French youth today aren’t very politicised, it seems at the outset of Our Defeats. Screened at Berlinale and Visions du Reel in Nyon, the documentary is woven from one-on-one interviews conducted in May and June of 2018 with students of a Ivry-Sur-Seine high school in the Parisian suburbs. They attempt to answer questions on leftist philosophy (stumped by defining what communism is, or what a trade union does), their own attitudes to striking and resistance (regarded as not for them), and their visions of the future (uncommunal and indeterminate). It’s a resounding difference from the febrile atmosphere of campus protest of 1968, a comparison overtly set up as the students reenact scenes and read excerpts from films of that era, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave classic about young Parisian revolutionaries La Chinoise (1967) and strike action documentary À bientôt, j’espère by Chris Marker and Mario Marret (1968). But that’s not the whole story. This is a film by Jean-Gabriel Périot after all. The director has only been making feature-length films for the last few years, but his lauded found-footage work in shorts stretches back almost two decades. Formally radical and politically trenchant, his cinema often builds to a provocative and unexpected revelation or subversive shift. This time is no exception.
A deeper form of regret
The youth of Our Defeats are surely not so different in their uncertainty and disengagement from teenagers in many cities around the globe (even many adults, what’s more, would surely be hard-pressed to give articulate definitions and evaluations of the abstract concepts they are quizzed on.) But for anyone familiar with the previous films of Périot, the students’ lack of awareness and attention to societal power imbalances sparks a deeper form of regret – because his work in its totality is an urgent clarion call for historical memory. This is the same France, after all, not only of these other films of ‘60s revolution, but of Périot’s devastating short Even If She Had Been A Criminal… (2006), in which the French national anthem accompanies archival footage of the 1944 liberation of Paris, whereby women who fraternised with Nazis are being publicly and viciously humiliated. Has so much time passed that the new generation know or feel nothing of such atrocities, oppressions and retaliations, and a France shaped by the fiercest of struggles for ideology and basic dignity?
But that’s not the whole story.
The pupils of Ivry-Sur-Seine by and large express a belief that they are too young and politically naive to take a stand on issues or commit themselves to a cause. «It’s a little too much, coming from students,» says one when asked about revolt. Another says that the character protesting against management she has played in one of their filmmaking exercises «voices her anger well » but «overdoes it». More fear has been instilled in them around the idea of anarchy, though its core goals are little understood by them (instead of freedom, they cite the vague sense of a society gone mad as its inevitable result), than around class inequality or authoritarian-style injustice. Active action towards a vision of utopia and a group-based notion of endeavour toward a common good are not ways of conceptualising the future that they are oriented around. «Happiness simply happens. Everyone has her own kind and we mustn’t look for it,» is one response, the complacent passivity and unexamined belief that life is determined by outward forces typifying the attitudes of those in the school.
«A very quiet class»
A coda, shot in December 2018, changes everything. Kneeling on the ground with their hands on their heads, the students reenact an incident that had happened that month outside a school in Mantes-la-Jolie, west of Paris, shocking the public when video of it emerged in the media. French riot police had ordered the students into the humiliating pose after they demonstrated about plans to reform the exam system – an action that occurred as «yellow vest» protests were ramping up and causing authorities unease. «Now that’s a very quiet class,» one of the officers had notoriously said – a comment that, regardless of his intention, repositions obedient conformity as an ally of the corrupt. Speaking to the camera about the incident, the Ivry-Sur-Seine pupils (now in pairs or groups, signaling a new solidarity), express an outrage that had not been there earlier in the film. An awakening to their responsibility and agency as voices of dissent against excessive state control has been sparked. The students themselves begin a blockade of their school when one of their classmates is thrown into a cell for a day and a half, punished disproportionately for tagging graffiti at the entrance. «It’s something meaningful, even if it’s a defeat,» says one protesting pupil about putting his heart into the fight. A lost battle, perhaps, but a stand that musters strength for a war that continues.