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An exercise in solidarity

Our Defeats (Nos défaites)
Regissør: Jean-Gabriel Periot
( Frankrike)

ACTIVISM / The French rebel police's handling of protesters has led to a dramatic change in attitudes of students at a high school on the outskirts of Paris.


Initially creates Our Defeats an impression that French youth is not very politically oriented. The documentary, which was shown on Berlinale og Visions du Reel in Nyon, a web of personal interviews was done in the period May to June 2018, with students at a high school in Ivry-sur-Seine, a municipality in a suburban area of ​​Paris. To the best of their ability, students answer questions about leftist philosophy (perplexing about having to explain what communism is and what a trade union does), what attitudes they have to strike and resistance (they consider this as irrelevant to themselves and theirs), and about their perspectives on the future (individual and indeterminate).

Periot is formally radical and politically sharp.

The mood is dramatically different from the quivering atmosphere of the universities during the student revolt in 1968 – a natural comparison, as students recreate scenes and read excerpts from contemporary films, such as Jean-Luc Godard's French New Wave classic about young Parisian revolutionaries, Chinese Within (1967), and the strike action documentary And yes, yes (1968) by Chris Marker and Mario Marret.

But the story holds so much more – after all, this is a documentary by Jean-Gabriel Periot. It's not many years since the director embarked on making full-length films, but his acclaimed work on "found footage" in short film format spans nearly two decades. He is formally radical and politically sharp – the dramaturgy of his films often facilitates a provocative and unexpected climax, or a subversive reversal. Our Defeats is no exception.

Burning prayer

With their insecurity and distant attitude towards the outside world, the young people we meet do not separate Our Defeats, stand out from teenagers in other cities around the world. Or from adults, for that matter: Probably several of them would have had trouble giving well-articulated explanations of the abstract concepts, such as adolescents being required. But for audiences who are familiar with Periot's past work, the students' lack of awareness and awareness of the unbalanced power structures of society will create a more fundamental turmoil – the sum of the director's work constitutes a burning and clear cry that we must know our history. For Our Defeats takes place in the same France as not only the films from the 60s revolution, but also Periot's heartbreaking short film Even If She Had Been A Criminal… (2006), in which the French national anthem accompanies archival footage from the liberation of Paris in 1944, in which women who had been with Nazis are publicly and viciously humiliated. Has it really been so long since then that the current generation neither knows nor is affected by the cruel acts of revenge, or a France that was shaped by a fierce struggle for ideology and basic dignity?

Young people have a greater fear of anarchism than class differences and authoritarian injustice.

The students at Ivry-sur-Seine's high school largely express that they are too young and politically naive to take a stand or indulge in a struggle. When asked about rebellion, one of the students answers: "It will be a bit too much if students are to start something like that." Another says that the character she has portrayed, who in one of the film exercises they have participated in, protests against the management, "is good at expressing her mind", but that "she goes too far".

It quickly becomes clear that young people have been instilled with a greater fear of anarchism – they have admittedly not understood the core of the ideology; instead of perceiving it as an expression of freedom, they convey a vague feeling that society will fall completely apart under it – rather than for class differences and authoritarian injustice. Actively working for a utopian vision of society, or taking part in a group-based movement for the benefit of the community, are paths to the future they simply do not relate to. "Happiness is something that just happens. It is individual, and we must not hunt for it ", is one of the comments that reveals that the students are characterized by a complacent passivity and thoughtless belief that life is controlled by external forces.

Found footage

The films in the genre appear as pseudo-documentaries, ie what happens, or large parts of it, are presented as actual events. These films are thus a form of mock documentaries (mockumentaries), but differ from mockumentaries in that the recordings are lost, but then found and made available to the audience. Typical characteristics are that it is all filmed from the protagonist's perspective, that the film presents itself as a documentary, frequent use of surveillance cameras and / or use of news footage.

Game Glow

The final game, filmed in December 2018, changes everything: Sitting on your knees and with your hands on your head, the students recreate an event that took place earlier that month outside a school in Mantes-la-Jolie, west of Paris. The incident shook the public when the video documentation of the whole thing appeared in the media picture: The French rebel police forced the students into a humiliating position during the student demonstration against a new exam reform. The demonstration came in the wake of the yellow vests' fiery protests, which had made the authorities rather shaky. "But it was then a very compliant class," remarked one of the police officers – a comment which, regardless of what he really meant by it, shows that conformity obedience runs the errands of the corrupt.

Our Defeats (Nos défaites)
Our Defeats (Nos défaites)
Director Jean-Gabriel Periot

Students at Ivry-sur-Seine High School talk straight to the camera about the incident. But now they are no longer interviewed alone, they perform in pairs or groups, and signal a newly discovered solidarity. The young people express a rage that has been absent from them earlier in the film. We are witnessing an awakening, a recognition of responsibility, which ignites the fervor to fight against state excessive use of force and control. They throw themselves into it and implement a blockade of the school in response to a classmate being punished with one and a half days in custody after tagging at the entrance to the school building. "It makes sense to fight, even if we should lose," says one of the demonstrating students about devoting himself wholeheartedly to the fight.

A lost battle, perhaps. But a position that requires strength in a war that only continues.

Translated by Vibeke Harper

Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Gray is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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