DVD release of BABEL (Fin du cycle) - Boris LEHMAN

BABEL (fin du cycle) 
: Notes on 4 films by Boris Lehman

English version (texte en français dans le poste suivant)

So here we are - the end. The end, really? You'd have to think so. It all began in the 60s, with the Club Antonin Artaud's film therapy for the mentally ill. It came to an end at the dawn of the 2020s, almost sixty years later. In the meantime, what? A life of cinema, a life in cinema - a life filmed, like Jonas Mekas or Alain Cavalier. A few hundred films, short or long, in 8 or 16 mm, to which must be added an astronomical sum of photographs, various images, postcards, scraps of paper, little notes, little words, filmed or not, all gravitating around the work, participating in it in one way or another, from near or far.

As one of the eulogies in Funérailles puts it: "You can't imagine what it's like to have an archive of a filmmaker who has almost 500 films to his credit, and who doesn't throw anything away!'' But looking at Boris Lehman's films, you can get an idea.

To conclude his life's work - to which was given the beautiful name of Babel, officially begun in 1983 - Lehman opens this "end of cycle" with a little film entitled Oublis, Regrets et Repentirs, taken from the lost reel of a previous film, which the filmmaker didn't know what to do with. It has to be said that everything went wrong during the shoot: from the theft of his camera to the various technical problems encountered, including a Nagra recorder acting up - so many signs inviting him to give up, to put an end to the work. Yet the filmmaker persists, delivering sequences that are as chaotic as they are funny. Sounds that get carried away, out of sync and out of control. High-pitched voices, high-pitched monologues... Confusion reigns. Oublis... is a film that does as it pleases - like Lehman, in fact. It's also a film based on an absence, on the anguish of an absence: this "black hole", i.e. the seven months preceding the start of filming, seven months during which Lehman filmed nothing, he tells us. Seven months of his life, "of which no trace will remain". What could be more terrible for someone whose particular obsession is to keep track of everything? Who makes a point of losing nothing, of wasting nothing? "Sauvegarde d'un film oublié" could have been the subtitle of Oublis..., which fully assumes and asserts its value as a "reject", a film recycled from the preciously preserved debris of everyday life.

The strangeness that emanates from Boris Lehman's work needs to be understood: imagine him living his everyday life while a film crew follows him around, filming his every move, his wanderings, and even the most innocuous interactions with the bookseller or the barista, the friends he meets "by chance" (but what "chance" exactly, given that real life and staged life end up merging?), who thus become amused accomplices in the auto-filmic enterprise in progress. Egoism? More like pure obsession: the fear that even the smallest things can be lost and disappear, without leaving the slightest trace. And the fear, perhaps, that as they disappear, they'll drag us down with them, into the great siphon of oblivion. That nothing can hold anything back. It is on this visceral anguish that Lehman's work seems to have been built, over the decades of a life lived in order to be filmed - without which it would not really be lived, without which the world would forget. There's something of Perec about Boris Lehman, whose enterprise is at once compilation, exhaustion and (self-)archiving.

Forgetting. This is also the basis of the next film, Une Histoire de cheveux, subtitled Sibérie. It's the continuation of an earlier film (again), Histoire de mes cheveux, shot between 2003 and 2010: the first part of a larger project that couldn't be completed. Sibérie is the second part, continuing the filmmaker's journey through space and time, as he follows in the footsteps of his ancestors to the farthest reaches of Russia: in the footsteps of his own name, of himself as it were. The film is thus a journey to the end of the world as well as a journey to the end of oneself, an incantatory narrative in which Lehman's words are interspersed with songs, poems (including Cendrars' sublime Prose du Transsibérien...), various noises and silences, all of which give the film its haunting, somewhat hypnotic form. The encounter between the filmmaker, his particular vision and the landscapes of deepest Russia results in images of strange and sometimes staggering beauty - desolate landscapes, frozen lakes, mountains and villages as if rescued from memory and history. With Lehman, the viewer travels through these places like a stranger on another planet. Part documentary, part film essay, part travel diary, the film is also nourished by Lehman's various encounters with local people, individuals he meets along the way, who punctuate the introspective journey by constantly linking it to reality and the present, in an incessant back-and-forth between inside and outside, between yesterday and today, between "me" and others - through the combined powers of movement and image.

"That was back when I believed in images.
We traveled from one country to another, meeting people.
And we would film these people and put them in the film.
And in the end, they were the ones who made the film, who made it a film.''
-from Une Histoire de cheveux (Sibérie)

But the journey must come to an end - back home. But how do you come back after that? It would be like coming back from the dead...

We're not so sure about that. So, after Siberia, it's time to return: Ulysses returns to Ithaca, even if he gets a little lost along the way. At a Parisian café, the filmmaker-traveler learns from an old acquaintance that he has recently been buried. It is on this unlikely premise of a Lehman from beyond the grave that Funérailles (de l'art de mourir) opens, the third film in this end-of-cycle, in which Lehman has fun staging his own demise with a mixture of humor and seriousness. More than a mortifying experience, this film should be seen as a performance, the fabulist re-enactment of an event that has yet to take place: an attempt to overcome the taboo of death, imbued with the atmosphere of rites that, through staging, rediscover their properly poetic value, somewhere between paganism and religiosity. At the edge of this (fictitious) tomb, the filmmaker wonders what to do with everything he's stored up all these years, all these images, documents, books, clothes, films - all this junk once again, obsessively preserved? Faced with his lifelong obsession, Lehman seems determined to lose everything, to burn himself everything that, no matter how hard he tries, was destined to disappear. Thus, Lehman the collector, the collector-filmer, meets Franz Kafka's (whose ghost haunts the film) ultimate wish at the end of the journey: this leads to a bewildering scene in which the filmmaker gathers all the editions he could find of the Prague writer into a heap, to turn them into an inferno. Auto-da-fé or bonfire? An act of self-destruction or a celebration of life at its most ephemeral? With this gesture, Lehman asserts his destiny as an eternal CSDF - Cinéaste Sans Domicile Fixe - as a final (?) point in the journey of one who "wanted to be nomadic and free, in a world where everything is a prison, frozen and tied up", thus fulfilling (even symbolically) his dream of dying in a bonfire.

But leaving is not so simple: witness the long, moving sequence shot that closes Funérailles, a long on-camera confession by the filmmaker who admits he can't stop there, while the film itself stretches on into the minutes of an "interminable" epilogue - that of a work "that doesn't want to end, that wants to stay in fact."

Just when we thought Babel was finished, here comes a final film that (really?) concludes a work that never ends. Fantômes du passé [comment l’histoire est entrée en moi] has a special status all the same. Bonus, after-the-fact commentary, filmic will-o'-the-wisp? More like a kind of balance sheet, an opportunity to plunge back into the archives of a life. The film is based on a gap, on a wound and a crack - the one that appeared in the life and heart of the filmmaker himself (who suffered a heart attack before making the film), and the one discovered on the wall of his studio, to which it seems strangely to respond. Cracked heart, cracked wall: two cracks that become one, from which all sorts of past ghosts escape to form yet another stone to be placed on Babel. As if aware of the reprieve he's been granted, Lehman goes through his film like a quasi-ghost at first, refusing to let himself be filmed, hiding his face by turning his back to the camera, or behind a paper mask made from various photos of himself. Although he eventually drops the mask, this little game of hide-and-seek continues, with Boris allowing himself to be filmed by a friend (Sarah Moon Howe, also co-director of the film) while he goes about his business, as if indifferent to the film being made, tidying up his studio, among his reels and archives - those of his own life as well as those of history and the great events that have accompanied it, and of which the film is intended as an exploration, a little tour d'horizon - a stroll. "I show you the story, how it entered me. It's my story, but it's everyone's story too." A film that takes stock and provides an overview of a filmed life, Ghosts of the Past acts as a final inventory before disappearance: the revisiting of a work, in the sense that ghosts sometimes come to "revisit" us - when they too cannot bring themselves to disappear altogether.

How to finish? This is the question that haunts the end of this cycle, and that each film poses, first in the background, then more and more head-on. But is it really possible? In the light of what emerges from these latest films, we may well doubt it, since it seems more improbable than ever to see an end to something that can't bring itself to end, to something that is perhaps destined never to end - as long as there's breath left, a few scraps of film, a few photos found in a drawer or under a bed, as if by miracle, as if by happy chance: a sign that we must go on.

This is the logic of all collectors, for whom nothing is ever closed, for whom everything is always open, can always have a new element added to it, yet another little piece here and there... But this doesn't alter the whole, whose internal logic, its profound coherence, is one of permanent welcome.

More than an impregnable tower, Babel is a citadel open to all the noises of the world, all the off-fields of history and time. How do you finish? By not finishing," replies the filmmaker.


For those who wish to continue their discovery of Boris Lehman's work, the DVD box set Babel (fin de cycle) published by RE:VOIR includes the 4 films:

- Oublis, regrets et repentirs (2016, 42 minutes)
- Une Histoire de cheveux (Sibérie) (2020, 97 minutes)
- Funérailles (on the art of dying) (2016, 97 minutes)
- Fantômes du passé [comment l’histoire est entrée en moi] (2020, 87 minutes)
All accompanied by a 112-page bilingual booklet published by Yellow Now Editions and the Boris Lehman Foundation.

Official release date: March 3, 2024.

Available here: https://re-voir.com/shop/fr/boris-lehman/1597-boris-lehman-babel-fin-du-cycle.html