Périot Offers A Dose of Reel Politics


Jean-Gabriel Périot accomplishes in a few minutes what most feature-length filmmakers aspire to within a window 10 times that size. Périot’s five-to-ten minutes documentaries take audiences on emotional rides, filled with compelling characters and experimental plotlines which critique historical events and recalibrate the moral compasses of those in attendance.

The award-winning French filmmaker recently visited Indonesia to exhibit his films at the French Cultural Center in Central Jakarta until Friday. Périot was invited upon the behest of art collective Ruangrupa as part of its 10th anniversary celebration. 
At the center, five of Périot’s works are played in a loop from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. via a projection screen and three 27-inch flat-screen TVs. 

He dishes out thought-provoking cinematic medicine in small doses, using fluid and multilayered storylines, still-frame shots played in flip-book form and rare black-and-white footage, taking viewers on an odyssey so short-lived that the films sometimes seem like they are over before they truly begin.

Eût-elle été criminelle... (Even if She Had Been a Criminal...) features World War II footage taken immediately after the liberation of France in 1944. 
There are images of people giving relieved smiles to the cameras, but it is later revealed that the subjects have different — at times disturbing — reasons for grinning. But Périot is no one-trick pony. 

The 36-year-old is not the kind of artist who simply juxtaposes pictures of puppies and the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing in order to get a reaction. Instead, he delights in the unpredictable. Viewers are often led down one path, only to discover minutes later that Périot has a completely different message in mind for his audience.

Périot spends between six months and a year researching and completing a short film, digging through hundreds of thousands of archived pictures and film reels in search of the perfect images.

“There is no rule [because] the process of research changes for every film,” he said. “For some of them, I have the images already. For the others, I have to find all the images. And the research is always different depending on the budget of the production or the topic of the film.”

What results is a fast-paced montage, dripping with didactic poetry, that sports scenes like reverse atomic explosions, flip-book road trips across the United States and street riots riddled with Molotov cocktails. In contrast to this frenzied pace, Périot selects slow background music to dilute the movie’s dizzying quality.

“Because I edit a huge amount of archives quickly, the flow of my film is quite fast,” he said. “The music helps me to slow down the rhythm, to make the editing more soft, more natural for the audience. The music also helps me find the rhythm, the tempo of the editing,” he added. “I really believe the music is a powerful art that could really be meaningful and conjure strong feelings when someone watches the film.”

Moreover, the filmmaker said the meaning of music transcended borders and cultures — something that was “not possible with language.” Much like his films, Périot himself is hard to pigeonhole. Ask him which film at the exhibition is his favorite or which audiences should view first, and he struggles to pinpoint one.

“It’s a complicated question because each of the films are close to me, and for different reasons,” he said. 

But pressed further, Périot recommended his latest film, Les Barbares (The Barbarians), which differed from previous films owing to its distinctly overt political message. 
 The movie opens with a series of still-frame shots from various geopolitical meetings. There are images of US President Barack Obama alongside French President Nicolas Sarkozy and a Bush family photo. There is a shot of Group of 20 leaders, including former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva standing beside President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. This parade of world leaders is followed by images of deadly riots and violent protests around the world. The film ends with the lines: “If politics were to come back, it could only be from its savage and disreputable fringe. Then, a muffled rumor shall arise whence that roar is heard: ‘We are scum! We are barbarians.’ ”

“My previous films dealt with history, violence and memories,” Périot said. “But even if they could be defined as political, this last movie, The Barbarians, is openly political. This film is no more about complaining but about acting or reacting.” 

Périot is also particularly proud of Nijuman No Borei (200 000 Phantoms), which he says is “perhaps the most accomplished” of his films.

“[It is] the one where techniques and narration are the closest to one another,” he said. “Moreover, there is a melancholy in this film that I particularly like.” 

However, it doesn’t really matter which film audiences end up flocking to at the French Cultural Center exhibition. All five movies being screened are compelling. With jaw-dropping images and elegant storytelling, it is safe to say that Périot’s documentaries count among the most provocative ever to be shown in Jakarta.


Zack Petersen
The Jakarta Globe, January 10, 2011