Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen is a historian and freelance journalist

Nicolas Wadimoff’s portrait of his old teacher, the Swiss intellectual and revolutionary Jean Ziegler, attempts to test convictions against realities.

Are the bad guys of today the same as the bad guys of yesterday? And how about the good guys – didn’t they turn out to be bad guys too? These are questions asked in the documentary about the Swiss intellectual, politician, revolutionary, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Right to Food and currently vice-president of the Advisory Committee to the UN Human Rights Council, Jean Ziegler.

Ziegler himself asks few questions it seems, he is the kind of man who provides answers. Or at least he keeps to himself the doubts he harbours about how the world functions in general, and in particular how revolutions progress, or regress.

The Optimism of Willpower is the title of Nicolas Wadimoff’s portrait of his old teacher. It might also have been titled The Power of Vanity. Ziegler’s and Wadimoff’s. They both seem to be acutely aware of the vanity of the other, but less of their own.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_WXRUW-j8o

Against the visuals of archival footage from Ziegler’s days at University of Geneva in the 1960s and 1970s and to the sound of dramatic background music we learn that it was as a 20-year old political science student that Wadimoff met Ziegler ”the first time”. It was at one of Ziegler’s tutorials about national liberation movements during times when the university was a battleground against ”imperialism, fascism and capitalism”.

”That was yesterday,” Wadimoff’s speak says, ”but for Jean Ziegler it is still today”, and then the film cuts to present day Cuba, to the back seat of a car where Jean Ziegler is conversing with a woman, of whom we do not learn even the first name until the last scene of the film, and only in the credits is it confirmed that she is, of course, his wife Erica Deuber Ziegler, the art historian and politician.

It might be because Wadimoff assumes everyone will recognize her, but it might also be because the world of the film revolves around two men, Ziegler and Wadimoff, and everyone else becomes the extras: Erica Deuber, Che Guevara, locals in Cuba, children suffering from the hunger-induced noma disease – photographs of whom Jean Ziegler always carry, he confides ”It is for them I am talking, do you understand?” – delegates in the UN, protesters in Munich.

While preparing to speak to the crowd of the latter during the G7 Counter Summit 2015 in Munich, Jean Ziegler utters a very telling sentence:

”Under what conditions can ideas shaped by one man become a material force, a social force? It is only if the social movements take the idea, and transform it into a movement, into a historical force. It is the secret dream of each of us, and maybe that is what will happen tonight.”

The layers of vanity in these words are astonishing, and so is the imaginary about ”one man” (an island perhaps?), ”the social movements” (in the workerist version more often conceptualized as ”the masses”), and ”historical force” (historical materialism in its most crude and vulgar form). Indeed the thinking revealed here is not ideas shaped by one man but rather by a lot of men, and it is a thinking that permeates European left tradition.

Wadimoff’s camera catches Ziegler in the moments before he will attempt to ignite the (self)cheering crowd of protesters. Ziegler, neatly dressed in a suit – no tie of course – combs his hair while looking avidly towards the stage.

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