Jean-Gabriel Périot's Our Defeats is exclusively showing on MUBI starting September 15, 2021 in many countries in the series Undiscovered.
I just watched Our Defeats—the first time in a while….
This film was really an unexpected one. The director of Le Luxy, an art-house cinema in Ivry-sur-Seine, a city closed-by Paris, asked me to participate in a project with high-school students. I had to spend time with them, to work with them and make a “film,” whatever this “film” could be. Usually, workshops with students end up as a collective film or as a series of individual films. There, it was different. The process was supposed to lead to a film that would implicate the students but that would be signed by me as filmmaker. The main idea was to share with those students my own way to make films. Before I started this project, it was obvious that making a feature-length film would be impossible. There was a very low budget. The organization within the high school, and so within the workshop, was only almost improvised and constrained. Ans most importantly, the group of students was totally heterogeneous; a large part of them didn’t even choose to participate in such a project, they had to… My only hope was to make some kind of short documentary that could be shared with the students and their parents, and perhaps more widely if some kind of miracle occurs!
What is certain is that I never planned to make what would become Our Defeats.
When I watched it today, I was brought back into the past, when we were shooting the film.
What happened back then really surprised and questioned me and transformed a light short project into a feature-length one.
Before this shooting, we spent weeks reenacting short excerpts of political films from the French ‘68 era. It was not an easy task. In those films, the language is really different from today. The way to talk about Politics, the vocabulary that was used, all of that almost disappeared. Moreover, most of the excerpts came from documentaries in which workers were talking, sometimes with a lot of hesitations, some mistakes, etc. And to reenact those films was not only about language, it was also about embodying people from the past, incorporating the way they moved, the ways they were in relation with others... The students worked a lot, but even during the last days of the rehearsals the results were not so good. I thought then that we would never make something that would go beyond the amatory kind of acting. But when we started the shooting, it was simply striking. I still have no explanation about what happened. I know from experience there is some kind of tension during a shooting that makes everything more concrete, solid. But there, it was different, I was totally amazed by the way each of those students played their characters so precisely. It created some kind of very strange and questioning time. The students brought back the voices and the bodies of people from the past, and they did so with their own juvenile bodies…
Everything became stranger, if not awkward, when we did the interviews after each of those reenactments. I realized then that they didn’t understand what they were playing. They didn’t know the meaning of their texts and even of some of their words. I spent months with those young people; they picked up the different excerpts they wanted to reenact, we spent time discussing each of those excerpts… I even told them what the interviews would be about. No matter how much time we spent together and what I thought I had taught them, I didn’t succeed in giving them sufficient knowledge to understand what they were playing.
I realized after the shooting, and some discussions with them, that it was the first time they had discussed politics. The French education system gave up its former goal to form informed citizens. There is no more, or too few, transmissions of the history, the concepts, the vocabulary of Politics within the class. The students I worked with never talked within their families about such topics and they never watched TV news or read the press. I talked with them about 1968, about communism, class struggle, et cetera, but it was impossible for them to understand all of that within just a few discussions… But whatever. Even if the capitalist system constantly rewrites history for its own purposes, destroys all possibilities to change the world, backlashes all struggles, even if ’68 belongs to the past for young people, we can see in the way they reenacted those workers struggling and fighting for their rights that not everything is lost. When we watch them reenacting those excerpts of films made 50 years ago, we can see in their bodies, we can hear in their voices, we can feel in their energy, that a part of their own history as children of the working class reappears, whether they are aware or not of this history. The interviews also make me quite optimistic. When we listen to what they have to say, whether they missed some vocabulary that might appear necessary to adults, whether it is complicated for them to find the phrase for what they want to say, all of them succeeded in expressing their own point of view and the causes for which they struggle. Some said they were still too young to be committed, but all of them expressed they could be committed later on.
Something they all became a few times after our shooting when they blocked their own high school in solidarity with some comrades who were arrested by the police and expelled from the school for having tagged a political slogan on a wall. When I came back to make a last sequence for the film, they were no more teenagers. They became young adults, aware that they will be listened to and respected only by their own struggles.