Against Answers: On The Films Of Jean-Gabriel Périot


Jean-Gabriel Périot’s films are unsettling. They unsettle me. And so, as one would expect, writing about them is an unsettling experience. None of the obvious locations of critique are quite adequate in deconstructing his overall project. To frame his films merely from the perspective of genre, as “political art,” for example, would be disingenuous, because they heedlessly disregard any singular category of work. To discuss them in a plainly formalist, straightforward manner is equally tempting, as Périot obviously employs a series of highly complicated and tedious visual strategies. But to do so would not simply conceal the powerfully material affective motivations behind their careful construction, it would be to dispossess them from the highly intentional manner in which they exceed form and structure all together.

So all I am left with are questions. The second that I think I have located some motivation internal to the films themselves– the second that I believe that I have discovered an authorial point of view or perspective, the “key” to understanding his films, which is also always an act of owning, of killing art, it slips away again, leaving me vulnerable, my outstretched hand hanging dead in mid-air.


Open to air strikes, perhaps.

Jacques Rancière: “It is the political relationship that allows one to think the possibility of a political subject(ivity) [le sujet politique], not the other way around.” With this political relationship in mind, I asked Périot via email if I could share with him some of my questions. We corresponded over a two weeks period. We discussed his films, as well as the relationship between “work” and art, being a coward, and the bourgeois position of filmmaking.


Although some of your films are made using digital video, the majority of them are created via compiling and editing numerous, sometimes hundreds or thousands, images together. What about this labor-intensive process appeals to you?

For sure, the process of work is important in the way I make most of my films. There are many different reasons. The first reason is that I probably felt “guilty” to be a filmmaker, an artist, and a privileged person who doesn’t have to really work, as a worker in a factory for example. I felt guilty to not work as people in my family or around me did. So, I started to integrate some onerous rules in my filmmaking, some rules that could be compared to real work. For example, to make a film with 10,000 pictures is real work! To find them, retouch them, classify them, etc. could take one year of everyday work, everyday boring work. I know now that I don’t have to felt guilty to not work but I did feel that way.

The second reason is that there are many films, books, and art pieces that I simply find lazy, and that regularly upset me. I find that some artists or intellectuals don’t work enough. And as I was feeling, and I probably still feel, that as a filmmaker, an artist, I didn’t want, and still don’t want to make lazy stuff. Moreover I make films about politics, history, violence, etc. so it is for me a duty to really think about what I’m doing, to do intensive research, to maximally try to not make historical mistakes or false interpretations.

The last reason, probably the only good one answering to your question, is that to go through labor-intensive processes is necessary to really go deeper in the knowledge of the materials I use, particularly in my archival works. To spend ages watching and questioning the archives I use is the only way to go deeper in the material, to really (or try to) see everything in the pictures or in the footage. The editing also needs a lot of time. There is no one solution, there are many, but only one is the good one. I always think that for editing archives the filmmaker has to respect them, to not constrain them, but to go with them, to follow them. Such an editing process takes a lot of time.


What do you see as the relationship between history and current-day revolutionary struggles, particularly in relation to your use of archival footage?

I don’t really know. I just know why I needed to make those films about history (or perhaps, and more precisely, about the lack of memories about some historical events).

I remember when at some point in my own political questioning, I felt that I lacked knowledge about history. I was reading books but I wasn’t able to really understand them because I didn’t share the same backgrounds as their authors. So I started to learn about our history. And it really helped me understand a lot of things happening today.

Moreover, the winners always write history. The “official” history. There is no history telling us the stories of the people who fought for liberty. For sure, it is possible to find books or films about progressive/leftist history, but it is not collectively shared, we don’t learn it at school. It is too subversive! It teaches us that there is always someone that can react against destruction. And even if most of us are resigned, if just one resists, humanity could be saved.

So in my work, I just give back what I learned during my research. As any teacher could positively do…


Violence is a consistent theme in your work, one that you continually revisit. Many writers, such as Elaine Scarry, have discussed the incommunicability of pain; others, such as feminist writer Andrea Smith, have described the ways that it is foundational to global capitalism’s power. What is it about violence that makes it a seemingly unanswerable problem, or one that you feel that you must return to?

For sure violence, violence in general, is for me one of the most complicated question. I don’t know the writings of Andrea Smith, but violence is more than the roots of capitalism, it is at the beginning of humanity. I will never say that man naturally born violent. But every human society is violent. Since ages ago.

I have in my films two different ways to question the topic of violence. I work on the type of violence that we can’t accept the existence of. Violence created by negative ideological powers (racism, imperialism, war etc.) and violence coming from negative human feelings (revenge, jealousy etc.) That kind of violence really makes me uncomfortable because all the people who commit such negative acts are humans. They are not monsters or madmen. So if they did it, we all could do. It is for that reason that I try in my film to not judge the people who commit violence but to question the possibility that they did it.

The second way to question violence is to deal with political violence, revolutionary violence. No one ever changes the world without the forces of power, without attack their enemy. I am for a deep political change of our societies, and I know that this change can’t be peaceful. But if I can’t excuse violence used by my enemies, how could I excuse the violence of my fellows? This contradiction is a node that pops up some of my films.


In the midst of all of this violence, what propels you to make film?

I make these films because they are the only ones I can make… When I started to make my own films, it was not to obey to some strong desire to be artist or filmmaker. For sure I’ve wanted to make films since I was teenager, but life is full of surprises and opportunities. I could do something else besides being a filmmaker. I didn’t have a desire to be an “artist” just for the sake of being one, or to be “famous” or whatever the reasons. I simply wanted to tell stories… But when I was 25, I didn’t find in films or in art what I was looking for. I needed to see films about politics, films with a strong statement about our world. There were some contemporary films, but so few. It was not at all the same energy than was present during the 70’s for example, when cinema was really involved in the protests. So, when as an audience I didn’t find what I was looking for, I started to make the types of films I wanted to see. Sometimes, it’s time to stop complaining and just act.

If I continue to make them, today, in our world, it is because our world is not a perfect one. We still need to question the way we live, the way we act, to react against disaster and violence. Film is the place for me to do it. And probably it is the place I chose because I am too cowardly to really act.


Your films are not exactly documentaries, but they do often tell a story, as in Even if She Had Been a Criminal… Can you speak more to the advantages of the narrative form?

For sure! They are and they are not documentaries, or experimental, or fiction… But for sure all of them are constructed around something close to a regular narrative structure. With introductions, breaks, chapters etc. They’re going from a beginning to an end.

For me, making film is not about answers, or to give knowledge to an audience. Making film is a way for me to try to ask a question. I always make films the about events or ideas I couldn’t understand. And to make them is a way to be, or try to be, more precise about what disturbs me about those events. To ask a good question is for sure already a way to go to the answers.

When I said that making film is a way to ask a question, I could also think about this statement in terms of grammar. How does one construct a simple sentence with words that don’t naturally match together? For me the grammatical construction of a question is closed to the way I try to construct “stories” in my film. One element after the other that, in the end, composes a complete sentence.

Moreover, my films are often closed to the experimental, they are constructed with really fast editing, there is no voice over… To keep a “classical” structure, of some kind, is a way to keep the audience within the film, even if the form of it first appears quite abstract.


What is the relationship between your films and politics – or, more generally, art and politics today? Do you view your films as “political” in the sense that they are performing politics?

I am not sure that a film could be defined as political because it performs politics. Some political films are really abstract or poetic, and some films dealing with political topics are not political themselves.

For sure, I could define my own films as political. They are all questioning the world we live in, they are some kind of reaction about what happens, even when their topics seems more historical. But they are also political because the forms I use are not classical, or televisual. I always think that being a political filmmaker means finding ways to question our world that are different than the ways commercial cinema or the TV do. To do it with a strong cinematographic point of view and to be able to share with the audience a different experience of watching the world.

But to be a political filmmaker is, for the majority of us, a bourgeois position. If we really believe that we have to change the world, we have to act and not to make films. I don’t believe in the power of cinema to change the world. It could be useful in that we still need to share common experiences and that to be all together in a screening room allows us to create a ephemeral community. But that’s all. No one will make a revolution after watching a film! Perhaps we will have real change if one day all the TVs of the world are turned off, but not after a screening in a cinema.


Aria Alamalhodaei
International House Philadelphia, April 2013