Interview about Our Defeats



How did the idea that some young people would perform scenes from classic political films and discuss them with them come about?

When I arrived in the high school, I had no idea about the film to come. I just had two kinds of vague idea in mind. First I wanted to make a film based on speeches. And I also wanted to make a film about something the students didn’t know yet. For me, to make a film is a way to go through a process of learning. To confronting myself to a topic and to events I don’t know yet, or meet people whom I will never meet nor work with in “real life”. So, when I arrived in this class, I started to show to the students documentary films in which the language was important, in which we could see and hear people talking about them, their experiences, and their difficulties…. During one of those screenings, I showed the students excerpts of French political films around May 68 in France. Everything started from there. In one hand, they were amazed to discover such films, describing the daily lives and the struggles of “workers”, but in other hand they understood nothing about the historical and the political contexts. So I thought that we could probably work from their interest for this kind of cinema and their lack of knowledge about this period. Few after, the way to construct the film pop up: they will reenact some excerpts and we will discuss later on about what their understood of May 68, of those films they reenacted and about their feelings, their understanding of the today political situation.


Your film combines an interest in current reality with an interest in the cinema of the past. And these days you've surprised us with a political cinema top for the distribution company Numax. Do you love cinema, besides working with its tools?

For sure I love cinema! For me, Cinema is first of all a place to feel. I like music for the same reason. But Cinema is also, at least for me, as audience or filmmaker, a place to think. I do not like films where everything is clear, obvious or underlined, whatever if we talk about fictions or documentaries. I like films with contradictions, lacks, and questions.


In 'Nos défaites', you visualize a generational and cultural failure: after putting other voices in the mouths of your students, you explore how they don't understand the struggles of the sixties and the language in which they were expressed, because their mental frameworks are conditioned by the enduring neo-liberal hegemony. Did you have the intuition that this was what you were going to find, or was it a discovery?

Since year, I regularly go to high school or university to show my works or do workshops. And I know from that that there is no one kind of young people, they don’t face the world, his present and future in the same way. Some are really politicized, some not at all. Some are leftist, some really conservative, even sometimes from the far right. But before “Nos Défaites”, I never spend so much time with a group of students and for sure I had more time to understand them even is hat went up this workshop really surprised me…

I spent many time with those students and I didn’t see this gap you mention before we shoot. Probably because during the workshop, we were in a situation where the dialogs were not so spontaneous. Like if I was a teacher, and them, students. Probably, only the ones who were the more confortable with the project expressed themselves; some others were probably too shy to raise the questions or the doubts they could have. Whatever… During the shooting, the first thing that really surprised me was their ability to play so perfectly in the reenactment parts. As if they clearly understood the character they interpreted. The second surprise was to discover than even after months spent together working and talking about those excerpts, about history, about politics, they still knew so few. But I also discovered during the interview that whatever their lack of political knowledge, they feel enough confortable with me to keep talking and to share their thoughts without being afraid to be judged.


Some participants make rather selfish speeches, even one of them claims that money is the only thing that matters. In the face of this, some viewers may be tempted to place themselves on a higher plane. What reading would you make as a politically active person, and perhaps also as a teacher?

For sure, one could be stopped or badly surprised by some sentences the students could have said. But I do believe that if I did such interviews with any adult, including myself, we will all have said one or two stupid things. It could even be worst for a adult as we understood when we listen those young people that they sometimes made some “mistakes” but simply because no one never learn them the vocabulary or the concepts I used in my questions to them. How to know what a trade union is if no one ever teach you what it is… So what is interesting for me is not that some of their answer could be “wrong”, or naïve, or uncomfortable. It is that the interviews are long enough to see that they are thinking in the same time they are talking, that they could change their minds or raise contradictions into their own answers. For example, you quote one of them saying that “nowadays what is the most important is money”. Just few time after saying that, he add, “even if it is complicated to do so, we should share more than we do”.


On the other hand, you include an epilogue of mobilizations. Do these boys and girls retain a muscle that does make them react when they observe an evident injustice that is close to them?

I’m not sure they were waiting for something... For me, it’s more than they were at the age when you start to become aware of the world, of what happening around you, that you could feel more concerned and sometimes politicized. In other hand, whatever the age, we know that we could talk endlessly about politic; we often start to struggle only when we feel personally concerned, when our situation, our position, is attacked or restrained. And we do know also that we become more politicized by fighting than talking. Perhaps it is not that there is a hidden or retain muscle or energy, that we are able to find new one when we experience some injustice.


And what do you think the film's aftertaste was before the inclusion of that epilogue? These final minutes move a few things in the spectator. Do you think that they can become too many, that this optimistic ending can mask a part of what we have seen previously because we tend to pay attention above all to the outcomes?

For sure, we could feel, in a way, relieved by the end of the film, as I was myself when I learn about the blockade few months after the shooting of the first part of the film.  This end could be feel as more optimistic as it shows that there is always a possibility to start a struggle whatever who we/they are. But myself, I’m not so enthusiastic about this epilog. For sure, I was quite happy to learn that all the students I worked with were participating to the blockade. But, it changes nothing to the facts that the school is no more a place where we learn teenagers to become citizens and that almost all the parents don’t do this work neither. And I’m quite uncomfortable with the idea that teenagers should face the police repression, arrests, prison, etc. to get politicized. What a harsh way to learn how this world is functioning… I am also quite uncomfortable with this idea that us, the adults, are waiting that “our” children wake up and do the work we didn’t do. We didn’t change the world, but we except the Youngers to be aware, ready to struggle, and in a way, to clean the mess we did. So for me, the epilog is positive because we saw those young students growing up but the problem is still the same: we let them alone but ask them to be as we except them to be.


In the film, you start from an era of mobilizations that became mass mobilizations. Do you think your project has a certain sadness, or a certain frustration, as the title itself suggests? The film may be overshadowed by the idea that in the past there were attempts to open up gaps, whereas now many of us have become accustomed to living in front of the Thatcherite "no alternative" wall and hardly see a crack...

I’m never was nostalgic. And I try also to not be pessimistic, even if I never was optimistic. And my films are corresponding to that. What is important for me, as a filmmaker often questioning the past, is too not fantasized it and never try to make some kind of comparisons between some past events and today. When I look to May 68 but more widely to the worldwide emancipation movements form the mid-60’s to the beginning of the 70’s, there is for sure so kind of jealousy regarding a contemporary world that seems grey to me. But in other hand, what do we keep from those times? To make it short, 68 failed. But it does not mean that 68 was inaccurate or that it is inaccurate to use it a reference. As soon as we are not naïve, we know the past will never repeat itself. But we should be able to look back and to find for ourselves what could give us energies, desires but also keys of understanding. In a way, our relation to the past should be fluid. I’m not sure neither that our present times are solidified, ideologically speaking. If we state the neoliberalism wins and that we can’t do anything against it, for sure we already failed. Everything is still moving and that’s the most important. Last years, many revolutionary movements rose up worldwide. Some even succeeded to reach some of their goals, as some Arab Springs. We could complain that any contemporary movements make really a change, but revolutions never totally did. The important thing is that they happened. What was interesting for me during the interviews of the students was that sometimes, when the students said sentences like “money is what matter the most”, or “we could change nothing”, I could feel those sentences as some kind of mantras. They said them almost automatically but sound not totally convinced by what they were saying. And when I raised some doubts with my questions, they sometimes changed their mind or add contradictions.


Implicitly, the film can also stage the defeats of political cinema, which still exists in some festivals but has no easy way of getting small spaces in commercial theatres. The fact that 'Une jeunesse allemande' didn't make it to theatres in Spain is an example of this. Would you draw an unfavorable comparison between the present and the past?

We always have the cinema fitting to the society we live in. In the 60’s and 70’s, the societies were more politicized, the “left” was more powerful, and so they were more political films and more places to see them. Since the 80’s, the political cinema is almost dead. The worst for me was we started to mishmash films with some kind of social topics with political films and that the cinema made by the bourgeois center left became prominent. More problematically, even the cinema as a form of art start to disappear. When I said “art”, I mean a cinema of darkness, poetry, chaos, liberty, etc. It sounds today only films where everything is clear could reach the audience, and that audience need or want only films they already know. Some products. For sure, we still have films from Godard or Weerasethakul and others, but they are always put on the margins of the cinema as industry and are seen almost only in festival. But as I said sooner, I’m never pessimistic. Those last years, there are more and more interesting films, including political films. Probably because we eventually reach the end of a system or a cycle. In one hand, there is less and less money for non-commercial films, and less money means more liberty, more freedom. There is less money for distribution, but some places reinvent way to share films with concerned audience. In other hands, Netflix and other TV or Internet platforms are actually buying the biggest names of the art house cinema industry and the films they produced will miss in the theater. We have no idea about what will happen in the next years, but for sure it can’t be worst than it is actually.


These relations between the present and the past of French society and cinema can be read in a nostalgic way, but you have highlighted a current film such as 'L'époque'. Do you think there is a certain cinema that has become repoliticized and that doesn't work with the forms of commercial political fiction of authors such as Costa-Gavras or Ken Loach? Could you highlight any work or other authors for us?

It is important to remind that in this genre we call “political cinema”, there are not so much feature films, very few are released in cinema, and so it is still “invisible” in a way. But, at least in France, they are more and more young filmmakers working and making such so-called “political films”. They produced them most of the time outside the cinema industry, and use Internet to share them with the audience. For example, many very good short and feature documentaries about the Yellow Jackets movement were done and straight after were available online. I’m sure in few months, we will discovered a new radical American cinema coming from Black Lives Matter… Anyway, to answer more strictly to your question, into the last films I saw, I really like “Un soir” by Guillaume Chevallier, a short documentary very critical and funny, the works of Thibault Jacquin following the last social movements in France or the amazing “De cendres et de braises” by Manon Ott that was released in French cinema last autumn. What I like in those works, ad in “L’époque” is that they are amazing films in terms of filmmaking. A political film is not a film about politics, it is a film where the form and the content are political.


What differences do you see between the films of Gavras and Loach and the political films more or less welcomed by the industry of 'Tout va bien' or 'Zabriskie Point'?

That’s a really complicated question! Perhaps one of the answers is linked to the personality of those filmmakers, or more precisely to their position into the industry. Loach and Gavras sound for me to be “classical” filmmakers. They make films that are not really interesting in terms of forms. In a way, they are storytellers. Godard and Antonioni are more cinematographer, to not say “artist”. Whatever the ways they produced their films, they did what they wanted to do. And at a certain point, it simply became impossible for them to make films with such big companies. On the contrary, I don’t think Gavras or Loach could make films without important budgets. I even don’t think they could understand why making films without such budget. They do what “their” audiences expect, they never take risks. In a way, they are the “leftist” quotas of the industry, and as soon as, the money is coming back to the producers, there is no problem.  To go further, they are even very helpful because each of their films are released in so much theaters, they are distributed so widely than they “kill” the others films with political contents. Whatever we could thing of the last films of Godard and of the last films of Loach, it sounds awkward that in France a Godard is played in one or two theaters and Loach in 2 or 3 hundreds at minima, from the art house one to the multiplex.


And are you interested in current genre films that wink at social and political issues, titles such as 'Get out' or 'The Purge'? Do you think that working from within the codes of genre cinema and from within the entertainment industry can produce interesting results on a political level?

Another complicated question! Previously, we mainly talk about European cinema, but for sure, the frame of the north-American cinema is far different. The hollywoodian industry always has this ability to not destroy its margins. I don’t know, they probably want to keep some kind of laboratory where you could test new forms, new filmmakers, new topics, before picking up and integrate what seems to please the audience. And so, regularly, we could see some really intriguing films as the ones you quote. I found “Get Out” more expected but the series of “The Purge” is really unusual. The films are politically so aggressive... We could also name “V for Vendetta” or even “the Dark Night” by Nolan. But whatever the positives aspects of such films or the doubts we could have when we think they were produced into the worst rightist industry, I’m not sure we could think in terms of political results. I simply don’t believe films could have political concrete results. I’m not talking of the possibilities to act within the frame of the filmmaking itself, but only to fact to share films with audience. We need films, we need political films, but do they have any kind of results, I doubt about it. Perhaps talks and exchanges with audiences, educational programs with films, diffusion of films is places like jail or schools, etc. could be seen as “active”, but films themselves, I don’t think so.


Ignasi Franch
El Salto Diaro
July 2020