Direct Action | Ben Russell, Guillaume Cailleau

Öykü Sofuoğlu has met Ben Russell and Guillaume Cailleau during the 46th Cinéma du Réel, where they won the Grand Prix, and talked with them about «Direct Action» and about their encounter with the ZAD, their interactions with the members of the community, and their views on hope, utopia, and victory.

Resistance in Times of Tranquillity

My late teens, in high school and early years at university in Turkey, felt like passing through a curtain made of tear gas and water, against the backdrop of urban resistance movements that embraced the city of Istanbul. I remember the staggering feeling of hope coursing through my body, whispering that, despite the political unrest and extreme violence we were subjected to, a full-blown change was on its way, that we were going to win, and that our parks and cinemas would survive and thrive. I also remember the sense of defeat – one that has never left me since then, the wounds it opened growing deeper and deeper with every demolition, arrest, and imprisonment I witnessed, until the point where I promised myself to never hope again.

Yet I knew that, like many people my age, I secretly longed for things that would enable me to gladly break my promise and embrace hope again, albeit carefully and cautiously. As my hopelessness reached unimaginable levels in the last months due to the extreme apathy that the world indulged in regarding a systematic genocide, I watched Ben Russell and Guillaume Cailleau’s Direct Action, and finally felt a tiny crack in the shell of my pessimism.

In 2012, the Loire-Atlantique department of France witnessed an immense mobilization by French people against the construction project of an airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, resulting in the foundation of what is known today as ZAD (Zone à Défendre / Zone to Defend), a space for anti-capitalist, anarchist political resistance. Bringing together people from different social backgrounds, varying from farmers to militants, the community formed in the ZAD experimented with alternative forms of political action, systematically battling against the authorities' violent repression tactics and ultimately succeeding in compelling the government to abandon the project.
After more than ten years, filmmakers Ben Russell and Guillaume Cailleau decided to explore what remained of the ZAD, its “post-victory” state, as they call it – a rare phenomenon in our current political landscape, where people willingly accept living by the maxim "Capitalism always wins”. With their 16mm camera, Russell and Cailleau closely and attentively observed the daily lives of people who proved this maxim wrong. Resistance in times of tranquillity changes form: it moulds, builds, sows, and grows. Those of us who are accustomed to seeing hands repeating the same gestures over and over on the production line are invited to experience another temporality of action. «Take your time», the film seems to tell us, «rest your gaze and watch how they take their time in their own hands».
I sat down and talked with Ben Russell and Guillaume Cailleau during the 46th Cinéma du Réel, where they won the Grand Prix, about their encounter with the ZAD, their interactions with the members of the community, and their views on hope, utopia, and victory.


Interview with Ben Russell and Guillaume Cailleau

Öykü Sofuoğlu (OS): Ben, having lived in France for a while now you must be quite familiar with the political context and the various movements and communities engaged there. What specific aspect of the ZAD caught your interest?

Ben Russell (BR): I was pretty naive as to the specifics of the conflict or the struggle, in part because my French wasn't really good when I arrived here, and a lot of that information hasn't made its way outside of France. In the United States, we were very aware of Calais encampments and what was happening there but not so conscious of the grassroots, socialist, militant, agrarian organization that was forming, since it is so anomalous in the American context. My primary interest, my jumping-off point, really had a lot more to do with collectivity, which has been a running theme in my work: what happens when groups of people come together around central ideas? This community was described as a place where people had been victorious, which seemed to me like a very rare and compelling variety of utopia.

OS: And Guillaume, I read that you come from the same region where the ZAD was launched. How familiar were you with that struggle?

Guillaume Cailleau (GC): I've been living in Berlin for almost 20 years. Before that, I used to live in Nantes. When the ZAD movement started to grow, I had already moved from there but remained in contact with my family, so I knew about the struggle against the airport but never got a chance to participate. I was quite curious and had some friends who had been there. When Ben proposed that I go visit the ZAD though I saw it at first as a strange idea, since I thought a lot of things had been done before around the subject in France. He explained to me that the international audience didn't know much about it. Gradually, the idea of sharing with the international community the sense of victory that French people were already familiar with began to resonate with me. That was our naive starting point, from where our ideas started to change.

[…] The work really involves being present in a place, spending time with people, and allowing whatever is happening to truly steer the direction of the film.

OS: Before going there and starting to work on the film, did you have any preconceived beliefs or ideas that may or may not have changed during the filming process?

BR: I would say that we had naive ideas only at the very beginning. My work has always predicated on having a sort of generally indefensible thesis about utopia that I try to dig into. We know that utopia doesn't exist – or exists only as a thing that we move towards - but in hindsight, from the present time, it's hard to articulate these ideas around victory. Regarding the place, I had particular ideas around what it might be. I also think that I've made enough films at this point to clearly say that, for me, the work really involves being present in a place, spending time with people, and allowing whatever is happening to truly steer the direction of the film. In a certain sense, I rely on my biases to lead me towards certain subjects, with the understanding that they're going to become much better articulated. That's also the process of non-fiction filmmaking.

In a way, I think I was worried about how the activists or the people in the community would articulate themselves – not because I feared they would articulate themselves poorly, but because I feared they might articulate themselves too well. I wanted to find a way of moving beyond a kind of ideological presentation of self and delve into something deeper. I didn't really know yet what that “something” was. We spent a year visiting every two months, for ten days each time. Over the course of maybe a hundred days of filming, our understanding of what the ZAD was shifted quite radically. Not entirely, but its specifics were significantly different from what we had imagined.

GC: One prevalent prejudice that persists in France today is the belief that this community no longer exists, that it is an empty space from the past. However, we quickly learned how the ZAD is a part of our present reality, remaining very vibrant and active on a local level. It also serves as a meeting point for people coming from various other communities and movements.

OS: You open the film with archival footage documenting the events that led to ZAD's victory in 2012. I found it to be a very clever and necessary narrative device to address an audience who might know nothing about the community. It's a very balanced introduction. I was wondering how you set the limits of the information you provided.

GC: As Ben mentioned, we were interested in the ZAD post-victory, so we were trying to talk about what is happening now. Then, despite our initial resistance to the idea, we did realize that contextualization was necessary.

BR: Every place is, of course, totally determined by the history of what has happened there. I've been watching a lot of James Benning's films here at Cinéma du Réel. Many of his films show long, empty portraits of landscapes, and it's through the process of narration that you understand how these landscapes have existed differently, because of the history of human settlement, of racism, of lynching, etc. What we knew in coming to the ZAD was that there was a very rich history that we assumed was in the rear-view mirror, and as portraitists we tried to understand how to make a film in the present without spending our time discussing or relativizing the past. That, I think, was the biggest challenge. This opening shot was the most direct way to point towards an archive of events that had happened which, later in the film, is offset by the speeches given on the 10-year anniversary of Opération César that had happened in 2012. There's sort of a re-articulation of the stories of cops marching through the forest, using tear gas. In a certain sense, while much larger in scale, the demonstrations in Sainte-Soline work as a similar another representation of what previously happened in the ZAD.

GC: As we realized the cyclical nature of the events, it became more evident that we were relating to the present as much as we did to the past. Since we were exploring what individuals were doing within the community, it also made sense to introduce at the beginning the person whose main responsibility was taking care of the archiving and documentation.

[…] My work has always predicated on having a sort of generally indefensible thesis about utopia that I try to dig into.

OS: In the film, there's a scene where we see Guillaume washing the dishes in the kitchen. There's also another scene where a protester at Sainte-Soline shouts at the camera, saying you shouldn't only be filming this. Through these two instances, you give yourselves a certain visibility and rather than being an exterior eye, we feel like you're part of that environment. In what extent you were involved in the ZAD and how did you build your interactions with other members of the community?

GC: Everyone can go and visit the ZAD. There's a welcome centre that has been active for 10 years, which allows people to see for themselves how things work in the ZAD.

BR: As 21st century militants, they are very well aware of the usefulness of the media. There are some people whose responsibility is to welcome media and journalists.

GC: When you visit the place, you can be there as a participant or a guest. Since we wanted to follow what people were doing in the ZAD, we decided to live at their rhythm. That's how we met people – in workshops on planting, wood-gathering, etc., similar to those you see in the film. By familiarizing ourselves with the activities, we also developed a closeness with both the humans and the non-humans there. Moreover, our equipment was quite heavy and we tried to make our presence felt – we didn't try “collecting” images that people would not want us to have.

BR: This wasn't something we were doing strategically differently to other visitors, but when we first arrived we didn't request to meet specific individuals among them. Instead, we informed them that we had brought our equipment but wouldn't be filming anything immediately; rather, we intended to spend some time there and return repeatedly. From the beginning, we understood that this was a place where we wanted to invest our time. Our frequent presence significantly shifted how we interacted, communicated with them, and participated in their activities. I don't think we ever arrived at the point where we asked to film intimate things. We were very aware that we were still making a film and were granted a level of access that depended quite a lot on the amount of time we spent there and our way of working – not simply filming them, but working with them.

GC: In all of our projects, we never went to a place with a clear idea about what the film was going to be. Because it's not really interesting to go there and film whatever you want.

BR: If you've never been to a place, it's quite difficult to know what lies ahead of you. Perhaps within the genre of fiction it is possible, since you're the one who's constructing everything. Otherwise, your job is to take account of what's there and be present. This has been my approach in my practice over the last twenty years: going to places, trying to initially spend time without filming anything so that I discover things that are interesting, and also things that I'm interested in, which are not always the same.

[…] I think I can say that anarchy is a white privilege most of the time. In Sainte-Soline, for example, if you happen to belong to a minority, you have more chances to be targeted by the police.

OS: While watching the film, I couldn't help but think that the ZAD seems mostly inhabited by white people. Have you had any similar thoughts on diversity and the social dynamics of the community?

GC: That's something we also noticed, but we are talking about west of rural France. From my readings on the history of anarchy, I think I can say that anarchy is a white privilege most of the time. In Sainte-Soline, for example, if you happen to belong to a minority, you have more chances to be targeted by the police. So you probably wouldn't go to these kind of demonstrations.

BR: You'd be the first person to be pulled out of the line-up, to be beaten. As an American whose discourse around identity politics is, I think, much more elevated than the discourse in France, where we talk about national origin rather than race. I find it curious that the country is comprised of a number of territories that have their own language, linguistic histories. In Brittany, people still speak Breton, there are people who consider themselves not to be French. The idea of whiteness is a relative position. It's not generous and accurate to its subject. I would say that anarchy does seem to be a political position that happens in democracies. You don't get a lot of anarchists in fascist states because the pushback is much more intense. Maybe there's something related to that as well.

[…] It's not about the transmission of information, but rather a sort of temporal empathy that's produced, like a way of being with.

OS: Throughout the film, we contemplate various “actions” that predominantly rely on manual labour. However, these actions occur within a certain continuity – a daily routine that we only get to see in part. When creating these blocks of action, how did you determine the beginning and end of a shot?

BR: Working in 16mm allows you to set limits for yourself. One of the difficulties in documentary filmmaking is knowing when to start and when to stop, because you don't have a script and you don't know what the world is going to produce, but for Direct Action, we had set out in advance that we would spend a year filming. After a year, it seemed like we had all the material we needed. Sure, we could have kept filming, and the film would have become richer and more complicated, but it felt like what we had set out to do had been achieved during that period. Filming is a process of accumulation, of following the path from one event to another. For example, the second time we went there we filmed the sawmill and had some wood gathering shots. Then, it made sense that we would also film logging at a later point, and that we would consider filming construction at another point, but in fact there's no beginning or end to these activities. You're always eating, so you always have to cook. If you're going to cook, you have to grow food; to grow food, you have to water and till the soil, and so on. As a filmmaker who comes from an anthropological tradition, I've always had great difficulty understanding what constitutes an act, its beginning and ending. That has perhaps allowed me to think about instances of things – coming into a moment and leaving it – where you've spent enough time to understand what things are, but not necessarily how to do them. Because it's not about the transmission of information, but rather a sort of temporal empathy that's produced, like a way of being with.

OS: Apart from the archival footage, the second instance you lend your gaze to another lens is the drone shot. While drone technology is generally used for surveillance and control, here it leaves a very poetic, meditative impression. Was this the impact you intended to channel?

BR: What is interesting about the drone in the film is that we usually consider drone building as a sort of labour, relying on pure functionalism, and there's not so much pleasure involved in it, and part of that lack of pleasure has to do with the burden of being an expert. However, for many people in the ZAD, the activity itself isn't the reason for doing it; rather, it's in service to a larger goal. There's the possibility that you do it if you want to, and you stop doing it when you don't want to, which means a visceral relationship to action is much more prominent.

GC: It was about what this person enjoys doing, and we wanted to show everyone in their own work or activities as a form of portrait. He was really interesting as a person. He was obviously using them for fun, but in the past he could have very well used it as a device for counter-surveillance against the police. We also thought it would be fitting to have a shot from the sky in this place that was supposed to be an airport.

OS: Compared to its length, the film ends on a rather low note, with the extremely brutal police intervention and yet, as one of the chess player says in the film, «you can't always win, you can't always lose either» seems to be the moral of the story, given the outcome of the things that happened following the events. Do you see a connection there and, if so, do you share this belief?

BR: I would say absolutely. This was the second instance of the protests at the water reservoir in Sainte-Soline, where in the first instance the protestors entered into the space and practiced what they call disarmament, which was perhaps also a goal of the second one, but it wasn't achieved and the police were super violent and brutal. 200 protestors were injured, two were put in a coma, police fired 5000 tear gas grenades and bombs in the course of an hour, which is like one tear gas canister for every two or three people. In a certain sense, they didn't succeed in their goal, but the response of the police was so gratuitous that it pushed “Soulèvements de la Terre” into the French national spotlight (up to that point it had been a sort of well-known but not well-publicized movement). Since that moment, a number of water reservoir projects have been cancelled. In spite of the government's attempts to ban them, these movements continue to grow. So it's clear that if you're going to be an activist, you have to accept that you can't win all the time but that you can't lose all the time either.


Direct Action | Film | Ben Russell, Guillaume Cailleau | FR-DE 2024 | 216’ | Berlinale 2024 (Best Film, Section «Encounters»), Cinéma du Réel Paris 2024 (Grand Prix)
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First published: April 10, 2024