Notes about Still and police violence in France
1. The origin of the collective French project “Outrage & Rebellion”
In July 2009, the filmmaker Joachim Gatti lost his eye when a policeman shot him with a flashball in Montreuil. Shortly after, Nicole Brenez contacted filmmakers to make a contribution to a collective film to protest police violence in France.
2. The process
The idea was for each filmmaker to make their contribution within a few weeks and without a budget. Because I was in the middle of working on another project, I knew I had to work very quickly and keep my aims simple. I wanted to make a direct protest and to confront the violence head on. Normally, I am interested in working in the gaps. But here the situation was different. I felt we were facing a subject surrounded by a lack of accountability and a lack of transparency. People who try to speak out about police brutality in France are increasingly being silenced with charges of “outrage & rebellion”* and there is self-censorship in much of the media. I decided in a situation where information is veiled, the most useful thing I could do was bring it to the forefront.
3. The titles projected throughout the film
The titles are taken from the 2009 Amnesty International report “Public Outrage: Police Officers Above the Law in France” and related press releases. I chose Amnesty because it is an organisation that people tend to respect and generally associate with human rights abuses outside Western Europe. Amnesty periodically publishes reports of serious human rights violations, torture and killings by the French police and appeals for concrete changes to be made to the French criminal and legal system, for instance the need to set up an independent police investigatory body and make available transparent and comprehensive statistics of complaints of police brutality. Year after year their calls are ignored.
4. Santiago Alvarez’s “NOW!” and the soundtrack
The music and sound of gunfire are sampled from the great Cuban Filmmaker’s Santiago Alvarez incredible short film NOW! (1965) about the American civil rights movement. I made this video in memory of him. The song is by Lena Horne. After her song was banned in North America she gave it to Santiago Alvarez to make his film.
I slowed down the extracts of the song until the music became a tired, broken down recording lacking the incredible energy of the original. I wanted in placing this song and the memory of NOW! like ghosts behind the video, to ask what has happened to that amazing energy and resistance today. It’s my fear we are caught in a circle of tired out responses that are no longer working.
5. The images from the internet
The images were taken from the internet and were often posted by families and friends of the victims. They include Pierre Douillard – a 16 year old school boy who lost the sight in his right eye when a hooded policeman shot at him in 2007; Lamba Soukouna – a young man with sickle cell disease, who was hit and mistreated for no reason by policemen as he returned to his apartment building. Later that night, when he tried to file a police report, he was arrested, beaten, refused his medication charged with “outrage and rebellion” and eventually taken to hospital for three days. Also the families and friends of Ziad Benna (17 years old) and Bouna Traore (15 years old), marching in silent memory through Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005.
I had to edit extremely quickly due to the time constraints with the help and support of a close friend, the photographer Mara Catalan in New York, who watched and discussed the cut via skype. So it was an experiment in making something entirely with and through the internet and at a distance from the subject, as I was in Belgium.
6. The list of the names of the dead
I felt it was extremely important to name the dead and write the words RIP (Rest in Peace). What had most struck me in several cases where French citizens had died at the hands of the police was that certain politicians and official bodies immediately embarked on a battle of justifications and counter-accusations before a full investigation had been made. But what I didn’t hear was expressions of condolences for the families or the dead. (I don’t know if they were never made or I just missed them.)
As with a lot of the information surrounding this subject, I was struck by the difficulty of locating a full and complete list of the dead. The list in this film is a partial, incomplete one. It begins at a random date: 1986. In going back that far, I wanted to underline that the current situation is the continuation of decades of failure. The last name on the list is a 69 year old pensioner without a criminal record called Ali Ziri, who was being driven in a friend’s car when they were stopped by the police for a control. Both men were beaten and insulted, according to his friend. Ali Ziri was taken to a hospital and fell into a coma. He died from the blows sustained to his body on june 11th 2009.
7. The white light that appears throughout the film
The white light is a reference to Santiago Alvarez’s film, which ends with a white screen, the sound of machine gun fire and the title NOW! written in bullets. But also to several people I name in the film who lost eyes or were permanently blinded in an eye when shot at by French policemen with flashballs.
When I had made a film in Sangatte in 2002, the police used to shine very bright torches at me to try to stop me filming. Their torchlight created a white out on the screen, sometimes burning the pixels and permanently damaging my cameras. I decided to take one of these white passages I had filmed and use it to punctuate the film. The film works in reverse. It is only at the end that one realises the blinding white light come from a police torch.
I wanted these passages of white, accompanied by the sound of machine guns, to represent the absence of images and information; the vacuum into which I believe decades of obscuring information has thrown French society and which to me is also a kind of blinding. What exists behind the white? How many deaths do we not know about? How many cases of mistreatment are not recorded because the victims were silenced or charged with “Outrage & Rebellion”?
8. Still: The title
A friend who had not seen the film suggested the title. I liked its double meaning: still images but also all that still continues: the racial injustice and apartheid, depicted in NOW! which is still present today in France, the deaths and violence, the silence, the taboos surrounding so many aspects of French police history …
Brussels, January 18 2010
* “Outrage” (insulting a police officer)“Rebellion” (violently resisting a police officer in the course of his or her duties)
Download Amnesty International 2009 Report (EN/FR):
Public Outrage: Police Officers Above the Law in France
France. Des policiers au-dessus des lois
Article in Liberation about Amnesty 2009 report (FR):
Violences policières: le diagnostic accablant d’Amnesty
A chronology of police related deaths
The case of Ali Ziri
Vérité et justice pour Ali Ziri