Monday, September 19, 2022

Political space – Stories of A

No points for guessing on which side of the debate Serge Daney stood. This article was published in Cahiers du cinéma in December 1974 - January 1975, at the time when abortion was being legalised in France. To read more by Daney on militant cinema, read his intro to the chapter of La Rampe where the text below featured.


Political space – Stories of A  

1. An updated title of Stories of A* could be Stories of Stories of A since the film itself also has a story. A well-known one: banned, distributed through first militant and then commercial means. An “audience” had to come into being, pitching in money and protecting its existence, simply for the film to be seen and debated. For the first time in a while, a film has managed to organise its audience. In this sense, Stories of A is truly an organising film, not because it disseminates theories developed elsewhere by and within political organisations but because its vision, its appropriation have created organisational problems: operating illegally, and (sometimes violent) confrontations. Stories of A allows us to ask a question at the heart of any film project: the space of the film screening as a space of conflict, a space to be conquered, almost a military space.  

Or: under what conditions can one go from one audience – one that is conditioned, organised for film consumption, guided by the usherettes and stuffed with ice cream – to another, one that knows that a film engaged in a struggle, like an idea, doesn’t come out of nowhere? For all the militants, all those that have distributed Stories of A, have had to take hold not only of a cause they already supported (that it is morally just to fight for the right to abortion) but also a form: the film-object, one that is breakable, stealable, perishable, expensive. The propagation of this object, the fight for its distribution, have not only popularised the ideas of the MLAC **, it has also taught two or three new things to its amateur distributors: a film, under certain conditions, can also function as an “organising force.”  

2. Yet, for many who have seen, defended or distributed the film, just as much as it is the case for those who have despised it and banned it (from François Maurin to Maurice Druon), Stories of A seems to draw its organising power only from the fact that it was banned. And it was seen to be banned solely because it addressed a taboo: abortion. In other words, for all of them, the film is merely a pretext.  

This not-so-new idea is the cross that “militant” cinema bears. It comes down to seeing a piece of art as a neutral object, a channel to popularise ideas developed elsewhere, with no other depth. Following this logic, a film only has to enable a debate, or speaking opportunities for militants seeking to advance their cause and transmit their message, in order to fulfil its mission, its entire mission. A film is to debate what an introductory short film is to the main feature: a preparation, a foretaste, a teaser. The film here is seen as the Trojan horse that smuggles the debate through. How many times have we heard this fateful phrase: “the film doesn’t matter in itself, it only exists to spark the debate”? How can one be surprised, then, with the eternal poor quality of militant cinema? 

To accept this conception means – for the distributors, the audience and the filmmaker – to use the film like a lure to attract audiences, even at the risk of losing this “captive” audience  in sad and dogmatic debates. It means normalising an instrumentalist conception of art. Instrumentalist meaning moments, mediums or reflections that are (or conceived as) neutral. An inevitable consequence: filmmakers are only called upon for their know-how (mastery of their specialty) and for their bad conscience (non-mastery of the general, i.e., political). They rapidly become service providers. But what if filmmakers “commissioned” in that way don’t consider their work and know-how as neutral? Who will they be accountable to for this non-neutrality? Where will they go to open up this other debate, the one around their work and the form of this work?   

3. This is why one must do what no one has thought of doing: talk about the form of Stories of A. And what does François Maurin have to say in his review for L’Humanité (dated 23 October 1974)? “One would like to know the young woman as more than someone lying on the delivery table having an abortion with Karman’s technique. One would like to know her troubles, to hear her talk more fully about herself and her fate.” From this review, we can imagine the film Maurin is dreaming about: another film, other filming choices: the slice of life allowing the filmmaker and the audience to examine devastated actors and lamenting victims. But Stories of A is exactly the opposite: in the long scene that Maurin references, the young woman is not just “lying on the table,” we see her in turn speaking and “being spoken” acting and “be acted”. It is not just a surgical scoop. There is more.  

For the thesis of Belmont and Issartel’s film is not just that women have the right to abortion, it is that Karman’s technique is simple, without danger, and filmable. The thesis of the film is not only that “we are right in revolting”, it is also that “we are right in filming”. And this accomplishes the following: 

- By placing this scene at the start of the film, to make it a reference, a proof.  

- By filming the abortion, to break the law that prohibits abortion and its filmic reproduction, and to acknowledge in this double prohibition a power specific to the cinema.  

- The power to graft its own space – the space of fiction within the sphere of the camera – onto a “somewhat liberated” space. Liberated space: the relation between doctor and patient. Liberated space: the relation between the filmmaker and the filmed.  

Far from “committed” sociology (always dreadful), Belmont and Issartel assert the spectacle, the conquered spectacle of a new relation between the doctor and the young woman and between the young woman and her body. The spectacle of a fear that is ceasing to be. In that sense, the film is indeed a scoop, but not about the secrets or dark corners of bourgeois medicine or the bloody insides of an unknown body , but about another way to practice medicine, on another mise en scène of medical power.   

4. We continue to diametrically oppose mise en scène (fiction, re-enactment) and live broadcasting (events captured live). To the excesses of a fetishist mise en scène inherited via the cinephilia of Hollywood genres, we continue to oppose the merits of live action, spontaneity, experience, naturalism – everything that has been made possible by technical progress and which culminated in the “cinéma vérité” of the 1960s. This is a false opposition. In political (or even political-scientific) terms, we should say that the bourgeoisie not only has the monopoly over filmed images of reality, it also has – as a priority over any film – the monopoly over the mise en scène of this reality. A city, a film theatre or a clinic are already a form of mise en scène. They come with a pre-existing user manual for the time and space they define, with mandated movements, thresholds and prohibitions. At a push, it is this user manual that is political (inasmuch as it reinforces a certain power). Whether a filmmaker films this space “live” or “naturalises” it in a fiction doesn’t exonerate him from this first mise en scène, which is all the stronger that it remains unseen, that it precedes the filmmaker’s, and that it often conditions it. The opposite of mise en scène is not unrestrained live action but another mise en scène. The opposite of live action is not mise en scène but another live action. Other in a way that they imply a new perception, a new position (be it spatial, moral or political) of the one filming vis à vis what is filmed. 

The abortion in Gennevilliers gives us a glimpse of what such a position can be. Where nothing can be accomplished without interlacing a new live action (a “trusted” filmmaker) and a new mise en scène (bodies spoken, voices heard, rebellion expressed). This interlacing defines a possible cinematic “political space.”   

5. For the rebellion (that of women in this case) doesn’t only generate symptoms that ought to be translated within and through the global discourse of the revolution. A struggle is being spoken and advances in the great chaos of incoherent statements, parodies, cries, watchwords, disorderly beliefs and everything that defines collective enunciation. Respecting this enunciation has allowed Belmont and Issartel to avoid the pitfalls that are common currency in militant cinema and which entail using political knowledge (even and especially Marxism-Leninism) solely as a decrypting dogma, a machine to translate what is being spoken in a struggle.  

Shall we hand back to those fighting – along with the strategic meaning of their fight – the fervour, the inventiveness and the joy that also can be found in fighting? This is an unavoidable question for any cinema aiming to be militant. A question that obliges militant cinema to not be unequivocal, unilateral, uniform or monological. For, if a struggle is being spoken, it never says “I.”  

* The filmmaker, Charles Belmont, who was first an actor for Chabrol, had made The Froth of Time (1968) adapted from Boris Vian’s novel and Rak (1971). He would later make Pour Clémence.   

** Movement for the Freedom of Abortion and Birth Control [translator’s note]. 

First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, issue 254-255, Dec 1974 – Jan 1975. Reprinted in La Rampe, cahier critique 1972-1982, Cahiers du cinéma – Gallimard, 1983. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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