Sympathy for Failure

By Victor Guimarães

© Envie de Tempête Productions

From the credits, the dispositif of Jean Gabriel Périot’s OUR DEFEATS (NOS DÉFAITES, France) is explicit: in Ivry-sur-Seine, the suburbs of Paris, exactly fifty years after May ‘68, a group of high school students re-stage fragments of some of the greatest films of so-called militant cinema, made mainly in France in collaborations between filmmakers and workers around that mythical month. The dialogues between strikers in gems like LA REPRISE DU TRAVAIL AUX USINES WONDER (1968) encounter the contemporary bodies of these teenagers, and the complexities of historical distance are felt through their acting.

But unfortunately, the re-enactments are not allowed to shine through their own materiality. Initially, there is an interplay between re-staging and behind-the-scenes footage, but eventually the film shifts to mostly interviews with the students. The filmmaker poses questions that start as a commentary on the remake, but soon begin to seem like a poorly formulated sociological inquiry: What is politics to you? What is a revolution? In ten minutes, we already know that most of them – with conveniently highlighted exceptions – don’t seem to relate with such big leftist words. But the film insists on exploiting the constraining silences, the discursive inability, and ultimately, their apolitical personality, always with a cynical hint to the viewer, as if suggesting: “See? It’s all about the decay of the May ‘68 ideals”. What the film seems to neglect is that if Chris Marker or Bruno Muel posed the same questions to the workers at the Peugeot factory around May ‘68, they would probably get insulted as a bunch of narcissistic ‘petit bourgeois’. Additionally, instead of confronting the students’ frustrating responses (he only does it once), the director prefers the comfort of the editing room, where he constantly reaffirms the device – even though it leads nowhere but to its own self-reinforcement.

When the title appears again, as if the film were about to end, a different date (December 2018) leads to a re-staging of a contemporary Internet video of police brutality within an occupied school. Périot interviews the same students, but now they speak energetically about their own engagement at school. What began as an epilogue (or, if we push it a little further, a self-compliment on the success of the process) is in fact a symptom: the material points out that the movie should start over, but instead of embracing failure and diving into the vivid political process they’re living, Périot decides to keep his highly conceptualized, perfect flop untouched.

When Jean Rouch made THE HUMAN PYRAMID (1961) at the Lycée Français in Abidjan, the only way to do justice, not only to those teenagers, but to the energy of the film, was to radically change its path. The failure in Rouch’s film becomes movement, desire, experience. For Périot, it is not a problem that the film spends more than an hour as a self-evident washout. Today, failure has become a trend – if not a commodity. If the dispositif is conceptually consistent enough, it is even better if it fails.