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Interview with Audrey Jean-Baptiste and Maxime Jean-Baptiste, codirectors of Écoutez le battement de nos images

Monday 12 April 2021, by Clotilde Couturier

Is your film mainly an account that you want handed down? How did you construct the voice-over?

The film is essentially tied to my desire to breathe life back into the things that disappeared when the Guiana Space Centre was set up in Kourou in the 60s. To script the voice-over, we dipped into our close networks. For example, our father’s , who’s from Guiana himself. So we were able to exchange ideas in a trusting atmosphere, which helped elicit memories. We also met people whose families’ lands were expropriated in order to build the site, as well as people who were less directly affected. The specter was very broad. Nevertheless, many people shared the feeling of being out of the picture with respect to France’s space conquest, which was taking place on their land. From these diverse voices, the two of us then built a text, like a blend of different points of view, mixing that with our own experience. Then we got in touch with the Guianese actress Rose Martine who lent her voice to the text. It was important for us to work with an actress who could understand and feel the text in all its ramifications through her inner being.

Did you try to track down the former inhabitants of the villages that were emptied to facilitate building the Guiana Space Centre? Were they given financial compensation? Are they still in contact with each other, maybe as part of an organization?

We met people who lived through the expropriations as children. Their stories were gripping. How they described their parents being devastated at having a few short months to leave their birthplace. They told that story like it had happened yesterday. Their feelings of brutal loss, of injustice and bitterness were long-lasting. One of the families we met showed us an official document that said their whole property, including all the land, had been acquired for a price of 5103 old francs [about €7,500 today]. The families whose land was expropriated were mainly farmers and breeders. As compensation, they were accorded little huts, with land located over 20km away. At the time, most of them did not have vehicles. So it was pretty complicated for them to grow food and bring home the harvest. It was virgin land so they had to replant everything. Start everything over from scratch. The vital economic artery of Guiana that had once provided fruits, vegetables and meat to a large part of the territory, no longer exists. The older generation that lived through the expropriation is barely still alive. Their grandchildren remain, who experienced everything when they were very young. I don’t believe that they’ve created any organizations.

What prompted you to employ silence and a lack of visual images?

When we began gathering archival images of the space center being built in Kourou, we keenly noticed the near-total absence of Guianese. The meagre visual representation of racialized peoples. That lack was what laid the groundwork for the film. We knew the name that that silence bore. The names of several hundred people whose lands had been seized to make the site, in problematic circumstances. Very quickly we were moved by a desire to reestablish a balance. We had to put the voice of a people who’d been made invisible back into the heart of this story. Those whose lives had been crushed in the interests of France’s conquest of space.

How did you work out the “beating” of the images, in particular the hypnotic effect of the images of the rockets?

Looking through the images that the CNES made available, we came upon the beginning of a 35mm film. A spectral blackness where we could see white dust moving about. Then we made those particles of dust react to our character’s voice without covering it up. These leftover particles of dust, as soon as they’re put in motion, become the remains of images, the remains of sensations that “beat” to the rhythm of our character’s voice-over. So the “beating” of the black spaces came about through a long, painstaking process of editing. As for the archival images directly connected to the rocket, we had a number of images of take-offs. Almost every archival video, whether by an institution or a spectator, ended with a rocket taking off, as the grand finale of this conquest of space. We focused on several take-offs, some of which were filmed very close up, and others from further away. We were interested in their hypnotic effect in particular, but it was important for us to always return to the dust that ends up being extinguished. Those moving, beating dust particles, just like the remains of the Malmanoury communities whose lands were so brutally expropriated.

What do you think the future holds for short films?

Right now it’s pretty complicated envisioning the future in any general sense. We sometimes feel trapped like a rabbit in a car’s headlights. The present is too intense to imagine the future. But what comes out of this impossibility, of limitations and hold-ups, is that we absolutely must “make” things. We made Écoutez le battement de nos images in two months, on a small budget, with permission from the CNES space observatory as part of a call for projects. We made the film almost in a single breath from the initial idea to the finished product. In one go. It was definitely very intense, but such a thrill to make a film in the midst of thriving energy. Obviously we’ll continue trying to finance our short films in the usual way, despite the time-line that entails. I.e., several years. All the same, we think it’s imperative to also try to repeat this experience of making a film in a very short period. By finding the means to make films outside the usual channels, or inside them but with smaller budgets, lighter productions. Which allows us to stay in the dynamic of “doing”, which we think is all the more necessary given that the future of films seems hazy. All the more so for emerging filmmakers who are still on the margins, who suffer from the isolation and precariousness of the business, wondering if they’ll be able to make their film one day. Perhaps the only way of mitigating the feeling of powerlessness the pandemic has caused is not waiting for the sky to fall on our heads. And in order to do that, short films lend themselves especially well to the idea of making a film as a movement, in one go. So borrow a friend’s camera, grab your phone, edit together images you’ve found on the internet. It doesn’t matter. Just go and make something.

If we were to go back into lockdown, what cultural or artistic delights would you recommend to alleviate our boredom?

Tenk, Mübi, the documentary series LSD and France Culture’s Grandes traversées [Great Portraits], all the books by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and John Edgar Wideman.

Écoutez le battement de nos images is being screened as part of National Competition F12.

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