May 14, 2024

Outbursts of Light

Jacques Rancière

Film still from Sylvain George, Qu’ils reposent en révolte (May They Rest in Revolt), 2010. 

How to think the politics of Sylvain George’s films? On the one hand, they show us in granular detail the condition and struggle of a well-defined category of people: migrants from Central Africa and Asia trying to complete the last stage of their journey by crossing the thirty-four kilometers of water that separates Calais from Dover. We see them washing up by a canal, standing in line as food is distributed, preparing and sharing their meals in makeshift camps, hiding behind trees to scope out the truck that they may be able to slip into, and trying in the darkness of night to climb the fences protecting the area where those same trucks awaiting to board the ferries that will take them across the Channel. We also hear a few of them tell their stories, voicing their hardships and aspirations, and, sometimes, their views about the state of the world. We notice that, in order to be able to show us all of this, the filmmaker had to embed himself in the daily life of these migrants and gain enough of their trust that they allowed him to follow them with his camera, including in their attempts to evade police surveillance. On the other hand, the same person who might admire the precision of Sylvain George’s investigation might be irritated by how much time he spends capturing fleeting spectacles that clearly teach us nothing at all about immigration: reflections on the dirty waters of the port; light playing on the shore; the wind blowing through the trees; a snow-covered garden, its shrubs sagging under the weight; statues corroded by humidity. These same admirers will likewise wonder at the structure of these films, which eschew both the standard form used for reporting (the intercutting of documents with explanations) and of fictional films (which follow the fate of a character or group all the way to the moment of success or failure). The episodes of these films are constructed like so many short prose poems, each one closed in on itself. The episodes communicate with each other, not through a structure of cause and effect, but through resonances and tonalities, and they each culminate in a filmic figure that is just as unsuited to dialectical demonstration as to the creation of a militant dynamic: a fade to black that isolates one prose poem from the next while accentuating the wave-like rhythm with which they repeatedly crash against the same shore.

Let us suppose that none of this betrays the presence of two contradictory aspirations in one and the same filmmaker: an engagement with and for the struggle of the oppressed, on the one hand, and an “aesthetic” sensibility for the formal play of light, shadows, and reflections on the other. And let us suppose, further, that the very politics of the films resides in how they manifest the wealth of the destitute by making them the actors of this theater of light and shadow. If there is a politics to these films, it cannot consist in the back-and-forth between the denunciation of the global economic system and the day-to-day life of the young Eritreans, Afghans, and Ghanaians who hang around the Jungle and the port. People who lived through economic misery and political oppression in Nigeria or Afghanistan, who crossed seas and deserts to flee these places, who were subjected to the “law of smugglers” in Libya or Turkey, and to police controls in Italy or Greece, who had to work illegally along the way before spending their days in this place scoping out the trucks that might bring them salvation, and the police cars patrolling the area to prevent them: these people do not need us to explain to them the harsh laws of the globalized world. The geopolitical lesson that the young Afghan delivers in one of the Jungle’s tents is ample proof that we have nothing to teach him on the matter.

The migrants at Calais do not fit the image of the victims of oppression or, for that matter, that of the collective fighting for its rights. These are individuals; they may be bound by their origin or by the path they have travelled, but their problem is how to pass, individually, to the other side of the Channel. Even the hide-and-seek game they play with the police is foreign to the fight of the militants who act as lookouts to protect them overnight, and whose slogans stigmatize the forces of order. The migrants are not concerned with denouncing the police but with evading their attention. Two among them even get into a rigorous scholarly argument over the difference between two ways of evading police: running (the attitude of the coward) and hiding (that of the cunning). That’s why the politics of Les Éclats (The Outbursts) or of Qu’ils reposent en révolte (May They Rest in Revolt) can also not avail itself of the classical form of the struggle narrative. Sylvain George certainly doesn’t forget or overlook the violence of the forces of order. But he is more concerned with showing the quiet violence of a global order (the police cars doing their rounds, the blinding glare of streetlights and patrol lights, the meticulous execution of official instructions) than with showing people being bludgeoned with clubs. In the face of that order, what his politics shows us is not the opposition of one form of violence to another, but how individuals, outside of any “militant education,” make their behaviors and thoughts commensurate with this instituted violence.

Accordingly, the camera first requalifies that way of being by showing that the condition and manners of these migrants is not that of bare life, disarmed by the experience of misery and the violence of exile. Fighting for survival is a condition, yes, but it is also an art. On one side, it is an art of doing: the art of scoping from behind a curtain of leaves, of knowing when to take advantage of the few seconds while the trucks are stopped, of evaluating just how much space there’ll be in the truck’s axle arrangement, and of slipping unperceived into that spot. It is an art of gymnasts who must quickly climb an illuminated fence, and know precisely where to grip its other side so as to haul the body over the top; an art of humorists whose repeated utterance, “No chance!,” accompanied by a complicit smile, dispels the tension that the camera captures when it frames a foot stuck at the top of the fence—a tension akin to the one we experience when we see Cary Grant or James Stewart, chasing or being chased, grabbing onto anything that will give them purchase as they hang over an abyss.

But this art of doing is not simply the art of the resourceful, and it takes on all of its violence at the moment when the camera moves from the embers of burning wood towards a wire used to heat up a screw fastened to the end of it. We see the migrants tapping their fingers, lightly and repeatedly, on the hot screw: this, they explain, makes their fingerprints illegible, and that makes it impossible for authorities to know what other countries have fingerprinted them along their journey, and hence to know what country must take on the responsibility of sending them back to their starting point. It is also, if we want, an art of the body that shows us its results in closeup: these manicured-mutilated hands that render them unidentifiable, but at the price of denying them their humanity in some way. It is at this point that speech takes over the work of the hands and recalls the tragic violence of the game itself. The risk involved is not just that of failure, and having to try again. What is at stake in this game is the very sense of what is being sought on the other side of the Channel. One of the men eloquently reminds viewers of this: these people who have come from so far away didn’t come only to “save” their lives, but to “taste life,” to “see what is going on in the world.” They are not just job seekers aware of the sacrifices that they have to make to reach their goal. To “taste life,” to “see what is going on in the world”: these exceed practical goals that impose a rational cost-benefit analysis. The migrants want access to a full humanity that the existing order denies them, but in which they have nonetheless decided to participate. Similarly, another man tells us that he didn’t lose his life crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean. And, indeed, the narrative of the crossing from Libya to Lampedusa—with the boat assailed by a “giant snake,” with the leg held onto for dear life, the last hope of someone on the verge of drowning—transforms the migrant into an epic hero. It is not there but here that one dies, in this place with its stingy fences, its blinding lights, and its patrol dogs, all of which render the life they are fighting for and the death they are risking equivalent, and equally stingy.

These narratives of epic voyages, these complaints (“I’ve lost my life”), and these tenacious hopes (“We will be happy someday”), these violent accusations and patient analyses: the way the camera records them is not what we would expect from a documentary, or what we would use in fictional dialogues. These young people are not answering an interviewer or a partner. They are fully in their word. Thus, the camera exceeds what we usually call the close-up and shows us their faces, sometimes only partially, shot slightly from below, as if it was trying to give solemnity to what they say, but also to surprise the very work of thought or memory. This art of epic or tragic speech is simultaneously the complement and the transfiguration of the art of making men capable of overcoming the obstacles in their path. And it is there, as it happens, that the paradoxical politics of these waves, which seem to endlessly succeed one another, affirms itself. Qu’ils reposent en révolte ends with the razing of the Jungle and with a young migrant covered by a shroud-like sheet from a detention center. Les Éclats reopens the story and ends with the same waves crashing on the shore. The filmmaker doesn’t tell us anything about the end of the journey. He doesn’t think it useful to inform us that almost all the migrants made it to England, and he evokes the role of smugglers only indirectly, through the name, repeated here and there throughout the film, of a young Afghan who was killed for not obeying their demands. The politics of Sylvain George’s films is first and foremost to show the capacity of the individuals and small communities who have gathered there to carry themselves as the subjects of a story and the co-participants of a common world.

Cinema is the witness, and also the actor, of that common world. Maybe that is what the “superfluous” shots—the gulls in flight, the reflections on the shore, the play of light on the water, the wind in the trees, the fountains of public gardens, the faces of stone statues in the snow—show. More than being simply the frame of the migrants’ wandering existence, they are the sensible world to which the migrants belong—or, rather, to which cinema makes them belong: a world ready to welcome their guile and the courage of their efforts, but also their ordinary way of being together, of sharing a space or meal, of creating a community. It is no doubt significant that, before giving the most eloquent among them the chance to speak, the camera often films them in silence, as if to imbue their adventure with the oldest resources of the art of cinema: the magic of the play of shadows and reflections that magnifies every filmed scene, no matter how insignificant; and the multiplicity of nuances of light and color offered by the seeming monotony of black and white. Cinema doesn’t just bear witness to the struggle of these migrants. It also offers them the sensible world for which they fight: a world where there are not just makeshift tents, cold, hunger, and fences, but where there is also their transmutation into always-changing spectacles, movements, and mirrorings—in sum, into shadows and reflections. The most profound politics of Sylvain George’s films is to be found in their ability to show that the life and thought of the “damned of the earth” are commensurate with the violence they endure, and to make the migrants already the inhabitants of the world that is denied them, the world where everyone has access to everything—including superfluity and artifice.

Translated from the French by Emiliano Battista.

Film, Migration & Immigration
Experimental Film

Jacques Rancière is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris-VIII. His books include The Politics of Aesthetics, On the Shores of Politics, Short Voyages to the Land of the People, The Nights of Labor, Staging the People, and The Emancipated Spectator.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.