Le Reel a L'taque: French Documentary and Globalization

Article excerpt

In 2004, fifty-one documentaries obtained a theatrical release in France. This new record represents a measure of the success enjoyed by the wave of documentaries that has reached France's silver screens since the turn of the century. Tackling a variety of issues, these documentaries have been remarkably successful at home; in terms of domestic admissions, fifteen of the top seventeen performing French documentaries have been released in the last ten years. (1) Some, indeed, have also been successful abroad; the worldwide success of Agnes Varda's Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000) has shown that a French documentary on social issues can reach out to the four corners of the world as much as wildlife spectaculars like Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou's Microcosmos (1995), Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, and Michel Debats' Le Peuple migrateur (2001), or Luc Jacquet's La Marche de l'empereur (2005). Of course, the fact that Les Glaneurs carries the signature of a recognized auteur such as Varda surely played a major role in its reception; nevertheless, in the context of economic globalization, her subjective and critical point of view struck a chord with the audiences of the many countries where the film was screened, often following an introduction by the director herself. Her portrayal of the plight and the resilience of economically challenged individuals as well as her sympathetic point of view on those who reject the system have made her film one of the few documentaries that have brought denunciation of the dominant position of economic liberalism to a truly international audience. Yet, while Varda's film touches on many aspects of neoliberal globalization (the food chain, economic waste, profitability), Les Glaneurs does not claim to be a film about the effects of the global free market per se. It is only so incidentally, unlike an increasing number of French productions to which this essay is devoted.

The Counterglobalization Documentary: A New Subgenre

Indeed, in the last ten years, there has been such a wave of French documentaries dealing with, and predominantly denouncing, the globalization process and its consequences that it is hardly an exaggeration to talk about the emergence of a new subgenre: the counterglobalization documentary. This essay first traces the contours of this new category, suggesting subdivisions in the corpus of films that constitute it, in view of the wide variety of perspectives on globalization that they offer. Second, it moves on to look at the political claims made by the great majority of the directors in question who position themselves as cineastes engages and for whom filmmaking constitutes a militant act. Third, it compares the militancy of the recent films with the earlier wave of post-'68 political documentaries, bearing in mind the contrast between the two political contexts as well as taking into account issues of production, distribution, and exhibition. The essay then moves towards a conclusion by looking in its final section at the strategies adopted by the documentary makers to develop a discourse on globalization, and by asking whether these strategies are adequate translations of the political commitments expressed in the directors' public statements. How do these documentaries help to understand globalization? Are they effective weapons that can be used to resist the process they condemn? Between films that document the human tragedy of globalization in a local or national context and those that trumpet the message of the counterglobalization movements, are there films that really address it in a global way, films that can carry the debate to the international level that it must reach to be effective? Infused with a certain nostalgia for an era where (to borrow from Chris Marker's 1977 film Le Fond tie l'air est rouge), there were "cats behind the grins," the work of the documentarists of today shows how they have had to rethink their political engagement in view of the new global framework and after taking stock of the changed political configuration. …