Remembering History, Reconstructing Memory: The Films of Jean-Gabriel Périot

March 28, 2013 | By Jon Gartenberg
We Are Winning

This article coincides with the first visit to the United States by French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot. His trip begins at the Museum of Modern Art, as part of Modern Mondays, organized for the Museum by Sally Berger, Assistant Curator, The Department of Film, MoMA. Following will be the North American tour, "We Are Winning, Don’t Forget," organized by Amélie Garin-Davet and Steve Holmgren, and is presented with support from UnionDocs, The Cultural Services of the French Embassy, Cine2000/French American Cultural Exchange and the Museum of Modern Art. Full schedule here.

This article was also published in The Moving Image Source.


Over the course of the past fifteen years, artist Jean-Gabriel Périot has created a series of meticulously constructed and finely tuned found footage movies that are at once both disturbingly provocative and deeply moving. His films unflinchingly confront a wide range of crisis moments from civilization’s recent past, including issues related to war and peace, global economic policy and human rights, as well as the very survival of mankind. More precisely, 200,000 Phantoms.. confronts the effect of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Even if She Had Been A Criminal… on the public humiliation of French citizens who slept with their German occupiers during WWII. The Barbarians takes a caustic view of the Heads of State attending the G8 Summit, whereas #67 makes a humorous, yet biting commentary on the genetic engineering of tomatoes throughout the European community. The Devil looks at the assertiveness of the Black Liberation Movement set against White Supremacy; Before I Was Sad, at the irony of Gay Marriage Equality; and We Are Winning, Don’t Forget at the struggle of workers confronting political authority and police brutality. 

Périot ‘s movies are constructed from documentary film footage and vintage photographs, classic songs and audio recordings, as well as cutout animation and other graphic elements.  From these found materials, Périot reconstructs memory of past events from a perspective that condemns violence of man against man in all forms; each film engages the viewer in artful fashion to remember history from a deeply humanist perspective.   The filmmaker frequently contrasts, in skillful fashion, poignant images of individual human faces within the larger fabric of collective action.  Structurally, he employs fast motion techniques to compress cause-and-effect relationships across the horrors of history past (Even if She Had Been a Criminal…), and reverse motion (Undo) to suggest the possibility of altering the course of civilization’s future.  Percussive montage, screen wipes, superimpositions, haunting music scores, poetic recitations, and a myriad of other dynamic compositional strategies and editing techniques augment a sense of immediacy to Périot’s global concerns.

Périot’s unyielding focus on reconstructing emotionally painful moments embedded in history’s recent past places him squarely in the cinematic tradition of fellow countrymen Chris Marker and Alain Resnais.   The themes of individual suffering and collective responsibility, war and peace, and love and death in such films by Marker and Resnais as Night and Fog (1955), Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), La Jetée (1962), and  Le Joli Mai (1963) are structured through the prisms of time and memory.  Périot stylistically reconfigures these concerns to haunting and sublime effect in two of his signature films, 200,000 Phantoms and Even If She Had Been a Criminal… .

Much like Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Périot’s 200,000 Phantoms is constructed from a montage of hundreds of still photographs.   Both films traverse, in spatial and temporal fashion, cataclysmic moments of nuclear destruction; for Marker, it is Paris of an imaginary World War III; for Périot, the actual, horrible reality of the obliteration of Hiroshima during World War II.  Enhanced by haunting music tracks and poetic voiceover narration, both filmmakers evoke tales of loves gained and lost.  Whereas Marker focuses on the reconstruction of memory from the point of view of his time-traveling male protagonist, Périot conveys the act of remembering through the motif of architectural construction. In 200,000 Phantoms, his photographic collage concentrates on the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima -- comprising its completion in 1914, its obliteration on August 6, 1945, and the building’s gradual postwar reconstruction over the ensuing decades.  Although Marker’s film plays with time travel – cutting back and forth between past, present, and future -- Périot’s chronologically-structured narrative goes a conceptual step beyond Marker’s film, in suggesting that by resisting the erasure of memory on a grand societal scale, the filmmaker can help alter the future course of human history.

Extracts from documentary film footage from World War II serve as the underpinnings of both Alain Renais’s Night and Fog and Jean-Gabriel Périot’s Even If She Had Been a Criminal….  Completed a decade after the end of World War II, Night and Fog resurrects the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime of the recent past. The filmmaker contrasts bucolic scenes in color of long-abandoned concentration camps with horrifying black-and-white stock footage and still images of helpless victims who were cruelly annihilated in gas chambers.  The effective, dispassionate voiceover narration reminds us spectators to never forget this genocide, which remains buried just below the surface of mankind’s collective memory. 

Jean-Gabriel Périot’s Even If She Had Been a Criminal…, revisits another painful, but lesser-known chapter of man’s inhumanity to man during this global conflict, that of the public humiliation of female French citizens who were accused of sleeping with Nazi soldiers during the German occupation. Constructed entirely from found footage material, Périot opens this film on the promise of peace with scenes from the Treaty of Versailles; then, in rapid montage fashion, he chronicles the rise of the Nazi regime and the entire subsequent course of the Second World War.  Following celebratory victory parades, the filmmaker optically morphs the found footage into a slow-motion meditation on the public humiliation of the female citizenry.  Périot ironically contrasts patriotism –underscored by the song “La Marseillaise “on the sound track -- with the shaving of the female collaborators’ hair by their fellow male compatriots.  These signature, extended scenes of the public shearing of women’s hair graphically and thematically links Périot’s film to the endless chain of human hair displayed to such similarly moving effect in Resnais’ Night and Fog.

With Between Dogs and Wolves, Périot ventured into the genre of live-action narrative filmmaking.   In this film, he furthers his commentary on the unjust effect of the global economy on the working class.  An underemployed young man moonlights as a pizza delivery boy while seeking an office job during the day.  An unexpected meeting provokes the protagonist to violent action, as he recognizes that his quest for professional advancement is suddenly slipping through his hands. 

Whether working in the genres of found footage, cutout animation, or live-action filmmaking, the entire body of Jean-Gabriel Périot’s work is inextricably tied to exploring the power relationships embedded in the sexual, social, economic, and political fabric of society.  In his filmmaking practice, Périot integrates sudden explosions of violence, trenchant humor, and sublime poetry to great effect.

© Jon Gartenberg 2013


About the author:

Jon Gartenberg has been actively engaged for decades in the preservation, distribution, and programming of experimental films.   Over the course of his professional career, he has initiated the restoration of the films of Andy Warhol and Warren Sonbert.   His company, Gartenberg Media Enterprises, currently distributes experimental films on DVD to the university market in North America.  Since 2003, Gartenberg has programmed experimental films for the Tribeca Film Festival.  He can be contacted at: jon@gartenbergmedia.com (www.gartenbergmedia.com)


Films in the exhibition by Jean-Gabriel Périot:

Before I Was Sad (2002), 4 min.
We Are Winning, Don’t Forget (2004), 7 min.
Undo (2005), 10 min.
Even If She Had Been a Criminal… (2006), 10 min.
Nijuman no borei / 200000 Phantoms… (2007), 10 min.
Between Dogs and Wolves (2008), 28 min.
The Barbarians (2010), 5 min.
The Devil (2012), 7 min.
#67 (2012), 2 min.

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
Sign in or register to post comments.

Related

1/3
MORE IN FILM, TV &
NEW MEDIA
event

"Woman with a movie camera : female directors before 1950" series at Anthology Film Archives

September 15 - 28, 2016
Anthology Film Archive
32 Second Avenue New York, NY 10003
event

"Soundhunters" : Immersive storytelling experience at NYFF

October 1 & 2, 2016
Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center
144 W 65th St
New York, NY 10133
event

"Filming at the Borders: Migrating to Europe Today" film series at Columbia Maison Française

October 13 - 28, 2016
Columbia Maison Française (East Gallery, Buell Hall)
515 W 116 St
New York, NY