French artist and director Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc (Cinéma chez les Balantes) discusses his latest film, Sector IX B, which received its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, during which this interview was conducted by Christopher Heron.
The Seventh Art: Let’s start with objects, they’re definitely a theme in your work, these dead or living objects (as the case may be) and their relationship to historiography and institutions. How were you building off your previous work with Sector IX B?
Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc: In my previous work there was this question of the archive, for example – to deal with histories and archival documents. Most of the histories that I’m interested in are colonial histories, of course, but also all these histories that are marginalized at some point. To use this kind of material you have to build a kind of special space – a space of care let’s say – to avoid cultural appropriation. This work is mostly about cultural appropriation with a proposal at the end that you can destroy the archives, because at the end of the Sector IX B there are these guys who are opening a kind of tomb, it’s the museum and they’re uncovering the archives as well, but you don’t know if they’re going to keep them or if they’re going to destroy them. To me, it could be more interesting to destroy them, to find a way to rebuild the institution, because you see this museum in bad shape. It was really important to have this museum, which was the big museum of French anthropology, in this state; it’s half-built, half-destroyed, you don’t really know. It’s mostly about how to deal with the histories and its appropriation. It’s not documentary like my previous work, like my work that was shown in Toronto last year, Cinéma chez les Balantes, which was more documentary. Here, I think it’s fiction, let’s say.
In those previous works there’s objects, like the ring in An Italian Film, in Cinéma chez les Balantes there are physical objects in the installation, so as a spectator you are seeing these objects as objects, whereas in this film they’re in the process of being uncovered. In the Q&A you mentioned that this can quite literally be corpses that are not on the record, but are being found. It opens up this sci-fi quality or speculative quality in the film.
Yeah, I wanted this sci-fi feeling. Sci-fi is a by-product of the project, it’s not really the project itself.There are moments where you can think there is an African mystic, but I don’t really care, it wasn’t my goal. My goal was to really try to use the description of the dreams that Michel Leiris, the French writer, made in his diary. To try to find a way to put these dreams in picture, so the sci-fi is arriving through that, but it wasn’t the main goal. It was to create this mood that’s hypnotic. I was more interested in this psychotropic effect than the sci-fi one.
Could you clarify whether the pills she’s taking is meant to be a recreation of what would have been taken at that time and Leiris was taking… supplements, we’ll say, to access…
Yeah, actually they were taking drugs just to avoid being ill and I found the list of medicine they were taking during their expedition. Most of these pills had these huge side effects and at some point it was impossible for them to do their job because they were struggling against their own bodies. That’s what is so interesting about these stories because all these scientists that were supposed to reasonable in the sense of the Enlightenment, but at the same time they were in a state of mind that was impossible for them to be reasonable, to be good scientists. They were maybe violent, sleepy all the time, losing their memory and depressed, as well.
And that’s the kind of subjectivity that there are at least two levels of in the film. There’s the pills that create a similar state, but also whatever report the main character had written before the events of the film that is rejected from publication. What are your thoughts on this split of subjectivity and objectivity regarding these two elements of the film?
It’s two different schools of anthropology, because the origin of the film is L’Afrique fantôme (Phantom Africa), the book by Michel Leiris, which is a big book where Leiris is trying something that is now called reflexive anthropology. At the time it didn’t exist. He was travelling with another anthropologist who was the head of the mission, Marcel Griaule. Marcel was a scientist who wanted an objective discourse, so for example, if you take a field observation where they are going to watch sacrifices, Griaule would ask all the scientists in the expedition to stay at different points of the ritual and observe one part, to have as many views as possible. For Leiris, it was the opposite, he would stand at one point and observe just what he was feeling during the ritual. That’s what’s so interesting, one who is covering to use a cinema term and the other who is completely embedded and immersed in the situation. I’m more interested in the immersive point of view, which is not truthful, it’s completely partial. I think the film is like that, it’s not a truth about the object, I’m not real statement of the institution either.
It also applies to the main character, because her writing was rejected for the same reasons, but it must be different because she’s not the ethnographer, she would be descended from the subject matter of the ethnography. So when she’s engaging in this subjective look, it would be different from Leiris, wouldn’t it?
Yeah, because she’s trying to push the experiment to the limit and she’s trying to test the limits of her own discipline. She’s an anthropologist and she knows very well the basics, what a field observation is, but she wants to observe herself, not the field. It’s also a way to avoid any exoticism, which was really important for me.
What do you think the by-products are by choosing a woman who is of African descent for the main character, [Betty]? How would it change if it was a white man?
Actually, I don’t know. To me, if it was a man, it would be far more obvious. To me it was impossible to think of this story with a white man because of this reasonable thinking, all these scientific stories or discourse is built by white men for white men, as well. All these taxonomies, it was built racialist thinking and then developed in anthropology as well. There are two types of characters, there’s the main character who we worked with the actress to have a character who is completely dis-incarnated, which was important because she is there, but she’s not really there. And there’s the other character, [Rachel], who is trying as well to push the limits of her own institution, but she’s perhaps already find some answers and seems more articulated, but they are two sides that want to push the limits of the museum and their own discipline.
Do you think that the film does that, as well, does it act as an institutional critique?
I don’t know, what do you think?
There are a constellation of elements that each seem to adjust the reading of the one before – we haven’t even talked about the letters she uncovers, for instance. It brings up the old question of whether a film is radical based on its subject matter or how it’s presented. How do you think this applies to the soundtrack by PAL?
The sounds is part of the hypnotic experience, I think, and I don’t think of it as a radical film. I think it’s kind of classic, no? I didn’t mind the films of Resnais, which was one of the big influences – stories in stories in stories and buildings, as well, since Resnais did this amazing film about the library, Toute la mémoire du monde. The library in itself is a character, so the museums here are characters, as well. I’m not sure there’s a formal radicalism, I would say that I’m trying to have this language and come up with another metaphor about what these guys on the expedition really did. I like to think these objects are still active agents and are still doing something to the architecture.
When she does pull out those objects, those photos. I read your grandfather was involved?
All the archives she’s manipulating, touching, are Leiris’ own. We worked closely with all the museums, the museums in Dakar and in Paris, as well as their archives. These objects are from the archives. My grandfather crossed the path of this era, but there are some signs that are speaking about it, for instance the Pasteur Institute. My grandfather was an entomologist, so he studied insects and he had his whole career in the Pasteur Institute. There are biographical signs in the movie, but they’re downplayed.
One thing you mentioned that I wanted to follow up on was Leiris’ relationship with Georges Bataille, was that something you took into account in the film? Is there some traces of Bataille, who was pretty radical, into how the objects are presented or subjectivity vs. objectivity?
For me, the relationship to Bataille is more the dreamy, Surrealist side. That’s a funny story, actually, not funny in a humorous way, but… for him, it was impossible to have sex, impotent. It started at psychoanalysis and his analyst told him, “I think you should to go to Africa, maybe it would cure you.” Which is something that is related to the fantasies they had about the continent during this period and the Surrealists and Primitivists used this, because [they believed] Africa was the place you could find this sexual energy, or dark energy. So for me, that’s the thing I try to use and re-frame it every time, because when you see the guys in the tree [in the film], it’s Leiris’ dream. It’s an old representation of a French guy in the ’30s, what he had in mind, and that’s the reason I’m saying it’s not mystical in this sense. That’s my relationship with Bataille’s Surrealism, when the objects are coming through you and building this black space, that’s the Bataille connection.
Do you think that kind of haunting you just described will always be there due to colonialism or is that what you’re getting at with the ending, the potential to break it down, and that’s the way to break from the past?
No, actually. I would love to think there could be some kind of collaboration, but first former colonial empires have to really do a profound… look at their histories. For example, for France it’s obvious that there are still very strong colonial attitudes toward the former French colonies: there are soldiers in Mali. For me, the question is how can you take care of these old stories and find another way to create some kind of relationship. Every time I do a work I am trying something, I’m trying to put forth an argument, I don’t know if it’s the right thing. As I said, it’s a way to speculate. I will come up, perhaps, with another proposal, it’s a never-ending process.
A lot of the audience was commenting on the architecture, do you think that’s one way when these institutions are rebuilt, something like that can happen – more collaboration on the buildings themselves?
Sure, sure. In Paris there is another museum called The Museum of Quai Branly that was built to gather all of the collection that was in the previous Museum of Man, which is in the film, completely destroyed. The architect that did this, Jean Nouvel, he used a creepy architecture, placing the objects in complete darkness to recreate some kind of grotto. He’s already putting the viewer in a very strange space, so I think the first thing to think about is to build new museums… and perhaps museums without objects. Françoise Vergès, who is a French philosopher, she had this project for Reunion Island and it was a museum without objects. So you are just telling stories, which is perhaps another way to deal with these objects – a more lively way.