Dear Stoffel Debuysere,
we haven’t met in person except anonymously after you found a restaurant for our small group of people in Ghent. However, after reading your book „Figures of Dissent“ and being at Courtisane Festival, I have to address you in a rather personal way. Mainly because your Figures of Dissent are born out of Figures of Lament. Lament which I heavily feel inside myself. Let’s call it an impotence of cinema and being with cinema. I can sense your struggle to create dissent out of lament. It is in your words and in your programs. It is something we all seem to be in desperate need of: Your idea is to go beyond the discourse of mourning the loss of cinema. The sheer depth of the book and the emotional core that lies underneath makes it one of the most exigent pieces of searching for something in cinema I have read. Sometimes, you find real dissent as an author, while at other times dissent is just a perfect word for something that should be there. Yet, in your work as a programmer, there is more dissent in the potential of your presentations than in the reality of how they are carried out. At least that is what I found to be the case at this year’s Courtisane.
Please forgive me for writing this letter in a rather spontaneous fashion and not at all in the manner of precise research and collective combination of theories and thoughts on certain topics I am going to address. I am neither a scientist nor am I a journalist. Consider me an observer in a modest echo chamber. I am also aware that your book is about your Figures-of-Dissent-Screenings, not about Courtisane. Nevertheless, I see all those movements of dissent as part of the same approach.
Let me try to be more precise: While reading your book, I talked to some of my friends and found that there was an immediate common ground concerning questions of impotence and a suppressed euphoria in the struggle against what cinema and politics are today. Everyone seems to talk about change; nobody really does anything. Every lit flame is persecuted by fears. My question is: If you want to survive with cinema, how can you be Straub? How can you be a collective, how can you be Godard without being called Godard, how can you make Killer of Sheep? How can those examples not be exceptions or a narrated history as it happens from time to time in your book? You write that something must be done even if we don’t know what it is.
Go blind again!
What bothered me while reading your letters written to friends/comrades was the absence of replies. Did your friends remain silent or are their answers held back for another book? Are your letters really letters? Why did you choose that form? Asking myself how you could leave out possible answers while being concerned with giving voice to people, having polyphonic approaches to what we conceive as reality or cinema, I was a bit irritated until I discovered that your five letters contain these voices. Firstly, because you find the dissent in combinations of thoughts of other thinkers. Even more so due to those letters being five fingers of the same hand, each speaking to a different chamber where there will be different echoes. The ideas pertaining to curating as an act of caring you bring to the light in your letter to Barry Esson are inscribed in your own way of working. Thus I feel that this is the first dissent I can take from your writing: Caring.
The thoughts of caring are strongly connected with those of a collective experience of cinema in your writing. In addition, it seems to me that you write a sort of manifesto for your own work as a curator, observer, writer, cinema person. You write without the grand gestures and aggressive provocations one normally gets in politically motivated thinking in cinema. Nevertheless, to take something out of your first letter to Evan Calder Williams: you are present, it is your fire one can read in the book. This fire that I was clearly able to read in your texts did not exist in your presence at the festival. It was there with other speakers introducing the screenings, but not with you. You write about a return of politics in cinema, you almost evoke it. You write that such an endeavour is also a question of personal experience and worldview, one that tries to build bridges between cinema and society. You state that your screenings want to be a catalyst for public exchange and dialogue.
What is a dialogue? Where does it happen? Such a question seems to be typical of what you describe as a culture of skepticism. So here I am, writing to you publicly. Certainly this is a form of dialogue and your work is a catalyst for it. Yet, I am not sure if there is more dialogue in this than there was in my reading your book at my little table in silence. Am I more active now? Or am I more active because I was allowed to be “passive”? The same has always been true for cinema in my case. I often feel how it takes away the power of films, those that thwart representations, those that keep a distance, those that don’t, as soon as words about it are spoken too soon after a screening, as soon as cinema is understood as a space where the dialogue between screen and audience has to be extended. As I now was a guest at your care taking at Courtisane, I must tell you that I didn’t discover your writing in your way of showing films. Where is the space for dialogue at a festival where you have to run from one screening to the next? Where is the possibility of going blind again at a festival if many inspired and passionate cinephiles cannot help but fall asleep at Peter Nestler’s films because they started the day with Ogawa and had no chance for a meal in-between? Moreover, I was disappointed by the inability of the festival to project film in a proper way. What is the point in having such a beautiful selection of films as in the program consisting of Nestler’s Am Siel, Die Donau rauf and Straub,Huillet’s Itinéraire de Jean Bricard when it is projected and cared about in such a manner? Please don’t misunderstand me, I understand that there might be problems with projections, it is part of the pleasure and the medium but a projectionist running into the room, asking the audience “What is the problem?”, not knowing what the problem is when a copy is running muted, staff running through the cinema, no real excuse and all that in front of the filmmaker present is far away from any idea of caring. I wonder why you don’t get rid of half of your screenings and get some people who are able to project instead. I am pretty sure I leave out some economical realities here, such as the time you have for preparation and so on, but I decided to take your writing as a standard. In my opinion, the space and time you create for cinema needs more concentration. What my friends and I discovered was a festival with a great program talking about utopias, struggles and a different kind of cinema that worked like any other festival in the way of showing this program.
When you speak about displacement in cinema in your letter to Sarah Vanhee, about the dream to make art active, I feel inspired and doubtful at the same time. Yes, I want to scream out, I want to fight, I want to show films, I need to discuss, write, make films. However, I also want to keep it a secret, keep it pure (in your letter to Mohanad Yaqubi you write that there is no pure image; you are probably right. Is there an illusion of a pure image?), silent, innocent and embrace what you call via Barthes the bliss of discretion. I wonder which of those two tendencies is more naive? When Rainer Werner Fassbinder said that he wanted to build a house with his films, was it to close or to open the doors of the house? In my opinion it is also curious that the path to disillusion Serge Daney wanted us to leave always comes when the lights in the cinema are turned on after a screening, when there are no secrets and the work of cinema is talked about instead of manifested on the screen. It is this community of translators I have problems with. Yet, I enjoy them immensely and I think that translators in whatever form they appear are more and more important for cinema as a culture. Mr. Rancière’s thoughts on the emancipation of the spectator and your reflections on them seem very true to me. We are all translators to a certain degree. What I am looking for may be a translator in silence. Somebody who lights in darkness and speaks in silence. So you see, my lament is a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand, I ask for more space for dialogue while on the other hand I don’t want to have any dialogue at all. Maybe I should replace “dialogue” with “breathing”. It is in the breathing between films I discover them and their modes of visibility. It is when I am not looking, talking or listening that cinema comes closer. For me, a festival like Courtisane should have the courage to remain silent and to burst out in flames of anger and love.
Of course, when thinking about caring and politics it is rather obvious which tendency one should follow. I am not talking about discourse, but I am attempting to talk about experience. Perhaps experience and discourse should be more connected. You rightly state in almost all of your letters that a direct translation from watching into action is impossible. For me, the same is true for everything that happens around the act of seeing. Let’s call it discourse. Marguerite Duras wrote that for her it is not possible to activate or teach anyone. The only possibility appears if the reader or audience member discovers things by himself or he/she is in love. Love could convince, activate, agitate, change. This idea of loving brings me back to your thoughts on caring. With Friedrich Schiller you claim: “The solitude of art bears within the promise of a new art of living.” With Rancière, you make it clear that art is not able to change the world. Instead, it offers new modes of visibility and affectivity. Isn’t it a paradox that they say love makes you blind? In a strange dream, I wished for cinema to make us blind. In the concepts of political cinema you describe visibility is king. Things are either revealed, highlighted or shown. I am not certain whether cinema is an art of light or of shadows. In my view, it was always very strong, especially in political terms, when it complicated perceptions instead of clarifying them; an art of the night, not of the day, or even more so: something in between.
This is also the case with all the discussions and dialogues following the screenings and in the way you conducted them, sometimes much too hastily, at this year’s Courtisane. There is a next screening but we talk with the filmmaker because, because, because. Did any of the discussions inside the cinemas go beyond questions about facts and the production of the films? I am not saying that the production is not very important and/or very political. It is maybe the most political. Yet, I miss the talk that goes beyond cinema/which follows where cinema is leading us. Discussions about caring and fighting, being angry and beautiful, discussions that don’t take things for granted too easily. I could sense a bit of that in the Q&As with Ute Aurand but never in the ones with Peter Nestler. It is a problem of the so-called cinephile that he/she loves to declare instead of listening. Being a cinephile seems to me like being part of an elite club and sometimes Courtisane felt like that, too. For example, showing the problems of farmers in Japan to a chosen few is a feeling I don’t like to have. This has very little to do with the way you curate but more with cinema itself. It is like an alcove pretending to be a balcony. I was expecting Courtisane to be built more like a balcony asking questions and looking at the world surrounding it instead of celebrating itself. In one of your letters, you propose the idea of two tendencies in cinema: that of cinema as an impression of the world outside, and that of cinema as a demonstration of the world enclosed in itself. For me, despite all its potential, the cinema of Courtisane remained too enclosed in itself.
There were also things I liked concerning your guests. For example, I found it to be very nice that the Q&As didn’t take place at the center or in front of the screen but almost hidden in a corner of the screening room. It is also very rare and beautiful that you could approach filmmakers like Ute Aurand very easily because they were also just part of the audience. Peter Nestler joining the Ogawa screenings and asking questions afterwards was another good example of this. Friends told me of having the feeling of a community, the feeling that there is a dialogue. Maybe I was just at the wrong places sometimes. Still, I have to tell you my concerns. This doesn’t happen due to discontent or anger but out of respect. There are amazing things at Courtisane and I find it to be one of the most important festivals in Europe. The possibility to see those films in combination, to see those films, to have contemporary cinema and “older” films in a dialogue and to feel a truly remarkable sense of curatorship in what you do, is simply outstanding. For example, the screening of Right On! by Herbert Danska together with Cilaos by Camilo Restrepo was amazing and many questions about framing and music in revolutionary cinema were asked and possible paths opened. Cinema was a place of difference, of equality and thus of dissent. You could answer me and my critique by saying that what I search for is in the films, not in the way they are discussed, not discussed or presented. I would agree with you until the point where the way of presentation hurts the films.
My favourite letter in your book is the one you wrote to Ricardo Matos Cabo. In the text, you talk about the question of mistakes and innocence. Your writing always concerns the loss of innocence. In it, there is the idea of a world which has disappeared behind its images, a world we all know. It is the world of too many images and no images at all. You write: “But perhaps the associations and dissociations, additions and subtractions that are at work in cinema might allow for a displacement of the familiar framework that defines the way in which the world is visible and intelligible for us, and which possibilities and capacities it permits.” You ask for a cinema that is able to talk with our relation to the world. How to face such a thought without lament?
Well, up to now I always thought about dissent when I thought about the title of your book and screening series. Maybe I should think more about the figures. The figures on screen, the missing people, those we need to perceive. Those I could see at Courtisane. Not inside or outside of the cinema, but on the screen.
In hesitant admiration and hope of understanding,