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Let the word breathe; confuse it gently, in its enormities posited like forms of sweet obviousness; make it like a beam, to stage the complex history of a place. In a word, question, dialogue, interview, relentlessly: the way journalists do? Quite the opposite? The video-maker Marie Voignier may put other people’s word at the hub of her films, but her method bears no relation to that of a reporter. This seemingly innocent artist is not in a rush; she gets others to talk without bugging them with questions. Rather, she lets her rhetoric be expressed, down to its depths, and its paradoxes: she lets it dismantle itself, by itself. Whether she is filming a human resources department, a marketing director, or a press attaché, what she is after is the ideological factor, like a camouflaged hunter, feigning affection for her prey. And unfortunate souls give themselves away, quite sure that they are dealing with someone who has come to their own conclusions, seduced by the official chitchat of grand liberal thinking. It is only then that the artist intervenes. Through the simple device of editing, she pinpoints the violence of the realities in question: a fictitious office designed to instruct an army of trainees in sales techniques (The Ghosts); a theme park re-inventing the world of the western in a wilderness in what was once East Germany; a re-creation, under a dome, of a tropical paradise, again in East Germany (Hinterland, 2009). Be they places of entertainment or labour, these offbeat sets, for her, are an opportunity to reveal the way the world is going. Tired of being asked, at each shoot: “When will it be on TV? Which channel?”, in 2009 she went to follow her pseudo-peer journalists in one of their vast arenas: in Austria, for many long weeks, she watched them at work during the trial of Josef Frizl, that father who locked up his daughter and raped her for 24 years. Focusing solely on the special correspondents, and not on the trial, she saw them panic, put on make-up, sum up a whole day in a few words, run around with cameras, and she wages this war for truth in a film that says nothing about what has happened, just as TV probably says nothing. This latest opus is being screened at the Berlin Biennial, this summer, as from 10 June.
But to get back to the nub of her project, let us bask for a few moments with her on a Tropical Islands beach, object of Hinterland. From outside, this wondrous microcosm looks like a huge elongated lemon squeezer: an old hangar designed for an air base that once housed thousands of Russian soldiers in the days of the Soviet empire. Abandoned by History, it seduced a cruise specialist who wanted to turn it into a haven of peace. So it now encompasses a sea (the equivalent of four Olympic pools), a flawless blue sky, a few yards high, an idyllic tropical garden (“with no snakes or dangerous animals”, in the words of one of the actors). It is from this apparently perfect spot that Marie Voignier raises all manner of contradiction. In lengthily questioning its marketing director and its press attaché, she underscores the place’s hidden atrocity: how this world is, in their view, the height of authenticity (the proof? workers came from Bali to build the thatched huts); how its managers elevate it to the rank of a monument to “pacifism”, encouraging understanding between peoples (the proof? it was once an airport, yes, a military one, but are not all airports the very arenas of the great worldwide understanding, whispers the marketing director, proudly); how these latter, lastly, are trying to fight the neo-nazis who are not afraid of chanting their warmongering songs in the villages roundabout. For the wellbeing of humankind? No, of course not. But so that this fascist stench will not put tourists right off coming to plunge into these azure waters. “Tropical Islands is the spectacular product of this history, the tipping place from one moment to the next, from one (socialist) state to another (capitalist) state, from one conception of the world to another, as the artist analyzes it. This German village has crossed every manner of historical contrast and political contradiction over the past 60 years. A crux that makes sense at a time when the aspiration to mobility and pluralization of leisure activities is trying to free itself from the restrictions of time and space.” The same exposition is at work in her Western DDR, which focuses on a similar place, now become a ghost town.
Do people really realize what they are saying? This is the question raised in us with each one of these medium-length films. For their editing, which is very subtle without being manipulative, manages to reveal the violence of the harmless words. Her superb film Le Bruit du canon is epiphanic in this regard. Its opening minutes make us shudder, in an unassuming way. In it we see people at table, country folk with worried faces who, turn by turn, conjure up a weird war against an invader who is never named. “We really tried to smoke them out, we did everything to reduce the population […] We wouldn’t gas them, but that would be the solution […] In 1985, we sprayed them with chemicals, 80% of the dormitories were destroyed, but now it’s not so much the mood of the times”…. Who and what are they fighting against? Their discourse, needless to say, stirs up memories of Nazism, the Americans napalming Vietnam’s paddy fields, the universal struggle against the alleged dangers of immigration. And yet these unfortunate souls are just simple birdbrains, who seem at the end of their tether, with birds ruining their farmland, trying to protect themselves. By tossing barn owls at them, by playing deafening music, and by capturing some of them, so that they will cry out and terrorize their fellows. In vain. Beneath the noise of their wings, Marie Voignier films at length their incredible swarms, their skies of iridescent abstractness, a sea in perpetual motion which cannot fail but move anyone not suffering. She lets them float like doubts, making the beauty of nature collide with the harshness of peasant life: as if too much beauty were like a screen against reality, damaging the way we listen to the world.
Translated by Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods.