Yokohama Triennale 2014: Eric Baudelaire, Pt. I

By Andrew Maerkle

The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images (2011), Super 8 and HD video, 66 min. All images: Courtesy Eric Baudelaire.

Beginning his career in art as a photographer, Eric Baudelaire has since become known for films investigating the relations between contemporary media, history and the politics of perception. Shot in 2007 on a film set, Sugar Water, for example, shows a billposter methodically pasting a sequence of images onto an advertising board in a subway station; larger than life, the images depict a car bomb exploding on a Paris street, while commuters using the subway system come and go, seemingly oblivious to the violence unfolding, frame by frame, behind them. The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images (2011) weaves together the stories of the titular figures: Fusako Shigenobu, former leader of the radical Japanese Red Army, and her daughter May, born and raised in Lebanon; and Masao Adachi, the avant-garde filmmaker who joined the Japanese Red Army and lived clandestinely in Lebanon from 1974 until being forcibly returned to Japan in 2001. The film borrows from and inverts Adachi’s theory of fukei ron, or the idea that filmic observation and interpretation of the landscape could reveal the societal structures of oppression informing everyday life, as exemplified in the film AKA Serial Killer (1969), about the serial killer Norio Nagayama. In Baudelaire’s take on fukei ron for The Anabasis, the camera’s shifts between present-day Japan and Lebanon also suggest a movement through time as well as space.

Baudelaire recently returned to Japan for the Yokohama Triennale 2014, where his feature film The Ugly One (2013), shot in Lebanon based on a scenario written by Masao Adachi, was presented in Japan for the first time. ART iT met with Baudelaire following an artist talk he gave at the Yokohama Museum of Art on September 7 as part of the Triennale programming. We discussed his works in greater detail, as well as his unique approach to filmmaking and the connections between fukei ron, the flâneur, origami and revolutionary movements.

The Yokohama Triennale 2014 was on view from August 1 to November 3 at the Yokohama Museum of Art and other venues in Yokohama.


The Ugly One (2013), a film by Eric Baudelaire based on a story by Masao Adachi, with Rabih Mroué as “Michel” and Juliette Navis as “Lili,” 101 min.

ART iT: I thought we could start with a continuation of your artist talk at the Yokohama Triennale from the other day. One thing you mentioned in the talk that resonated with me is the idea of the “professional” documentary film and its obsession with objectivity, which is something that is apparent in the mainstream English-language print media as well. The idea of objectivity has become a rhetorical framework which is itself highly ideological.

EB: Yes. The American news media take this idea of objectivity very seriously, or rather they ostensibly take it seriously. Newspapers like the New York Times create internal structures to police the “objectivity” of their reporting, and of course it’s a complete disaster: just look at their coverage of the run-up to the second war in Iraq. This idea of objectivity is of course what keeps them in business, but Noam Chomsky describes in very concrete terms how and why the “objective” viewpoint is impossible in news media. I think it’s easier for me to understand the world when the question of subjectivity is at the forefront. Then you can start thinking about forms and the information that you are conveying, but at least the position has been set.
This relates to the approach I’ve taken to making films: how do you construct a narrative based on subjective perspectives that still problematize contentious issues in an interesting way? How can you use the subjectivity of a perspective as the place to open up a discussion? Here I’m not talking about films where you establish a single perspective just to destroy it, like Errol Morris’s films about Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, which are quite interesting in their own ways. I usually make films with people who have a subjective position that is problematic because the positions they defend, or the worlds they’ve constructed, raise real ethical, political and moral questions. Masao Adachi is an example of that. But I also have a form of friendship or empathy with the subject matter. I think this is a more appropriate way of thinking about the questions that interest me, whether they are related to the Israel-Palestine question or, in my most recent film, Letters to Max (2014), a civil war in the Caucasus.
There is no single perspective that is just. That’s where the role of the artist in making these films can be interesting, because you can play with the idea of empathy, and you can play with the idea of a strong emotional relationship to a character, and yet still endanger that character. The question is how you do that, and how far can you push it, so that you’ve created a complex object that is not compromised.

ART iT: On the other hand, your films also have a strong structural element. For example, Sugar Water (2007) is built around the action of a man pasting posters in a fictional subway station, but I think this applies to The Anabasis and The Ugly One as well, where aspects of Masao Adachi’s approach to filmmaking determine the structure in advance.

EB: I think you can say that in retrospect. But it happened naturally, and then I realized that the films I was excited to make were generally predicated on a dispositif, a structural premise for how the film functions in its orchestration of the relations between author, subject, story and the history that is being addressed. In a way this is my response to Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: the structure of the transaction between author and subject is explicit; in fact, it determines the form of the film itself.
I think it also comes from a desire to make the works territories of discussion. I saw Adachi-san last night and we had a long conversation about The Ugly One. I told him that for me the work is probably less a film per se than it is: 1) a process of making a film; 2) the way this process is reflected inside the film itself; 3) the discussion that the film generates. I think you could summarize the structure in two different ways that would both be citations of Francois Truffaut. The first is the idea that in making a film, you should shoot the film against the screenplay, and then cut the film against the shoot. Truffaut meant this in a certain way, and I think I pushed that idea of making a “film against” as far as I could. The second Truffaut idea is embracing the concept of a “diseased film” – a film that is possibly flawed, like The Ugly One, because it traps the characters between the voice of the scriptwriter and the directions of the director. Truffaut says his favorite Hitchcock film is Marnie (1964), because it is a diseased film. Hitchcock’s other films are perfect: the architecture is perfect, the film functions perfectly,, but the discussion afterward is not going to be as rich as it is with a diseased film like Marnie. I’m not saying I set out to make diseased films. I set out to make the film that I can make under the circumstances in which I make it. But what is apparent to me now with The Ugly One is that the discussion the film creates is important to me. As the title announces: it’s an ugly film.

Sugar Water (2007), HD video projection, 72 min.

ART iT: Concerning the structure of The Ugly One, I felt there was a counterbalance between the earlier, actorly scenes with the two protagonists Michel and Lili, and the dinner scene toward the conclusion, with the group of ex-radicals arguing among themselves, where everything coheres into something that is incredibly real, and makes you question whether the actors are acting or not acting, whether they are following instructions from the director or not, whether they are in character or have broken character.

EB: The Ugly One is a two-headed monster. Aadachi’s films are actorly. They are extremely expressionist and theatrical. I was working with characters and a script that emerged from his mind, and I tried to use that as one basis for the film before gradually transforming it into something else. This is the moment you describe, where the actorly quality dissolves into an engagement with the reality of life in Beirut. I’m trying to portray these characters as being lost between their roles as actors and their personalities as people, and everything mixes together. I think it’s something that started to make sense after The Anabasis, which is formally closer to documentary. The Anabasis opened up my interest in exploring the realm of fiction as a place to interrogate the real, by juxtaposing both documentary and fictional approaches within the same object, and letting everybody get lost inside that dichotomy.

ART iT: In the film the voiceover seems to announce shifts between the documentary and fictional registers. In the beginning, for example, there is Adachi’s reflexive voiceover, toward the middle the male characters take turns reciting lines from Adachi’s script, and then at the end, after the dinner scene, there is the voice of Lili. This also suggests the voiceover is a site of contention over the agency of the film itself. Was this your mentality entering the production?

EB: Exactly. There are three spaces where the film functions. One is strictly taken out of Adachi’s script. There is another space constituted by scenes I have written as a metafilm reflecting on the circumstances in which the protagonists are going to get lost between their function as actors and as characters. And then there’s a third space, which is the more documentary approach you described. The film alternates between these three modes, subjecting the narrative, the story in Adachi’s script, to these multiple vocabularies of cinema competing with each other within the same film.

ART iT: What did Adachi think of the film?

EB: Having agreed to do the project with me, he was also agreeing to any possible outcome of that process. During the editing he offered strong critiques of certain scenes to make the film stronger, but he was also very supportive and seemed convinced that whatever I argued for the hardest would be the right thing to do. The film is sometimes portrayed as being too complicated or too difficult to engage with, too experimental. But when we spoke last night, Adachi’s critique was the opposite: he thinks it’s too classical. That’s what I love about working with him. He’s a 75-year-old punk who is never satisfied with any form of consensus, and who will always push the envelope to the breaking point, in art and in life.

Installation view of the solo exhibition “Circumambulation” at Elizabeth Dee Gallery, New York, 2007, with works from the series “Blind Walls.”

ART iT: This is a bit of a jump in topic, but one thing that is striking about Japan is that there is this incredible history which has been obliterated from the surface of everyday discourse. There is little to suggest there were once students occupying the streets and fighting with police, unless you happen to see footage of it, such as what you included in The Anabasis. There’s nothing that would really remind you of fukei ron. There’s no sign in the landscape today that would give you a clue that these kinds of events ever happened. It’s similar to the “Blind Walls” (2007) series that you made with the graffitied Plexiglas laid over photographs of buildings in Paris, where the past and the present are parallel, but not touching.

EB: You know, the demonstration footage in The Anabasis is real documentary footage. Koji Wakamatsu heard of this demonstration and he brought his camera with him to film it, and then he used the footage in Sex Jack.
But your connection with “Blind Walls” is interesting, I’d never thought of that. “Blind Walls” predates my meeting with Adachi and thinking about landscape theory, but it did point toward this interest in looking for traces of something structural in the landscape to help us understand the political. For me it started with Ground Zero. The radical change in the landscape in New York, both in terms of what had disappeared and what was visible around it, was interesting to me as a way of thinking about how to use landscape images – in photography or film – as a way of discussing the political structures in which we live.

ART iT: So Circumambulation (2006-07) was your own proto-fukei-ron film?

EB: Yes, but completely intuitive and without knowledge of AKA Serial Killer. It was “outsider fukei ron“! It was initially a very personal gesture. It’s interesting how discussions with others allow you to figure out the links between things that you had not consciously made yourself. People often assume that in making work you lay out the theoretical foundations first and then the work follows, but a lot of the time it’s the other way around. The work is made according to impulsive factors, and then the theoretical discourse gets formulated afterwards when you have to put words to relationships between things, and patterns start to emerge. So even though on its surface the work may look heavily theoretical, it’s often far more intuitive in its creation. The theory gets improvised in the Q&A after the first few projections.


Eric Baudelaire: A Landscape, Cut and Folded

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