The Impossible Utopias: A Conversation with Éric Baudelaire about "Letters to Max"

Éric Baudelaire has become one of the most intriguing voices in new documentary cinema.
Jorge Mourinha

Éric Baudelaire. Photo © Festival del film Locarno 2013.

Over the past few years, Franco-American artist and filmmaker Éric Baudelaire has become one of the most intriguing voices working in the fluid realm of the cinémas du réel, the new documentary cinema firing up film festivals worldwide. Coming from a fine-arts background, Baudelaire explores the aftermath of actual real-life events in world history, as remembered by those who lived through them, in ways that mirror the shifting shapes of memory; that is, constantly disregarding the standard narrative arc.

For The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images (2011), sound and vision simply do not match: the lengthy audio interviews with Fusako Shigenobu and film director Masao Adachi, members of the Japanese Red Army group retelling their revolutionary experiences in the 1970s, and with Fusako's daughter May, born in clandestinity, have no possible visual counterpart other than archival or newly shot footage. As the title indicates, none of the footage recorded by the director during those years of revolution and exile has survived.

Extending his collaboration with Adachi into the Beyrouth-set The Ugly One (2013)—an oneiric fiction about a series of former activists reeling from their Lebanon War experiences, scripted by the Japanese director—Baudelaire returned this year to what appears to be more solid documentary footing with yet another boundary-challenging work. Letters to Max is the record of a multimedia correspondance with Maxim Gvinjia, former vice-minister of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia, an ex-Soviet republic that has violently splintered from Georgia and retains the backing of the Russian Federation.

Baudelaire mailed Gvinjia actual “snail mail” letters that he was unsure would ever get to their destination, since Abkhazia is not recognised internationally as a separate republic. When he received them, the former diplomat answered with spoken-word recordings that form the film's narrative thread. Though visible as a stand-alone feature – and as such entered into the competitions of venerable festivals FIDMarseille and Doclisboa, winning the Special Jury Prize at the latter -  Letters to Max is also part of a larger multimedia project, The Secession Sessions, where Gvinjia is on hand in an improvised embassy to talk with the visitors and extend the film's meditation on living in an “impossible” country. As Baudelaire himself points out in the following conversation, which took place at Doclisboa, your take on Letters to Max's reality will depend on whether you see it on its own or within the context of The Secession Sessions.

NOTEBOOK: At Doclisboa, a lot of people have been asking what is true and what is not in Letters to Max.

ÉRIC BAUDELAIRE: When you see the film within the exhibition, the question doesn't come up because I show the actual letters, the actual stamped envelopes, Max is there and you can ask him anything, and you understand it's the same Max as in the film. When I show a film within an exhibition context, I always try to present more than just the film. In this case, I thought it would be interesting to bring Max along. So for the exhibition I built him an “embassy,” or rather an “unembassy,” a fake embassy, and he gets to meet people, talk to them and learn many things.

But if you watch it without the larger context, I can completely understand people would have doubts. Someone at FIDMarseille told me she did not believe one single minute of it. With Max, everything is true, but I felt like casting some doubt at the end. Because I was not at all sure Max would get the letters when I first sent them. The initial idea was that the letters would be returned to sender and I would then assemble them into an art work. But the impossible became possible, and that became interesting for somebody like me, who works in the convergence between reality and fiction. In this case, reality is in fact stranger than fiction.

So, since everything is true, why not ask whether everything is false, since Abkhazia itself is a fiction? I have asked the question in all of my films: this is real, this is false, where does the truth lie? But I've always left the viewers in charge of deciding where their truth lies. That's up to them, rather than to me. And I'm interested in leaving a doubt hanging because, for me, it's a way to elide the question, and to be able to keep it going beyond the film becomes also a space where cinema can happen.

NOTEBOOK: All of your work deals with the same themes: one's personal connection to history, the way memory shapes and molds things, in very different ways but always blurring documentary and fiction. Is that shadowy territory where you feel more at home?

BAUDELAIRE: Yes, definitely. It's funny you should describe it as “shadowy” as I think it's a very luminous territory! But I do, particularly because when we're talking of the construction of the state we're necessarily dealing with the matter of fiction. All states are fictional constructs, and I feel that very intimately. When I started traveling in 2000, getting to discover Abkhazia, and other unrecognized states I visited around the same time, made me really rethink the concept of the state as I knew it in the U.S. and in France, the two countries I lived in. It's as if, when you leave your own laboratory and visit somebody else's laboratory, you tend to look at your experiences differently. After visiting Abkhazia I became very aware of the collective fiction all of that plays into. But if I hadn't been interested in that relationship between fiction and documentary, then those subjects would have in a way forced it on me.

NOTEBOOK: When you mention collective fiction, does that mean that you're documenting emotional facts rather than historical facts?

BAUDELAIRE: Yes. And that brings to mind something Masao Adachi told me while making The Ugly One that seemed very important to me. He said that, in the mid-sixties, at the height of his revolutionary period, the cinema revolutionaries on the side of experimental art and film were clearly defending pleasure, sexuality and love, but politically had no clue what they were doing; and the political revolutionaries were extremely rigorous in political matters but had no clue when it came to love, relationships and feelings. And he thought it was impossible to make a political revolution without understanding love and sexuality, and that it was impossible to make artistically interesting statements about the liberation of the senses without thinking about its political aspect.

I'm not Abkhaz, but I've long had a strong relationship with Max, he's my friend, and that brings a number of very personal dimensions into our relationship. It personalizes the cold, analytical side of the film. I think it's interesting, and important, to have a personal, emotional dimension about the Georgian-Abkhaz question of enemy brothers, intimacy and destruction, Abel and Cain.

NOTEBOOK: The Japanese Red Army in The Anabasis..., Lebanon in The Ugly One, now Abkhazia, which can seen a sort of prelude to the recent events in Ukraine. Do you feel naturally attracted to these places that are neither fully-fledged countries nor failed states?

BAUDELAIRE: ...As well as multi-confessional, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual...

NOTEBOOK: Almost impossible utopias.

BAUDELAIRE: Yes, and they're also minuscule, scale-wise. There's something about compression and concentration that turns these countries into laboratories, zones where the scale is so small everything changes. But they are also models where the grand geopolitical design did not work. When the great powers divided the Middle East in pieces they created Lebanon, then isolated Syria, and then Israel showed up...

NOTEBOOK: Iraq and Syria are also abstract constructs.

BAUDELAIRE: Precisely. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is also an abstract construct but one made out of the bigger pieces, and then this very small piece becomes Lebanon. It's a bit like Abkhazia: places with a great population density, great cultural diversity and geographical riches that have become isolated, sort of free zones. A little bit like the Zone in Tarkovski's Stalker.

NOTEBOOK: And you do show the ruins in these places...

BAUDELAIRE: Exactly. They're places where the laws of time and space don't work the same way. Ruins seem to stretch time, and in Abkhazia, like in Stalker's Zone, there's a sense of a place where time does not run the same way as elsewhere.

NOTEBOOK: When you ask Max what it's like to be a diplomat for a country that is unrecognised as such, when he talks about the war with Georgia, these very distant things become suddenly physical, tangible. And when you realise Abkhazia is backed by Russia, the film suddenly seems to fall from under you.

BAUDELAIRE: Absolutely.

NOTEBOOK: That means you can't see Letters to Max without thinking of Ukraine, even though you only drop that bomb halfway through the film.

BAUDELAIRE: That is deliberate. I wanted the viewer to be in my own place: I wanted to create an emotional relationship with somebody as touching as Max before dropping the bomb, or at least throwing a grenade. I was interested in that from a cinematic point of view. I've been asked why I only bring up Georgia so late in the film and my answer is that, if I didn't, it would be an entirely different film. I wanted first to create an emotional connection with this very touching person before pulling the rug a little bit from under your feet to ask “what now?” Because that is the best place to be if you want to understand what is happening there.

We will not be able to understand the conflict if we just say that all the pro-Russians in the Donbass and in Donetsk are pro-Putin madmen. If we're willing to recognise things are more complicated, that some people would rather die than join the E.U., we have to try and understand why. You can't just say it's Vladimir Putin's megalomaniac madness, there's a truth there we have to try to understand. There's some legitimacy in the existence of people living in Ukraine who don't see themselves as Ukrainians. There's no point in simplifying it, we have to deal with this question.

I think it's interesting, and very important, to try and humanise the complexity of these matters. It's also, of course, very complicated—especially in the way such an emotional connection can slip into something that is not-moral, amoral. We can't say Max is amoral but by the end of the film he's said some very harsh things: “the Georgians can't return, that's it, it's just how it is.” And because he's Max, he'll then say “yes, of course it's a shame, but we can't go back in time.” That, to me, is a very interesting point of view.

NOTEBOOK: That seems to be the key to the film: you can't go home again. At some point Max says that the pro-Georgians want to return to the day before the war, but that was a whole different country that no longer exists and will never exist again.

BAUDELAIRE: The interesting thing is I'm often asked if I've embarked on a nostalgic project. I haven't. All of my films deal with the question of time, but always looking to the future. Even Masao Adachi says so in The Ugly One: remorse is only interesting if it looks forward to the future. Remorse looking backward isn't interesting. That's also true of Max, and the question he raises is very difficult: I'm willing to bet we'll be chatting about this in 20 years' time and nothing will have changed. I do intend to go on working there, and even maybe to shoot footage of Max again, but nothing in Abkhazia will have changed, and the Georgians will never be able to go back. That's impossible.

NOTEBOOK: But neither will Abkhazia go back. They're literally frozen in limbo—is that why you also talk of a “zone” out of time?

BAUDELAIRE: Yes. And that raises a whole other question I tried to bring up towards the end of the film, regarding Russia. I asked Max if, now they've gotten rid of Georgia, they'll become a playground to Russian oligarchs. Russia's history of dealing with minorities does not bode well, so what will happen if all Abkhazia has done is merely exchange Georgian rule for Russian rule? I ask, but Max doesn't answer. The future will depend on that answer though.

NOTEBOOK: There's a sense that Max believed in a project and fought for it, and now feels somewhat disappointed by the results, even though he did his best.

BAUDELAIRE: Yes, of course. For me Letters to Max is about dystopia: when you go back to year zero—and that only happens rarely, when there's a revolution or a civil war—you look towards the future with an utopian eye. 20 years later you've had enough historical time pass to realise the dystopia within the utopia. If I look at the 14 years I've known Abkhazia, I can see where the utopia became a dystopia; at one time people were very optimistic, even Max, who thought Abkhazia could become the first truly entirely “green,” ecological, country in the world. And of course it didn't happen. Today Abkhazia is a tiny little state, somewhat corrupt, where people got rich by selling things they'll never be able to buy back, but once you're dealing with dystopia you're dealing with a kind of sadness, and you're looking at a different kind of time-travel. Max's metaphor, which I find really lovely, where he says that you can travel in time by writing a letter to yourself, is a little bit like the letter you write to yourself when you're utopian: “I want to live in a country where we'd live like this,” and you send it to your future. At the end of it, can you actually keep your promises? Probably not.

NOTEBOOK: It's fascinating to see your progression as a filmmaker. It's like there's a thematic throughline that inflects elsewhere with each new film...

BAUDELAIRE: I'm not sure I can answer that... I have a tendency to theorize about my films after making them rather than before, and I do have a tendency to make the film that my relationship with its subject calls for. Maybe I'll have to wait ten years to understand that progression, maybe it's not even up to me to say it... There is one thing very clear to me, I wanted to make a film based on creative freedom, on my desire to have pleasure while making it.

Editing The Ugly One took a lot out of me, burned me out. The actual letters to Max were written before I started working on The Ugly One. Then Max recorded his answers, I went to Locarno with The Ugly One and three weeks later I was shooting in Abkhazia. I listened to Max's answers on my iPod in the morning while having coffee, and went out to shoot footage in the afternoon following a principle of enjoying the process. Since I'd been carrying these questions for 14 years, these theoretical and political questions connected to Abkhazia and Max, and had discussed them at length with my good friend Léon Colm, I knew them from the inside-out; it was as if everything had been decanted and there was a huge freedom in the moment. I shot in three weeks and edited in two months, with a lot of pleasure.

But I have no idea what the next film will be. I'm aware I'll now need to reflect theoretically where I am regarding film protocols, and maybe I shouldn't rush into doing the next one; I know I'll have to resist giving in to formal automatisms, and maybe do something very different.

(Parts of this interview, in Portuguese, were published in and are included courtesy of daily newspaper Público )

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