Till Roeskens and Marie Bouts share the same passion for maps. This interview, conducted on the occasion of their exhibition ‘Pistes’, at the Espace Khiasma in autumn 2011, looks back at the genesis of their film Un Archipel, which has since traveled extensively, both in France and abroad. Watch on video two un-previwed bonuses, two variations on territory in mutation.
Olivier Marboeuf : Both of you are interested by maps, even if your interests are not expressed in the same way in your work. The exhibition ‘Pistes’ itself has the allure of a giant map, at the same time concrete and mental. How would you situate this work in your professional itinerary ?
Marie Bouts : The mapping experience was related to the project from the very beginning. Neither Till nor I knew the Parisian suburbs and the discovery of this immense territory, limitless and labyrinthine, was at first very disconcerting : how should we approach it ? How could we take stock of it ? We were completely lost !
But quite soon we began to have fun with the laws of physics (a little like children who play and invent their own rules) and we imagined that we were moving through a space-time that was ruled by very particular laws. The space was made of origami and we could move from one place to another via black holes, secret corridors, folds in space ; we could lose ourselves in spatio-temporal loops, or walk forever in a seemingly ‘rhizomatic’ territory, that turned out to be a long, unrolling line. For example, toponymy guided us in constructing these imaginary places (we discovered a ‘rue Lenine’ in an incalculable number of cities: what if it was the same street, extending infinitely, ad infinitum?) As far as I’m concerned, this imaginary and symbolic relation to space-time is an old obsession, but never before had I managed to express it as clearly in a finished work, that could go out on its own, without me.
And then, our principal source of inspiration, Bruce Chatwin’s book, The Songlines, which speaks of the Aborigines song lines or song maps in Australia, is very important to me personally. I first read it about ten years ago, and it has never ceased to be a reference, something I always come back to with fascination. The idea of singing one’s itinerary seemed to me to be an unsurpassable relation to territory, both magical and practical at the same time, something quite complex in fact, which puts into play several aspects of a society (founding myths, transportation, economy, interpersonal relations, law, poetry…). And so, by finishing a project that originated with this haunting book, I feel as if I’ve finally managed to pronounce a word that has been silently ricocheting around in my head for years and years. It was like a word had finally been delivered from silence.
Till Roeskens : Marie had loaned me the book a few years ago. It resonated with my own passion for wandering. What is beautiful about this is that we both remembered the book at the same time, without having spoken of it for a long time, when we were both in places that were as distant as possible from the Australian desert…except perhaps for the recurring ‘Oasis’ bars that dotted our paths, never too far from all the ‘rues Lénine’. The attempt to link these two universes, by proposing to the people we met (and who, for the most part, were neither nomads nor singers) to invent song lines, seemed to us both Utopic and obvious. Where do I situate this shared adventure in our itineraries…the future will tell ! I had already worked on the idea of subjective mapping. The idea of opening up this mapping practice to the more mythological vision of worlds Marie had invented had attracted me for quite some time…and I think the encounter between our two universes generated a third universe, that is neither hers nor mine. What we’ve created here remains joyously mysterious for both of us.
O.M. : How did approach the northeast of Paris ? The exhibition installation gives the impression of a very constructed and methodical approach, but at the same time the sense of games or improvisation, wandering, and error all find their place.
T.R. : I can’t really see what you perceive of as methodical, to tell the truth! Everything seemed random to me in the construction of the film; it was made without a scenario. The maps we drew in the short annex film, like those we are making right now on the walls of the exhibition space seem to me like an attempt to understand, after the fact, what we did— but organizing it a bit. The starting point of our approach, you must remember, was the proposition you made to us: to make a film on what you called the “becoming-image of the city”, a concept we never really understood, I think, so it will be interesting to see if you think we answered your commission. At any rate, the commission wasn’t for a specific city, but we decided to try to answer it there where you are: in the Seine-Saint-Denis. You spoke to us at the time of your concerned regard for the future of the former ‘Red suburbs’, which are preparing, via enormous construction projects, their integration into the capital. The subject seemed too vast to us for a frontal approach…which explains our decision to let ourselves be guided by chance encounters…
O.M. : How did you construct the project with the people we see in the film, the choice of sites, the register and form of their words, which are very particular ?
M.B. : We advanced in stages. At first, we spent a great deal of time explaining the project, its origin, the objectives and the context. That, already, was never simple or quick, we had to take time. We never really had an argument ready, each time we readapted ourselves to the interlocutor, to the situation and to our own interior doubts : for a long time, maybe even up until we began filming, this song mapping seemed an impossible project. But in general people welcomed the idea with a great deal of enthusiasm. It was astonishing.
And then, once someone decided to embark on the project, we prepared for filming with a minimum of three rendezvous.
First, we asked the person to tell us about sites that marked him of her, for whatever reason. We recorded these first encounters.
For the second rendezvous, we all went to the site together, and we began the person’s narrative again, sometimes with the recording device, sometimes with the camera. This second rendezvous was particularly intense, because it was when we confronted the very particular status of the spoken word. We didn’t want a classic documentary account. It seemed to me that the experience was like personalized writing workshops : we needed to listen closely to our interlocutor in order to help him of her move towards a more poetic or lyrical speech. But it was important not to impose anything that might not suit them, something that wasn’t already contained in their own manner of speaking. We had to open wide our ears, and listen closely, to be discerning. Sometimes we made mistakes and upset our interlocutors. Sometimes things happened very quickly. What I liked, at this stage of the process, was that we had to guide and let ourselves be guided, to be ready to receive the narrative that was being constructed. It was a delicate period, on the wire, sometimes violent, but always very moving, sort of like the birth of something. Things either ‘took’ or they didn’t. And then we would make a rendezvous for filming. Usually a half day. Some people prepared texts, which were like lectures, but most people improvised, either in total free style, or following the arc or a pre-established trajectory.
To be honest, this whole period was very long. In September 2009 we began to explore the territory of the 93, but we didn’t really film until June 2010. We would come to the Seine-Saint-Denis for a week, for ten days, here and there, to hunt for locations. We confined ourselves to a single north-east belt, between Epinay in the north and Montreuil in the south. We walked a lot, we rode public transportation. We kept our eyes open, we wanted to see everything ! And it was during those long walks that we became conscious of the sites we wanted to make sing, like the Bridge of Revolt, for example.
The people/actors never met each other. We invented links between them.
All the intersections in the film were fabricated during editing, cinematographic tricks that corresponded to the desire to fold the map of the territory, as a way to juxtapose two places that in reality are far apart.
O.M. : When I learned the title of the film ‘Un archipel’ (‘An Archipelago’), I admit that I didn’t immediately associate it with the idea of a segmented territory, but rather to the inhabitants themselves, lost in the solitude of the city—with the exception perhaps of the lovers in Montreuil. In the film, even if their paths cross, the characters never seem able to meet, as if they are in a ghost community. This gives the film a certain melancholy, perhaps.
T.R. : It was in editing that we got the idea for the title, talking about the ‘islands’ that are constituted of different places and people, segments we sometimes edited before being able to link them. So yes, they are solitary trajectories, paths that nevertheless meet up with others, the paths of the anonymous. A ghost community, yes, or maybe the ‘absent people’ Klee spoke of, through the voice of Deleuze. But beyond philosophy, we were working in a vast territory… We thought about the possibility of organizing a collective workshop, but before being able to set it up, we had already met our narrators, by diverse paths, some through the network of relations, others on site in places that spoke to us of the upheavals in the territories, such as the dead end road being demolished or the Romanian camp. Most of the people were situated in places that were far apart, one from the other. That was the adventure of the editing: weaving threads between them, imaginary encounters, secret correspondences…many of which will probably escape the audience’s attention.
O.M. : The characters establish a relationship with you by placing at the heart of the exchange the account of a path, knowledge, memory as treasure, as currency. In this way what is revealed is a rather singular way of speaking of richness, an economy of the symbolic.
M.B. : Precisely, this economy of the symbolic is something that is really expressed in Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. Humans are related to each other and to their world by song, which is both gesture and content. Except that the Australian Aboriginal community truly exists (even though it has been decimated by whites), with shared codes and legends that ground their existence as a collective. Here, we invented a group that only exists because its members accepted to sing in the film. They hadn’t invented on their own the rules and myths that bind people together in a community. There is a very artificial side to it, and it’s in that sense that what we created is more fiction than documentary. I think that’s where you could have the feeling of a ghost community, of melancholy : the dream of the community that sings its territory doesn’t happen in reality. And it’s not a group initiative, but the project of two people. Not a trace of community, when you get down to it.
But what does exist in the film is an imaginary space that several people contributed to build. This territory was imagined as a parallel place, slightly disconnected from the real Seine-Saint-Denis, a sort of sixth dimension where humans invent and activate relentlessly the magic link to their land, to their paths. As to what is sung, I often hear a sort of ode to the country, to life; humans don’t dominate their world, but are part of a whole, in which they find their place. As Morlaye Touré said, ‘Life is hard for the descendents of man, everyone is born of this people.’
This song emerges in a very specific context—the upsets caused by the construction projects for the ‘Grand Paris’ (‘Greater Paris’). As a result the landscape that is sung is a landscape in transition. It barely exists anymore even as it is being sung, it is something else that is beginning—we don’t exactly know what. For the people who see their environment being demolished despite of them, these transformations are violent. Confronted with the ‘machines of demolition’, as Rafiou Adéjumo calls them in the film, human voices are heard. We can ask who, in this duel, is strong and who is weak, who produces riches and who produces poverty. I like to believe that the human voices are rich and strong, precisely because of the exchange, the symbolic, the link.
O.M. : Un archipel is a film with many voices. At the heart of these voices of men and women who guide us, you have inserted another voice, by writing on the ‘skin’ of the city. What is the status of these texts?
T.R. : It came from our attempts, that we abandoned in the long run, to draw maps of our itineraries in chalk on the sidewalks. The maps disappeared—since the wager was that the maps in the film be sung and not drawn—but certain words or phrases that we wrote remained, like a tenuous fiction that infiltrates the images of the real city.
O.M. : The logic of ‘folding space’ that predominated the editing of Un Archipel is especially rendered by the installation that surrounds it in the exhibition space—with maps, another film. Was it conceived of as an autonomous work, at the risk of one part of the proposal escaping future audiences of the film ?
M.B. : It does seem that one aspect of the project will always escape people who don’t know the Seine-Saint-Denis. Someone who doesn’t know where one place or another is located, won’t be able to perceive the spatio-temporal traps we elaborated in editing. But I think the film contains troubled temporal clues and that it can live its life, speak and sing, even without the maps that accompany it here.
But we really wanted to make Un Archipel like this. At the beginning, we also wanted to insert drawn maps (the moving map you see in the annex to the film, the imaginary map laid out on the floor at the Espace Khiasma), which would have made visible the process of folding and cutting, of destructuring the space. We had a debate about the potentially overhanging aspect of the map: as a tool for comprehension and for global representation of the world, the map situates the ‘viewer’ above the space he is observing, in a position of control and force. We wanted to remain inside, to remain lost, at the risk of not explaining our crazy relationship to space. This decision put our position at stake; I did not at all want to be an explorer, with all that such a role presupposes about historic violence in explored territories and ‘explored’ populations (even more so since the Seine-Saint-Denis is populated by many people who have already been ‘explored’ by whites in a not so distant past, with the consequences we know). I wanted to find a place inside the world, in no circumstances to be above it, with a wider vision than the other characters.
As a result, our song, our manner of losing ourselves, of rediscovering our path, of questioning ourselves, of delighting ourselves, is found in the chalk hieroglyphs we used to cover the territory, and in some of the songs without words. I think Till also chose a way of filming that makes him an actor in the film: he is caught in the fabric of the world, in the same way as the streets are, as the actors are.
There exists, at the heart of the film, a very particular relation to History.
T.R. : I think that’s what generates Marie’s desire to draw a map that would cover not only the floor, but also the walls and the ceiling of your space ; to create an all-encompassing space, that allows for no overview, one that situates the film audience inside of it.
During an encounter at Khiasma recently, Jean-Marc Chapoulie recalled the importance of the film as document, beyond its narrative, it’s archival force of a situation, of a state of the physical world and notably the state of the city. I have the impression that Un Archipel is a film that indicates a precise moment. Whereas all the elements seem to be already in motion so that a new history will emerge—the Grand Paris ?—the ‘traces’ of the past are playing a last, and moving performance.
T.R. : Exactly
Interview conducted by Olivier Marboeuf