Jeanne opens with a story, told over black, of a young Palestinian woman’s murder by an angry mob. We then see a flat digital image of a young, black-haired, wide-eyed white woman gazing at the camera. For the next 80-odd minutes, she stares at us, and we stare back; sometimes the camera revolves around her, and sometimes the film cuts to move up or down an empty chair. The soundtrack, meanwhile, plays snippets of al-Jazeera reports, sounds of riots, and a young woman’s narration of Joan of Arc’s diaries during her trial, along with the same unsourced voice’s descriptions of being tortured.
The seated young woman seems meant to recall Maria Falconetti’s persistent gaze in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Yet Shahram Varza’s film becomes much more than a Palestinian Joan of Arc story, overlapping several discourses at once. First, there’s the distant, canonical past of the Joan of Arc readings, as well as the number of different films that have been made of that story by very different directors (Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson, Luc Besson). Second, there’s the more recent story of the murdered Palestinian woman. Third, there are the al-Jazeera and other archival sounds, conjuring up images of the Israel-Palestine conflict as well as Muslim fundamentalist oppression against women (the film’s multiplicity of seen-and-heard women keeps the latter in mind). Fourth, there’s the still more recent past of the filming of the actress and the recording of voices for the film’s soundtrack. Fifth and finally, there’s the viewer’s present-tense experience of watching the film and combining them all.
The viewer is a key part of this work, sometimes overtly. As the actress stares at the camera at one point, the narrator describes a crowd “with me, looking at me and watching my every move.” I had a hard time placing the crowd. Was it a crowd watching Joan, the unnamed Palestinian woman, or the film’s lead actress? Or was the point that all three women are equally human, and as such can’t be separated? Did the film want us to recognize human suffering as immediately as we recognize filmed images, or was it saying (in a more Godardian vein) that the suffering of others is always foreign to us, and so we inevitably substitute our own experiences in its place? I wasn’t sure, and looked for points to latch on to. I began to find an answer in one of the film’s later images, a bright red rose made pale and flat by a digital camera, suggesting humanity blooming beneath oppression.
Jeanne is an experimental film in how it plays with several different aspects of filmmaking, most immediately image, sound, the duration of each, and their combinations. But I recognize that “experimental” has become a vague word that people, myself included, use to describe art they feel they don’t understand completely, regardless of whether they like it. There at least two immediate ironies in this habit. The first is that the vast majority of work we label “experimental” can immediately be sourced to a tradition of similar, oftentimes more easily explicable work before it (younger poets and painters frequently pay homage to older ones, just as newer American avant-garde filmmakers cite Brakhage and Frampton). The second irony is that regardless of whatever inner depths it holds, an artwork is made up of surfaces, and can almost always be understood at that level.
For instance, Naomi Kawase’s Hanezu, which can be grasped as a number of luminous surfaces. The Japanese film is set near the ancient, buried city of Fujiwara-Kwo, in a mountainous region, and holds many familiarly unfamiliar characteristics—elliptical storytelling, human characters with unclear relationships and motivations, little dialogue, lots of prolonged nature shots. The reaction of a lot of Western critics when confronted with a film like this is to say that they don’t know the cultural references, and therefore don’t get the movie. Yet while it’s true that Hanezu was based on a novel and further inspired by a collection of eighth-century poetry, to say that the movie’s incomprehensible to people that don’t know these works seems only slightly less extreme than to say that a novel’s film adaptation doesn’t work because you haven’t read the book; you’re missing some context, sure, but when you watch a movie you always are.
We hear a story about how one mountain loved another deeply, and how humans have loved each other ever since. Mechanical conveyer belts dig up rocks. A man moves through snow. A woman washes clothes in a bucket of water dyed deep red; later, a body will lie in a bathtub, the water dyed red with blood. Sometimes when a man and woman talk to each other, they face each other clearly; sometimes, in harder moments, one of them speaks from behind a screen or a pole. The moon rises, and insects with echoing steps dance through the night. Bright greens and blues accompany the calming sound of rainwater. The conveyer belts continue excavating; an ancient city is being dug up. The film dedicates itself “to the unnamed souls that live there.”
My initial impression of Hanezu was of a glimpse of the life of a region, in which humans appear and disappear over time while the rest of nature moves on. It might seem like a very different film from Jeanne, but the two films actually seem to come from similar impulses. Both begin with a point of fact (the actual murder of a Palestinian woman, the actual excavation of a buried city), and proceed to build a fiction inspired by it. Both build their fictions, though, through actual real-life material related to the fact (the archive audio, the area around the city). Both use the death of an individual entity (person, city) as a way to memorialize the loss of a larger culture that the film explicitly offers a dedication to. Just as Hanezu gives itself to a lost city, Jeanne ends with the words “For Palestine.”
Both films go even further in their memorializing, though, by using historical written texts—Hanezu’s indirect poetic references, Jeanne’s direct readings of Joan of Arc’s diaries—as a way to fold their particular subjects into a more universal context. But these preexisting texts, in turn, have been folded into the screenplays that the filmmakers have written for their movies, which have been folded into the real-life contexts in which the films have been made, which have become part of the resulting cinematic fictions, which in turn have become real, physical objects that real people are watching. In other words, at some point the distinction between fact and fiction becomes impossible to make in these movies. Their human actors represent both fictional characters and real people, while playing an additional, third kind of role. Whether listening to reports or staring at mountains, they become analogues for viewers.
What we’re doing as we watch both Jeanne and Hanezu is witnessing histories—multiple, individual histories, as well as a greater history that enfolds them all. The resulting dialogue between them all places as much value on one human life as on another, whether the person is an anonymous, unseen figure or Joan of Arc. Furthermore, it gives a person as much importance as a flower, and vice versa, each of which in turn holds as much importance as a city or a nation. The two films are as against hierarchies as movies can be, and the effect of this becomes especially powerful when you consider that among the unspoken subjects of both of them is the destruction caused by war. Rather than being put off by these films, it’s best to look at them and listen.
The São Paulo International Film Festival runs through November 3rd. Festival information can be found here.