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BERLINALE 2024 Encounters

Review: Direct Action

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- BERLINALE 2024: Ben Russell and Guillaume Cailleau immerse themselves in the Zadist movement based in Notre-Dame-des-Landes for a hypnotic documentary adopting a radical artistic standpoint

Review: Direct Action

"I’m exercising my right to remain silent". There was once a plot of land measuring 1,650 hectares situated in the west of France, where plans to build an airport were opposed by a wide range of groups (ranging from farmers to anarchists and ecologists to anti-globalists) who occupied the area and created the Notre-Dame-des-Landes ZAD (Zone À Défendre, i.e. Zone to Defend) in 2009. After years of highly publicised conflicts with the government and several clashes with the police, the airport project was eventually shelved and the ZAD (brutally) evacuated in 2018. But over 150 people are still living there today, having developed farming opportunities on the land and a communal micro-economy, as well as a space in which to gather to discuss other struggles, such as the radical ecologists movement Soulèvements de la Terre, which was recently in the spotlight for the part it played in demonstrations (which turned into confrontations) against the Sainte-Soline "mega lakes". The collective ended up being dissolved by the Ministry of the Interior, before the decision was eventually overturned by the Council of State.

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It’s in the midst of everyday life in this ZAD (or at least in its politically visible contingent, so as to protect the anonymity of its activists) that American filmmaker Ben Russell (primarily known for A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness [+see also:
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, discovered in Locarno in 2013 and 2017 respectively) and his French counterpart Guillaume Cailleau (on his first feature filmmaking adventure) set up shop in 2022 and 2023 to make their fascinating documentary Direct Action, which was unveiled in the 74th Berlinale’s Encounters competition. It’s a film which is clearly socially engaged ("give me your hand, comrade. Lend me your heart, companion. We will rebuild the barricades"), but which takes the clever and highly artistic approach of opting against a sensationalist aesthetic when reporting on the great tensions characterising the group’s one-on-ones with the police (which are broached in the prologue and in the film’s hair-raising home straight).

It’s a documentary filmed from the inside and unfolding in line with the unhurried pace of nature, composed of incredibly long static shots (which nonetheless flow, thanks to director of photography Ben Russel’s wonderful sense of framing) which detail the most mundane day-to-day actions and movements of the ZAD’s inhabitants: twenty or so hypnotic tableaux depicting the sawmill and the kneading of flour, ploughing (via horses) and forge work, meticulous care over seeds and weeds and driving cows and calves across prairies, the sharpening of chainsaws and a ballet of crepe pans, a meal of mutton and a virtuoso piano performance, a children’s birthday party and a political rap recording, a feverish party and a game of chess, and a flyover of the zone by drone and strategies for future militant action.

Overall, the film does require a little patience (to say the least – it lasts 216 minutes), but it proves to be a magnetic cinematographic approach depicting the diversity and firmly entrenched identity of a group of activists living (and acting) in accordance with their beliefs. It’s a demanding existence in terms of the focus, imagination and memory it requires (Catalonia 1936 is mentioned), and a Thoreau-style brotherhood to which the film pays wonderful tribute, albeit unilateral. But it’s first and foremost an original artistic gesture which is perfectly in keeping with its subject-matter, like a lookout creating their own space and time.

Direct Action is produced by German firm Cask Films together with French outfit Volte Film. World sales are entrusted to Shellac.

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(Translated from French)

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