reevaluation of unsung branches of film history, especially those concerning socially engaged documentaries or essay films (René Vautier, Bruno Muel, and Jean-Michel Humeau in France, but also Peter Whitehead and Dick Fontaine in the UK, Jocelyne Saab in Lebanon, The Newsreel in the USA, to name but a few). The unusual trajectory of the Japanese filmmaker Masao Adachi is, in this respect, an essential point of reference as his work connects several different avant-gardes that we tend to distinguish or consider opposing: post-surrealism (or "neo-Dada"), performance, activism, and a genre cinema reinvested with subversive values.

- The dual aesthetic and political requirement that characterizes the work of Masao Adachi is rooted in a critique of self-deprivation, of mutilation (as defined by Adorno). How is it that we suffer and from where does our energy come? All his life, Masao Adachi has fought against oppression: against the internalization of cultural taboos (Wan, 1961, Closed Vagina, 1963), against the exploitation of bodies and peoples (Gushing Prayer, 1970, Red Army/FPLP, 1971). And yet, the issues Masao Adachi was tackling at the beginning of the '60s, Philippe Grandrieux has identified in the '80s. Both inspired by Antonin Artaud and Georges Bataille, both scuffling with the pulse of life, with "the liberation of creative forces" (Artaud); with an aspiration toward an unparalleled plenitude, they placed the body at the center of their aesthetic economy. Both construct their fictions by taking trips to the unknown mazes of the human psyche (Galaxy, Adachi, 1967; Sombre, Grandrieux, 1998), dedicate their documentary essays to the resistance of people submerged in historical tragedy (Red Army/FPLP, Adachi, 1971; Come back in Sarajevo, Grandrieux, 1996), develop historical experiences on information and counter-information (Newsreel, Masao Adachi, 1971-80; The World is All What Is Happening, Grandrieux, 1987).

- Philippe Grandrieux and Masao Adachi met for the first time in Tokyo in January 2008 on the occasion of a Carte Blanche offered by the French Embassy. Entitled "Extreme Love. About Philippe Grandrieux," the series took place in a cinema emblematic of the Japanese avant-garde, the Uplink Factory (sort of the equivalent of the French Studio des Ursulines in the '20s). Their connection was immediate and their esteem mutual. Two unicum, two artists singular in their genres, recognizing in one another the rarity of a complete original clearing his own path through history, regardless of its high cost.

- When the subject of a portrait of Masao Adachi by Philippe Grandrieux was raised in 2010, despite a lack of financial and logistic means, no hesitation was voiced by either of them. Proof prevailed: a network of preoccupations fueled the desire for exchange. In the absence of any budget, goodwill was mobilized and work done in order to ensure that a meeting could take place between these two extraordinary creators.

- The film born from this series of historical and personal factors lives up to its stakes. The result of an encounter between two creators and structured by the question of a sovereign subject (as opposed to ordinary subjugations, like a "mutilated life"), the film completely transforms the standards of an artist portrait. In terms of information, everything is there: the trajectory, the work, Masao Adachi's questioning, and systematically, the conditions of work and Philippe Grandrieux's questions. Yet the documentary unfolds precisely according to the assumptions that inhibit cinematic portraits of filmmakers and of human beings in general: that the description, no matter how precise, generous, or profound, will never grasp the shards of a mystery, those of a person. The portrait here is not a link, not a report, not a clarification, nor an unveiling. It gathers and gives itself the means (visual, stylistic) of reconstituting the unsounded, volumetric, immeasurable properties of a presence, a fortiori when it concerns the presence of a creator with an exceptional historical journey. A two-dimensional image provides us with an approximate figure; it cannot open us up to the being whose contours it adjusts like a skimpy outfit and, more often than not, falls back on an archetype or a cliché. Far from the usual portraits, that of Masao Adachi by Philippe Grandrieux resembles nothing aside from James Joyce's Ulysses, an inverted Ulysses: a psychic odyssey that guides us from an internal monologue, through confidence, by the objectification of external witnesses, by spatial and temporal contextualization, by epiphanies born of the appearances of faces, by the constructivist revelation of the means of its production, and in its conclusion, describes to us the utter complexity of a being without having consigned him to an identity—as we are wont to do to those we love because, seen through a loving light, they flood us with an inexhaustible infinity.

- Because of this assumption, which we could deem ethical, when Masao Adachi indulges in sharing untold secrets of a revolutionary filmmaker, these never appear as indiscretions or mere revelations. The portrait braids two meditations, Adachi's and Grandrieux's, one of words and one of images, without ever presupposing their coincidence, their prior agreement. Instead of the usual set of questions and answers between the documented and the documentarian who obey many of the presumptions facilitating trade between humans, here the tracks of their exchange are put into action: two solitudes present; meteoric immediacies of an annihilation of a perception by others; the welcoming capture of signs; decisive recording of singular moments; dialogues comprising many voices; multi-directional listening; a lookout; reminiscences.... The various forms of our attention to the world appear time and again, and partake in the tribute to the shimmering presences through which a being impresses himself upon us.

The portrait of Masao Adachi by Philippe Grandrieux compels us to side with the image through which the being arrives.  — N.B.

III. Masao Adachi (important dates)

May 13, 1939: Birth in Fukuoka

1959: Enters the University of Tokyo, co-founds the Institute of Cinematographic Science and a ciné-club

1961: First film, Wan

1963: First performance, The Ceremony of the Sealed Vagina

1966: Screenwriter and actor for Koji Wakamatsu and Nagisa Oshima, with whom he regularly works

1967: Completes Galaxy

1968: Founds the "Committee of struggle for Seijun Suzuki," participates in the "Committee of inter-university struggle for the cinema"

1969: Completes a.k.a Serial Killer

1970: Completes Gushing Prayer

1971: First trip to Palestine and Lebanon. Completes Red Army/FPLP, Declaration of World War

1972: Returns to Japan. Organizes tours of the "Projection troupe for the Red Bus"

1974: Returns to Lebanon. Organizes a workshop and a tour of revolutionary Newsreels.

1982: His film archives are destroyed during a bombing.

2001: Arrested, condemned to four years in prison, incarcerated in Beirut.

2003: Extradited and imprisoned in Japan.

2005: Completes Prisoner/Terrorist.

Masao Adachi, artist, author, and filmmaker, who killed no one and is guilty solely of having defended his convictions through images, is to this very day forbidden from leaving the country.

1. Friedrich Schiller, Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, 1794, tr. R. Leroux, Aubier, 1992, p. 172.

2. The result of a debate with the philosophy of Kant. We return on this point to Robert Leroux's introduction to Shiller's text, which constitutes an indispensable perspective.

3. Reproduced in Yves Aupetitallot (dir.), Stratégies de participation: GRAV-Groupe de recherche d'art visuel, 1960/1968, Grenoble, Le Magasin, Centre d'art contemporain de Grenoble, 1998, pp. 231-232.

4. Cf Herbert Marcuse, Philosophy and Revolution (1967), tr. Cornélius Heim, Paris, Denoël/Gonthier, 1968. 


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Nicole Brenez teaches Cinema Studies at the University of Paris-3 Sorbonne nouvelle and curates the Cinémathèque française's avant-garde film series.

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Philippe Grandrieux is the director of numerous documentary-essays and three feature films prior to It May be that Beauty has Strengthened our Resolve: Masao Adachi.

More articles by Philippe Grandrieux