Friday, December 16, 2016

Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche and The Story of Judas

I was asked by programmer Delphine Selles-Alvarez to introduce FIAF's December 13 screening of the 2015 film Histoire de Judas (Story of Judas), the last film in a complete Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche retrospective. There isn't much written on Ameur-Zaïmeche in English, and my notes for the introduction read well enough, so:


I’d like to discuss some of the qualities of Ameur-Zaïmeche’s work so far, and talk a little about how tonight’s film grows out of what Ameur-Zaïmeche did before.

Some characteristics that we find in his work from the beginning:

1. An attention to documenting places and evoking their ambience, with emphasis on natural sound and a pleasure in long shots and long takes. He has a good compositional sense, with an eye for natural grandeur.

2. A tendency to suggest story rather than foreground it, giving a few muted story cues along with his evocations of locations: story emerges from within the ambience, or hides within it.

3. A tendency to present sympathetic and unsympathetic actions in a similar manner, and to let signals about characters be absorbed in the prevailing mood of the environments he creates.

The last three elements taken together make one think of Jean Renoir, in that both filmmakers want to document the world and in some sense they don’t want the fiction to triumph over the documentary - they want the fiction to be infused with the qualities of the documentation. As a side effect, both filmmakers evince a generosity toward people.

A few of Ameur-Zaïmeche’s characteristics come on stronger with his third and fourth films, Adhen and Les chants de Mandrin (Smugglers' Songs):

 1. A romanticism in the presentation of people and their struggles, and a pleasure in the heroic. The romanticism also has the general effect of making characters more admirable - Histoire de Judas is a good example.

2. A taste for abstraction in his stories and subjects: a suggestion of allegory or symbolism, a preference for stories that point to larger issues.  This tendency collides in an interesting way with the realism of image and sound that Ameur-Zaïmeche likes. The ambient style and the romantic largeness of the gestures and stories modify each other.  One can almost define Ameur-Zaïmeche’s style as the combination of these two tendencies.

Adhen used an unusual setting and striking art direction to create a sense of microcosm, of a part representing the whole. And after that Ameur-Zaïmeche left modern times and took up legendary subjects.  The socialist politics in his films come to the surface in this period, but the politics are expressed in romantic, heroic terms - I feel as if the romanticism is at least as important to him as his political aims.

On Histoire de Judas:

The solemnity of this particular story seems as if it might weigh the film down, but Ameur-Zaïmeche soon starts doing peculiar things with the material - the sanctified subject matter throws Ameur-Zaïmeche’s daring into relief. One small sign of his assertion is the modern way Jesus and Judas express their mutual affection: he humanizes them by transforming them into bros. I kind of like it because it’s so much him, even if it’s not the way I might approach the material: he’s using that male energy that we see in his other films.

I don’t want to give away the plot, but you’ll see big deviations from the New Testament version as the story goes along, changes that feel more artistically than politically motivated. One interesting addition that can perhaps be mentioned without spoiling the film is the important character of the madman who impersonates Jesus and functions in the film as his double, and who eventually is the focus of a emotional scene on the site of the crucifixion. Though such additions to the story are a bold gesture, they don’t alter the intent of the original much: Ameur-Zaïmeche seems to be trying to make vivid to himself the emotions of the story, rather than depart from it in fundamental ways.

In his last three films, Ameur-Zaïmeche has been moving a step at a time toward legend and grandeur: from the abstract conflict of Adhen to the Robin Hood-like figures of Les chants de Mandrin to the Christ story.  I’m curious where he goes from here, as his stories have pretty much gotten as big as they can get.