Sandy Amerio interviewed
by Olivier Marboeuf
Olivier Marboeuf: How did the idea of making Dragooned come to you?
Sandy Amerio: In early 2010 I was recruited as a researcher at the Nantes Fine Arts School (in the framework of the project F for Real) in order to explore the complexity of the relationship between Reality and Fiction in cinema and contemporary art. Soon enough, I felt that reenactment would be the ideal ground for this research. Dragooned was at first conceived as a documentary about the practice of reenactment, which consists in recreating a certain historical period or replaying a military event from the past. This historical basis is freely interpreted by players, who don't hesitate to invent plausible sketches around each event, or come up, in their meetings, with ideas resulting from their own knowledge. Going back and forth between Reality and Fiction (in the temporal sense) is an essential part of this hobby. If you film the off-screen details of this practice, you can easily witness its surrealistic or even comic aspect, but I wanted to avoid that. So I chose to do the opposite: I never left the logic of reenactment, I followed it through, remaining in immersion, along with the reenactors.
O.M: How did you find these reenactors?
S.A: My research started when the Nantes art school organized a trip to Japan. Once I was there, finding a reenactor was an easy thing to do. I met Hiroki Nakazato on the Internet. He's a very famous reenactor, a « globereenactor » who travels around the world reconstituting different battles. I worked with him for two years, in photography, video and performance projects. Hiroki introduced me to reenactment. He was the one who made me enter this very closed-off field, extremely reticent to non-practicing individuals, especially if they're female. I participated in my first reenactment in August 2010. Two hundred men were there, and I noticed a small group that had something different. Their attitude and organization had a military quality, which is not always the case for all reenactors (some of them are just amateurs). But these men were not playing. They actually were career soldiers.
O.M: What about the preparation of the filming?
S.A: I decided to work on the basis of these men's aesthetic imaginary, the kind of atmosphere in which they would ideally have wanted to completely immerse themselves. Let's not forget that, to them, historical authenticity and total immersion are essential to this practice. After my first contact with them in 2010, there was one thing obvious to me: I had to recreate the conditions of a reenactment, I had to stage one myself. This would allow me to be as free as possible and independent of other events' conditions of organization, over which I had no choice. All details had to be under control so that the men could be filmed in full immersion: I needed the time to frame, to retake a scene the cameraman might have missed. There were almost no written scenes before filming: just a few plausible links between scenes in which we followed the advance of the 509. I really wanted to be historically coherent with the places the battalion had passed through. Some of the places we filmed at are pretty famous - the door of Mr. Maille's farm, in the village of Mitan where the soldiers have a rest, for example. I conducted extensive historical research in order to direct Dragooned, especially for the making of the newsreel sequence in the beginning: the rhythm of the editing, the actor's movements, the voice-over, were all really specific.
The instructions given to the cameraman appeared simple: he was told to film in the way an operator would have done so in the past. It is a very difficult thing to do: you have to avoid modern codes of war representation. You have to remain distant and watch reality unfold before your eyes - but from the opposite perspective...from the past. The cameraman had to become a reporter from the past and so he, too, found himself in a fictionalized situation. The soldier/reenactor we can hear in the film was the chief of the troops during the shooting of the film, and it's interesting to see that the graphic characteristics I wanted for my film didn't always correspond to actual military tactics. We sometimes had to discuss that together and arrive at compromises. I realized the extent to which my idea of war recreation had been formatted by Hollywood (even though I had spent months watching war footage to train my eye) and that these movie representations can be distant from real military practice.
O.M: How do you relate to the position of the soldier appearing in the film?
S.A: It was a very difficult and painful relation. I didn't want to give my support to the soldier/reenactor's words. Even I was shocked when we began the interviews. Nevertheless I decided not to censor his words, pretend I hadn't heard them, dismiss them by saying « what a fascist ». Because when I listened to his words, I felt he had a unique painfulness that went beyond the context of enunciation (reenactment as reinterpretation, as historical extension, the repetition of the same as different...) – all of which fell within my subject of research. So it gave me an opportunity to understand the dynamics and shifts in the whole process better.
O.M: Considering the way the soldier/reenactor speaks of this subject, isn't there a risk of seeing your film as an extremist pamphlet - instead of this spiral of fictions you aimed to create?
S.A: No, because these issues were part of my work from the beginning. Still, I have to admit that finding a form of the film was a long and complicated process. I went step by step. I fought against the text and the images, as if blindfolded, asking myself ethical and deontological questions. Actually, all aesthetic choices I made were considered exactly so that the film wouldn't turn into a pamphlet. Usually, in reenactments one battles against a visible enemy, whereas I chose not to show any kind of enemy. The soldiers are fighting against themselves and their own representations. In an extremist pamphlet, the enemy would be at least evoked, or shown. It's not the case here...We follow the men and hear one of them talking, but we can understand that the material is fake, that no archive footage had been used. We thus realize that what could constitute a proof is actually pure fakeness. The mise en scène had to adapt to the idea that History is a fictional construction. We are watching just a version of it. The soldiers are wearing the uniforms of the victorious US Second World War army. But they're not glorified: there is no possibility of identification, and their faces are never shown. I didn't want to turn them into potential heroes. They are denied, violently crossed out or scratched over with razors directly in the film. In order to understand the strong choices I've made, I think that the film muse be seen many times. It gives out an impression of force through the voice, but it also implies the opposite: it integrates in its DNA a potential critique and deactivation of what is said in the voice-over.
Everything in the film is double. I needed to avoid censoring the soldier's position, but also to endure to go through his story. Let's not forget for example that any trace of the present during a reenactment is considered by the reenactors to be visual pollution. The present (the way it's experienced by the protagonist) has to remain off-screen, rejected as a threat to the authenticity of the Dragoon operations being reconstituted. The more the Present is made manifest, the more our faith in what we see breaks down. Fiction and Reality have always been permeable notions, ever since the beginning of film history. Fiction is included in all documentary projects. I can't say I created a fiction around the film... I think I formulated the text on the basis of the interviews as if it were a fictional narrative. I worked on it from within, so that some of its structural points could be made evident – that is an important nuance. My fictional approach (to repeat it once again, fiction is an intrinsic part of the principle of reenactment) tended to put the soldier's discourse at a distance. But the soldier/reenactor exists, he's real. The way I deal with his discourse through fiction is what gives the film its strong structure. This is what allows us to discover the character, with all his violence and pain. The film remains a documentary on reenactment but it also speaks of certain dynamics in contemporary France. How did this man get to think the way he does? Fiction is a tool that allows me to understand better.
O.M: How is Dragooned related to the rest of your work?
S.A: Dragooned didn't come out of the blue. Those who know my work will recognize my obsessions in it. The repetition of the Same (different) and the link between personal and collective History, have both always been of great interest to me, ever since my first film, Surfing on (our) History. At the time, I had asked myself the question of our understanding and construction of History when in the present (that is, History in the making) we are absent from it. I had tried to answer this question from my family's perspective. I've always tried to interview very different groups of people (like in my video Farid au Français, with a talkative young French Arab that I had met in the street). Then there was Waiting Time / Romania where I filmed a group of gypsies and a group of old far-right aristocrats. The subtitles also added a fictional dimension to this film, since they don't always translate what's being shown. They actually describe an off-screen temporal dimension. This is quite close to what I did in Dragooned. I give great importance to narrative and storytelling, as in Hear me. Dragooned is a closed universe, like most of my films. But in this case we are also diving in the thoughts of the reenactor.
O.M: You have also extensively made use of television codes.
S.A: The first five minutes of Dragooned imitate the newsreels made by the Office of War information in the United States during World War II. This government agency supervised propaganda and encouraged patriotism, so that American citizens would accept a war happening on another continent. The OWI produced 267 newsreel films called United News. These newsreels were less than 10 minutes long, and were often, even at the time, replayed by actors. Cameramen were not always in the right place at the right time, or they weren't always able to take a photogenic view of the action. So the scenes were remade. That's exactly what I did. There is no archive footage in Dragooned. At the beginning then, there is an idealized vision of war, the way it was shown in the newsreels. And then (as if someone were controlling it all) there is a rewinding effect with the noise of a 16 mm projector. The voice-over changes. It isn't in English anymore, but French. It is a kind of voice we're used to: a codified sound from television, telling the story of operation Dragoon. Lemmy Constantine, the actor who did the voice-over, works a lot for television. The same images are now in color, but something doesn't fit. In a subtle way, collective History and the personal story of the character collide and blend. They merge and create a tension, which surrounds us in an unexpected logic. We are left speechless; we are so used to this televisual code that we are bound to be disoriented. Television has opened Pandora's box: World War II footage is reproduced in color, reframed, retold by a voice that reveals the idea of a possible fiction ... all this leads directly to Dragooned. I think the film invites us to sharpen any critical tools we may already have, and to understand the boundaries between personal and collective History. I did use television codes, but in this documentary, we have to face our own selves as we follow these men's vision of History. No one is there to guide us, to warn us of what to see and believe ... We are constrained and forced – literally, dragooned: we have to develop defense strategies, to react, we need to follow the soldiers into a reality that might seem parallel (the sound of the film stopping in the end aims to evoke this feeling) but we are not forced to agree with or even to believe in with what is said. Again, this is a film of dualities, and that's what makes it powerful. Dragooned is a journey in time – it shifts, as if turning a rabbit's skin inside out, toward the present of a French soldier, as he reconstitutes his own past because he himself is a reenactor. And that's how you loop the loop.
O.M: All your works clearly refer to the tradition of cinematographic fakeness.
S.A: Reenactors are also collectors. They obsess about whether a uniform is a period piece or a copy, if an object is real or fake. They gauge themselves that way. There is a parallel militaria market. And those who aren't authentic enough must be careful, because they might put the credibility of the reconstitution at risk. Unless one accepts to be a Farby, far be it from authentic... It's a notion that I discussed and developed with Hiroki Nakazato in my work outside the domain of film. Beyond this specific aspect of reenactment, working with concepts such as reality and fiction leads to questioning the categories of truth and falsehood. The group of researchers I belonged to is called F for Real, paying tribute to Orson Welles "The War of the Worlds" that he played on October 30th 1938 and that was subsequently broadcast by CBS - it was so good the audience completely panicked. In Citizen Kane, too, there is the famous series of newsreels « The march of Time » (known for the dramatization of reality through fiction), that later became « news on the March » in order to introduce the complexity of Kane's character. The fake in the end reveals everything, including its own fakeness. Once again, the loop is looped. The American army has also been very inventive when it comes to creating fake, almost science-fiction films, that were supposed to train soldiers to face even the most improbable kinds of enemy. There's this incredible film from The Big Picture series: The Aggressor. The idea was to give American soldiers examples of concrete situations for training purposes, but soon the film shifts to science fiction. But I was really impressed by It Happened Here, a film made by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo (1965). It is both a fake documentary and an alternate history; it imagines (only eleven years after the end of World War II) the Third Reich's victory over British forces - so Britain is invaded in 1940. What the directors focused on was realistic depiction, as they wanted to respond to an assertion that Brownlow had heard at the time, that Nazism « could never happen here ». Brownlow took that literally and imagined what could have happened if Germany had invaded the country in 1940. We follow the story of a nurse who seems to not be too hostile toward the enemy, or even to be collaborating. The film doesn't follow the opponent or the resistant's point of view (what was usual in the aftermath of the war) but that of someone who adapts thinking that life must go on. It's a very subversive film, even nowadays. It was widely criticized, because the filmmakers had asked real SS to play the role of themselves, which seemed like propaganda in disguise. A scandal at the time; and yet it became a cult movie. Brownlow's work has been recognized (he's a specialist on silent film) and he recently received an Oscar. Mollo became one of the most important historical consultants in the film industry (he worked for Polanski's The Pianist, for example). It's a film greatly appreciated among reenactors who happen to be great connoisseurs of war films. Dragooned is firmly based on this specific tradition of cinematographic fakeness. It's interesting to note that war (communication and/or military) constitutes the thematic background of all these fakes. Nevertheless, and this is the important point, in this case the soldier/reenactor truly exists. I haven't invented a single word (I have only written the first five minutes of the newsreel, following a well-known model).
O.M: How did fiction intervene in the process?
S.A: Distance is at the core of my work. Every tool I use is also analytical. Fictionalization (which goes beyond identification) is a part of this. I had completed the interviews with the soldier/reenactor, and from there I tried to construct the film. A big part of it was made during editing. Editing the text, first of all. It took months to find a viable structure for the recorded dialogues I had had with him, many hours of discussion. It took months of reworking the text to avoid betraying his discourse, trying to keep a certain distance from it, but analyze it nonetheless. I was working with delicate yet explosive material. To document is to abstract oneself. I was using this material, I was present in it only through editing. It was a long and, from an emotional point of view, hard thing to do. The character's dramatic curve starts with a model (the heroic newsreel) then it unveils the desires of conquest and the strategies of withdrawal, and it ends with the impossibility of obtaining the reward that had been announced at the beginning of the film (the memorial with the words « vomit », « piss », « shit »). Symbolic death is on the way. This is how the character's narrative curve is polarized; this is what gives the narrative its strength. I conceived the film so as to create delayed collisions between temporal curves, then let them unfold from the inside, like gloves turning inside out (or rather like a strategy of withdrawal). The issue of time is at the heart of the film (and of all reenactments). I keep in mind this definition of Time by Saint Augustine that I find beautiful: "There are three times, past, present and future; but perchance it might be fitly said, There are three times; a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future. For these three do somehow exist in the soul, and otherwise I see them not: present of things past, memory; present of things present, sight; present of things future, expectation." What we see is not what we think we see. A temporal shift in the narrative compromises the authenticity of archive documents, so it describes another reality (the reenactors' reality, as we discover).
O.M: There is a particular relation to History at the core of the film.
S.A: The soldier/reenactor's political vision of the present comes from his own perception of the past. The one fuels the other. The reconstitution of the past gives a new territory for present enunciation, it creates an outlet, a way of transcending the daily difficulties he encounters, feeling denied (whether this denial is true or not). He gives me the impression of dwelling in History as if it were a bunker that will protect him in case of a future conflict, a conflict feared as much as it is desired. But History is also like a blanket, protecting him while he sleeps. The soldier/reenactor uses many temporal analogies, he speaks of real facts, and he's persuaded that History repeats itself and that Man is naturally bad, always tending towards conquest and domination. I think that the spectator is hit by the power of his words. They create images, that are incessantly superimposed in the film. This creates different layers, so we can see the film from many different aspects – but none of them can be the conclusive one. Operation Dragoon was very important, yet remains practically unknown. Such lack of representation always opens up a margin for interpretation... and that's what we use. This lack of representation responds to another lack, the one experienced by the soldier who feels denied and isolated from society, a man who wants to be perceived as a hero, or to be simply recognized by others, which he doesn't believe to be the case.
O.M: Your work on the voice-over is complex, it integrates many registers and relates on many levels to the image.
S.A: I search for a manner of « saying the world ». I don't want to develop a thesis. The subtleties in the way I worked the voice-over are intended to experiment reenactment from within. This experience will allow the spectator to understand the field and the issues at stake. Dragooned is, above all, a film about reenactment and its milieu. The voice-over in the first five minutes forces one to interpret the images. It's a propaganda kind of voice, celebrating the American army. When the film is rewound, the voice changes and it becomes more contemporary, resembling for instance the voice-over of television documentaries about World War II. It is a narrative voice-over, and this is how fiction makes its entrance. In this codified, formatted voice, temporality has changed: it speaks of the past, but from our present time. Then after the credits, the voice enters a new realm, and this is when Dragooned becomes an elusive filmic object. Someone speaks to us, and talks of a childhood memory; we see a landscape without soldiers. This voice doesn't belong to any propaganda, it speaks of memories, it's full of syntax errors, daily life expressions, which I didn't correct or delete. It's the voice of a man, not of an ideological abstraction. It speaks of rustic French equipment, and this description responds in a curious way to the images we see onscreen, from World War II, where the equipment seems to come from another age. The images seem to be reloaded. They are the same ones as at the beginning but edited at a slower pace, so we discover things that had been omitted in the first five minutes of propaganda. For example: the soldier slips and almost falls. The voice says "we're so deep in shit that they let us do what we want". There is a possible correspondence between the voice and the image but in this description, there is also a slight shift that makes us doubt the truthfulness of the images. There is a very important pivotal point: "No, the only way is to admit that there is an enemy". And what do we see at that particular moment? Men had the possibility of shooting (flames and noises in the newsreel) but nothing comes out of the rifles as they wear themselves out trying. It's as if there was a bug in the representation: the voice-over is just a commentary, a possibility or a hypothesis about Reality, since what we see contradicts what the character says. They're not fighting against anything. The spectator can interpret this invisibility. She might think that there is a denial of French contemporary society (the danger of a radical Islamism, as the voice emphasizes) or that the character invents a fictional enemy that exists only in his head, justifying his survival as a soldier. We find ourselves in an inextricable duality. We drift from a propagandist voice-over (the first ten minutes) to what Serge Daney called a « voice- through ». A voice through the image, a voice that literally crosses through History and falls like a dead body, after the reenactors have taken off their costumes. It's a ghostly voice coming from a founding memory (the Father) and building a deranged identity (of an Other kept at a distance). A voice whose nature is extremely mysterious. The spectre of History is thus subject to reinterpretation, extended through the present as it occupies a wider space in representation (at first off-screen, and then denied, crossed out). The way I worked the voices also responds to the work done on the image; it all refers to Freud's Durcharbeitung, "working-through". The images are repeated, you see them again and again, and each time they seem to be reloaded. This is the research I conducted with reenactor Hiroki Nakazato (Restage, Replay, Reload). Repetition works like an aesthetic reformulation and exposes the soldier/reenactor's trauma (the lying bodies). The image with no soldiers is like a refuge, a reassuring image from childhood - even though the conflict was already present (Zaire 1978). One crawls under it like a blanket. They seem dead but they rise, almost like the living-dead, because they may fall again. That is reenactment. I don't allow myself to judge this trauma in the film: who could possibly do this? I expose it as a suffering someone has lived through, along with all the violence it expresses. Whatever we may think at first, the voice speaks from a position of defeat, not of power. It's a voice that expresses its own Death, which is never the case with propaganda, where force is glorified. The voice doesn't remain invisible: it identifies itself when it says for instance "that there, that's me". It's incarnated. In some rare sequences (like the one where a soldier cries on the parapet for the ones lying dead) it becomes a voice-out, it's synchronous with the man's lip movements. There are certain points of contact in the film, where the voice shifts from one register to another, as if changing gear. That's what keeps the spectator alert, listening, going along with the soldiers. The point of view becomes the "point of voice" and the emotional focus thus also changes. It's like in reenactment, where one can switch sides, can become different characters, from different times, with different nationalities and points of view. I think that the structure of discourse allows me to show the complexity of things, and that somewhere between the reality we create, the reality we are confronted to, and fiction invented through editing, lays the real, violent, unfathomable and eminently existential. I think that Dragooned makes us experience all that.
Interviewer: Olivier Marboeuf