By Michael Sicinski
Despite the fact that it is both preposterous and technologically untenable, a widespread ideology tends to enshroud childhood, proclaiming it a space to be protected from politics and social concerns, a zone of “innocence.” This is perhaps why, in the United States—a nation where a young person entering a school building doesn’t know if he or she is going to receive a legitimate education, abstinence propaganda, or a bullet in the head—we don’t tend to ask them what they think about the issues of the day, and when they speak up, political pundits are far too happy to tell them they are not qualified to offer their views on their own survival. Scram, children! Go back to your “Kids React” videos where you belong!
However, there is a counter-tradition that considers growing up to be an intellectual enterprise, schooling to be labour, and childhood itself to be a component of society at large. There are a handful of films that have explored these considerations, including Godard and Mièville’s France/Tour/Détour/Deux/Enfants (1977), Nicolas Philibert’s Être et avoir (2002), Michel Gondry’s The We and the I (2012), and Amanda Rose Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant (2014). Éric Baudelaire’ new film joins this rare company: made in collaboration with the film-club students in the Dora Maar junior high school in Saint-Denis, a lower- to middle-class suburb of Paris, the project was executed over four years and, while diffuse and meandering at times, displays a remarkable coherence.
Un film dramatique is fundamentally about awareness and powerlessness, the fact that the young people of France see everything going on around them, have rather sophisticated opinions about their world, but possess limited agency to do anything about it. They discuss Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, and anti-immigrant sentiment, and Arab students talk about perceptions that other Parisians have about them following a terror attack. But with Baudelaire’s help, they go deeper than this. They don’t just complain about “fake news” or the unreliability of the dominant media: they actually do something about it, working out formal ideas regarding hybrid forms of documentary, fiction, and autobiography. (The title refers to a genre declaration, the film being “dramatic” because someone, or more properly some thing, dies mid-film.)
The students become invested in seizing power where they can, with Baudelaire’s help. This is in taking over the means of image production, even if only for a brief while. The fact that some of them make campaign posters to wheatpaste alongside the “real” candidates’ images demonstrates that they understand the stakes involved in dislodging sound from image, reality from performance, documentary “seriousness” from free play. And if Un film dramatique tends to peter out in the end, it’s understandable. No one, including Baudelaire, seems to know how to re-enter the bourgeois world that the film has upended. All of which is to say that Baudelaire’s is that rare film that conveys the capacious lyricism we tend to associate with the cinema of Agnès Varda. This is one of the year’s very best.