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Les États généraux du film documentaire 2019 The refraction of the Real

The refraction of the Real

In the act of documentary creation, the raw material is the same for everybody, let’s say reality. Yet in some films from this reality flashes of the Real sometimes appear. The Real is a nugget much rarer than the reality generally available. The camera records reality continuously but does not automatically pick up the Real, far from it.

André Bazin founded his conception of cinema – as a mechanical and objective art for capturing the world – on its ontological capacity to reveal the very essence of reality. In his eyes, “Only the impassible nature of the lens, by stripping the object of all habits and prejudices, of all the spiritual muck in which my perception enshrouded it, can remake it virgin to my attention and thus to my love. [And reveal to us] the natural image of a world that we did not know how to see or could not see.” This (spiritualist) vocation of cinema to capture and make visible epiphanies of reality unites with the desire expressed by Simone Weil: “To see a landscape such as it is when I am not there...” This attitude is that of the erasure of the enunciation, the willing withdrawal of the filmmaker as body and subject of the representation. It supposes an “offered” world, visible without effort in continuity with the “seamless robe of reality”.
For certain filmmakers like van der Keuken who made this a motor of his work, it is “difficult to touch the Real”. He does not film erasing his presence, like someone who would expect the Real to reveal itself passively. But on the contrary, by attacking it vigorously, he strives to provoke its resistance and hence its visibility. In this attack on the Real by the camera, it is not the subjectivity of the filmmaker that is at stake, but the provocation of an almost physical resistance. Van der Keuken does not expect the Real to “reveal” itself, but to exist by resisting.

On July 8, 1953, Jacques Lacan opened the activities of the French Society of Psychoanalysis with a lecture entitled “The Symbolic, the Imaginary, the Real”. At the same time, a handful of filmmakers around the world (Rossellini in Italy with Journey to Italy, Bergman in Sweden with Monika, Buñuel in Mexico with El) were in the process of revolutionising cinema by weaving together for the first time in different ways, in their films, the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic; Lacan was in the process of formulating the theoretical heart of psychoanalysis.

In documentary cinema, most of the misunderstandings come from the confusion between the words “real” and “reality” which are often used as synonyms. Lacan’s trinity allows us to clearly distinguish the Real from reality.
For him, the instance of the Real is almost the contrary of reality, which he says is only the “grimace of the Real”.[1] Reality is what surrounds us, it is familiar and continuous, and allows itself to be easily captured by photography or film. Reality is what is accessible to the senses and by intelligence whereas the Real is defined as that which cannot be apprehended through representation. “There is no hope of reaching the Real through representation.” Which obviously raises a significant problem for cinema.
The Real is “something impossible to probe” that arises from the crevices, distortions, ruptures that are produced in the symbolic network, “a noise where everything can be heard”.[2] We cannot know it, but outline it, deduce it, suppose it as a presence, something undefinable.

The paradox is that capturing the Real does not depend on the will expressed in the creative gesture. To state that one wants to film the Real is literally meaningless. The Real is precisely that which escapes all intention to communicate, all preconceived meaning. It happens sometimes in a film but it is rare and short lived. It is a flash, an unforeseeable emergence, random and aleatory. A refraction.
Yet there are filmmakers, and among the greatest, for whom this objective is essential in their conception of cinematic creation. For Godard, van der Keuken, Buñuel, Rossellini, the Straub, Kiarostami, Pelechian, Mekas and a few others – although there are not that many – it wouldn’t be worth the trouble to make a film without the objective and hope of managing to “touch the Real”, from time to time.
For Godard: “The history of cinema lies there, in that relation of cinema to the Real, not in problems of style which exist of course, but secondarily; they are not the main thing.”[3]
A film which would be content with the habitual and comfortable alliance between the imaginary and reality, like most fiction films, would be for them unworthy of cinema. Only a confrontation with the instance of the Real is worth the effort to get down to work.

The question of the Real blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction. It is not even certain that it is easier to provoke the emergence of the Real in a documentary than in a fiction. For documentary presupposes the belief in a homogeneity and continuity of the world, a preeminence of reality which allows little chance for the Real.

Even if, by definition, it is impossible to programme the presence of the Real in the act of making a film, one can try to approach various conditions favourable to its possible emergence, even if it remains unforeseeable. Johan van der Keuken was a permanent and tense explorer of this question in his films and in his reflections on creation.

The relation to meaning

The great question which he never ceased to raise pertained to the tension in all his cinema between his ideas, the film as a political and philosophical project, and the encounter with the Real. The world in its revolting nature demands that cinema get involved with its affairs, produce meaning, become a tool for reflection, but the Real demands the contrary: the most absolute respect of the inalienable singularity of all things, blocking any intention or desire to communicate meaning.
Lacan said: “The very idea of the Real involves the exclusion of all meaning. It is only to the extent that the Real is emptied of all meaning that we can apprehend it a little.” “The Real appears as a ‘blank meaning’, we should understand that it emerges, like a ‘meteorite’ in the ‘blanks’ of meaning.”[4]
For Simone Weil, imagination, inasmuch as it abhors voids, excludes the dimension where real objects can truly exist: “As a filler of voids, imagination is essentially deceptive. It excludes the third dimension, for it is only real objects that are in the three dimensions. It excludes multiple relations.”[5]

The Real is visible in a gap, not in reality as a continuity

The Real is a hole in reality, in the coherence of meaning, in the continuity of the world and can only appear by refraction, in an unforeseeable emergence.
The Real is visible in the “cracks” of knowledge and thought.
In the fifties, Rossellini allowed himself the liberty, unheard of up to that point in fiction film, to puncture his films with these “points of Real” scandalously smashing the rules of homogeneity in fiction. The couple emerging from the excavations of Pompei, two thousand years after its burial, at the end of Journey to Italy and which prefigures the final miracle. The arrival of the tuna in Stromboli. In both cases we are faced with a gap in the continuity of the world and in the closed universe of fiction.
Like Lacan, van der Keuken very often speaks of a hole as the condition for an emergence and visibility of the Real.
“What you see in a plane flying at a high altitude: clouds, underneath, clouds, and below that, still more clouds and, thanks to a gap in the lowest layer of clouds, a piece of the earth. The image of the earth does not repeat itself. The Earth exists permanently and most of the time escapes the perception of the eye.” It is because the clouds have created a discontinuity in the perception of the earth seen from a plane that this intermittence makes fragments visible.

Fragments and montage

In The Image Book, Godard states that “in reality only fragments bear the mark of authenticity”. Isolated fragments, disconnected from all continuity with the world, or reconnected with other fragments that are heterogeneous, might sometimes make themselves visible like pieces of the Real. Montage in this case might be one possible means, using discontinuity, to bring forth fragments of the world and allow them, sometimes, to appear like the Real in the film. Pelechian gave himself the mission of exploring fragments and their visibility. But in the history of cinema, montage has often had the opposite function of producing meaning by linking fragments in a discourse.
Jonas Mekas invented a new poetic way to build, using immediate sensations and without going through the construction of premeditated meaning, sequences of fragments of the world where sometimes appear innocent breakthroughs of the Real.

The Real is that which always returns to the same place

For Lacan, the Real is not a Signifier (whose characteristic is to be a “differential”): it is “the same”, the “permanent”, “that which does not move”, “which always returns to the same place”.[6]
That place is “where the subject, to the extent that she or he thinks, does not meet it”.
Repetition is sometimes favourable to the emergence of a block of Real. As it returns, the same thing can regain its opacity, empty itself of its meaning through repetition and become visible as a fragment of the Real. Pelechian and van der Keuken, and sometimes also Straub and Godard, have stubbornly explored this possibility of the Real as a return, (re)iteration, repetition of a fragment of the world making it indifferent to any subjective position.

André Labarthe once gave his definition not of the Real in cinema, which cannot be defined, but of the gesture of creation which can sometimes allow access to it.
“I could vaguely imagine a sort of sheet, in which holes would be pierced, window-like cuts would be made into that sheet. It could be stretched in front of a window and suddenly a pair of scissors would tear a hole in the veil and we would see what’s on the other side. The effect of the Real comes from that, it’s the feeling that in a sheet (and it’s the same thing for television and cinema), all of a sudden, having the feeling that it is being torn.”

Godard says much the same thing in The Image Book on what he calls “the reality of reality” and that we could also name “the Real”:
“We only had book to put in book. What would it be if you had to, in a book, in book, put reality? And at a second degree, if you had to, within reality, put reality?”

Alain Bergala

1. Télévision, p. 17.
2. Écrits, p. 388.
3. Réalités no. 29, Geneva, 20/26 July 1989.
4. S XXII, 11 March 1975; S XXIV, 10 May 1977.
5. La Pesanteur et la Grâce, p. 25-26.
6. Séminaire II, p. 122 and 342; Écrits, p. 25.

With Alain Bergala and Wang Bing (to be confirmed).