From Documentary to Fiction and Back


"In spite of by now common knowledge that representation is opaque, the mode of documentary still rests on the assumption of a direct, transparent relationship between representation and event."

From Documentary to Fiction and Back


Beginning with Documentary
In 2002 we encountered a situation that demanded action – cinematographic action, that is. The neighbour of one of us, an undocumented immigrant in France, suddenly found himself being treated unfairly by such an anonymous power as juridical bureaucracy. He didn’t know where to turn. It all got sorted, but while it was happening, a bunch of friends tried to find solutions to an impossible situation. We decided the best thing we could do was bear witness. We got together to film both the frustrating and anxiety-raising situation and the festive aftermath, when it had all been resolved. Five of us, all more or less beginners in the documentary-making trade, formed a collective we called Cinema Suitcase – an appropriate name since the topic of this first film was what we came to call “migratory culture.”

We set out to make a documentary based on the culmination of a story full of trauma and shock, the memories of which impinged on the joyful outcome: the wedding celebration. But how do you document the inner truths of memory, where memory is notoriously the biggest liar of all? The first thing we ran up against was the question of narrative voice. From our perspective, the film was so closely situated in inseparably overlapping cultures that it seemed impossible to “give” it a single voice – to attribute, implicitly or explicitly, the narrative to a single speaker. Instead, the story asked to be multi-voiced. Yet, for potential viewers it was precisely that situatedness and the resulting intermediation that might be perceived as a lack of clarity, political or otherwise. In this article we develop, first, our concept of documentary as a tool to address migratory culture. From there we move to the way we have deployed fiction, also in an unorthodox manner. Finally, we will each briefly talk about our current projects.

Intimacy to Revise Documentary
In spite of by now common knowledge that representation is opaque, the mode of documentary still rests on the assumption of a direct, transparent relationship between representation and event. An ethics of truthfulness takes hold, and any evidence of deception tends to be resented, and often occasions small or big scandals. In this line, our film is truthful; it does not contain lies. But the very familiarity of narrative renders events familiar, thus lessening their affective impact. In this sense, our film MILLE ET UN JOURS (A Thousand and One Days) is not documentary, at least not a classical one, for while it does not lie1, neither does it narrate. The form of linear narrative seemed unsuitable for a story composed of the bits and pieces, the fragmentary strands that constitute memories.

Launch Project


MILLE ET UN JOURS (2004) celebrates the outcome of an intricate journey of the anguish, struggle, loneliness and financial constraints of Tarek (27), a “sans papiers” in Paris. His wedding is the here-and-now of a film organized through an Aristotelian unity of time, space and event. As if bound by elastic ties to the present of the festive moment in which the film is anchored, the characters descend into memories of fear and uncertainty, to bounce back again and rejoice in the outcome. Like the Arabic tales the film’s title references, the film organizes stories around a wedding. Through a great intimacy with characters we witness how four generations of Tunisian immigrants give shape, each in their own way, to dealing with the different opportunities and hardships of migration. Tarek’s obsession with time’s speed is cast against the shadow of his father’s earlier failure to cope with capitalist time. Rife with bureaucratic violence but also with the characters’ vitality, determination, and intelligence in outsmarting “the system,” the film’s content and aesthetics mix the contrasting tones of tragedy and comedy, fear and celebration. Instead of narrating, the film presents all these aspects in small scenes, visual motives, and bits and pieces of dialogue. No narratorial voice binds these elements together.

Tarek glances at his watch, MILLE ET UN JOURs, Cinema Suitcase, 2004.

A second sense in which the model of the documentary seemed less straightforwardly suitable for this film, was the absence of a clear, unambiguous political position. There is no one-issue on which, or one-position from which the story is being told. There is no loud-and-clear indictment of the French police, for example, even though the filming is clearly on the side of the principal characters and their family. This is not because we wished to make an a-political film. On the contrary, this paradox, in fact, is the film’s political thrust. In a situation where ambiguity and tension is more “normal” than what we like to think of as an obvious opposition of right and wrong, and where those values are contingent upon the power of who is speaking, a de-fetishization of right-and-wrong decisions seemed in order.

The film is and is not a documentary in yet another sense, that of the characters who are also the narrators of their own stories. The characters you see in the film are “being themselves.” This is as it is expected for a documentary. But, like everyone else’s, their lives are complex and irreducible to a single preoccupation. Even where the success or failure of an illegal immigrant to become legal through marriage is, for him, an obsession, perhaps even a matter of life and death, the hassles and joys of the everyday do not order themselves neatly according to a narrative structure that distinguishes foreground from background and main events from fillers. As a result, the many strands of stories that are interwoven show lives in a way whose very truthfulness goes against the grain of the documentary tradition.

Multiple viewpoints through self narration of their own stories.
MILLE ET UN JOURS, Cinema Suitcase, 2004

These issues combined came up around the police intervention lying at the heart of the story. This intervention was both extremely modest, in that no physical violence was used, and extremely hurtful, in that it violated the safety of the domestic sphere, it set up trusting people against one another, it nearly ruined both the marriage and the groom’s ticket to legal residency, and it scared the daylight out of a young boy who was home alone when the police came to search the apartment. At the same time, no one was beaten up and no one was put in jail (although they tried hard). In fact, the police’s powerlessness to act, due to their lack of insight into the culture they were assaulting, is pathetic and even, at times, comical. For these reasons combined we refrained from interviewing the police.

This does not mean that there is no voice in this film, but only that there are many: no one has the last word on any of the story lines. Those who experienced the events first-hand are the narrators of their own stories. The people you see in the film are not only “being themselves,” but also “speaking themselves,” and, to a certain extent, “playing themselves.” But, like everyone else’s lives, theirs are complex and not reducible to a single preoccupation. As a result, the many strands of stories that are interwoven here show lives in a way whose very truthfulness must go against the grain of traditional documentary.

To give one example, the anxiety in our main character Tarek’s constant preoccupation with time is just something that accompanies him, but is surely not a topic for his conscious pondering. Yet, as he goes about the everyday business of getting an education, earning a living, renovating his future home and participating in a culture of gift and exchange, time is constantly “on his mind.” It is a factor that is almost personified into an enemy in his struggle to get his apartment ready for his bride. It is also a personal and cultural legacy tied to the memory of – and relationship to – his father, who did not manage to pre-empt time’s passing because he was chained to hourly wages that barely fed him and that foreclosed the opportunity of saving for his return home. So, how can we “tell” this relationship to time?

Two stills from MILLE ET UN JOURS
Cinema Suitcase, 2004

Time is not a theme in the film because it would be falsifying the lived reality of the characters to theorize it. Yet, it is perhaps the most present element, constantly if laterally evoked in Tarek’s comments, and visualized by his frequent looks at his watch, his gestures of despair over his lack of control, and even his haggard face, hollowed cheeks and frantic eyes, a face that has changed dramatically due to exhaustion during the weeks preceding the wedding. This difference is visible in the close-ups of his face, from the earlier moment of the police intervention and the civil marriage to the later images where he looks either ill or years older. Between Tarek and his father’s past failure, post-colonial time struggles with colonial time. Explaining this in any voice, including Tarek’s own, would betray the lived reality of this temporal discrepancy. Yet, migratory aesthetics requires that these “accents” be made visible, since time is the topos where the two cultures intersect most acutely.

It is here that the idea of “migratory aesthetics” comes in. If a film modelled according to such an aesthetic is to avoid an exteriorized, even eroticized othering, a constant negotiation between outside and inside perspectives is needed. This negotiation can be seen as an exchange between the two perspectives, rather like the exchange so prominent in the gift culture we are looking at and involved with. In terms of narration, the exchange between the perspectives of the filmmakers and that of the people in front of their camera embodies such a gift culture as it has insinuated itself in the host culture.

Cinematic form, thus, espouses the hybrid situation aesthetically. One aspect that the concept of migratory aesthetics clarifies is the unusual intimacy of the film, which encompasses the filmmakers themselves, addressed and evoked discretely but persistently as part of the party. There is indeed a consistent situating of the filming inside the ambiance of the group of people concerned. The intimacy also plays itself out in the closeness of filming, even where such closeness seems hard to achieve. At the height of the celebration, for example, the camera is inside a close group of dancers.2

This intimacy is not a simple expression of sympathy and political partiality. Instead, it is deeply connected to the “messiness,” the attempt to convey the sense of multiplicity beyond singular narrative strands. The intimacy in the mode of filming and editing might wrongly suggest that our lack of narratorial intervention entails total endorsement of the political positions that are represented. In fact, the way the film has locked itself inside the group serves another purpose. It is from the inside that it becomes possible to bear witness to what we call, for lack of a better term, the “hybridity-within” that characterizes migrant situations. The outside world comes inside the home, the family life, and installs itself there. And if intimacy is the primary tool to achieve this, then our vision turns out quite optimistic.3  

This ensemble of features of our first film has remained a guideline throughout documentary works. Thus, in these films and installations, we pursue a philosophy of combining modesty, intimacy, and respect for silences. This results in a style of which the principal features are the following: Self-narration of the participants (usually called “subjects”) Collective editing, by the makers and the participants, who get to see drafts No voice-over; only what people themselves wish to disclose is spoken in the films Only set sound; no added music No chronology but associative connections

Below is one example of how this works in the especially vulnerable situation where the main character is a child.

The Child Who Intimates

In 2006 we were introduced to Vera Loumpet-Galitzine, whose very being posed a challenge to our mode of filmmaking. At just three years of age, our work with her and her family occurred during the course of a year. Living in Paris, Vera’s heritage, like many children in the world today, is mixed and thus enriched by her collective cultures: Her mother Alexandra (of Russian descent and French nationality) discussed her family’s connection to the Russian nobility and their lost fortunes during the revolution of 1918. Vera’s father Germain Loumpet also has noble ancestry, as Prince of the Bamun, in Cameroon. As his first born, Vera is Ngi Mongu, a recognised princess amongst Cameroonians, and yet in essence a young Parisian girl finding herself in the world.

Our privilege was being given access into the fantasy world of a young child who at times entreated us as confidants, whispering a mix of her reality and her fictions to the camera as they came to her. We watched Vera almost with envy as she showed us how effortlessly she was able to weave between her own fiction and documentary modes. As our primary interlocutor in the film she sings and dances her way through the complexities of sites she visited, cultures she encountered and family histories and identities that her parents attempted to introduce her to. We travelled to Cameroon, Russia and France, and instead of telling a chronological story, we hop around from moment to moment where Vera’s playing becomes learning as a means to becoming Vera. In keeping with our style, Vera holds the story, and tells it through a stream of reflections and actions that respond to the world around her. In addition, her family explain things, again mitigating the authoritative outside voice-over.

Returning to the idea of intimacy, in its use as a transitive verb: in·ti·mat·ed, in·ti·mat·ing, our child who in·ti·mates does so by stating or expressing indirectly the somewhat direct markers of an adult world that she inevitably processes upon encountering them. An example here would be her father’s proud comment about Vera being “good,” for waiting patiently during a lengthy ritual in his home village of Fumban. The Elders consider it to be her ritual occupation by the ancestors’ spirits, and Vera indeed sits still for hours while the women and men of her father’s people dance around her. This was quite astonishing and moving indeed. But just when the images suggest a small girl made the object of an incomprehensible ritual, her self-absorbed face suddenly lights up in a smile to someone outside the frame. Clearly, she is both “inside” the situation and distanced from it when it suits her, thus exceeding the ethnographic situation that held her captive.

Our privilege was being given access into the fantasy world of a young child who at times entreated us as confidants, whispering a mix of her reality and her fictions to the camera as they came to her. We watched Vera almost with envy as she showed us how effortlessly she was able to weave between her own fiction and documentary modes. As our primary interlocutor in the film she sings and dances her way through the complexities of sites she visited, cultures she encountered and family histories and identities that her parents attempted to introduce her to. We travelled to Cameroon, Russia and France, and instead of telling a chronological story, we hop around from moment to moment where Vera’s playing becomes learning as a means to becoming Vera. In keeping with our style, Vera holds the story, and tells it through a stream of reflections and actions that respond to the world around her. In addition, her family explain things, again mitigating the authoritative outside voice-over.4

Returning to the idea of intimacy, in its use as a transitive verb: in·ti·mat·ed, in·ti·mat·ing, our child who in·ti·mates does so by stating or expressing indirectly the somewhat direct markers of an adult world that she inevitably processes upon encountering them. An example here would be her father’s proud comment about Vera being “good,” for waiting patiently during a lengthy ritual in his home village of Fumban. The Elders consider it to be her ritual occupation by the ancestors’ spirits, and Vera indeed sits still for hours while the women and men of her father’s people dance around her. This was quite astonishing and moving indeed. But just when the images suggest a small girl made the object of an incomprehensible ritual, her self-absorbed face suddenly lights up in a smile to someone outside the frame. Clearly, she is both “inside” the situation and distanced from it when it suits her, thus exceeding the ethnographic situation that held her captive.

Vera waits patiently, BECOMING VERA, Bal, Cinema Suitcase, 2007

his ethnographic moment was not what we sought to capture in this film. Instead, it was the way identities cannot be taken wholesale – neither whole nor unified. The older view of identity would inevitably lead to a view of Vera’s identity as “fragmented” or, as the American discourse used to have it, “hyphenated.” She would be French-Cameroonian, for example. After this moment we decided to try and make a film, with our simple cameras and total lack of budget. For this project, her mother, also an anthropologist and art historian, took Vera to Russia for the first time, to encounter her side of where she comes from. In Russia, in Moscow and surroundings, she visited the estates of her mother’s ancestors, who were exiled during the revolution. Here, Vera runs around in the setting of historical socialites described and sometimes mocked by Pushkin, where strict social rules determined gendered lives. A hospital, a railway station, a town, and a palace, all called after her mother’s name, cannot but astonish the little girl. Thus, as in Fumban, along with the cultural identity, it is her class identity that is mirrored to her. And this, to put it bluntly, is as much in tension with her everyday situation in Paris as is her status as oldest daughter of the Ngi in Bamun. Her Frenchness is bound to a class “normality” from which the two other aspects of her background set her apart.

Clearly, for Vera these visually engaging landscapes seem easily integrated into her rich fantasy world. Equally clearly, and in contrast to the vision of the Elders in Fumban, she takes bits of her being into her own hands. With the fickle freedom afforded to one so young, Vera enjoys dancing to music during celebrations and then resists speaking Cameroonian the next. In Russia, she looks at paintings and sculptures in the stately homes her mother shows her, but onto these pieces of fiction she projects her imagined stories. These, in turn, are clearly influenced by her cultural surroundings. For example, as if practicing the teaching of African-American artist Fred Wilson, in a painting of Cleopatra she points out the black man in the background.

During this project, we discovered the strange chance encounter between Vera and Russia’s founding poet, Pushkin. The most amusing embodiment of this encounter in Becoming Vera is the little girl’s response to Pushkin’s bust in “Viaziomy”, now the Pushkin museum. The bust is bright white, while the portrait has exaggerated African features. Vera is not fooled by the colour of the marble. Pointing to her own hair, then to the bust, she suggests that, unlike hers, Pushkin’s hair hasn’t yet been done according to her own recently acquired stylish bunches. She identifies enough with the white marble figure to compare notes on their hairdo. Incidentally, this awareness of her hair – a recurring albeit subliminal motive in the film – entails not only an awareness of her African roots but also of her femininity, as well as of her age – growing up, “becoming” Vera.5

Vera alongside the bust of Pushkin, BECOMING VERA, Cinema Suitcase, 2007

Creating a space of possibility outside the frame (of the film, and of the cultural citizenship imposed on her) is what Vera does most typically through her address to creatures of her choice and creation. These juxtapositions provide Vera’s story with historical density and trans-national opacity. Seeing phantoms amongst the tombstones in Paris where Alexandra’s father, Vera’s maternal grandfather is buried, takes on additional significance. Vera beckons to the camera to follow her, because she spots “a phantom hiding.” But how seriously does she believe in it? Our camera follows to try to keep up with what she sees. Of course we could never fully know, yet we constantly questioned her position as interlocutor. What does she see, think or imagine? This is what she says, to the person holding the camera, and to the camera itself as mirror:

“Where did he pass? I have seen him!” “I see him, right behind the poppies” “a big phantom!” “He is very white” “and he comes from Paris…”

“…and I was scared and I hid near my mum on her back…”

“I was going to sleep and then I heard him …” ‘How do you do?’ but he said -‘I am going to eat you!’ “and I quickly hid on my mum’s back”

3 stills from BECOMING VERA, in which Vera explains her encounter with a phantom.

Clearly, Vera is not frightened, even if the impolite phantom answers her polite welcome with a threat to eat her. Reality intervenes again. The phantom comes from Paris and is “very white.” Politely she asked the phantom how he was doing, but sadly, her friendly good manners were answered with a deadly threat. Vera, here, is master of her story.

Vera shows that the imagination is only productive when kept firmly bounded to reality, as well as vice versa. Her canny look at the camera places her somewhere between actress and poet. The intimacy with the camera operator and the swift shifts in roles she performs demonstrate that her identity is neither whole nor unified, and this would, we presume, reflect on her cultural citizenship. This canny look in the camera and the story-telling tone mixed with real excitement demonstrate that she is very well aware that she is making this up and, in the process, claiming superior knowledge over the operator who is being informed.

Vera is an impressively creative person; she turns all her experiences into a fantasy. At the end of the film, in her conversation with the imaginary bandits, she becomes a writer of sorts creating a trialogue during a phone conversation with thin air:

VERA: (to the unseen bandits) bandits, what’s come over you? I tell you to stop it! ALEXANDRA: to whom are you speaking? VERA: (to Alexandra) I’m talking to the two gentlemen (to the bandits) yes yes but … (to the others in the room) when I am on the phone one doesn’t make noise! (to the bandits) yes, I’m fine … but what are you doing … near Buka’s street? … no, we are NOT in Paris … we are in Moscow! … no, not at all! … no, we are not in Fumban … after this we go to Paris

In this stunning play with fantasy, reality – specifically, the components of her multi-national background – becomes an ingredient for the imagination. And importantly, the addressee is the anchor of both domains. The international figures of bandits, obviously, enter Vera’s imagination from reading and television. But in shifting addressees, Vera also changes her discourses, with a fine sense of what is becoming in a certain situation. The “yes I’m fine” is a learned phrase of politeness. The bossy request for silence is a case of role-playing. But it also shows that she is not simply absorbed in her imaginary world.6

The extent to which reality is an ingredient for fantasy is clear when Vera mentions in this conversation the three place names between which her life evolves: Paris, Moscow and Fumban. She knows very well where she is, and where she goes next. Yet, Buka’s street – which is in Paris – has been absorbed into her Moscow time, because, we speculate, Buka belongs to the Moscow side of her cultural experience. Vera knows she is fantasizing and does so with gusto. This savvy insight gives her the mastery over reality that warrants her commanding tone to the people around her. It also prevents her cultural citizenship from overruling her and becoming a rigid identity. This is also exemplified in Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s monumental six-screen installation MISSA ON MISSÄ? [Where is Where?] (2008) first exhibited at Jeu de Paume, Paris in 2008, this installation broadly questions how our perception is affected by historic events.

The installation depicts a true-life incident recorded by French psychiatrist Frantz Fanon from the Algerian War of 1954-1960 that eventually led to Algeria’s independence from French colonial rule. The story recounts the experience of two young Algerian boys who kill their French friend as a form of retribution for the mass killing of Algerians during the war. Their story is intercut with a Finnish poet from the present day who seeks to understand the incomprehensible events of the past that interrupt her reality. It is not clear whether she is hallucinating, as would a mentally ill person, or strongly imagining, as would be the poet’s task, but her coherent commentary is ruptured by historic events resurfacing in the now.7 Algerian resistance fighters and villagers penetrate the walls of her house, thus haunting her present. The last two scenes of the video work are taken from Fanon’s anti-colonialist text Les Damnés de la Terre [The Wretched of the Earth] (1961). Athila kept the dialogue exactly as in the book to maintain the documentary aspect of the material, with the exception of the addition of information regarding the case at Rivet, Algeria in 1956, in which French gendarmes attacked the village and murdered 40 civilians. The following text is taken directly from Ahtila’s script for MISSA ON MISSA? [Where is Where?] (2008):

ISMAEL: We weren’t mad at him. Every Thursday we all went to the sandpit on the hill behind the village. He was a good friend of ours. He stopped going to school ‘cos he wanted to be a mason like his uncle.

ISMAEL: One day, we decided to kill him, because the Europeans want to kill all the Arabs. We can’t kill grown-ups. But he was as old as we are, and we can kill people his size.8

This child logic or child focalisation is something that we endeavour to consider within all our films, by considering the presence of a child within our films as witnesses to the adult world. Vera’s capability to muster fiction to resist adult pressure, as well as the transgenerational effect of children witnessing events they cannot understand compelled us to consider fiction, rather than documentary, as a mode of engaging problems in reality.

The Move to Fiction

Encouraged by Vera’s boldness, we considered the appropriateness of making a fiction film to probe a social issue where discrimination exceeds group identities, and the documentary mode would breach ethical boundaries. In the concept of “madness” – a beggars term we use to avoid complicity with diagnostic confinement – we found such an issue in the book Mère Folle (1998) by French psychoanalyst Françoise Davoine, a book about the possibility to treat “madness” analytically. Psychoanalysis can offer alternatives to drugs and hospitalization, on the condition that some amendments are made to Freudian dogmatism. When we first contacted Davoine, she said at the end of the interview: “Madness is the last frontier. It is discrimination without race, age, sex or any other visible or invisible marker. Therefore, it is the most radical form of discrimination, the hardest to get rid of.”9

Davoine’s book, for all intents and purposes a theoretical text, deploys fiction, of an irresistible visual kind, to propose ideas. Hence, there was a series of images that came out of reading. This “coming out of reading” happened twice over. First, an author wrote a book in which she described images that came out of her own readings – of medieval theatre, twentieth-century philosophy, and other bits from the treasury of literature. Second, we read that book, and images – the same ones? different ones? – came out of our reading of her readings. Except for the cover image, a detail from Pieter Breughel the Elder’s painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg, 1562), representing women driven mad by war, there were no images in the material sense involved in the book. Yet, these written images were so strong that we had to make them, as “inter- or after-images.” The result was A LONG HISTORY OF MADNESS (2012).

Murielle Lucie Clément, Our Mother Madness lost in thought, A LONG HISTORY OF MADNESS, Bal & Williams Gamaker, 2011

The film is an audio-visualization of the book in close collaboration with the author. The images she “saw,” or had in mind, when she wrote her book are inevitably very different from the ones that ended up in the film. This is compounded by the fact that the author plays herself; but only after the images had circulated, and we had transformed them, did they come back to the author, from the outside so to speak, who, playing her role, transformed them again.

This leads to the question that lies at the heart of the film, can one “image” madness, as a way of translating madness from strangeness and foreignness into a visual language, one we can “speak,” feel comfortable in, and share? This, ultimately, was the purpose of our film and the “task of the translator” (Benjamin) it posed. Davoine’s book, written in the first person, hovers between fiction and theory. We considered it a “theoretical fiction”: the term Freud uses frequently, for example, to explain the genre of Totem and Taboo, his story of the primitive band of revolting sons killing and eating the tyrannical father (1913). Davoine’s book too has theoretical points to make and uses speculation and fiction to develop, articulate, and make them, and subsequently so has (and does) our film.10

If fiction is, as Coleridge had it, the “willing suspension of disbelief,” the concept of theoretical fiction claims that such suspensions help getting rid of old, often-dogmatic theoretical ideas and thus clear space of new theoretical ideas. In our film fiction both serves to entice an audience to step into an affective engagement with the characters, who, in all their madness, are creative and deserving of our commitment; and through such engagement to produce and test new ideas about how to understand madness. Davoine’s book proposes that more often than not, madness is produced by social violence, such as war, rape, abuse, denial, and the like; and this possibly over several generations. Given the responsibility society has in producing madness, it must also take the responsibility to help the mad by reintegrating them, through healing the broken social bonds.

Ariste, a victim of social violence, framed by suspended guns. A LONG HISTORY OF MADNESS, Bal & Williams Gamaker, 2011

To foreground the transgenerational aspect of madness, which de facto endangers children, the wondrous character of Vera recurs here in the shape of children who witness madness, and ask questions no adult would venture to ask. In this film, two young boys play revolutionary music on their violins. Two children of 5 and 7 challenge a madman by asking a question that demonstrates he is taken seriously – with a strong effect of bringing him back to reason with integration of his madness. A young adolescent is present in the mental hospital as a silent witness to what happens between analyst and patients, and the medieval Fools who intervene on behalf of the latter.

Lena Verhoeff, and two young violinists, Daan Binsbergen and Reinier Schouten witness, participate and respond to the madness of the adult world, A LONG HISTORY OF MADNESS, Bal & Williams Gamaker, 2011

This appearance of the Fools serves a theoretical question of great importance. The Fools are not mad but play the fool. So how do we know what “being mad” is, and whether that is different from playing? Can you play what you are; and be, or become, what you play? This question undermines the authority of the archaeological thrust of psychoanalysis. It lies at the heart of Davoine’s social approach to psychoanalysis; her attempt to make the theory and practice less individualistic and do justice of psychoanalysis as a profoundly social science. For us as filmmakers, this question was doubled by another one: how can we make that unknowability or undecidability itself visible, convincing, and productive? Since playing the fool is the Fools’ profession, this took a specifically theatrical form, in an inter-arts probing of the relationships between theatre and cinema. Perhaps, this is a generic translation, or an intermedial one. The peculiar style of acting, where theatricality and more restraint, cinematic acting incongruously mix, shakes the ontological expectations of the viewers even more. In addition, the same actor plays different roles, performed in theatrical and cinematic style.

Thomas Germaine plays multiple roles in A LONG HISTORY OF MADNESS
Bal & Williams Gamaker, 2011

The multiple role-playing – here, French actor Thomas Germaine playing a Fool, a patient, and Antonin Artaud – questions the ontology of personhood embedded in the idea of madness. What is at stake is the notion of the individual subject itself. And, since the book proposes a theory of a social psychoanalysis, where the small histories of the patients are their psychic translations of the tragedies of History, this questioning of individuality through casting and acting style is loyal to the book’s theoretical thrust. It facilitates the reverse questioning, when Davoine enacting herself as Françoise, gains a capability to practice immersion into the deliria of her patients, in order to become a fraternal equal to them. Only through such an “extreme identification” will she be able to carve for them a space wherein the “catastrophic regions” that generated their madness can be confronted. Throughout the story, the narrator has been doing precisely that: becoming an equal to the “fools” and the “mad” – learning to speak their language.

The film is multilingual; actors from different countries speak their own languages. But they act as if they understand each other, which is sometimes the case, but often not at all. They are comfortable addressing their interlocutors in their own language. Unless they feel that language is no longer theirs. The figure of Wittgenstein, a Hungarian actor, speaks in English, with some French and German thrown in, all with an accent. While the English makes sense, since the historical figure of the philosopher was a professor at Cambridge, England, and he talks as a professor teaching, we were interested in this deployment of the accent. Is an accent a deviation from the standard, or can we say that, in the multilingual world, every speaker “has an accent”?11

This undermining of individuality also serves the purpose of bringing the fiction, with all its historical layering, into the present, The multilingual speeches became images of a multi-cultural Europe, as well as of a certain kind of social madness present in the contemporary world. At the same time, they became almost utopian images of the possibility to communicate against all odds. Images build bridges because they help to communicate across the boundaries that separate the sane from the mad, the contemporary from earlier times, and different cultural and linguistic communities from each other. The tension in this multilingualism between a utopian vision and a certain kind of madness became a source of inter-play with the ambivalence of the book toward classical psychoanalysis, the uncertainty of madness, and contemporary European reality. The participation of children as witnesses, but also, sometimes, as burdened by the madness of past generations, asking pertinent questions to the mad and the Fools, introduces a future-oriented temporality.

Once we saw the great potential of fiction to develop theoretical thoughts beyond standard logic, and with our ongoing commitment to probing problems in contemporary society, we decided to devote our next project to an update of Flaubert’s prophetic masterpiece Madame Bovary (1856) in view of the current economic crisis. Instead of continuing to think in a victim-perpetrator binary that makes social subjects powerless, we examined Flaubert’s suggestion that only the Greek Middle Voice can adequately render in language: that both social surroundings and the individual subject “do” the things that cause ruin.12

Facing ruin, Marja Skaffari as Emma Bovary in MADAME B, Bal & Williams Gamaker, 2014
Mathieu Montanier as Homais in pursuit of Emma in the streets of Paris
Thomas Germaine plays multiple roles again in MADAME B, 2014

In the novel’s theme we highlight in MADAME B (2014) are the intricacies between the combined lures of capitalism and romantic love. A product of the second half of the nineteenth century steeped in late Victorian culture, like other “novels of adultery,” written by male authors, it tells of ambitious and dejected women often deemed “hysterical,” and who invariably end badly. Because those novels gave a glimmer of women’s desire and the horror it inspired in “polite society,” they nourished the emerging Freudian thought. The question “What does woman want?” was in the air, and if Freud became its spokesman, he did not invent it. In Madame Bovary, Flaubert combined identification with such unhappy wives with a fierce critique of capitalism. In today’s economic climate, this couldn’t be more contemporary.

In a kind of audio-visual “middle voice” we picture moments of Emma’s life as it can happen to all of us, rather than representing its full story. To take distance from the usual historical tone, our casting and locations are unconventional. Starring as Emma is Marja Skaffari (Finland). The three men in Emma’s life are played by a single actor, the French Thomas Germaine. This conflation of the three men in one actor expresses the idea that Emma is in love with Love, not with anyone in particular. The fact that Emma and her men don’t speak the same language embodies the idea that at any rate, they don’t understand each other. The pharmacist Homais, in our version more criminally nasty than stupid, and obsessively paranoid, is played by French actor Mathieu Montanier, who gives Flaubert’s character more depth than the caricature he is usually taken to be, by adding to our script performances of madness. Episodes are set on a summery Nordic island as well as a wintery European city and easily move between these two seasons and spheres, indicating that these frustrations and exploitations can occur anywhere.

Imagining how such stories can end in other times, we gave the film three endings, situated in the mid-19th century (suicide by arsenic), in the 1950s (confinement to a psychiatric hospital) and today (divorce and living on welfare). In this film, Emma’s daughter Berthe (Astrid Törneroos) is shown, not as the mistreated child of the novel – the ethics of casting children would forbid this – but as treated with an indifference that appears especially poignantly when Emma is taken away by ambulance crew, in the second ending. We added another child in the Reception scene – an update of the Ball at the Vaubyessard Castle – when the character of the Vicomte (Tarek Mehdi), a seductive man who dances with Emma, and first introduces his little daughter Deyna to her. Deyna subsequently watches her father dance with that strange woman, then leaving her alone, upon which Emma incongruously lays her head on the table. She witnesses, that is, how women’s frustrated desire leads to behavior that ostracizes the woman socially. A third child in this film is the reverse of witnessing: the phantom baby boy Emma sees (but Léon doesn’t) when they walk together in a forest (Julia Gamaker).

The theoretical fiction, here, thus broaches at least two issues. One is the recurrent theme of witnessing. Seeing what happens to Emma, both Berthe and Deyna witness a madness in the making – with “making” best considered as a verb in the middle voice. The other is the real collusion from which we cannot disentangle ourselves by claims to victimhood, generated by what has been called “emotional capitalism”: the combined lures of romantic illusion and the compensatory desire for glamour. This is what Deyna, not yet but soon on the verge of womanhood, watches. Theoretical fiction makes the documentary-fiction binary obsolete, in that it deploys fiction to probe where documentary cannot go; either because of ethical constraints, or of epistemological limitations.13

Children in Madame B, Astrid Törneroos, Deyna Medhi and Julia Gamaker

Current Projects: Correspondence

Dear Michelle, Sad and hard as it is to be on my own after all those years of wonderful collaboration, since your move to London I didn’t want to give up and decided to embark on another film project. This time, the question of the combination of documentary, fiction, and theory takes yet another turn. I decided to make a double portrait of French philosopher René Descartes, and Queen Christina of Sweden. A Portrait composed of “vignettes” rather than an ongoing story made out of scenes. Descartes, often maligned as a dualist, in fact spent his life trying to argue that body and mind cannot be separated. One interlocutor was the brilliant but capricious young Christina.

The project is titled REASONABLE DOUBT – in French, Le doute e(s)t la raison. Instead of either documentary or fiction, or, for that matter, theoretical fiction, I see it as correspondences, in many sense of the word: between documented life and fiction to make it audio-visualisable; between the two characters, so similar; and between our common practice and this solo project. There really is no story to tell. The great French philosopher René Descartes died in Stockholm, as a consequence of the insistence of young Swedish Queen Christina that he visit her, a bit against his will. Once there, they didn’t see each other much. Although Christina’s philosophical interest was genuine enough, he was more or less there in a decorative function, as an honorific presence to adorn Christina’s ambitious project of creating an Academy that would put Sweden’s intellectual elite on the European map. But in the chilly palace where this late-sleeper was summoned at 5 am he caught a flu that deteriorated into pneumonia, and he passed away. He left Western thought with a burden and a treasure.

The burden: a misconstrued dualistic tradition that he really cannot be blamed for. The treasure: a decisive advance in rational thought that, precisely, did not excise the body; nor religion for that matter, as later Enlightenment thought would carry it on. The dialectical relationship between reason and a certain kind of madness was not enough recognised. His concept of the subject paved the way for psychoanalysis. Both Christina and Descartes caused a lot of waves during their lifetime. They both had a rather tough beginning in life. Christina became a queen at age 5, after her father’s death on the battlefield, with a mother in desolate mourning for the rest of her life, who didn’t care much for the daughter who should have been a son. René lost his mother at age 1 and barely saw his father, who was too busy pursuing his career elsewhere. These childhood situations of orphan-like loneliness predict adult turmoil. And so it happened. Both grew up to be brilliant, obstinate, easily angry, suspicious and capricious; ambitious and impatient with resistance.

The Queen was barely of age when she organised her coronation and started to think about her abdication, practically at the same time, while also pondering a change of religion that she carried out shortly after. She left Sweden soon after Descartes’ death for a restless life of travel that brought her to places such as Hamburg, Paris and Rome. Settling down was not her thing. She loved music. Once he started showing his writings to others, the Philosopher was constantly under ecclesiastic surveillance, or thought he was (Freud: being paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t after you). He moved around, mainly to the United Provinces (now the Netherlands) refusing to leave forwarding addresses, and was considered both a great man and because he was a bit paranoid (glory is never enough for the fundamentally insecure) he fell out with quite some friends he initially adored. A good-enough catholic he came dangerously close to heresy. He was what the French called an honnête homme – someone whose talents and skills could not be captured by isolated disciplines. From biology to philosophy, Descartes also shone as an expert in what we would now call “mental illness,” when he comforted his friend Elisabeth of Bohemia who was suffering from a bout of it. My guess is, it takes one to know one (as Eve Kossofski Sedwick wrote about homosexuality). I imagine both figures suffered from the symptoms of what we now call neurosis, specifically a “complexe d’abandon” – a tendency to reject affective bonds while constantly seeking them (Han Verhoeff on Benjamin Constant).

Out of fear to be abandoned, they prefer to be the first to do the abandoning. This is what underpinned their passionate attachments to, then rejections, of others. Always craving relationship, but feigning indifference out of fear the parental abandonment would repeat itself. And since these things tend to be reciprocal, they were seen as alternatingly attractive and repulsive. It also explains that the queen insisted so strongly on the meeting, then didn’t do much to take intellectual advantage out of Descartes’s presence. Her restlessness always already made her turn her head in other directions. Both Christina and René declined to marry and hung out more with people of their own gender than doing “the proper thing.” Hints of homosexual practice circulated about both. For René, who had a friend burned at the stake for just this, these rumours were an additional reason for fear. Christina was notoriously fond of a woman at court called Ebba; she called her Bella. I will conflate this figure with a musical dame de compagnie, who consoles Christina beautifully playing the violin.

As I mentioned, René surrounded himself with male friends he adored, then broke up with, and depended strongly on his young male valets. One of these plays the violin as comfort to his master when he is depressed, dejected, and lonely. These two figures have a lot in common, while also being opposed to each other. The challenge I am facing, in addition to missing you, is to make portraits that cannot be subsumed in a narrative. I need to make the key ideas clear without becoming didactic. For example, instead of explaining how Descartes made psychoanalysis possible, and how his own tough childhood prepared him for that, I put him in analysis, as a patient. The Christina part is even more difficult, because her erratic behaviour makes it difficult to avoid caricature. That part will be shot end of March in a Palace in Poland. The director of Nieborów Palace is eager to have the installation of this project premier within the Palace itself.

Thomas Germaine as René Descartes in REASONABLE DOUBT Mieke Bal, 2015
Marja Skaffari as Queen Kristina of Sweden in REASONABLE DOUBT Mieke Bal, 2015

Dear Mieke, Since our geographic separation, I have been busy in London developing what I see to be extensions of our working methods in a large-scale solo project, a three-screen video installation BLACK MATTER EARTH (2017). It is indeed tough to “go-it-alone,” things go much slower and the challenge to realise my work fantasies feels that much greater without you.

Despite our geographic separation I find it fascinating to read that you are now working with “vignettes,” rather than a traditional story structure from A-B. This is no surprise given our earlier documentary work, which rarely paid reverence to traditional narrative structure. Somehow our brains remain similarly tuned, as I am also choosing to “pick and mix” elements, in my case from three source films. What this offers is a narrative arc, but one split up spatially across characters, time and countries. A mode we have employed in our other theoretical fictions. BLACK MATTER EARTH is a post-colonial, post-romantic re-imagining of female characterisations of British directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It comprises re-imagining rather than restaging scenes from their oeuvre: BLACK NARCISSUS (1947), A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946) and GONE TO EARTH (1950), with the addition of the re-cast secondary character of Kanchi, the silent “beggar maid” of BLACK NARCISSUS, who will reappear as a re-instated main character in all three re-imagingings. I identify Kanchi as a herald figure akin to the messenger figure that occurs throughout the Powell & Pressburger films, notably Nicklaus (the muse in disguise) played by Pamela Brown in THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (1951) and Conductor 71 played by Marius Goring, the heavenly messenger in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

The Kanchi character is central across all parts of my project, as she will operate as a similar figure travelling across the screens, from Darjeeling to Surrey to Shropshire. I will also re-cast the films’ female protagonists – Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh), Kim Hunter (June) and Jennifer Jones (Hazel Woodus) – but crucially the same actress, Charlotte Gallagher, will play them all. This is a technique that we have explored before in our A LONG HISTORY OF MADNESS and MADAME B projects. I found it a wonderful surprise to discover that this was also a device used by Powell & Pressburger in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943), in which Deborah Kerr plays three women in three time periods, the Boer War, First and Second World Wars: Edith Hunter, Barbara Wynne and Angela “Johnny” Cannon. The source films I’m exploring were made during the period book-ended by WWII, waning Empire and Indian resistance and independence, soon to mark their 70th year in 2017. The three source films’ historical context frames my choice. So, too, does a common theme: the danger of (falling into) an abyss, whether the mountainous precipice in Black, the eternal “void” of the afterlife in Matter or a cavernous sinkhole in Earth. BLACK MATTER EARTH is a mythical voyage that offers a reinterpretation of late 40s/50s narrative, and considers the alterity of these women placed against the new context of the present day. The shifting landscapes will trace England’s colonial, industrial and agricultural heritage.

4-screen view of CASTING KANCHI Michelle Williams Gamaker, 2015

My latest 4-screen installation CASTING KANCHI (2015) is the precursor to my wider project in which I audition Indian and British-born individuals of Indian origin to play the character of Kanchi, a role assigned to white actress Jean Simmons in the 1947 film. The project was shot on super 16mm and digitally transferred to mark the project’s move from its filmic source to a more contemporary digital dialogue. The individuals audition for the role, undergoing the same process, introducing themselves, reciting an out-of-the-ordinary alphabet and recalling lines from a script with an anonymous reader. At one point during the audition, a digital projection of Kanchenjunga Mountain appears, penetrating the black box of the audition space. I feel this marks the move towards the digital realm Kanchi will enter and also reveals the underlying artifice present in the original source films.

4-screen view of CASTING KANCHI Michelle Williams Gamaker, 2015

I am presently sourcing funding for my wider project, but remain hopeful that I will begin production in 2016. I’m working to a deadline in 2017 when the work will be presented in The Atrium, the BFI Southbank’s public exhibition space, as part of their Powell & Pressburger season, which will showcase the directors’ major contribution to British cinema. Despite our distance, I feel glad to be able to discuss our solo and collective work. After all these years, I feel we have amassed works that constantly challenge our own assumptions of the medium of the moving image. I’m excited that in 2016, we will have a retrospective of sorts in the form of an intervention show, entitled Casting Dialogues (curated by Henrik Holm) at the Royal Cast Collection in Copenhagen. This will give us opportunity to work together again in the curation of multiple voices and narratives from our back catalogue, set against Europe’s largest collection of plaster casts.


Made in collaboration with artists Zen Marie, Thomas Sykora and Gary Ward.


  1. See the collection Intimacy, edited by Berlant (2000), especially Svetlana Boym’s essay on diasporic intimacy. This publication refrains from defining the concept of intimacy explicitly.
  2. This term “hybridity-within” is meant to evoke the late Barbara Johnson’s term “difference within” (1980; 1987). Johnson’s deconstructive analyses of literary texts continue to be an inspiration for what might perhaps qualify as deconstructive representation: an attempt to displace opposition from the tensions between groups to hybridity within groups. Hybridity remains a problematic term that we use here for lack of a better one. See Young (1991) for an incisive critique.
  3. A parallel film that offers a fictionalised account of a girl trying to seek her family (and their history) is the 1974 ALICE IN THE CITIES [Alice in den Städten] a German road-movie by Wim Wenders. After Alice’s mother leaves her daughter temporarily in the care of writer Philip Winter, they find themselves on a journey across several cities in Germany to search for Alice’s grandmother who will be able to take care of her. Alice is unable to remember her name or address, the only clue to her identity is through a photograph of her grandmother’s door with no house number or person in shot. The gaps in information lead to a beautiful exploration of what it means for a child to explore the concept of belonging to family and identifying with the culture that shapes her surrounds. To a great extent our film also operates as a “road-movie” joining stages of Vera’s explorations into cultures.
  4. The drilling that is involved in developing children into cultural citizens is also prominent in a scene of our documentary COLONY (2007; also with Zen Marie, Thomas Sykora and Gary Ward)
  5. Vera talks to stone, china, and bronze animals. Some of those experiments involve her cultural citizenship in convoluted ways. In Paris she has the opportunity to watch movies on DVD. Hence, it is in Paris that she watches her favourite Indian-dancer movie while her parents are busy viewing footage of their daughter. Right after watching this film, that supplements her cultural baggage with both stereotypical Indianness and stereotypical femininity, dressed up in her princess costume, she hums the melody of the Bollywood film while rocking her doll. She later recognizes an Indian dancer in Moscow on an advertisement.
  6. This recalls Arthur Miller’s play Broken Glass: A Play in Two Acts (1994), set in Brooklyn in 1939. A woman experiences a paralysis of her body from the waist down after reading a New York Times article about the November 9th Pogrom (Kristallnacht) in Germany. In spite of their distance from her, events from another part of the world penetrate her reality: the trauma of Nazi persecution is acted out on her body thousands of miles away (Miller, 1994).
  7. Script courtesy of the artist.
  8. The book has recently appeared in English as Mother Folly: a Tale. Trans. Judith G. Miller. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 2014.
  9. Sigmund Freud, 1914 Totem and Taboo. New York: Vintage Books; SE XIII: 1-162. On the relationship between psychoanalysis and fiction, see e.g. Malcolm Bowie, 1987 Freud, Proust and Lacan: Theory as Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. On the concept of theoretical fiction in relation to our film, see Anna-Helena Klumpen, The Theoretical Fictions of Madness: Listening to Noise and Silence. Research Master Thesis in Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam, 2011 (54-82)On the accent and other issues of translation beyond linguistics, see Acts of Translation. Special issue, Journal of Visual Culture 6, no. 1, eds. Mieke Bal and Joanne Morra (April 2007).
  10. On the accent and other issues of translation beyond linguistics, see Acts of Translation. Special issue, Journal of Visual Culture 6, no. 1, eds. Mieke Bal and Joanne Morra (April 2007).
  11. In an illuminating article in progress, “ Middle Voice on Greek Walls and the Subject in/of Crisis”, Maria Boletsi examines a graffito “βασανίζομαι”. She writes: ‘No accurate translation thereof can be given in English. It could be (partially and inadequately) translated as “I suffer,” “I torture/torment myself,” “I am (being) tortured/tormented” or “I am in torment.”’
  12. The concept of emotional capitalism was introduced in Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press 2007.