Culture

On cinema, politics and changing the world

BEIRUT: Many film lovers know Michel Hazanavicius for his 2011 feature “The Artist,” the black-and-white, more-or-less silent love letter to cinema, whose hoard of awards includes five Oscars.

The writer-director was in Beirut for the opening days of the Beirut International Film festival, escorting his latest feature “Redoubtable” through its Arab world premiere.

“Redoubtable” centers on a year in the life of French cinema pioneer Jean-Luc Godard, based on the book “One Year Later,” his ex-wife Anne Wiazemsky’s memoir. As Hazanavicius informed his Beirut audience, Thursday’s projection fell on the day of Wiazemsky’s death.

The year was 1967. Godard and Wiazemsky were newlyweds in the midst of shooting their first film together, “La Chinoise.” It was not well received.

“The Chinese hate the film,” Godard (Louis Garrel) remarks. “They said it’s the work of a reactionary imbecile who completely misunderstands the revolution.”

Not long after, and still in the midst of creative and romantic ferment, the filmmaker and Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) were confronted by the uprising of workers and students against the de Gaulle regime. The balance of the film is about Godard’s efforts to revolutionize his filmmaking and the strain that placed on his life and marriage.

Watching “Redoubtable” alongside “The Artist,” it’s tempting to construct Hazanavicius’ own philosophy of cinema – one that’s not especially sympathetic to politically engaged art.

“I’m almost always of the same inclination,” Hazanavicius said of his work. There is “a man, a very self-confident man who thinks he’s important and totally disconnected from the world around him, and a woman who’s diminutive or self-deprecating.

“I don’t think cinema will change the world. On the other hand I think that the world would not be the same without cinema, without stories. It’s two different ideas, though they complete one another.

“A movie can’t change the world but cinema does give people something that is very important. It’s something that connects people in the same way that the Bible used to do – small stories that say to people, ‘We all have a common destiny. We all have the same pain. We all love in the same bad way. It happens that you kill your brother. It happens you die in a bad way.’

“These stories happen and it’s important to know they don’t just happen to you. I think that’s the role of cinema ... Maybe someone like Charlie Chaplin changed something, for some people, but it’s so rare.”

Hazanavicius does not believe cinema is apolitical.

“I think everything is politics, of course,” he replied. “I don’t believe in [partisan, ideological] cinema. It exists and maybe it’s useful for people who watch it, but ...

“When you think about cinema in the ’40s and the ’50s, it was really a political tool to spread American culture and products all over the world. It is politics but it’s the whole, not just one movie. That cinema was very well done, entertaining. It could even be subversive or funny or innocent. Taken as a whole it says something about American supremacy in the world.”

One of the ironies of Godard’s revolutionary cinema is that, while setting out to make its audience into activists, the filmmaker abandoned facets of cinema convention that created the vital bond of empathy with its audience.

“They refused all the bourgeois tools – sentimentalism and empathy and all that. They rejected the old way to tell stories. They wanted to open people’s eyes ... Maybe they opened some eyes but there weren’t so many eyes. That’s the problem. I’m not sure you can use cinema for that. I don’t know. I’m not certain.

“Ken Loach tries to make that kind of cinema but to me his best movies are the ones where you have empathy, the most classical ones. “The Navigators,” [his 2001 film about railway workers confronting railroad privatization] was a very political film, but one that worked by making you feel empathy for the characters. That was a miracle. He succeeded because he did both – the political and the classical.

“I think it’s pretentious to assume you can use cinema to make something else. The entirety of cinema could be seen as propaganda – why not? – but I don’t think one film can break all that.”

Hazanavicius feels his work may have been influenced by that of Godard, but not directly.

“He freed the way we make movies and the way to use cinema. He invented a lot, took a lot of liberties, was audacious, and that made possible for the directors who came after him to do a lot of things. That could be an influence.

“In my movies ... like in his movies, you can see the cinema. His movies are not naturalist. There is cinema between characters, when there are characters,” he smiles, “and audience, when there is an audience,” he laughs. “In my movies it’s the same. Though my work is much more classical, you always pass through cinema.”

“Redoubtable” will screen again at Metropolis-Sofil Oct. 8 at 5:30 p.m.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 07, 2017, on page 16.

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