That Which We Are, We Are

in 16th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Alexey Gusev

There are a lot of documentaries about different declassed people nowadays, and every year this bulk becomes more and more huge. The reasons are pretty clear. It’s striking, it’s responsible, it’s noble; finally, it’s quite simple. An author of such a movie does no longer belong to the idle class, he is not a damned effete snob with worthy education and bourgeois manners. No, sir, he is compassionate and reflective, he is sensitive and rebellious at once, and, in fact, the genuine suffering of his characters represents him in a very favourable light (the more genuine, the more favourable)… It’s not a hypocrisy in the usual sense of the word, usually it’s just a sincere and unconscious normal yearning for earning self-respect and for convincing oneself of being earnest and useful; sometimes there is also an ambitious dream about changing the social order with a work of art (as Dickens or Arthur Miller once did), and ‘ambitious’ is the main word in this latter phrase. But, unfortunately, an unconscious hypocrisy is a hypocrisy as well, with all of the determined moral consequences. These screen misérables are generally a very good cause to appeal to society for responsibility and/or sympathy, a perfect pretext to discuss social injustices, an irreproachable tool to take an audience’s breath away; they are examples, and occasions, and samples, and patterns — well, they are anything but human beings. The author’s pity turns them into ideal objects of discourse; shorter, it turns them into objects. Instinctively, most authors consider their characters as persons with a defect; this defect is a source of compassion and a matter of accusation against society, but this very defect is as well a motive for the shameful author’s patronage. Most of these documentaries are just some kind of a condescending philanthropy. But Claus Drexel’s On the Edge of the World (Au bord du monde) is absolutely not.

One could limit a description of this film to its strict cinematographic merits only, and would be right to, since these merits are exceptional in themselves. The narrative is smart, the editing is prudent, and Sylvain Leser’s cinematography gives away the deep and longstanding familiarity with material that is the very specific world of Parisian clochards. And all of this is in spite of the fact that On the Edge of the World is, actually, almost (but for an epilogue) a simple set of cross-edited interviews (in fact, monologues since we don’t hear any author’s cues). But this simplicity has nothing to do with a trendy aloofness (aka ‘objectivity’) or a simple-minded curiosity. It’s a difficult simplicity, a circumspect simplicity, a meticulous simplicity, and nothing could be more complicated.

All persons who are on screen don’t deserve any pity but only respect and esteem. They are subtle, their reasoning (and, moreover, power of reasoning) is impeccable, their metaphors are unexpected but explicit; you just couldn’t imagine such precise minds and delicate souls among this garbage milieu (but it’s your problem). Some of these metaphors are even used by the director and are included in the film fabric; for example, one clochard talks about progress of technology and simultaneous regress of humanity, so, he says, soon we shall be cave men amidst modern palaces, and politicians will be dinosaurs — and, a little later, we can see, near another clochard, the little poster of a dinosaurs exhibition.

The unconquerable dignity of these people is underlined — and, perhaps, this is the most important director’s move — by the constant camera angle that is slightly lower than the level of a character (as the cameraman squats down). The point of view is so exact that even André Bazin could identify it as morally unimpeachable. No false assentation, no attempts of equality that is much more false. The filming itself is an act of respect, and the distance between the author and the character is entirely a matter of moral (well, as it should be).

The epilogue of the film is sudden and convincing. The Seine and street puddles are filmed as an image of a flood — to be more precise, an image of the Flood. An old clochard with an appearance of Rembrandtean Biblical patriarch who hid in the inconspicuous oriel and remained silent for all film is staying on the deserted Parisian street and is still silent. Claus Drexel extracts a global — though quiet and calm — image of the end of the world (you remember, we were on its edge all the time) from the simple set of clochards’ speeches, and then launches immortal Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” that is — as one can see now — about all these night dwellers. And, with the last phrase of the aria, the sun also rises… It’s almost an impossible bad taste, and it is certainly the case in this retelling, but in fact it is surprisingly not, because of, once again, an exceptional exactness of distribution of aria’s lines among film characters in a final sequence. If you really respect your characters you don’t bustle around or shorten the distance, you just have to look and listen attentively and deferentially. But, as an author, it’s up to you to give them a final present. The sunrise, for example.

Edited by Michael Pattison