While in Paris last year, Ayreen Anastas, François Bucher, and Rene Gabri, who have worked together on and off for nearly a decade, were researching filmmaking collectives of the 1960s. They were questioning whether that productive atmosphere, when, as Anastas puts it, "the social, political, and personal were finding their way towards each other," might be possible to re-create today. Then they discovered that sociologist Edgar Morin had originally intended to make a longer cut of Chronique d'été, the groundbreaking film he codirected with ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch in 1961.
The "lost" footage naturally piqued the artists' interest, since Chronique paved the way for much of their own politically engaged, experimental work in documentary film. Indeed, Chronique marked a stunning advancement for the nascent genre of cinema verité. Embracing Henri Lefebvre's (and later, the Situationists') celebration of the political potential of everyday life, Chronique "investigates" the lives of Parisians, including the directors themselves, their friends and colleagues, a secretary, and two factory workers. A series of questions such as "How do you live?" and "Are you happy?," are posed repeatedly in an attempt to use the camera to break through the isolation imposed by social conventions. Rouch and Morin's candid questions, their attempts at reflexivity, and participation as "actors" in the film itself, positioned Chronique in a new realm between documentary and fiction — a familiar straddle today, but utterly radical at the time.
Anastas, 38, who was born in Palestine, and Gabri, 40, who is of Iranian and Armenian parentage, are both based in New York, and have documented conversations with strangers on topics such as Guantánamo Bay or revolution, while Berlin-based Bucher, 35, makes videos that engage with historical events, the media, and political speech, both in his native Colombia and elsewhere. The artists note that Chronique is an important precursor to reality TV, which "took the baton but dropped any real questions or ethical responsibilities," as Bucher says. Gabri adds, "Rouch and Morin dared to ask bigger, possibly universal questions that later generations of artists have been taught to avoid." The artists — who now work under the name Un Groupe Comme les Autres, in a nod to Godard — have tracked down some of the original participants in Chronique, including Morin himself. All are enthusiastic to reconstruct the new version, and will document their endeavors, adding yet another layer of reality to their homage. And Rouch and Morin's deceptively simple query "How do you live?" will touch a new generation of viewers, likely even less acclimated to the potency of such disarming, unaffected encounters.
"Francois Bucher + Ayreen Anastas + Rene Gabri" originally appeared in the December 2008 / January 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' December 2008 / January 2009 Table of Contents.