Walking Memory. Memory on the march.
by Mathieu Lericq* (translated by David Pickering)

Black curtains wrap the theater in an inhabited, but precarious darkness. The white screen, soon covered with multiple luminous movements, appears as a source of fascination or disturbance to those present, those we name“spectators,”whose eyes, ears and whole existence are plunged into an arresting circle of light. Once the house lights come back on, the chairs are yanked from their rectilinear placement to accommodate a circular form of relations, becoming the platform for the most surprising of human words. Three elements form a single space of sensorial-motor exchange — three frames made of holes to fill, surfaces to rub out, silences to undo. The space is filled with individuals open to dialogues between images. In this setting, illegality spins an immanent thread of words from the spirit of the films.

The project illegal_cinema, conceived by the Serbian collective Teorija koja Hoda (“Walking Theory,”in English) was established in Belgrade in 2007. Founded on a principle as simple as it is subversive, namely allowing movie-goers to chose films lacking distribution and to discuss them freely during debates, this project emerged as a response to mainly cultural but also social and economic issues. Indeed, for the first time, it allows us to 1. Gather spectators around films that are“misshapen”compared with the normalizing codifications of cinematic supply, 2. Make a space available to a diverse audience and 3. Privilege the emergence of a“non-hierarchical”discourse that is free of the authority naturally asserted by the voices of filmmakers and experts. These three“openings”remained the underlying objectives of the project when it was established in Aubervilliers in May 2010. Dedicated to artistic research, Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers were the perfect candidate to take on this ambitious, unexpected and ephemeral adventure.

Insofar as the project is being developed in the Paris area, the term illegal loses its purely juridical or even economic meaning, and takes on the sense of“misuse” with regard to the discourse a filmmaker might develop about his or her work. Indeed, illegal_cinema invites spectators to undergo a threefold shift in the idea of experience: to experiment with a mode of programming in which their entire responsibility is to the work, to pool specific points of view that rarely interact, and to develop a conversation centered on the filmic experience (rather that on the intentions of an artist or the conditions of production). As a result, though the project's ambition is to be a platform for the dissemination of films outside the norm, it is evolving away from issues of distribution and production towards aesthetic, political, social and cultural concerns, especially as they pertain to the identities represented by the spectators in attendance. As a result, contextualization is called for.

Beyond its theoretical daring, a project such as this one established in a complex context shared by a multicultural population, is faced with the question of which paths to take to create a space where a desire for programming and the freedom of discussion reign. Placed in the hands of the residents of Aubervilliers, Paris, and the metropolitan area at large, the project is arousing enthusiasm and has found a small but devoted critical community of about a dozen regular spectators. Moreover, bring tied to a particular context helps center each meeting's themes on the history and role of minorities around the world (social minorities in Aubervilliers, political minorities in the United States, linguistic minorities in the Philippines, etc.), or even the survival of such minorities (the inhabitants of Sarayaku in the Amazonian forest), and promotes a theoretical investigation of how images are shown, notably those of video artists customarily seen in galleries.

For over a year, the project illegal_cinema has been “taking root” insofar as it promotes exchange between individuals who don't have other opportunities to meet and who are seeing in the project a way of taking on common questions — living conditions in shelters for migrant workers, for instance — in the precise space-time constituted by the meeting. The dialogue that it makes possible between associations, inhabitants, film library users, political actors and people presenting specific identities, continues to nourish new relations and emotions. A coordinator since the beginning of the project, I would like to look back at these relations and emotions, not so much to take stock, but to trace the path of memory on the march.

Walking memory. Why use such an expression? For one, because cinema is a temporal art. Most of the screenings, it turns out, focused on problems linked to society and past art practices, often reexamined with an eye to (re-)defining the present. Moreover, the discursive systems promoted by the project are founded on the active memory of spectators. The project illegal_cinema itself puts memories in motion and promotes memory on the march. In addition, the immateriality and frailty of certain discourses, and the ephemeral nature of discussions, cannot turn into forgetting and conceal their value. More than a raw archive, the operative idea is to make a written sketch of past sessions in order to get perspective on the project and its functioning. To put it another way, I will try to trace the main currents that run through the project, as much with regard to the films screened, as to the audience-members present and the nature of the discourse conveyed over the course of these debates.

Views from Outside and Inside

Since it was established at Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers, illegal_cinema has gone through developmental stages that have changed the content of its meetings, the type of films programmed, but also the physical space in which the weekly meetings take place. Before coming to these first two points, the last strikes me as particularly revealing of the hierarchical deconstruction process operated by the project and related questions about how to organize the space. Indeed, the first illegal_cinema sessions took place in the large theater of Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers, which is composed of bleachers that maintain a traditional dual distribution (which necessarily places the programmer in front of the spectators). Given that one of the project's aims is making the distinction between programmer and spectator more permeable, the small theater proved a more suitable space as much because of its more intimate size, as the variations of set-up made possible by the use of chairs. That is how the absence of all authority, of all apparent distinction, progressively found a spatial solution.

In addition to the absence of hierarchy within the discussion dispositif, the project follows a process of multiplication of the themes addressed, of genres and formats among the chosen films, as well as projection media. Closely linked to the history of its original context and the project's core principles, illegal_cinema's early meetings gave rise to questions about body politics and the necessary spectacle of its public position, notably in Serbia and Central Europe. The creator behind the project, Marta Popivoda, kicked things off on May 24th, 2010, by proposing WR: Mysteries of the Organism, an experimental feature by Dušan Makavejev, made in ex-Yugoslavia in 1971. The theme of the body came up again in the fourth meeting, also moderated by Marta Popivoda, following the projection of, among others, Black Film, a documentary by Serbian master Želimir Žilnik. This meditation on the body's real, physical presence soon fused with questions about contemporary body types. The discussion focused on the body's materiality (sometimes utterly disconnected from its physicality), its currency, and its virtuality. A body that only exists in its connection to communication, constantly passing through telephone waves to stay in contact with its family who lives in a war-torn section of Bagdad. That is the image of the body developed in the film Paris, Printemps 2003 (Samia al Kayar, France 2006) proposed by Nicolas Menet on January 10th 2011. At the same meeting, some spectators were moved by the lack of some bodies, specifically female bodies in the approach to war laid out in the film Je m'appelle (Stéphane Elmadjian, France, 2002). As though, at heart, only men, the first responders during a state of war, had the right to take possession of a disaster narrative. From then on, absent bodies rather than present ones became welcome at meetings, as at the presentation of The Dubai in Me (Christian Von Borries, Germany, 2010) by Eugenio Renzi on July 26th, 2010. In the film, construction workers from Dubai are relegated, just like the buildings they erect, to the status of background bodies, uprooted, plunged into virtuality or into pure invisibility. The virtuality of the body was also the focus of the programs outlined by Sébastien Ronceray about ghosts on April 11th, 2011, and Laurent Cibien on January 17th, 2011 around Arnaud des Pallières' subjective documentary Disneyland, mon vieux pays natal (France, 2000).

Some programmers chose to move beyond language and body image, and led discussions on the speaking body, or bodies with broken, deconstructed or rejected voices. This was the case for Diana Drljacic, an Aubervilliers community leader, who organized a program of firsthand accounts by prisoners that included two films made during workshops at the Fresnes Detention Center and Mohamed Bourouissa's extraordinary short film Temps mort (France, 2009). Both documentaries proposed by Michèle Soulignac and Corinne Bopp (Association Périphérie), L'Exil et le Royaume (Jonathan Le Fourn and Andreï Schtakleff, France, 2008) and L'Ecume des mères (Séverin Mathieu, France, 2008) presented on November 8th and 22nd, 2010, respectively, also sparked discussions on the types of speech used by activists fighting for immigrants at Calais, and on the destruction of mothers' speech by social traumas. Unheard voices was a recurring theme, coming up in Julia Varga' s February 7th, 2011 program (patients' voices in a psychiatric hospital); Nicole Brenez's March 14th, 2011 program (the outraged voices of those evicted from Cachan in 2006); and Yassine Qnia's March 23rd, 2011 program (the performative voice of a dark-skinned apprentice actor). These sessions questioned the cinematic modalities of comprehension, reproduction and liberation of the spoken word.

More generally, by way of these two principal themes — the body and the spoken word — illegal_cinema spurs thinking about the history of minorities (immigrants, soldiers, activists, blacks, queers, etc.). This was the case with Jennifer Lacey's January 3rd, 2011 proposition, The Cockettes (Bill Wever and David Weissman, USA, 2002), a film devoted to a group of performers challenging sexual norms in the United States of the 1970s.

Nomadic Discourse

Illegal_cinema offers a space where images can be exhibited, but more importantly sensations, ideas, and “testimony-words” (in contradistinction to catchalls) can be exchanged. If the subjective viewpoint of a programmer is asserted before the screening, it becomes a subject of discussion during the debate, giving the programmer a status similar to that of the spectators. As a result, the spectators in attendance do not constitute a collective or association, but rather a community within which presuppositions fall into multiple frames of reference. The showings, which engage the programmer and the other spectators in challenging their apprehensions, lead to new kinds of exchanges, founded on the appropriation of a cinematic object and each person's individual motivation (in the sense of a collective transmission of several energies as much as the act of putting something into words or reformulating it).

What is meant by the appropriation of a filmed object? We say of a film we detest that we “can't get into it” or “remain outside” its visual system. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a fascinating film may “grip us” or at least submerge us in the images, sounds and words it offers us. It seems to me that the problem of appropriation exists at the border between these two phenomena. Michel Serres pointed out the necessity of “sullying” a space in order to make it our own, to appropriate it. Also, the spectator, in the process of appropriation, is situated somewhere between open- and closed-mindedness, between possession and dissociation, at a distance sufficient to encourage the forming of ideas about what is seen and heard. In the project illegal_cinema, this process of appropriation is set in motion from the start of the showing, at the precise moment when the programmer expresses the theoretical orientation he or she wishes to give the program. As a result, the films are not screened or simply shown, they are made available to each person to be perceived from a specific angle, through a given prism. Moreover, illegal_cinema meetings cannot be thought of only based on which films are on the roster, but must be understood in light of what questions the programmer, and then the wider group of spectators, ask during discussions.

Without the appropriation process, a showing cannot come together in the sense of ideas being promulgated, discussed and “understood.” The meeting programmed by Laurent Cibien around Arnaud des Pallières' Disneyland… proved that, on the one hand, the phenomenon of appropriation underpins all real discussion and that, on the other, it allows for a diversification of contributions. Indeed, though the film was selected to bring up the theme of censorship, it sparked a constructive feeling of discomfort that surpassed distribution-related issues and sparked a debate about the archaic, hellish, and almost mythological quality of bodies present at Disneyland. The debate also touched on the status of the spectator, intentionally infantilized by the film to give him or her a more childlike view of this marvelous and monstrous non-place. The evocation of childhood sparked almost unanimous participation in the debate.

The professional movie programmer's prepared speech or the rigid exchange of a film club is replaced here by the sharing of clues, of more or less operant words, for a discourse of which each spectator is both producer and moderator. Indeed, as an initiator of ideas, the spectator is also the guardian of the discourse. It is he or she who fuels the discourse, stops and starts it, moves it forward, yells it out, writes it down, disconnects it, persuades it, interrupts it. And yet, being a producer or moderator of a discourse necessitates a state of mind that I would name motivation. Defined for each spectator according to his or her assumed identity, history and nationality, this motivation is in fact universal in nature, an impetus severed from any preconceived notions and delivered according to the images of a film. It implies an energy and a desire for discussion, contestation, or even protest. An energy that promotes putting things into words and performative sharing.

Performative Meetings

The discourse at work within the illegal_cinema project, founded on the appropriation and motivation of the spectator, has been developing among increasingly diverse audiences. Though the project has been enthusiastically received by cinephiles accustomed to dark theaters, and contemporary art viewers accustomed to exhibits and art galleries, it is also gaining resonance with people who are not art experts but are curious and eager to react to the social issues that the programmers bring up. For example, the program proposed on April 18th 2011 by Mamadou Kane, a young social worker, was an opportunity to see Collision (Paul Haggis, US, 2006), and to question human relations in an urban setting. Other participants include students from Saint-Denis University, artists, a former Parisian schoolteacher, a Hungarian gallery owner, and Aubervilliers residents. One of the deep meanings behind the project, namely the synchronization of knowledge, has given rise to an exchange that is so stimulating in part because it occurs within a diverse audience.

Some of the connections made with community leaders are intended to encourage the expansion and diversification of participants. Different social platforms (multimedia libraries, youth groups and services) are currently relaying information about the screenings to their users. Specifically within multimedia libraries, the idea is to open up the debates to literary frames of reference, to allow readers to read up on films and chosen themes beforehand. As a result, rather than conceptualizing the idea of diversification, the idea is to grant each individual access to a space and to consider each screening as the culmination of a long process, in which each individual is called on to participate.

When they travel the world thanks to images and dialogues — exploring the landscapes of Belgium, Serbia, Austria, the United States, Colombia, Mexico, Japan and the Philippines — illegal_cinema participants take decidedly transitory paths. This highly performative project effects a change in each person's story, the space he or she feels a part of, and his or her imagination and ideas. In other words, just as Michel Foucault talked about the necessity of introducing a “mirror image of history,” devoid of heroes and triumph, I would say that the project illegal_cinema pursues the same goal, which it reinforces by creating a “geographical mirror image.” And yet this dual mirror-image is not a flag to wave but a goal to strive for. Two other fascinating meetings, related to context, bore the mark of this mirror-image. The first, organized June 7th, 2010 and proposed by Carlos Semedo, was a chance to discover Aubervilliers, a film by Eli Lotar (France, 1945), and Occupation by John Menick (France, 2005). The debate focused on the history of Aubervilliers since 1945, the unsanitary conditions in its apartment buildings and the difficult integration of its various linguistic and cultural minorities. The second meeting was proposed by Christophe Laplace-Claverie, on January 31st 2011, and the debate, on the films Salam (Souad El Bouhati, France, 2000) and La dernière séance (Hamouda Hertelli and Martine Monvoisin, France, 2010), came to include individuals from different backgrounds (laborers, social workers, directors and employees of shelters for migrant workers in Aubervilliers and Saint-Denis, migrant workers themselves, local elected officials, schoolteachers, students) and of all ages. It began calmly around esthetic questions and then built into a more lively debate about each person's experience with immigration and the living conditions immigrants face. Thus the esthetic leads back to the political, the discussion space refers to its context, and individuals exchange words that are usually kept private but here find a rawer, more precise and valuable form of expression. These sessions show us the degree to which the history of the nation is invalidated by individual, lived experience and how the surrounding context we think of as ours is really only the surface of a complex, stratified space with an immense depth of field that must continue to be described and imagined.

An analogy comes to mind with the evocation of this memory that remains to be built. A safe haven, a melting pot, for different nationalities — a place of numerous spaces devoted to work and dialogue in the shadow of the institutionalized activities of Paris, attractive and touristy. Aubervilliers has a metonymic relationship with the project illegal_cinema. A project founded on the “meeting” (in the Deleuzian sense) of the human with the (political) animal, of documentary with fiction, of film with video, of triviality with subtlety, and of the concrete with the conceptual.

Text published in Le Journal des Laboratoires, Sept-Dec. 2011

* Mathieu Lericq studied cinema at the University of Paris 3 – Sorbonne Nouvelle. His critical works are devoted notably to esthetics and memory in Eastern European cinemas. Outside of his critical activities, he participates in directing documentary films. He was coordinator of the project illegal_cinema between May 2010 and June 2011.