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Photography is the metaphor and the medium in fine films from Jean Luc-Godard and Zana Briski

Eye and thou 

Photography is the metaphor and the medium in fine films from Jean Luc-Godard and Zana Briski

For the first time in years, if not decades, a Jean-Luc Godard film is getting a theatrical engagement in the Triangle. Godard has been making movies for 50 years, and for all I know, he's got another decade or two left in him. But Notre Musique (Our Music) represents one of his loveliest, most reflective and (mildly) optimistic films in years. Everyone who cares about movies, history and human consciousness should see it. Everyone should see it. By now, it's clear that Godard's cinematic corpus represents the work of a singular, sui generis philosopher of images. Many philosophers, from Walter Benjamin to Marshall McLuhan to Susan Sontag, have attempted to write about the power and meaning of the mechanically reproduced image in the modern world, but Godard, as a filmmaker, has the best tools for the job.

Notre Musique is a seamless and unselfconscious melange of essay, documentary and fiction, and Godard, who typically divides things into twos, structures this film into three parts: "Hell," "Purgatory," and "Heaven." The film begins in Hell, and it's a disquieting, 10 minute montage of 20th century barbarism--horrific images unspooling to minor-key piano chords. Most of the images are documentary, but Godard also includes images from violent fiction movies. He sees little distinction between fiction and non-fiction; For him, all moving images are documentary images. And the sound, too, tells its own story. Over the image of a distraught woman pleading with a soldier, a female narrator recites a portion of the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our sins..."

The greatest part of the film is set, however, in Purgatory. More specifically, the scene is Sarajevo in the early 21st century where a literary conference is getting underway. Godard has been invited to speak, along with other luminaries like Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who also appears in the film. As Godard and company drive in from the airport, they look quietly at the bombed out buildings, evidence of the hell from which Sarajevo is slowly emerging. "When you kill a man to defend an idea, you're not defending an idea. You're just killing a man," a passenger comments.

One of Godard's oldest and most famous aphorisms is that a good movie only requires a girl and a gun. And, true to form, he has just those in Notre Musique. The opening Hell episode is all about firearms and the carnage they bring, and in Purgatory not one but two bright and inquisitive young women show up as converse characters. Not for the first time in Godard's late work the women function as Cordelias to his Lear. Here named Judith and Olga, both are Jewish journalists; Judith is Israeli of French origin while Olga is French of Russian origin. Judith has come to Sarajevo "to find a place where reconciliation is possible." A left-leaning Israeli from Tel Aviv, she's hoping to interview the French ambassador in Sarajevo about his role saving Jews from the Gestapo in 1943. Olga, on the other hand, is a pessimist who is contemplating suicide. The lingering ruins of Sarajevo give her no cause for optimism, and she tells a character she prefers death to life, "because death doesn't exist."

As always with Godard, the sheer quantity of koans and arguments can be overwhelming. But over and over again, two important themes are explored. One is the power or impotence of art to confront human evil. And the other is what Hamlet called the "mighty opposites": fiction and non-fiction, light and darkness, Croat and Muslim, Muslim and Jew, being and not being. In his lecture before a small group of students, Godard illustrates the point by holding up reverse angle stills from Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday. "They look the same, but the director can't tell the difference between a man and a woman," he says enigmatically. "It's worse when the two things are alike." And he holds up two pictures: one of Jews coming ashore in Palestine in 1948, and one of Palestinians going out to sea in 1948.

And where can the twain meet, the two halves, the two perceptions, the two realities? How can the antitheses of shot and countershot be reconciled? Godard finds hope in the ongoing reconstruction of the Mostar Bridge in Sarajevo, and the symbolic and literal utility in reuniting Christians and Muslims.

Although Notre Musique has its moments of opacity, it's nonetheless a stirring meditation on what it means to even attempt to be human in the face of a world that disappoints us over and over again. There's none of the facile and strangely naive anti-American posturing and plain crankiness that have marred his recent work. Instead, Godard gives the impression of a man who, like Lear, has outlived his time, to his and our surprise. But unlike Lear, he can still see, and he's making the most of every moment he's got left.

Two weekends ago Zana Briski and her directing partner Ross Kauffman captured the Oscar for Best Documentary for their film Born into Brothels, which also won a share of the Audience Award at last year's Full Frame fest. It was an odd sight to see Briski accept the gold statuette in a yellow dress with a plunging neckline, given that she earned the award by spending years toiling in one of the world's most miserable places: the red light district of Calcutta. But the juxtaposition is a fitting one, because Born into Brothels, as gripping, heartbreaking and deservedly honored as it is, is finally shot through with the cruelties and contradictions of the global village.

Briski, a trained photojournalist with a master's degree in theology, headed to India in 1995 to work on a project about female infanticide and returned two years later to document the sex trade of Calcutta, where approximately 7,000 women and girls sell their bodies in utterly ghastly conditions. Briski soon became entranced by the children of the prostitutes, kids left largely to their own devices by their overburdened, defeated mothers and frequently absent or abusive fathers. In 1998, Briski began teaching photography to a small group of particularly motivated children, and the progress of this small and heroic rescue project forms the basis of Born into Brothels.

Born into Brothels opens with long tracking shots through the dark and narrow streets of the Calcutta slums, with prostitutes lurking in every doorway. Then we see a shot of rats nibbling away in a gutter, the first instance of what will become a recurrent bestial motif in the film. But Born into Brothels is no lurid 60 Minutes expose. Briski's real interest is in the kids who are very much like kids everywhere: rambunctious, shy, petulant, teasing and inquisitive. Among others, there's thoughtful and gentlemanly Gour, sprightly and sassy Puja, sweet and shy Kochi and exceptionally talented but unruly Avijit. And all of them have wonderful and haunting pictures on display throughout the film (and online: www.kids-with-cameras.org ).

That their personalities can remain upbeat is remarkable, for we meet them in horrifying conditions, with the ravaged adults around them being their role models and their future. Suchitra, 14, is in imminent danger of being forced into prostitution. Ten-year-old Kochi gets up before dawn to make the rounds with her cleaning lady grandmother. Avijit's mother is killed by her pimp midway through the film, and his father is a hopeless hash casualty. ("I try to love him a little," the son confides.)

There's no such thing as journalistic neutrality here; Briski freely and unhesitatingly intervenes in the children's lives and much of the film is given over to her battles with India's social welfare network. Although Indian services are surely overburdened, the brothel kids are the last to get help because their parents are criminals. There are some success stories, including Avijit's selection to attend a world photo conference in Holland (and Briski chases paper from agency to agency so that he can get a passport in time).

Briski is using the attention she's received for Brothels to set up permanent institutions for the children of Calcutta. In the film, we see the kids getting attention from the Indian media and their prints on display in a posh gallery. But global poverty, despite being documented better than ever (you too, can help them with a few clicks of the mouse: their prints are on sale for $250-$500), is no closer to going away, however virtuous we may feel after watching films like Born into Brothels. The kids in Briski's film are, thanks to her heroic efforts, the fortunate ones. But billions continue to flounder in a vast ocean of poverty, and it seems that their only hope is to be plucked out, one at a time, by wealthy and concerned people from the other side of the global village.

  • Photography is the metaphor and the medium in fine films from Jean Luc-Godard and Zana Briski

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