Sylvain George is the modern era’s poet of revolt. Judging from the recent double screening at the Migrating Forms festival at Anthology Film Archives, which featured George’s L’Impossible and his latest, May They Rest in Revolt, he strikes a Byronic figure—none the least because his work is heavily literary. L’Impossible, for one, is organized into chapters and peppered with text. The quotes, from Dostoyevsky to Walter Benjamin, could seem ponderous, had George not matched them with his passionate, yet at times startlingly precise, visuals.
George proclaims film as artifice from the start. Its quality is deliberately manipulated or even degraded: the screen goes white at times; the colors are bleached out or suddenly switch from blank and white to color, including splotches of red. The visuals signal discontinuity and disruption, rather than an attempt at a finished product. The same happens with sound: parts of the film are silent; others are marked by abrupt bleeps or snippets of words and music. On one hand, the film’s brilliance lies in offering itself up as a document, a vivid slice of reality, and on the other calling our attention to it being a film, and so an artistic creation.
In the earlier part of L’Impossible, devoted to clandestine immigrants from Africa and the Middle East taking momentary refuge in the French port of Calais, the disruptions underscore the immigrants’ isolation and the degradation of their living conditions. The silences deny the viewer a facile entrance into the men’s world—their lips move, but with no sound—emphasizing their symbolic muteness. In contrast, in the film’s second part, showing young Parisian protesters occupying public statues and the city hall, the students are highly voluble. They expect their voices to be heard—or rather, they assert their right to be heard, whereas the illegal and the undocumented, haunted by both the specters of wars and hunted down by the police, can evoke no rights of citizenry.
While L’Impossible can be visually ravishing, its ideological underpinnings remain muddled; the two “revolts,” one of the refugees and the other of the young Frenchmen, are not parallel or alike. The Parisians may scribble slogans demanding equality and justice for all, but their ideas are generalist, bordering on banality. To this, the physical and psychological debasement experienced by the illegal migrants offers a sharp contrast. Drawing these two groups together, George risks vagueness, conflating issues that are similar only as much as they both show instances of human anger and despair.
Where L’Impossible introduces a potent story, but falters a bit in delivering it, May They Rest in Revolt shows George successfully combining radical visual poetics and politics. In some ways, the new work is more traditional: George returns to Calais, following homeless illegal immigrants who congregate in a tent city known as the Jungle. George’s camera captures the men’s routines, from showering by the canals to self-mutilation with razors and hot nails to destroy finger pads and evade being fingerprinted. The film’s narrative arc is provided by its subject matter: George enters the tent city before anyone else, but soon the area draws the attention of local activists who attempt to prevent the police from evicting and deporting the immigrants. Camera crews arrive on the scene, turning the personal narratives that George has followed into a contested media event—however briefly.
If the story is remarkable, allowing the male migrants—many of them refugees from places like Nigeria, the Congo, and Afghanistan—to speak in their own voices, the story’s delivery is more so. To communicate the migrants’ condition, this time not only physical, but also existential, George slows down time in some scenes of his black-and-white picture, blurring the image, or stop-freezes it; in others, he speeds it up. The film mirrors the way in which the men have been forced to live: condemned to numbing idleness, without work or purpose, or in anxious flight, pursued by the police and stalking the next opportunity to cross the border. Real time, in this sense, doesn’t exist for those who live on the margins.
Borders, limitations, and fences are common motifs in George’s work. The camera, as if following the men’s gaze, is constantly alert to how cities and landscapes are sectioned off and protected—in this case, to keep out the unwanted. Counterbalancing the symbolism of the fence is the image of an open road. The men are migrants in the deepest sense: They are passing through. For most, disillusioned with the treatment they receive in France and in Italy, England is the promised land. London is a hypnotic chant, the journey framed by the port, the border, and the train tracks. While motion is survival, in George’s visual dictionary the tracks come from nowhere and, for most, end at the starting point, or worse. To stress this, George uses a female voice repeating the name of a migrant who, as we learn in L’Impossible, had been murdered by the mafia when he couldn’t pay 600 euros for his passage to England. The female voice is like a siren in the story of the world’s most famous migrant, Odysseus, re-contextualizing the political story of illegal immigration as a universal tale of human aspirations, homelessness, and misery.
While some of the film’s imagery, particularly the barbwire, may be too blatant, evoking misplaced associations with concentration camps or with the gulag as one migrant calls Europe, George’s visual eloquence and experimentation advance the visual-anthropological impulses of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, with poeticized yet vigilant observation—an ethos that George has summarized in an interview with CinemaScope: “The goal is to present evidence at the scene of filming, where the question of how things correspond, communicate, and relate is revealed.”
Migrating Forms runs from May 11—20. For more information click here.