Author and award-winning filmmaker Noël Burch, who was feted in Kerala recently, discusses his convictions and his craft.
Noël Burch was assistant director to Preston Sturges and Michel Fano, and since the 1960s, has been a film essayist, critic, director and teacher. He is also the co-founder of the Institut de Formation Cinématographique. A prolific author and documentary filmmaker, his books include Theory of Film Practice (1973), a monograph on Marcel L’Herbier (1973) and To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema (1979).
Burch’s documentaries include Sentimental Journey (1993-94), One Way Ticket (with Nadine Fischer and Nelson Scartaccini, 1992-93, Correction, Please or How We Got into Pictures (1979), Cuba: Mothers and Machos (with Michèle Larue, 1997-8), Red Hollywood (1995) and The Forgotten Space (with Allan Sekula, 2010).
A retrospective of his documentaries was featured in the Sixth International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala 2013, which was held from June 7 to 11 at Thiruvananthapuram. Excerpts from an interview with Burch:
If one looked at your life and work, a certain kind of ‘globality’ marks them. You were born in the U.S., but migrated to France and have lived there since. Then there is your sustained interest and critical work about early silent cinema and later Japanese cinema. Your documentaries too have been about themes and personalities from all over the world…
True, there is a certain global orientation to my work, but I think it has something to do with my background. I was born in the U.S. but, as I grew up, I soon found out that I was out of sync with the middle class culture around me. I was totally oblivious of the society around me. I went to France in 1951 because I was fascinated by French cinema.
There, my life was a series of lucky accidents. For instance I joined the French national film school (IDHEC) in Paris. I was interviewed by people like George Sadoul, Andre Bazin, etc. I could impress them with my passion for cinema. There, I met and worked with people like Alain Robbe Grille, Godard and Louis Malle. But it was the events of 1968 that politicised me in a deep manner, and changed the way I looked at films.
Your film writing, I think, is an extension of your documentaries, and vice versa. You have pursued the same set of concerns and questions in both. Most interestingly, you are one film critic who actually dismissed what you wrote earlier; for instance, in your first book, Theory of Film Practice. That is something very rare.
I have the feeling that my first three-and-a-half books were written by somebody else. They carry my name but I don’t share any of those fantasies now. I was an American boy who came to France and knew nothing about anything and thought that art for art’s sake was the ideal. And I had come to the country where art for art’s sake was invented.
But there was another aspect to that country of which I was totally unaware. For instance, the Algerian war. It took time for me to look around and understand what was going on. So, I think my first book was totally out of my head. My idea for a long time was that film was like opera and, in operas as I understood it, the libretto was just a pretext for music. And similarly, in film, the script was just a pretext for the form. This is precisely a global concept, because it takes the world as an abstraction. So, in the first stages of my film writing, abstraction was king. As a believer in the formalist avant-garde thing, I used to wonder whether the masses would be able to understand someone like Andy Warhol.
When did your ideas about film begin to change?
It happened in 1979 when I went back to the U.S. for two years to teach, mainly because the Left had lost the elections in France and I was depressed. I was in the Communist Party at that time, though I held on to my formalist ideas. There, I met people who were critical about that, particularly the feminists. The feminists had a huge impact on me, not just politically, but also on my thinking about films. They were basically concerned about content, about what the film was about. That opened my eyes. I came back to France and since then have written a great deal in that direction. For instance, I published a book with a feminist friend of mine (Geneviève Sellier) about gender relationships in classical French cinema from 1930 to 1956 (The Battle of the Sexes in French Cinema), which has just been translated into English.
The major thematic concerns of your documentaries revolve around global capitalism, the decades of radical activism, ‘red’ Hollywood and gender issues. In all these films, you have worked in different locations and with associates like Allan Sekula, Thom Anderson, Andre Labarthe etc.
My early films like Correction Please and Life to Those Shadows were spin-offs from my writing and were directly related to the history of film language. They aimed at trying to show how cinema was corrupted, about how cinema began as a pure, modernist art where people looked into the screen and were not sucked into it like what happened later with the coming of sound, editing and all that stuff.
The films that came later were made after I was ‘converted’. I made a six-part series — What Do These Old Films Mean? — about the social and cultural implications of silent cinema. I am still really proud of that. Films like The Year of the Bodyguard and The Impersonation (co-directed with Christopher Mason) were attempts at illustrating an idea which is developed in Theory of Film Practice — that of the ‘essay film’. I am supposed to be the inventor of the idea of the essay film. It extended the idea of the documentary film and freely mixed several things together. After that, I made One Way Ticket (with Nadine Fischer and Nelson Scartaccini), a film on migration to Argentina and Uruguay. Those films and their ideas are still very dear to me.
This shift from analogue to digital changed the way we imagine cinema, and also, in turn, writing about cinema. It is also supposed to have ‘democratised’ filmmaking. On the other it has also created a culture of excess that trivialises everything. How do you look at it?
It just killed it off. But I am speaking from a country in the centre like France in Europe. It may not apply to a country in the periphery like India or in Africa. But, in the last 15 years, the films that really grab my attention come not from Europe but from countries like Palestine or Korea. I hardly see any Indian films and am not qualified to talk about Indian productions, which are enormous and ancient. But as far as the countries in the centre are concerned, cinema is dead. Now, everything is part of mass culture.
Most importantly, earlier, there were reasons for films to be made or they needed to be made. I feel that is what is lacking today. The films that come from Europe or the U.S., one feels, are made to fill time. And there is a lot of time that needs to be filled; time created by cable stations and all that. And one also goes on doing it because it is one of the biggest export industries in the U.S.
What is the legacy of French New Wave? What is the state of French cinema today?
New Wave, in fact, destroyed French cinema because it consisted of all those auteur films that were made through a system of subsidies and no one went to see them. But French cinema goes on in television with ‘made-for-TV’ movies. I have written a book about this with a friend of mine. For this, we saw about 400 of these films made during the last 15 years, and they were extraordinary. We realised that it was where filmmaking was actually going on, which was a continuation of pre-New Wave cinema. Nobody looks at them except millions of spectators! Intellectuals despise them as mass culture. But the fact is that they are very social and primarily aimed at women, who are the majority audience. We titled the book Nobody Liked Them But The Public because it is like that; no one who writes likes them, but everybody who sees them likes them.
Your last film, The Forgotten Space, deals with a larger canvas and I believe it took more than a decade to complete. It is about maritime trade and, I feel, is a trenchant and a comprehensive critique of global capitalism.
It happened when Allan Sekula approached me to make a film about his book on maritime trade. The Forgotten Space is probably my biggest and most successful film. It got the prize for the Best Documentary at Venice but most people, including our co-producers, felt that it was too long, complicated and political. I think the producers were right, it is so politically aggressive that it doesn’t get shown anywhere except museums and film festivals. In a way, it has been taken over by the ‘art world’.
What about your first encounter with Kerala?
Actually I like cities that are a little ramshackle, so I feel comfortable here. But the most pleasant feeling is the sight of hammer and sickle everywhere.