A three-hour venture about the 2012 Quebec student protests and four fictional characters as they carried their ideas forward in the following years, and featuring an overture and intermission to boot, ‘Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves’ (‘Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau’) is a large work of a stylistic formalism not too often seen in contemporary festival fare but to which revolutionarily-inclined works of the ‘60s and ‘70s were no stranger. At this year’s Berlinale I had the chance to catch up with half of the dual-director team behind the first film I saw as part of the festival, Mathieu Denis.
MLP: Since your film starts with an Overture, I’d like to start with one as well, if that’s okay.
MLP: On the ride over here, on the U-bahn, there was a supposedly homeless woman who was trying to sell her newspaper for 1.20€. Because no one seemed interested, she mentioned that it was a “shitty time,” which then prompted someone who (I saw from their badge) was a fellow critic to remark that it’s a shitty time in general, which started a verbal dispute. Do you think that inequality in society in general automatically breeds grudges between people?
MD: Yes. (chuckles) I guess it depends. To some extent, things are always relative. But when inequality means people see their horizons as blocked, when they can’t really have access to decent education, when they can’t have access to decent healthcare, this obviously breeds bitterness. And bitterness very often leads to anger, and anger leads to violence almost inevitably. This is not good. This is definitely not good.
MLP: In making this film, did you have some sort of set goal to alter, to unlock people’s blocked horizons? Or was it more just to take stock of the landscape?
MD: We were often being told ‘wow it’s a political film, it’s a politically inclined film,’ which is true, but the nuance that I would make is that this is not a militant film, in the sense that we are not trying to offer answers. We are not trying to tell people ‘hey, this is how you should act if you think that the world in which you live needs to be changed.’ We were more interested in asking questions, basically. And yes, in order to ask questions to have a point of view on the world in which we are living. Yeah, like the expression you used, [to take stock] of the landscape. But then asking questions about how, if you think that the world could be different from the one in which we live, and that it could be fairer and that we must change it, how exactly do you do that? How do you stand for your ideals? How do you fight for them? What exactly are you fighting for? When are you going too far in fighting for them, and when are you not going far enough? These were all the questions we were trying to ask with this film. Hopefully when people come out of the screenings, these questions resonate with them and then they reflect upon them and then hopefully they find their own answers to these questions rather than coming out of the film thinking ‘oh! I’ve been told what to do and now I’ll try to do that.’
MLP: By the end of the film though it does seem like the supposed answers that the characters have found are more or less pretty cynical.
MD: I wouldn’t say that. Obviously some aspects of the film are quite dark, and that’s because when we look around, we feel like we’re living in dark times and in a dark world to some extent. But that’s not what we’re trying to say. I think one of the main – maybe the closest we get to an answer with [the] film – themes of the film is the constant struggle between the individual and the group, and individual connectivity. I think that one thing we’re trying to say is that if social change has to happen it will happen through a group of people amongst all different social classes and age groups that kind of unite together and move in one direction. The group in the film fails when they break apart. They’re much closer to succeeding when they’re together.
[Spoiler warning] Of course at the end when Ordine Nuovo[’s character] basically kills herself in front of her mom’s house, what she’s doing at this point is doing the most individualistic move that we see in the whole film. She’s really separating herself from the group, and doing something totally on her own. That’s the end of the road for her, but in the last shot of the film, when you see the three other characters who are in a kitchen and suddenly they open the windows and there’s the light from the outside, [which is] lighting and almost blinding them, there is hope there. They’re still together and it seems like the light of the outside hopefully helps them realize that they can’t achieve what they’re trying to do just on their own. They have to go out […] in the world and be working with other people. They won’t change anything just by being by themselves, alone in this apartment.
MLP: Going back to this idea of strength in numbers, as a group… I thought it was a nice choice to have [in the end credits] ‘A Film By’ and then this massive block [of text listing] people, because of course it’s not just a director, even when there are two directors. Was that also a factor in deciding not to credit all of the quotes within the actual runtime of the film?
[Throughout the film there are a number of quotes presented as large superimposed text, always presented without an authorial credit. The respective authors are of course credited at film’s end. ]
MD: We struggled a lot with the idea of the quotes while we were editing the film, because having text appear during a film is always going to produce a pretty jarring effect. So, while we were editing the film we were showing the film to some people and everyone would always be saying ‘it’s too short’ or ‘it’s too long,’ ‘I don’t have time to read it,’ or ‘I have too much time to read it,’ then ‘I’d like to know who wrote it’ and ‘who’s it from?’ But at some point the answer appeared to us and we understood that, first of all, reading a text on-screen, while you’re watching a film, you don’t have control over the time that you have to read the text. It’s definitely not the same thing as reading the same quote in a book, you know? Because if you’re reading it in a book, then you can read it once and if you’re not sure you thoroughly understood what it said then you can re-read it. In the context of the film it becomes something much more impressionistic; you read it once, maybe twice if you have enough time and aspects of it will stay with you. You make the core relations that you want to make with the images that you’re seeing and you take some of the quote with you but it stays in you in a more impressionistic way than in an intellectual way. And in terms of quoting the authors, if you read the text, and additionally you have the name of the author and the book it’s from, it…becomes overwhelming and it really gets you out of the film, whereas if you only have the text, you have the essential part of it, which is the text itself, and you take away what you want to take away. Also, we thought it’s interesting if you don’t exactly know who it’s from, I think especially for an international audience, because some of the writers in there – obviously you have Camus, you have Sartre, you have Rosa Luxemberg, Marina Tsvetaeva but then you have authors that are only known in Quebec or are not very well known outside, like Pierre Vallières, [Hector de Saint-Denys] Garneau, Jean Bouthillette…and so removing the names of the authors puts all of these quotes on the same level and as the viewer you’re left to decide whether you approve of what is written or not and you take what you want to take away from it, without having to know that it’s, you know, ‘oh if it’s Camus then it must be good’ or ‘it must be right,’ well, if you don’t know who it is then you’re your own judge and then of course in the credits we thought it was important to give credit where credit was due so we – obviously we were obligated to include the names and say exactly where these were from so people didn’t think that we had written those, but during the film at some point it became very obvious that this was the way to do it: just the text, no authors, no references, and then you get them towards the end.
MLP: The title comes from a French Revolutionary quote?
MD: [Louis Antoine Léon de] Saint-Just, yeah.
MLP: And how did you decide to go with that?
MD: I guess to us it really speaks right into the core of the film, because as I was saying earlier, ‘how do you create perennial social change?’ Again, we’re not necessarily saying that Saint-Just is right by saying that, but at the same time, it does ring a bell. Especially in recent years. We could go much further and earlier in terms of revolutionary movements, but to make a long story short [chuckles], the movement that is the starting point of the film, which was something that was called – we hate this name but something that we ended up calling in Quebec – the Maple Spring. Which was this student protest movement that happened in 2012 which was very powerful while it was happening.
MLP: It’s kind of a belittling name.
MD: Exactly. But that’s typical. We have a hard time taking ourselves seriously in Quebec, which is sad, but that’s how it is. But you’re right. That’s why we don’t like this name. So there’s this very powerful student protest movement that lasts for 4 or 5 months [which] at some point really balloons into a much more wide-ranging social protest movement; it starts from the student circles but then it gets much wider in the Quebec society and for a moment there’s this glimmer of hope, because basically it starts from students who decided to protest against the proposed hike in tuition fees in Quebec. For an American, maybe it’s going to sound strange but the government was proposing to hike the tuition fees from $1700 per year to five years later to hike it to $3600 per year. And the students said no, and they went on strike and they said we’re not taking this. Obviously it could seem almost petty but I think it was the symbol of yet another brick in the wall of this very prevalent neoliberalism agenda that has been prevailing for the last 15 or 20 years, and so people said no and then it became this much more wide-ranging social protest movement and for a moment there was this glimmer of hope that this would turn into something that would put a halt to this neoliberal agenda, and then it didn’t do that. The movement really collapsed in on itself and after 4 or 5 months, which was actually quite sad and a year after that there [were] different student groups that tried to restart this movement, but the energy wasn’t there anymore…it wasn’t possible. Once something like that happens, it seems like – as Saint-Just was saying – if you don’t go to the end of it, even if something good happened out of it, you’re still [taking] one step forward and then two steps backward. We had a bit of this feeling about this event, but it was also talking about so many other social movements that had happened. Or if you take the Arab Spring for example, which happened just a year before, in 2011, the legacy of the Arab Spring today is very troubling. If you look at what’s going on in Syria, you can’t say that it’s very positive. If you look at Egypt, you have to question [it] as well. There was the same thing in Ukraine; there was a very powerful social movement that rose in Ukraine and where are they now? And so, all of these movements that keep…not living up to their promise, and that seem to…I don’t know, they begin and there’s this kind of spark and you feel that something’s going to happen and then it doesn’t and then you feel like you’ve gone backwards basically. So Saint-Just’s quote is kind of commenting about that. Obviously, that being said, if you talk about Saint-Just and you go back to the French Revolution, at some point they did try and go to the end of it, but they became completely crazy and started guillotining like crazy and they themselves became kind of crazy in their own will to bring revolution to a full circle, basically. So it goes with all of these questions that we’re asking in the film; how do you change the world? How do you make it perennial without either going halfway and then discouraging yourself or going too far and then becoming inhuman and crazy?
MLP: Could you relate that just a little bit to the stylistic choices in the film? What is the relationship between trying to create social change and trying to advance (or at least diversify) the cinematic language?
MD: Most of what’s in the film was in the script: the quotes were there, most of the music that we used in the film is there, the archival footage (we had found most of it before we shot the film and knew we wanted to include it)…it was pretty clear to us that we were portraying four radical characters who are saying no to all social norms and social conventions, and it was pretty clear to us that we couldn’t portray these characters by making a very classical film. It seemed like the film had to be as radical as the characters were, because if it wasn’t then there would be a disconnect and it would not make sense. So we very on accepted that this was what we had to do and we did it keeping that in mind.
MLP: Was there a specific factor deciding when aspect ratios changed? Is there a thematic through-line?
MD: No…ahm…it’s not systematic. We really approached it more instinctively. Obviously one thing we realized quite early on is that if you’re making a close-up, for example, the 1.66:1 aspect ratio is much more…it’s warmer. It brings you closer to the character, as opposed to doing a close-up with the 3.56:1 [extremely wide] aspect ratio, which is a bit strange. There are some things like that that we noticed, but apart from that we didn’t want to make it systematic. It’s how we felt the scenes when we were on set that made us decide which aspect ratio to use.
MLP: Can you talk just a little bit about the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, maybe his ‘60s films, and maybe the Dziga Vertov Group films as well?
MD: Well yeah. It’s definitely a big influence on us. More specifically two of Godard’s films; La Chinoise and the short film that he made in 2000, De l’origine du XXIe siècle (Origins of the 21st Century). It’s a film that I watch every month or so, and it always moves me deeply. So these two films were big influences on us. Obviously we didn’t try to make a pastiche of his films because it would’ve been irrelevant and it would’ve been nostalgic. What was really inspiring to us is the freedom with which he made these films. He was totally free, he was questioning film language with his film, and we tried to do the same thing. We tried to approach this film in the same spirit, and it’s very difficult to do that today because there are so many things that you’re not supposed to do. There are so many norms and conventions you’re supposed to adhere to when you’re making a film, and it seems like most films become really formatted, basically. Our film is three hours long. We didn’t set out to make a three-hour long film but we thought, ‘we want to find the correct length for this film,’ but you can’t do that nowadays. Everyone will tell you, ‘if you make a three-hour long film you will not be in any festivals, you will be a box office disaster and no one will want to buy or see the film.’ It seems like filmmakers more and more have to deal with self-imposed censorship that comes from the fact that you get told that there are so many things that you can do, and we thought, well, for this film, even if it’s only for this one, we will not listen to whatever people tell us can or cannot be done. We want to be free, we didn’t want to be complacent, obviously. But we wanted to be able to do whatever we wanted to do if we felt it was right, like why not open the film with a five-minute overture? David Lean did that with Lawrence of Arabia, Kubrick did that with 2001. I mean we don’t want to compare ourselves with these directors, but at the same time why was it accepted to do certain things back then and now we can’t do that? We’re saying we can do that, and we did it. And obviously Godard was definitely working in that same spirit.