• GNCR Award


Vincent Meessen

In Just a Mouvement, Vincent Meessen continues to explore the reverse angles and off-camera scenes of political imaginaries and western narratives he examined in Un. Deux. Trois. (2015), which offered a new angle on the Situationist International mythology as seen from Kinshasa. This time, the pivot is Jean- Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, shot in Paris in 1967 and starring Anne Wiazemski as a student and Jean-Pierre Léaud as an actor, but also, during a lecture on “Perspectives of the European Left”, featuring Omar Blondin Diop, a young, militant philosophy student, unknown in film circles. Shooting in Dakar, Meessen chooses to scatter the perspectives, conducting an investigation enriched by the memories and insights of friends and relatives, filmed to create an impression of timelessness, and gradually revealing Omar, now a key figure. In a play of mirrors and ellipses, Meessen also brings in images, eras and schools of thought from the militant Maoism of 1960s Paris and Dakar, as well as showing today’s large Chinese community living in Senegal. He creates a fertile dialogue between La Chinoise and present-day Senegal, where contemporary images resonate with sounds from Godard’s film and vice versa, sometimes using its intertitles, or interweaving a shot, or even a sequence, such as the one on the train where Felwine Sarr’s thoughts replace those of Francis Jeanson. We’re reminded of La Chinoise’ famous aphorism that “it is necessary to confront vague ideas with clear images” – and here, it’s not through a just movement, as a Senegalese Shaolin master says, but just a movement, again echoing Godard in Wind From the East. Through consummate skill in the editing and unfolding narratives, teeming with borrowings and condensed indirect commentary, the film achieves a real shift of perspective.

(Nicolas Feodoroff)

Interview with Vincent Meessen

<strong>For several years now, your work has involved what could be called counter-investigations that explore the reverse angles of Western narratives, especially in Africa. One.Two.Three (2015), for example, examined the Internationale Situationniste’s connection with Congolese students from Kinshasa’s perspective. More recently, Ultramarine (FID 2019) laid out the intersecting issues – material, musical and colonial – of the colour blue, based on regional museum collections and a spoken word performance by the founder of the Last Poets. What aroused your interest in the figure of Omar Blondin Diop, who made a brief but striking appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise? </strong>

What these three cinematic projects have in common is the way we think of and apply the legacy of the May ’68 uprisings. On the one hand, it’s about understanding the political motivations at the time and on the other, reformulating the proposals to maintain the requirements of justice, of democratic inadvertence. Ultramarine tried to reconnect with Gylan Kain in his European exile; Kain, despite his withdrawal and perhaps erasure from history, remains one of the most inspired and determined African-American poets of May ‘68 in New York. I first began to take an interest in Omar Blondin Diop when I saw a photo of him taken in 1969 in Dakar as he was reading the latest issue of the Internationale Situationniste review. It was in 2014, while I was working on the relations between the IS and the decolonisation movements in the Congo. I found out that in 2013, Blondin Diop’s family asked for the investigation to be reopened into the exact circumstances of his death in Gorée Prison in 1973 – forty years later! Some of the testimonies from friends and family during a commemoration convinced me that a dual task of memory and updating needed to be undertaken in Dakar. Obviously, Godard’s images made it possible to embed the work of memory into a form of cinematic dialogue that would perhaps produce an essay of a new kind.

<strong>You conducted an investigation and met a lot of direct witnesses. You develop a strong shooting bias when you film them in profile in the dark. Can you explain this choice? </strong>

These choices arise from the delicate dialogue woven with La Chinoise. Godard talks of documentary as something « touching and a bit ridiculous ». Originally, however, he envisaged a documentary approach to the Movement of 22nd March in Nanterre, which denied him the right to film them. In the end, he invited Omar to play himself as a militant Marxist. What’s more, we see at the start of my film some previously unpublished footage of Godard talking about what he was looking for: a black man teaching a lesson to white people. In La Chinoise, the actors are often filmed facing the camera. The choices of colours and their brilliance are faithful to the Godard approaches of the time. In contrast, the colorimetry of Just A Movement is « faded ». The film shows witnesses caught in the night of history but whose words still reach us. The address spirals, not facing the camera. I am not so much looking for a primary origin as to circumscribe a state of affairs in the present: the camera revolves round the witnesses like driving round a roundabout, where a poet criticises the revolution-as-spectacle, round Gorée Prison where Omar lost his life and which a young Chinese woman visits, around the Museum of Black Civilisations during its inauguration by the Chinese vice-president. The spiral is a metaphor for history, and because cinema created modernity, we could say that the spiral is the ideal shape to re-connect an updated and less forthright relationship to the question of testimony, to relationships between memory, history and justice.
Your film echoes today’s situation, with a lot of political tension in Dakar where the opposition is under pressure. How was your film received there?</strong>

The movie’s première had to be postponed because the police had fired teargas into the Cheik Anta Diop University courtyard where the screening had been planned. Malal Talla, one of the actors, couldn’t come because he was supporting one of his comrades from M2D (Movement for the Defence of Democracy) arrested on the day of the première. The rest of the screenings on other campuses enabled us to verify the intergenerational power of this film in today’s context. It’s not only the story of past history but a film that tries to examine the need to update the terms of the democratic struggle, and therefore also to continue the struggle through film.
In the footage used, there are a number of extracts from La Chinoise that you have organically incorporated into your film. How did that come about? </strong>

I wanted to radicalise JLG’s message when he announces « A film being made ». I devised three versions of different lengths depending on the economy, which forces me to raise funds progressively and from various sources – contemporary art, cinema and television. As I was working on these versions, I soon realised that as well as the sequence with Omar, I’d need to use other sequences to be able to create this intertwining between La Chinoise and its free-style remake. But the project was obviously a two-pronged affair right from the start: on the one hand to compose a portrait of Omar Blondin Diop in his absence and on the other, to encourage a discussion about film’s capacity to potentiate history, rather than fabricate it, as historians do, as a past to objectify.

<strong> Godard’s film serves as a fulcrum and also a critical space in the present. In particular, you’ve chosen to “replay” some of the scenes. Why? </strong>

Two of Godard’s scenes have been re-dramatised, the ones where the “documentary” characters play themselves on screen: the scene with Omar, the militant Maoist teaching a lesson to his apprentice revolutionary comrades, and the scene with the philosopher and militant anti-colonial Francis Jeanson discussing resorting to violence in politics with one of his students at Nanterre, Anne Wiazemsky, who plays the role of Véronique, the revolutionary student in La Chinoise. In Just A Movement, other characters play themselves: Awa Ly, a professor at the Institut Confucius in Dakar, gives a lesson in film in Mandarin – some people will spot the allusions to Rancière – and Felwine Sarr, an economist and essayist, in conversation with Malal Talla aka Fou Malade, artist rapper and militant from the protest movement Y’en a marre. These are two moments through which we change track, between the past and present and vice versa, where the sense of history shifts. A difference arises from the repetition because of movement, because of cinema.
There’s also movement from one era to another, between La Chinoise of yesterday and its Maoists and the presence of Chinese officials today. Why?</strong>

It’s one of the balances of power in the film. It examines the investment of roles, our projections onto other places, the terms in which trans-cultures are deployed and expressed in new ways. Today’s fascination with China lies, so to speak, at opposite poles to yesterday’s. Europe’s provincialisation is tangible and observable. If some people in Europe still need convincing, the Chinese declarations last month during the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party leave absolutely no doubt about its imperialist intentions. The final sequence between Felwine Sarr and Malal Talla calls into question the terms and issues of the Chinese-Senegalese relationship, which is more complex and deliberate than it appears.

<strong> The film is made in Dakar and also, it could be said, “from” Dakar, and the city is very present on screen. What made this necessary?</strong>

In Dakar, Omar is a bit of an urban legend, and some of the younger militants only know the image and the name, but little more. The first necessity was for informed and local transmission. The second is to do with a subjectivity that’s also the product of a trans-culture shaped between Dakar and Paris. Not only did Omar spend most of his life in Paris but almost all the witnesses who speak are university products of this French-Senegalese history, while the actors who play themselves are either from Dakar or they trained between Senegal and China. And lastly, my family lived in Dakar, and the footage of the city was filmed by my grandfather in the mid-sixties.

<strong> On several occasions, we see signs in the city like crossings-out. Why?</strong>

These advertising spaces are painted over by the advertising agencies themselves once the advertisers’ time has run out. Dozens of abstract, ghostly and inadvertent paintings then poke fun at commercial advertising. They literally strike through the city of Dakar. They’re both the traces of and potential projector screens. These latent or future images echo the dazibao – protest posters, propaganda and painted slogans – during the Cultural Revolution in China and their importation to Dakar, especially when Omar died.

Interview by Nicolas Feodoroff

  • GNCR Award

Technical sheet

Belgium / 2021 / 110’

Original Version : Chinese, French, Wolof.
Subtitles : English, French.
Script : Vincent Meessen.
Photography : Vincent Pinckaers.
Editing : Simon Arazi.
Sound : Laszlo Umbreit.
Production : Geneviève de Bauw (Thank You & Good Night productions), Olivier Marboeuf (Spectre).
Filmography : Quelle que soit la longueur de la nuit, 2020. Ultramarine, 2018. One.Two.Three, 2015. Clinamen Cinema, 2013. Vita Nova, 2009.