On the films by Robbrecht Desmet
(bestaat ook in het Nederlands)
Over a five-year period Robbrecht Desmet makes four films – but it might just as well have been three or five – in which he follows in the footsteps of another artist: Paul Cézanne, painting the Mont Sainte-Victoire and Bart Lodewijks, making chalk drawings in the city. For the first two films – that might just as easily have been three – he heads for the Provence. For the latter two – that are really just one – he sets out for Rio and Ronse. Those journeys are important. So is his attention to matter: the 16mm celluloid of the filmmaker, his attention to movement, sound and text in his images; attention to the textures and structures in the work of both the painter and the draftsman. Grist to the mill of a filmmaker who films as a critic: as a film critic and, through the choice of his subject, as an art critic.
Robbrecht Desmet does not make films to tell a story, but to accomplish something – his work is not as much about art, as it is there for the art. He does not film to demonstrate, but to understand. It is a form of criticism: not a recording, but a reflection, not journalism but an essay, not about but with the subject matter. This way of filming is unusual. That is why we refer to it as experimental documentary.
In order to achieve something you have to get out on the ground: move along with your subject. Often his subject is an artist. As a result each film/criticism turns into art criticism. He takes the place of Paul Cézanne in ‘Mont Sainte-Victoire’ and ‘The Pedlar’. He embodies Henry Van de Velde in ‘Zonder Titel (Boekentoren)’. He becomes Bart Lodewijks in ‘Rio Ronse’. In the process he expands the role of the artist to the role of the artist-as-a-spectator. In order to get there movement is essential. This movement is by no means tame and submissive (as in a report, or journalism), but rather boldly inquisitive (turning it into reflection, criticism). This approach to criticism, as movement, closely reflects Roland Barthes’ definition: “critiquer veut dire: mettre en crise”. Criticism means: putting into crisis.
Film as criticism compares to writing with images. That is what Godard did with ‘Scénario du film Passion’: creating a script on video of an existing film. In the process he writes the criticism of his own film. It is a form of reverse engineering: a reflection that, as a mirror image, moves opposite to the actual film. It is a return to where it all happened – the editing room – to understand fully what takes place on screen. With his script Godard makes a film before the film, even though it follows afterwards. He blatantly faces the screen, turning his back to the spectator. He takes the place of the spectator, in front of the screen. And we all know that the most avid moviegoer, the most passionate film buff, sits at the front, facing the screen and with his back to the audience.
That is the way of these criticism-films. Getting out on the ground means getting to the first row. It implies filming as a passer-by, as a passage, en passant. His criticism supplements the work. His inquisitive gaze, his experimental gaze is at the service of the work instead of the audience. He is the audience.
The place of the other
Thus he takes the place of the other. He moves away of the familiar, in order to find something different. He appropriates the perspective of the other: of the artist and of the audience. The language of an other: when his camera makes a panoramic movement in ‘The Pedlar’ on the exact spot where Cézanne once looked out over the Mont Sainte-Victoire, we hear a text by William Wordsworth on the soundtrack. The filmmaker whispers the lines himself, and in the background the listener can make out the sounds of Ghent’s inner city. Cézanne’s Provençal images, Desmet’s sounds from Ghent, Wordsworth’s rambles through the Lake District each supplement the experience of the spectator.
Getting out on the ground is sharing oneself. Taking oneself along to the other. It is an exchange, giving in return and taking along. It is coming closer. The panoramic view, the big picture sought out by so many travellers, often makes way to close-ups limiting the view. This is what happens in ‘Mont Sainte-Victoire’, when the camera slowly zooms out away from the mountain. In the first image it is still unclear whether we are looking at moss on a rock or a forest on a mountain. Zooming out reveals the context. Image becomes mountain. The same context becomes apparent in ‘The Pedlar’, when his camera pivots around its own axis close-by. As the camera slides along the woods on the left, Desmet reads out the lines by Wordsworth. These woods are the ones who limit the view of the landscape (though not really, as they are the landscape, after all). Only when the mountain becomes apparent the voice falls silent. A sublime aphasia, de-duplicating the film: two films in one, before and after.
In ‘Rio Ronse’ – here as well two films blend into a single work – the voice acting as a supplement has gone. Here the film in itself is the supplement. There is little distance left as context. The context situates itself in the close-up. The piercing look of the zoom and the sliding perspective of the panoramic movement make way to the inquisitive gaze of a travelling shot and the static camera. It is the perspective of the passer-by who stops every now and again. Desmet films as if he were just passing. Not strolling by, but with an inquisitive look. This gaze focuses on structures and textures. There is the structure of the work: the chalk drawings by Bart Lodewijks that led to the film. But the environment he works in is decisive as well: this is social art, creating distance in its aspiration to commitment. There is the texture of the subject matter: the chalk, the foundation and ultimately the matter of the image, the celluloid he chose.
According to a place
In these films everything seems to have been assessed: so precise, so obvious and yet far-fetched. Or found, that might be a more suitable term. Not accurate, but juste. As Godard puts it: “Pas une image juste, juste une image”. These films are not about according things to the right place, but rather to a place. Placing things, the assumption that there is a right place, is the pedantic approach to criticism. Giving a place to things, from the assumption that there might be other possible places, is the inquisitive, experimental form of criticism. This might seem pretentious at times, because it is so different and wayward, but it’s really not.
Is there a system? Is there a principle? I think not. The only system, the only principle is that of the experiment. This arises at a specific moment in place and time. It does not allow for planning. It might always just as well have been something else, again the other and movement in that prominent role. It provides an image of a situation. Because of this it might seem pretentious as well: the arrogance of the particular, subjective gaze. But it’s really not, quite the opposite. These films contain an open perspective, a shared gaze, a look inviting a reaction.
Filming is moving, time and again. For that reason he does not film the Mont Sainte-Victoire just once, but twice in two different locations. That is why he does not stop after a single movement – that of the zoom – but he puts another right next to it: of the camera pivoting around its own axis. That is why he does not make one film to show the work of Bart Lodewijks, but two. The first in Rio, the second in Ronse. For the first film he goes elsewhere: to Brazil, unknown territory. For the second he stays close to home: in Ronse, a provincial town as he is familiar with. Here and elsewhere. That movement, that va-et-vient, is indispensible to create distance as well as commitment. Distance through commitment.
Distance through commitment
How social is art? What links the artist and his surroundings? Where does distance make way to commitment? All these questions link the films together, without ever leading up to a definitive answer. Both everywhere and nowhere, they seem to be saying, both here and there. And similarly to Godard the word that matters, the only word of any significance, is the word and. This tiny word between things, the word that divides and unites, drawing things apart and tying them back together. It is from that conjunction that something new arises.
Thus one image supersedes the other. One image superposes the other. What takes place in Ronse, repeats itself in Rio and vice versa. As if it were the same thing, but differently. It is the core of Lodewijks’ work: image over image. The chalk drawings he deploys over the houses in Ronse, reveal structures. They are tiny shifts in shadows, shapes and architecture. They visualise and wipe away. They emerge and disappear. It is typical for his working method and his medium: the transient material of chalk drawings on walls.
‘Rio Ronse’ sets out with a superposition of images. Lodewijks’ technique – chalk drawings on architecture – is repeated in the aestheticism of Desmet: urban images over urban images, structure over structure, text over text. Before and after: we see drawings without chalk and chalk without drawings. Fractals: we see the city as a framework, the frames of the city. We see passages: the travelling shot shows the filmmaker as a passer-by. It shows exteriors and interiors, flowers and heads: what is around the work is part of the work. Frames come and go: a wall, an alley, a truck create as many frameworks. Passers-by create the work as they wipe it out: they walk over, alongside and across. Distance by commitment: merely walking by, you are already in the middle.
The contrast between Rio and Ronse, that double movement, is essential for his work to function well: moving away from the image and up close to it; this side of the ocean and beyond; the shift from structure to texture. These movements to and fro, the va-et-vient, leaving and coming around, from here to there, determine the rhythm of ‘Rio Ronse’. It’s in the title, in which he reverses the actual filming chronology. These images are not in the right order; they are merely in some order.
A people that are missing
The third image in Rio and the subsequent image series recollect the opening of ‘Mont Sainte-Victoire’. The textures of the wall, and of the chalk on top, seem uncut and unintelligible, like a rock. The travelling shot merges the images into the turmoil of the metropolis, in the presence of a(-nother) population: camera movements blend into traffic, drawings merge with graffiti. That moving camera is part of traffic. These drawings are graffiti. But in a different way: they create chaos of their very own, while creating an order of their own. Here streets are more important than houses. Walkers overcome the inhabitants. I give up looking for the drawings, but try to find my way instead. This has to do with elsewhere as well. The image of Rio does not reveal itself as readily as the image of Ronse: there I don’t have to look as much; I recognize it. Only all the way towards the end we are offered some tropicalia: something vaguely reminiscent of a banana tree and a favela right behind it.
As if Desmet forges ahead to the social context in that final image. He shows a people that are missing. Gilles Deleuze discusses this at the end of ‘L’image-temps’, when he writes about third-world cinema (the third cinema: cinema of the between working with the media in a Kafkaesque way, the language of another). There the art of the masses of cinema turns into political art: into the invention of a people that is not there yet. “The missing people are a becoming”, Deleuze writes, “they invent themselves, in shanty towns and camps, or in ghettos, in new conditions of struggle to which a necessarily political art must contribute.” Are these the people that arise in the homes behind the banana leaves? Of course we have seen people before. In Ronse: some figures in a pub and a passer-by in the street. In Rio: the pedestrians and motorist on the corner of the street. But they do not pay attention to the work. Not yet. They are not really there (yet). They still are not involved. Precisely that is the critical – even political – potential of these films: movement, in what Deleuze refers to as “the new object
of political cinema: putting into a trance, putting into a crisis”. Film as creation, as criticism, as crisis.
The people that are not there yet, “le peuple à venir”, are a people of artists, of inventors, of creators. They will invent a language of their own by speaking one another’s language. That is how these people will realise themselves: “if the people are missing, if they are breaking up into minorities, it is I who am first of all a people”. The people do not become artist; it is the artist himself who becomes people.
 This combination of Cézanne with Wordsworth is not haphazard. To Desmet Cézanne is the first modern artist and Wordsworth the first chronicler of modernity. Nevertheless this does not mean he is the first modern poet: he fiercely opposes the things he relates. Wordsworth’s lyricism of the I-person is one of being in the company of, even if in his case this is a flower, a rock, a cloud or a text, and in doing so he expresses his longing for a (future, imaginary) community. Similarly, in The Pedlar, he blends into his surroundings alongside the pedlar (pedlar: hawker, vendor, distributor), the ever-walking other.
 “le peuple qui manque est un devenir, il s’invente, dans les bidonvilles et les camps, ou bien dans les ghettos, dans de nouvelles conditions de lutte auxquelles un art nécessairement politique doit contribuer”, Gilles Deleuze, ‘L’image-temps’: 283.
 “le nouvel objet du cinéma politique: mettre en transe, mettre en crise”, ibid.: 284.
 “si le peuple manque, s’il éclate en minorités, c’est moi qui suis d’abord un peuple”, ibid.: 287.