The Land of Terrible Legends: Narimane Mari on Le fort des fous

By Jordan Cronk

Narimane Mari’s 2013 film Bloody Beans concludes with a query: “What is worth more, to be or to obey?” These words, invoked in succession by a handful of the film’s adolescent protagonists, are taken from Antonin Artaud’s “Petit poème des poissons de la mer,” an allegorical 1926 text by the French dramatist in which a school of fish refuse to submit to the question’s nested dialectic and are summarily killed for their defiance. Though Mari never reveals the fate of her film’s children, a ragtag group of boys and girls who for the majority of the movie’s runtime are seen ecstatically re-enacting instances of wartime violence and colonial aggression in a nocturnal flight through the villages and cemeteries of coastal Algiers, the rhetorical repercussions of Artaud’s parable nonetheless seem to haunt the work of the French-Algerian filmmaker. Commissioned for the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence, Bloody Beans efficiently reckons with a half-century’s worth of historical memory while reanimating the effects of its legacy in bracingly immediate, lucid, and infectiously unruly fashion.

If Bloody Beans refused to play by prescribed rules of fiction and documentary, then Mari’s second feature, Le fort des fous, attempts something several times more ambitious as it works to reimagine, in three distinct parts, the fundamental principles of nonfiction cinema and its capacity for historical reconciliation. Like Bloody Beans, the film is framed around an epochal text, opening with an excerpt from an essay by Michel de Montaigne in which the French philosopher states, in deceptively plainspoken terms, “I wish that each write what it is, and as much as he knows.” Between these writings and their formal applications in the films themselves a kind of methodological credo can be traced, as Mari continues to bring a spirit of rebellion to a deeply personal (and in many ways unaccounted-for) subject. France’s 30-plus year occupation of Algeria is Mari’s thematic touchstone, through which she’s imaginatively formulated many varied stylistic and narrative articulations of its thorny and deep-seated legacy.

Language and articulation are in fact key aspects of Le fort des fous, which was in part commissioned by this summer’s documenta 14 exhibition, where it was presented as an installation before its festival premiere in Locarno’s Filmmakers of the Present section. As such, the film is at once an outgrowth of multiple linguistic idioms, narrative traditions, and textual reference points, as well as a product of its own creative impetus. If the film feels like everything and nothing in contemporary nonfiction, it seems entirely a result of its uniquely open and spontaneous evolution. Capitalizing on the opportunity to dig deeper into the history that inspired Bloody Beans, Mari set about researching hundreds of military reports filed by the French during the occupation. It’s these records that provide the framework for the film’s first act, accounting for the entirety of its dialogue as well as the basic scenarios the nonprofessional cast proceed to re-enact with systematic precision.

Set largely in a luxurious 19th-century military compound (in fact the one-time office and residence of Charles de Gaulle), the opening section centres on a team of young legionnaires preparing to take the region by force in one of the French militia’s infamous taming tours, which one corporal eloquently describes as “a new concept of pacification.” Rather than give voice to the soldiers, Mari opts to render their words through subtitles, in most cases with no correspondence between the movements of their mouths and what is being conveyed through the onscreen text. When dialogue is heard, it’s delivered in a warped and indecipherable pitch suggesting something not entirely human. This section’s dramaturgy likewise engages artifice at a level of figural and spatial organization. There’s a vaguely Straubian use of negative space and arrangement in a number of Mari’s compositions, accentuated by the often immobile and inarticulate actors and the stream of polemical discourses unfolding on the sound/subtitle tracks. (Straub himself, it’s worth noting, took Montaigne as inspiration for the 2013 short Un conte de Michel de Montaigne.) Indeed, attempting to find your bearings at any given moment within the film’s various narrative modes, or to simply situate oneself within a recognizable cinematic context by which to absorb Mari’s frequently transfixing images, is part of the film’s allure as well as its source of beguiling inscrutability.

Two characters from the film’s first section, a young photographer and an anguished, bedridden older man, reappear in the second act, which switches gears––as well as locations––by way of a stunning sequence that opens with a chilling Pasolini quote (“There are millions of innocents like you all over the world, who prefer to erase themselves from history rather than lose their innocence. I have to make them die, even though I know they cannot do otherwise. I have to cure them and make them die, die, die”) and a pair of extended aerial views of the coast of Kythira. Settling into a quasi-narrative, the film inventively rebuilds itself around a nomad community that takes up shelter alongside the island’s beaches. More benign acts of performance and ritual punctuate this section, though the utopia the group seeks––and momentarily conjures—is short- lived; dissension and death soon come to haunt the collective, and as if in rejection of this fraying dynamic, the film reconfigures itself one last time in the style of a participatory documentary, with Mari on camera conducting a series of interviews. Here, a pair of Greek subjects, a female lawyer and a radicalized male, each on seemingly opposite ends of the class divide (he’s interviewed in his cluttered apartment and under a dilapidated awning; she in her office and a café), speak to the filmmaker in lengthy diatribes that situate the trauma of colonialism and political violence in the present day, and in strikingly personal terms. “Blood is a good glue––the blood of your children,” the man observes at one point, a statement that echoes through the closing credits, which unfold over fiery images of the June 2016 riots in Athens on the anniversary of the unlawful killing of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by the state police. Spanning as many decades as it does devices, Le fort des fous ultimately finds Mari confronting history in the only logical way possible, from multiple vantages and with no recourse to the rules of storytelling. One gets the sense that Artaud and Montaigne would approve.

Cinema Scope: What prompted you to return for a second time to this era of French-occupied Algeria?

Narimane Mari: I think the first reason is because it isn’t finished with me. But a second and more important reason is that it gave me the opportunity to talk about power and domination––and in the colonialist mind you have all the material for that. You have to take material when you have it. You don’t have to say anything, because it exists. I don’t have to recreate the mind. I don’t have to do anything––it’s here. Yes, I use some dialogues from French colonial missions, and I’m not sure if you or the audience will notice, but I’m not using the French language. It’s an invented voice––an invented language. I don’t want to put this mind only in the French voice. Because the English also colonized, the Portuguese colonized. Many countries and many people have this mind, and I don’t want to focus only on the French. So I just used this foundation, because if you want to show how the mind has power, you must use it, and use it only for this.

Scope: How was this voice, or language, invented?

Mari: I told a friend, “I have this idea for the voiceover but I don’t know how it’ll work.” So I had him say certain things, the truth––actual words––and we played around with them. At the beginning we tried a mechanical voice and I wasn’t sure it was working. I didn’t want to lose the human voice. So it’s a real voice you hear, just a very strange human voice. And it’s better because when you read the dialogue in your own language, it’s like your history, not someone else’s history––you take part in it.

Scope: Is that also the reason behind having the speech dislocated between the actors and the soundtrack?

Mari: Yes, because it’s a fake language I didn’t want to concentrate on the synching. I worked with a sound team in Germany and I kept having to tell them, “No, I don’t care about the synching!” I didn’t want to create another reality on top of an already fake voice. I could not. It’s not a game for me.

Scope: Can you tell me a bit about your personal or family background?

Mari: I was born in Algeria. My father is Algerian and my mother is Spanish. So she’s part of this history. Her parents were colonialists. I like the history of my parents because they got out of this situation. The French, the Arabic, the Algerian, the dominant, the dominated: they were all there, and my parents didn’t have to care about the consequences. They could just have this love story. For me it’s like a rebellion, a part of a revolution. I know people are still very occupied by this history in Algeria, as well as in France. It’s never finished. I do not have to turn the page, or give an end to this story. As I said, this topic concerns a mind that affects everyone, as the employees of a company or family members or anyone who needs or wants to dominate the other.

Scope: What was the research process like, and how did you come across the military reports?

Mari: I did a lot of research. On the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France they offer a numbered catalogue of a lot of these military expeditions. So I read a lot, and it was horrible. I almost could not read it at times. What I use in the film is much less disturbing than what I read. I researched as much as possible, even if I wasn’t going to use certain things, just to be full of this information. Domination and colonization are a big part of a lot of things: economic, religious…I cannot make a movie about all this history. But I needed to know all this history in order to make certain choices.

Scope: How did you come to the overall shape of the film? It feels like it must have come intuitively, or grown organically through the filmmaking process. Was it always three distinct acts?

Mari: Only the third part was unexpected. Normally I shoot in Algeria, but because of political reasons I had to move at the last minute. I had to create this utopic society for the second part and I could not do it in Algeria, so I went to an island with this dreamy landscape. And when I went there to create this community I met real people, two of them are the people you see in the third act. She’s a political lawyer and he’s part of the Prosfygika District, a squat in Athens where they fight against the system very strongly.

And when I met him I said, “Great. I don’t have to invent you. Thank you.” But I cannot stop my movie there. Normally we’d have stopped after the second act, where I was staging a very choreographic end of the world. But after we met him I said, “My subject must plunge into reality.” I never confronted the reality in the first and second parts––not really. So I thought, “I cannot escape this. I cannot only be a mediator,” someone explaining or putting a voice to an image, adding ingredients. For the third part, I didn’t want to add any ingredients. It’s this and only this. We are in this reality.

Scope: Was the form determined at all by the installation version of the film, or was it always conceived as a work for the cinema?

Mari: I was only thinking about cinema. I knew it would screen at documenta, but I didn’t want to focus on that aspect of the project. But when I saw the Bauhaus, where it would screen––it’s this incredible place. It’s a fantastic place to screen a film about power and domination. So that was a gift for me. It was almost a joke––like, “If we want to talk about power, here’s the place.”

Scope: In Bloody Beans you worked mostly with children. Here, at least in the first two acts, it’s mostly young people and adults performing the roles. How did you find the actors, and did any of them have previous acting experience?

Mari: I found them all over: on the street, on Facebook, in coffee shops. In Algeria I met most of them on the street. In Greece it was much crazier. One hundred people showed up to the casting. I told them we’d be going to this island where we don’t know anybody, or how it’ll work once we’re there, or how we’ll live together, since we will all be living together. And when you propose this to someone, if they say yes, you know that they want it and that they’ll give themselves to this adventure. After talking for only 20 minutes we shot the scene with Michel Haas where he’s naked in front of the community standing on the steps. It was this crazy scene but it turned out beautifully. And I thought, “If we could do this one scene together then we can definitely live together for 15 days.”

Scope: Why have two characters from the first act reappear in the second?

Mari: I wanted them to escape death, unlike their countrymen. Even if they participated in the spread of colonialism, they still resisted in their own way. The older man stays on the margins, trying to escape history by drinking a lot, because he knows what’s happening and he is greatly depressed. I didn’t want to kill him. I wanted to make him live another dimension of life. Similar to the younger man, the photographer, who’s forgotten his work, forgotten why he’s there. He was able to free himself in the first part, transgressing propaganda by creating his own images. So I thought they could reappear in this dreamier section of the film. Maybe they can dream a little bit now. That’s how I think of the second part: as a dream. As if they could invent something else. But that is not the case. Because this isolated community in this paradise landscape can’t create anything for the rest of the world.

Scope: Can you talk about the sequence in the first section where you place a speech by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy over a montage of anonymous faces?

Mari: If you listen to the first discourse in the film, it’s from 1860. The speech by Sarkozy is from 2007. But even with all this time between them, it’s from the same mind. Is there a difference between what’s being said now versus then? Everything shows us that there is no particular time that carries a thought rather than another. The transformation does not come from the time spent to wait for a miracle, but by acts that can do miracles. All the people who look in the camera are looking at Sarkozy saying, “You’re talking about us.” I don’t think he realizes he’s talking about people. I think he forgot that behind his words are humans with a history. And he’s basically saying, “You’re nothing. You’re boring people in an old fucking story that’s never moved.” These people’s faces have a lot of history. We are skin. We are blood.

Scope: I’m interested in your use of quotations, both in this film and Bloody Beans. You previously used Artaud, and now Montaigne and Pasolini. How do these words relate to you and your work?

Mari: I always seem to find them at the end––never at the beginning. For this film, to make a bridge between the first and second parts I had found this text by Pasolini, which was so interesting, about condemning the innocent. Sometimes in life we condemn people who don’t show enough conscience. It’s a double condemnation for me. Sometimes I feel guilty. Yes, sometimes we need to escape reality. But I always have trouble trying to be outside this reality. If we have a conscience we have to use it. It’s a very difficult message, but I love the way Pasolini says it. He doesn’t feel guilty at all! He doesn’t have the same problem as me. I was actually scared to put it in. First these people are going to be killed by the war and now I’m going to kill them with Pasolini’s words!

That’s why the second part for me is a dream. It’s crazy to me that people can dream outside this reality. For me it’s impossible. But why not? I try not to make judgments. Some people don’t understand this passage or want it to be more critical. But I cannot. Some people just want to dream, or, as Pasolini says, they cannot do otherwise! But that’s also why I finished with the third part, because this is now the reality. We cannot choose to not face it.

Scope: Your process is of course very informed by nonfiction filmmaking, though much of this film is fictionalized. How do you view your practice in the context of nonfiction cinema?

Mari: I think I always need the life outside of what I write. I cannot use you. I cannot use someone and lose his or her life in the process. I need it for the work. The life is more than what we write. I’m not like Kubrick. I love his films, but if I worked like him it would be like killing someone. If I don’t feel someone in life, with their own perception, their own understanding, then I cannot proceed. I think I’ll always work like this. Before, I had never gone inside a reality like this without using some fantastic dimension. I always needed it. It saved me. But here I didn’t want to use that dimension. When I write I put reality in my words. And what I write moves, not the people and their history. For example, for the first act I began by writing, then I went to find the actors. I told them the story but they never saw the written scenario, and my story changed because of them. But if I go into reality without writing anything, like in the conversation with the man in the third part, I’m not going in to re-enact, or to move a bottle––or really, to even ask anything. Because I don’t want to change the situation. I just want him to say what he wants to say. So I keep quiet, and clear my mind, and just try to follow and understand. Of course, we’re always curious, especially with people you’ve never met or will likely never meet again. I tried to keep my curiosity out. It’s not about me. It’s about them. Cronk Jordan