Avant Garde Cinema in France — Nina Zivancevic interviews Fredric Tachou and Pierre Merejkowsky

What is the avant-garde or the independent cinema in France? How does it continue to live after the era of Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, the legendary French New Wave, and above all, how will it survive the contemporary era of the pandemic and the lockdown? Nina Zivancevic spoke with two illustrious representatives of modern French cinema, both founders of the Collectif de Jeune Cinema, Frederic Tachou and Pierre Merejkowsky. She met with them on May 21 in Jardin Hérold, two days after the official lockdown was partly removed from the city of Paris.

NZ:  Let us start with Pierre Merejkowsky who’s a director , a scriptwriter and a composer, a representative of the so called ‘author’s cinema’ – tell us briefly how many films have you made so far?

PM: Ninety-seven.

NZ: Wow! I’d say they are of the original French avant-garde. And we have here Frederic Tachou who teaches the avant-garde film at La Sorbonne, so it goes without saying that he himself is also an author-cum-director and an instigator of his own cinematography. What branch of the avant-garde do you teach, Frederic?

FT: Oh, it is a course in history of the avant-garde cinema but this field covers different areas of film, the so-called experimental branch where I teach my students above all other things, the non-commercial  and the anti-institutional approach to cinema which is at the core of any creative and artistic film.

NZ: And you Pierre, what did it mean to you to conceive such an anti-institutional, non-Hollywoodized practice in film-making?

PM: Well, as Frederique Devaux, a colleague of mine has put it once “cinema is a way of living, it is not meant to sell tickets but rather to create the space for the dialogue and that non-violent confrontation between the film-makers and their public”. For me in fact, the term “experimental” comes from the verb to experiment,  that is as a film-maker you experiment first of all, with your own life. It’s more like a style of life than an artistic activity, but that’s just my own personal definition, please correct me, Fred, if I’m wrong…

FT: Oh, what you’re saying is true, but I certainly have my own definition of it which I also teach my students –  and that’s a poietic  approach to life and to the film-making as well. I would like to add that the quintessence of the “experimental cinema” is to cherish no expectations vis-à-vis the public, the spectator cannot have expectations and expect the predictable. However they will open their mind to the forms which are not predictable and usual as well as to the duration of a certain film. You see, the film is constructed, generally speaking, upon certain forms of expectations –  if you see the western, or a thriller, or film noir – as a spectator, you will have a lot of expectations upon entering that cinema hall. All of a sudden, with the “experimental cinema”, you have no expectations! Interesting!

PM: Well – we can call it – like in psychology – anal retentive experience! We refuse to respond immediately to our basic demands of expectations!

NZ: I have pretty much lived the experiences of the American avant-garde cinema with film-makers such as Ira Cohen, Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger – I am just wondering here – has “the birth of the French cinematographic avant-garde” had the same impact on the spectators in France as it had in the U.S.?

FT: Well, at a certain moment people started ask questions like “why should the cinema cater to the needs of large public?” and “why should it respond only to the needs of literary forms?” such as the interpretation of a novel or a theater play, it could also be an autonomous means or the means of interpreting the rest of the visual arts – in other words, cinema could be able to answer certain questions which had been already asked in the Academies of Fine and Applied Arts, certainly those problematic issues concerning representation in Arts!

PM: Ok, to extend a bit this thesis from Fred Tachou: in the 1970s there were two types of cinema which denied the public consumerist trend in Arts: one of them was to encourage the militant workers to organize themselves in the factories and that was the movement Ciné-Lute which became later Les Films de Ici which produced films for the television channel Arte, and the other type was cinema which was founded on the desire of the director and the participants of the film, and that type of cinema production favored the existence of minorities such as the gays, etc.

NZ: Were these two tendencies compatible with the “American tendency of the avant-garde” of the total denial of Hollywood as I witnessed it in the U.S., or did these movements have different flavors?

FT: Here in France, we have always had even two types of the experimental cinematography which relied on the conviction of the first experimental film-makers that there had been two types of cinema: the first type stems from the institutions, the institutional or cultural impact of films which are there to amuse the spectator, make him laugh – as simple as this cinema seems, gradually it becomes ever more sophisticated, but somewhat like in any other art (literature, painting etc.) it serves the amusement of the spectator; Fernand Léger had nicely remarked as early as in 1924 “the artists have succeededin getting rid of the subject in the painting, now the film-makers have to get rid of the divas, romance and the narrative tram”… and also, they had “to get rid of” money, or the idea of money as the film industry was observed as a grand entrepreneurial machine but the artists themselves had created a certain tension or fracture within that process, and their response was manifested either as the formal rupture with the “machine” or the ideological rupture…

NZ: I remember that I learned when teaching the British “New Wave” cinema – that the movement was closely connected with BBC television; what about the French “New Wave”, Godard and that crowd – were they involved with the French TV?

FT: Well, the situation in France cannot be compared to the situation in England or in the U.S. because something what we call “the author’s cinema” here has always been a mix of the author’s experimental ideas and his commercial approach to things. Here the situation has always been a bit paradoxical- within our RTF (the official, state French radio-television) there was an office devoted to experimental work after World War 2, and the man in charge of that office was Pierre Schaeffer. That man was a part of official television that was encouraging the development of the French experimental film, and he was very brave in that. So as a simple person, a French spectator in the beginning of the 1960s you could turn the main TV channel on at prime time 8p.m. and see a wild Egyptian documentary or listen to Luc Ferrari or someone like that, crazy!

However, people like Shaeffer or Boulez (Pierre) were not exactly the people who would discourage capitalist system and its productions… I’m not saying that they were bad artists, not at all, but they would let certain things go through the official channels, it included also the attitude that “art is not political” and that art should be independent of politics – that’s a very old debate which has been going on for decades and centuries… For me personally, experimental film is not into creating power structures, but I see its representatives more like the independent islands of people who have similar sensibilities and they group together either between different modes of production or different modes of distribution..

NZ: So, please correct me if I’m wrong – even if experimental authors do not start to gather with certain political raisons in their mind – the difference that distinguishes their works and modes of production become certain political tools, the vestiges of certain politics?

FT: Yes, absolutely – take the case of the underground filmmaker Stan Brakhage – he has never written or explicitly pronounced one line of political conviction, but when you see his work it is truly political.

PM: Or Jonas Mekas for that matter…

FT: Yes, Mekas was a big reactionary even and his political convictions did not prevent him from creating a big experimental, avant-garde universe, and if I mention the name of Enrico Fulchignoni, a big commercial master who also had a big penchant for pre-Columbian cultures, I want to underline his  significance to culture nonetheless – you can imagine a poor worker who enters his home at 8pm at night and turns on his TV and finds something like a saga of Indian people, far-away cultures, etc. That was the real thing to be accomplished, in my view. And that was a channel on state television which would invite this worker to mentally explore new continents. So what is the real revolution here, I wonder!

NZ: I am sure that our readers would like to know, how did you start the adventure called Collectif Jeune Cineastes, two of you?

PM: Well, we did not start it exactly, it was Marcel Mazé who also created the festival d’Hyeres in Toulon in 1974, where he favored the ambiguity in film and tendencies different from an overall commercial cinema; he also favored a very militant, activist and at the same time artistically creative cinema approach. The festival stopped suddenly, and after a break of some ten good years, it reemerged with Jean Marc Mach who took over that festival, now to be known as Collectif Jeune Cineastes. Mach persuaded Mazé to continue doing the festival in one of the cinemas in Paris. In the beginning there were lots of interesting people: Brigitte Fontaine who disappeared all of a sudden, a young filmmaker Carole Roussopoulos and many others…

FT: I don’t think exactly that Mazé was the guy who started the Collectif – he was just there in 1971, and 1972, and a lot of young  filmmakers gathered around his debates of Independent cinema, but he was not officially the one who started it. In fact, he started perhaps just one of its branches. Collectif  was in charge in fact, to show and promote work of the independent experimental authors who were not largely seen in official cinema houses; it was founded as the “co-operation” in the spirit of Jonas Mekas’ endeavor in the US, but in fact, it was much different from the traditional French Cinema d’Auteur. So this Co-operative organized screenings in Paris in different places but in the 1980s the members of this co-op grew a bit tired of their efforts; however in the 1980s something else very important happened – a film professor and critic Dominique Noguez started doing his enormous work on Experimental cinema and literally acquainting people left and right with the fact that there was this other type of film in our country, so in the end – was it by the beginning of 1990s, the festival Collectif Jeune Cinema was relaunched and all the cinematographic activities that go with it… Next year we celebrate 50 years of the life and times of this society.

PM: Yes, but I would still like to emphasize the role of Marcel Mazé in all this as he’s the man who managed to promote and develop different avant-garde tendencies within this group – he encouraged, for instance, the development of gay cinema with Lionel Soukaz within that group. I remember the  General Assembly meetings of our group – these were the springboards, the fountain source for brilliant ideas – the so called pedagogical branch would clash with the ecologists or other minority groups, but their clash was productive… Pip Chodorov was in charge of the mailing list of the members which he refused to control, organize or supervise, make “special selections” – I’m saying all of this in order to indicate a bit – what kind of a different cinema world the Collectif Jeune Cinema was offering to the French…

FT: I did not observe all these differences in the way Pierre did, as to me, there was a lot of hurt ego struggling within the group… Well, as soon as there was an emergence of the public festival, the participation of the government with public funding – certain responsibility was evoked. There were a lot of people who were not getting any allocations and they were certainly dispersing a lot of their own energy; nowadays, when the structure of the organization is tighter, it is harder to ask a member to dispense his/her own energy on so many different things. But for me it is of an utmost importance that people like Pierre Merejkowsky here stay within that structure, as he always disagrees with someone or something which brings in the grain of sanity to the organization’s structure and leadership.

NZ: In other words, would you say your association was made up of the members of the avant-garde which were not bought-off yet?

FT: Absolutely, and the important thing within our association has been that non-distinction between the beginners, non-professionals, and those filmmakers who have already established themselves. For instance, we have observed that the really big festivals of the avant-garde and experimental film follow a certain hierarchy of authors, they are likely to show the established names, which hasn’t been our practice, not really… We even allow filmmakers who are 15 years old to enter our competition, their status within an institution does not really interest us, we are really looking for Authenticity with a capital “A”. We are really interested in presenting some really interesting cinematographers, and if our struggle nowadays goes more into the discovery of new artists and less into struggle of confrontations it is because we would like to be more efficient.

PM: I have a problem with that word! However, it is true that we have between 500 and 1,000 members and that often it is difficult to get all of the branches of the Association orchestrated – some members push forward the development of Queer cinema, I myself am more for the exposure of the militant role of the Yellow Vests,  there is also an autonomous group of the so-called Formalist cinema; however, the good and positive thing in all this is that our Association manages to handle the parallel work and activities of these different social groups. This concordance is to be observed in the way we handle distribution – we’re doing it the way we can, but there are no ‘underprivileged’ branches of cinema in our group – we try to distribute each and every aspect of film studies as much as we can.

FT: Alright, we should really emphasize here the positive role of our Association – well, it has to show, above all, a certain resistance to all the rules and established regulations, in this sense it tries to collect all the words and actions which in a way ‘go over the board’ or which do not enter the regular “picture frame”; for instance, in our annual competition for the filmmakers who are younger than fifteen – we leave the space to those youngsters who are not the ‘absolute fans of YouTube’ and who have something creative and spontaneous to present. Such a youngster is there to tell us that freedom of expression also implies a feeling that certain emotions and creative thoughts can be shared without being previously pre-programmed .

PM: I find this type of creativity  when people speak out their proper thoughts particularly moving. Let’s take, for instance, that festival “Sauvages” in Bruxelles – this is the place where the pronunciation of the “I” is very important, even the worst parts of an ego, the extreme right’s opinions for instance, anyways – the society nowadays see the importance of pronouncing and claiming our proper “I”, because they have been listening for a long time to the discourse of the state, to the discourse of democracy and often they realized that the words they’d heard and trusted were not really true , so they started to listen more to their own inner voice which sort of pushed them to pronounce their own expression of “I”. Especially nowadays, when we are all receiving the massive orders such as “all of you wear the masks” or “don’t leave the house until further order” or “we are all going to die very soon” etc, in this situation it is very important to keep our single-minded “I” which discerns in its own autonomous way. There should be an autonomous space for expression of this “I” for everyone, for the people sick with COVID and for their doctors and nurses, where there is no space for collective ideologies and massive orders (laughs).

FT: Yes, I think this is essential here in regards to our group – we are trying to create that space which promotes the individual “I” and also the belief that the individual “I” can create a sort of discourse – unlike the monologue of the egotistical “I” present in the American films of the 1990s –  the discourse of the “I” which can share its experiences with the rest of the crowd. The “I” which exchanges its experiences with the Other. In other words, how can we create a film which speaks of an “I” whose experiences can be felt by all the others; so that there is basically an “I” which offers his experience to the others who can create then their proper “I”.

NZ: Do two of you believe, Frederic and Pierre, in the digital continuation of film such as it presents itself to us today?

PM: Well, it’s a very touchy issue – there are some of us, for instance a Belgian director Boris Lehman, who believes that the digital era brings us really to the end of cinema, there is a group who believe that the major pain nowadays is the disappearance of the real tape. They see it happening the same way as if one told a painter that from now on he would not paint with his paints, red and yellow for instance, that there are no colours for him to use – the digital is the real suffering for them. At any rate I don’t think they have a choice now as there are not 16mm films available any longer…

FT: Yes, I think there exists 16mm film, but I see it more like a change “within the generations“. The problem here is that the use of the digital film was something  that emerged rather like an imposed type of change on the filmmakers – this change was not only imposed on them as to their use of the film technique but also in terms of the economy and economics pertinent to film. They were asked to adopt really quickly to the whole new paradigm of cinema. All the authors of experimental cinema were asked to adapt to the digital system really quickly indeed, in all senses of the term “adaptation”! In fact what’s happening right now is that we have a certain choice – I’m continuing to make 16mm films, he will continue working with his Super 8 films, the mix of all these techniques is quite acceptable and interesting. Digital gives us a different texture of a film, but nowadays we see during the screenings of films that even some digital films give us the same feeling and plasticity as the ancient ones. What we should not lose here – as the spectators – is the experience of the screen which is very peculiar… our own festival has a lot of respect for the format of an author – we pay attention as much to the classic tape as to the digital – true- I will say it here- the 16mm, not so much the 35mm film, but the 16mm film has a certain sweetness and charm which we lose with the digital which is shinier, and more ready to seduce us…

PM: Oh, I have to interrupt you –  I’m making the digital films now but with a kids’ camera, which gives the image a totally different texture, ok, the film is ragged, often “off” the lens, but I love it!

I’m not the only one to use this tool while filming something, what it gives us also – it totally breaks the idea of “author’s copyright”, and I love to break copyright whenever I can in order to break the capitalist system, of course.. and for me digital film is just that one that escapes the copyright, the production rights, the distribution rights – it jumps from the hands of the producer into the lap of the spectator. It is a bit as if we had a man who grows tomatoes placing one of his products right into the hungry mouth, so I would say “yes!” to the digital! But also with the classic film if you put it on YouTube the film loses its nuances, its warmth, so right now I’ll be passing my films directly onto the screen – from my lens onto the screen… OK, I know the effect that I get (moving from YouTube directly onto the screen) is not the one of Eisenstein, but it looks OK generally speaking; however, I understand the worries of the directors who prefer the ancient film to the digital input. People also say that Maria Callas’ voice is different, much better coming from an old 33 vinyl than when we hear her from a DVD or a CD. So what do we have to do? Break YouTube into pieces? (laughs) I see the contemporary technology as a sort of virus which prevents our creative endeavors from happening sometimes, so should we put a virus of poetry into YouTube? I don’t know..

FT: Oh, I don’t know, Pierre enters here again into some deep and pertinent issues – regarding the authors’ rights, copyright, he has said that if you destroy the copyright you break down the capitalist system –  I would like to agree with him but I cannot as we are not going back now to the very beginning of the early capitalism where the major issues were individual freedom and an inkling for the trade – and the right to sell freely what we want to whom we want… so for us to negate copyright today “in order to break the chain of capitalism” would be really to go back to the first idea of the capitalist trade… If we go back directly to the link ‘Producer addresses directly  the consumer” we are entering a very small, local and intimate market and nothing on a larger, global level; and the idea of the internet is very universal, it is opening, enlarging the market, not tightening it up into a small local community. So it seems to me a bit paradoxical – the desire to promote a local event using such a universal, global tool as as film or rather the internet… otherwise, Pierre and I are ideologically very similar, of a similar background. In other words, I do not believe in the mechanism of the state any longer, the contract, the rights etc – I believe more in a human interaction even on the institutional level, that we are able to “produce” individuals who are human and acceptable – I guess that’s Rousseau’s take, isn’t it? Or perhaps even Plato’s, as he said “the man is formed by the law”, and then Rousseau added that we are born free but then we are also social beings which reduces our freedom, redirects it in a certain sense, as a part of society we have our rights, we are free to create, but then how do we get something in exchange for the product we created, how do we share these products with the society? In the socialist countries of Eastern Europe- the artists were often paid , and even on a monthly salary, for their creative work, which is not always the case here in Western Europe…

NZ: One last question for you two guys: what do you think about this new wave or tendency in French cinema which is, let’s say, “ghetto-ghetto” or everything happens in the “burbs” like in the recent films “Les Miserables” (by  Ladj Ly) or Scheherazade (by  Jean-Bernard Marlin)?

FT: There has always been this line of realist social cinema present here, the one which tries to describe the lives of victims, of the humiliated ones whose life is annulled even before it started, but OK – I have nothing to say about it – I’d rather not say even “not my cup of tea” as this would not be true either… but what bothers me a bit – and here I’m going to be a cartoonist a bit, I’m going to draw a caricature here – what bothers is when good bourgeois families start congratulating themselves for having gone to see such movies, like hey, we’re not all that bad, we can observe and then portray human suffering too in our country… Yes, that bothers me. However, I say – so much the better if the young kids from the ghetto can make such films yes, why not? It’s just the spectators or juries who give awards that I dislike – Wednesday eve they watch such a film, but on Thursday morning they participate in an event which was likely to be condemned by the film! But ok, I don’t want to be misunderstood here, I’m just convinced profoundly that the people who make these so called “anti-anti something” films, they march right into and towards the system itself… but let’s hear Pierre.

PM: No, I think that the middle class likes to see such films and right now they are filling the cash boxes of the commercial cinemas with the films which all of a sudden and labeled under a certain group label get the common title ‘films about the disabled” or the films “about the hurt, violated women”.. Well I am not cynical or nasty here, and I am not a part of the socialist cinema which had its own agenda with certain themes on society in general, but I think that there is something which persuades the commercial cinema to take certain less explored values at a certain time, so, if you like the “ghetto ghetto films” which are so trendy now – in my view they just represent a certain continuation in the realm of commercial cinema. But it does not mean also that there aren’t some valuable films in there, it’s just this idea, à la Victor Hugo, like “we are miserable and the rich will remain rich… and the poor will remain poor…


This interview was conducted between Nina Zivancevic and Pierre Merejkowsky and Frederic Tachou on May 21, 2020 in Paris, right after the ending of the first  lockdown.

Poet, essayist, fiction writer, playwright, art critic, translator and contributing editor to NY ARTS magazine from Paris, Serbian-born Nina Zivancevic published 15 books of poetry. She has also written three books of short stories, two novels and a book of essay on Milosh Crnjanski (her doctoral thesis) published in Paris, New York and Belgrade. The recipient of three literary awards, a former assistant and secretary to Allen Ginsberg, she has also edited and participated in numerous anthologies of contemporary world poetry.

As editor and correspondent she has contributed to New York Arts Magazine, Modern Painters, American Book Review, East Village Eye, Republique de lettres. She has lectured at Naropa University, New York University, the Harriman Institute and St.John’s University in the U.S., she has taught English language and literature at La Sorbonne ( Paris I and V) and the History of Avant-garde Theatre at Paris 8 University in France and at numerous universities and colleges in Europe.

She has actively worked for theatre and radio: 4 of her plays were performed and emitted in the U.S. and Great Britain.

In New York she had worked with the “Living Theatre” and the members of the “Wooster Group”.

She lives and works in Paris.