Mise-en-scène, mise-en-abyme

Vincent Meessen and Olivier Marboeuf in Conversation (part III)

Trailer : Juste un Mouvement (Just a Movement)

Read Part I and Part II of the conversation between Vincent Meessen and Olivier Marboeuf

Part III

Olivier Marboeuf: Omar is one of the few characters who plays his own role in Godard’s La Chinoise and it is an idea you seem to try to generalize with most of the characters in Just a Movement as a mise-en-abyme of the documentary form. I get the sense that this is notably a way for you to confront the difficulty of a situated point of view. Who is speaking, and in whose name, which is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s question. But more importantly still, I think: in which space is one speaking? To put it more specifically, asking everyone to play their own role could be a way of making believe there was no directing, no director.

Vincent Meessen: The situated point of view can no longer be just that of the filmmaker, who in that case would function still like an old-fashioned auteur. Even if this auteur exposes themself and redistributes some of their power to their collaborators, in the editing room, they evaluate what they learned and understood from their experience. The shoot is never fixed or given; it’s in movement and is built through the vicissitudes and relationships. Most of the interviews were shot in Omar’s family home. The choice to shoot the film almost solely in Dakar allowed an exclusively local intersubjectivity to emerge. Each witness speaks from their perspective. But the problem with the documentary genre is that it presupposes a discursive rationality and instrumentalizes it in its own narrativity, as if to provide proof of authenticity. Yet my aim was not to construct a space that ensured that a truth prevail, but to assemble an ensemble of facts and observations in all their uncertainty, in essay form. The actors, for their part, perform their daily occupations: trading, kung fu, activism, poetry, cinema, Chinese medicine, theoretical reflection. These actors traverse representative spaces: the family home, Gorée prison, the Museum of Black Civilizations, the Confucius Institute, the ramshackle Laboratoire Agit’Art courtyard, an amphitheatre in the Thiaroye military camp. They put documents back in circulation, recite texts, attempt gestures that serve to form the storyline, to give it poetic depth. The space that I try to bring forth is shifting, worked in two directions, by retrospection and projection. This space is thus a time that flows: the imperfect present. In the absence of a judicial truth about Omar’s death, what remains for us is to fashion a mnemonic truth. Alongside the witnesses and actors, I thus consider myself to be more a mnemonics fitter and turner than a director.

OM: I get the impression that, in your film, directing as an act is intimately linked to that of montage – as it is in Godard’s work, for that matter – and thus to something that takes place in another arena than that of the shoot. 

VM: Shortly before the birth of cinema, there was a rhyming technique in poetry where rhyme kits were available for people to complete according to their own imaginations. In cinema, montage is always a matter of rhyming. A shot is always in interaction, an interlude that one inserts to construct a specific time-space. We worked without a screenplay, improvising from day to day, but with clear intentions that allowed a combinatorial play. In this string game, you need a little luck, vistas, and technique, including the vital technique of montage, so that all these tricks create an illusion where necessary, or, on the contrary, deconstruct it by proposing something else. It is clearly a montage film that plays on several registers at the same time, but which doesn’t just tick along all the same as it avoids giving moralizing lessons in demystification, expert distancing, parody, cynicism, or closure. Perhaps we achieve something of the order of an embrace in the scenes where the characters of both films enter into a dialogue beyond the eras; perhaps it is something like the “perpendicular montage” Godard spoke of? Finally, this other space that the film constructs is blind because the director’s calculations are often thwarted, and the plot resolved by each spectator in their own way.

The filmmaker and their double

OM: With Godard, we see the kind of naïve error that consists in believing that a rather puerile reversal – it’s the Black person teaching now – can suffice to dismantle the mechanisms of colonial authority and to dissimulate who has the power to constitute a scene of representation and authority. How do you confront this question in your film?

VM: Omar has a special status in the original film. He and the philosopher Francis Jeanson, an intellectual and former head of an Algerian FLN support network, play their own roles under their own names, unlike the other characters. But there where Jeanson is given all the latitude to develop his own line of argument in a very long sequence, Omar, while in a clear position of authority as he teaches the others, in reality amalgamates a string of quotations from Lenin and Mao. But Omar isn’t just the Black character. Of all the actors, he is also the only activist involved in the student movements of the time. Let’s not forget that he wasn’t even credited, but that Godard recognized ten years later that he was the only balanced character and the one who, ultimately, still mattered to him. A young, Black African philosopher and militant, then. This real-life character is subjugated and caught in a fiction. As the poet Paul Nougé once said, in the kingdom of the image, ghosts are king. It’s not a unique case in Godard, whose equivocal relationship to cultural alterity and specifically concerning the presence of small African roles in his filmography – those of Med Hondo or Alfred Panou, for example – is critically deconstructed in my film, then, using the master’s tools. Literally between Mao and Marx, Omar, in Godard’s film, becomes an academic Maomarx. I try to extricate him and to give him back a far more complex and turbulent life by giving voice to those who knew him.

OM: Khouma, your assistant on the shoot, plays his own role in the film, that of a this time Senegalese filmmaker. Can you say some more about this figure, who remains quite discreet but with whom you try to weave a dialogue in images?


Khouma is a history graduate who has chosen to make films and with whom I share an interest in this period. The images that I invited him to shoot while we were making the film respond to the Super 8 images of my family, who lived in Dakar from 1965 to 1968. I wanted there to be this coiling movement and that his character reference other films, like, for example, his film on Kédougou prison where Senghor’s opponents were imprisoned, or the one that is currently being made in Senegal about the circumstances of Omar’s death, or all those yet to be made and which will challenge the representations inherited from Senghorian discourse, as history can only be critiqued from the outside, by observing how it is constructed. This gesture concerning Omar, in the sense of a storyline narrating his feats, is thus counterbalanced by a gesture that engages the film itself as a narrative construction at a confluence of spaces, times and cultures.

A film in the making

OM: The motif of a film in the making that you borrow from Godard acts on several levels in your work. First, as a “meta” argument – life’s at times tragic comedy plays out – but also because the documentary form is always traversed by other (possible, invisible) films in the making.

VM: I try to understand what the motif “a film in the making” might signify today, which is one of La Chinoise‘s Brechtian motifs, and one of its silent cinema style textual inserts only, with Godard, the text is animated and brightly coloured. How to go beyond this self-reflexive motif of the film in the making on screen, a motif that has naturally lost its radicality, but not its meaning or its function. You thus find, for example, our crew’s different interactions with the witnesses and actors filmed. There is also a spiral effect, which builds on the Dakar open-air screening of the first version of my film. There is this other film that’s being shot – that of Khouma, the Senegalese assistant director – who we see at various times directing the young Chinese woman or making a “past” image of the present with his super-8 camera, a making-of, perhaps his own film. One film extract enounces its director, René Viénet, the Sinologist and Situationist’s agenda: that all films can be subverted, including auteur films. I would have liked to include other film extracts, including one by the Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo and another by Simon Hartog, an experimental filmmaker from London. The former refers to Omar in one of his films, while the latter, who was friends with Omar, filmed him from behind for a 1969 experimental film. Strangely, then, we find Omar at the intersection of three types of cinema: New Wave cinema, British co-op experimental cinema, and decolonial Third Cinema. If we add to that that Omar published a text on Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, which he analyzed as an anti-documentary and anti-realist manifesto… These elements guided my reflection, and perhaps the empty advertising boards disseminated in my film, on which traces of covered-over ads are visible, suggest a multiplicity of screens awaiting future projections.

OM: The other dimension of film-in-the-making practice is of course art film’s material and aesthetic economy, in which it is possible to advance via successive versions of the same film. Can you retrace the form and the content of the previous versions and what Just a Movement tries to accomplish that wasn’t in the earlier experiments?

VM: Yes, I constructed the film as and when I got funding and according to the distribution contexts. We shot in 2017, then again in 2019. I completed three versions that correspond to three different running times: 45 minutes, 78 minutes, and the final 108-minute version we are discussing. This construction was a demanding but interesting process. The previous two versions – the first for an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, the second for ARTE Television and an exhibition at the Mu.zee modern art museum in Ostend – are not drafts, they are entirely finished formats. What differs in this final version is that it starts at Nanterre University and then in the very big, memorable Jean-Luc Godard exhibition at the Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre too. My long version also includes previously unseen archives of Jean-Luc Godard talking about Omar in 1978, and the Senegalese economist, essayist, and university professor Felwine Sarr, one of the most influential intellectuals on the continent since his work, in collaboration with Bénédicte Savoy, on the restitution of colonial artefacts, which had an impact world-wide. Finally, some time is given to acknowledging the fraternal relationship between Omar Diop and Issa Samb, the leading artist of the Senegalese scene I mentioned earlier. And most importantly, finally, the music score was improvised in a studio by Chinese, Senegalese, and Belgian musicians.

OM: I get the impression that your cinema as a feverish quest for the archive, to paraphrase Jacques Derrida, is guided by the idea that there is always history to reveal and evidence to excavate. Yet this regime of the document as evidence, which pits modernity against itself, its mechanisms, and its regimes of truth, is at some point disrupted and surpassed by something that is experience; it is the space of the body-in-struggle that creates an immediate reality and, without evidence, a presence; it creates the power to act.

VM: This is not research film, in the sense that it could claim to be scientific, which would format the expectations, method, and form of research in advance, even if my form is the most in-depth investigation into Omar Blondin Diop to date. I mean that neither the judges nor the historians have done their job; if the former were prevented by the authorities, what about the latter? As it is, what could temporarily replace legal truth-based evidence if not the test of empirical truth motivated by an ethical imperative? Can this ethics generates a politics? Posed in these terms, the question is obviously too general and abstract, but in articulation with a context, it is one of the questions that interpellates any artist wanting to think through the in-common, the doing-with, that is, the political dimension of the connections that compel us. We know how much Godard was an indefatigable artisan of a dialectical construction of connections in his own work through a practice of montage as an operation that is at once associative and disjunctive, but also how he embedded in the heart of his films the artist’s capacity to enact a delinking, to energetically extricate himself from consensus, to create controversy. He seized upon cinema as a historicization of the world, tributary to the technique of its time, but which, having become an art, modelled its era in its image. His histories of cinema have on me the effect of a heart that pumps and pulsates while  accompanying a foretold death – that of a medium. It is – as always with Godard – visionary and nostalgic, for his approach to history is lyrical. It is even presented as a totality, as the oeuvre of all oeuvres. Yet, if our bodies are indeed the seat of what is no more, they are also the seat of that yet to come. In my film, the moving bodies of the actors, figures preceding their own path as it were, or perhaps a future event, count as much as the speaking bodies of the witnesses who are fighting against oblivion. A body-in-struggle is always a body that fights a form of injustice in the urgency of the present. These physical bodies always oppose power, which is constituted of a corpus of judicial doctrines that establish values and consolidate power to defend them. It is, for example, in my film this militant people’s movement for the “commons” in Dakar that denounces the nepotism involved in the trade in the oil recently discovered off its shores. Yet what are the activists demanding? That the secret documents and contracts between the State and the private sector be divulged.

OM: Maybe the character of Omar is himself caught between these two truths: his attachment to language, to literature, including political and theoretical literature on the one hand, and his quest for more direct action, for a radical gesture on the other.

VM: Just like you and me, right? He is a character who still speaks to us because there are many of us today who find ourselves caught in this paradox of wanting to inherit from the critical tradition, but which we would like purged of its verticality and its negativity, though not its radicality. A gesture can indeed be affirmative and remain critical.

How can we reconnect with the lucidity and inventiveness without demobilizing before identitarian conservatism, or indulge in a critical posture protected in the rarefied milieux of art’s white cube, cinema’s black box, the academic seminar, or the militant collective? How can we invent this place that is of course impure and mobile, but which is fecund… a place where it is possible to breathe again, like those that you set up and that have brought us together at regular intervals over the past twenty years? That demands of the artist reinvesting testimony with its interest as a document, shifting its intrinsic value from a criteria of truth to a criteria of alterity, re-examining the document with an ethic that itself mobilizes it equally as both a trace of a singular knowledge and as a “dissensual” expressive form. The document can reconnect with a recalcitrant poetics, create or fuel a controversy. It’s only at this price, as I see it, that artistic practices conserve a specificity: that of singularly, sensitively, and intensively treading the dividing line of Moderns, that binarism that attempts at all costs to split the world into two parts: one in which we recognize the Other as our equal, and the other in which we condemn and reject them – two approaches that we respectively designate under the terms inclusion in or exclusion from the community. It’s perhaps the fabricating of an endlessly renewed exception to this rule that “makes art’ – that in which we cease to obey this injunction to discriminate according to modes of integration or rejection. Before this failure to render society more inclusive, it often happens that artists are driven to exclude themselves from the community. Not only to express the singularity of their individual voice, but also to pay homage and to do justice to the dignity of the witnesses, of those who previously were traditionally the very opposite of the bourgeois artist: all the “vagabonds of the universal”, as Baudelaire put it – that is, the victims of exclusion.


Omar blondin diop (1946–1973) was a Senegalese militant leftist intellectual born in Niamey (Niger) and who died in prison on Gorée island (Senegal). As a student in philosophy in Paris during the 1960s, he graduated from the renowned university École Normale Supérieure de Saint-Cloud. Studying at the University of Nanterre, he met Jean-Luc Godard and “played himself” as a Maoist militant in La Chinoise (1967). A member of the Fédération des étudiants d’Afrique noire en France (FEANF), he also took part in the March 22 Movement. This French student movement occupied administration buildings at Nanterre University and was at the origin of the student uprising of May ’68. Diop was expelled from France to Senegal where he briefly was a researcher at the IFAN (Institut Fondamental d’Afrique noire), and founded the Mouvement des Jeunes Marxistes-Léninistes (MJML), a clandestine party. On presidential request, he was re-admitted to study in Paris on the condition that he would stop his political activities. Shortly after returning to Paris in 1970, two of his brothers were arrested and sentenced in Dakar. Omar left France to prepare his brothers’ escape, but was preventively arrested in Bamako.

Vincent Meessen was born in Baltimore, USA, in 1971, and lives and works in Brussels, Belgium. His artistic and filmic work are woven from a constellation of figures, gestures, and signs that maintain a polemical and sensible relation to the writing of history and the westernization of imaginaries. He decenters and multiplies gazes and perspectives to explore the variety of ways in which colonial modernity has impacted the fabric of contemporary subjectivities. Both in his work as an artist and filmmaker, he likes to use procedures of collaboration that undermine the authority of the author and emphasize the intelligence of collectives. His films have been screened at numerous museums and art centers including Centre Pompidou (Paris), HKW (Berlin), MUMOK (Vienna), Museo Reina Sofia (Madrid), in film festivals including IFFR (Rotterdam), IDFA (Amsterdam), Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, Art of the Real (New York, Seoul), FID (Marseille) and FESPACO (Ouagadougou).
Main solo exhibitions have taken place in Montreal, Toronto, Paris, Basel, Brussels, Bordeaux, Mexico, Amsterdam.
Vincent Meessen has represented Belgium at the 56th Venice Biennale with Personne et les autres,  a group show with ten invited artists from four continents. Recent other biennale participations include  … and other such stories, Chicago Architecture Biennial, (2019); Généalogies futures, récits depuis l’Équateur,Biennale de Lubumbashi (2019); Proregress, 12th Shanghai Biennale (2018-2019); Printemps de septembre, Toulouse (2016, 2018) and Gestures and Archives of the Present, Genealogies of the Future, Taipei Biennale (2016).
Vincent Meessen is a member of Jubilee-platform for research and artistic production.


Juste un Mouvement (Just a Movement)
a film by Vincent Meessen (color, 108 min, 2021)
Coproduction BELGIQUE / FRANCE : JUBILEE / Vincent Meessen et Inneke Van Waeyenberghe, THANK YOU & GOOD NIGHT productions / Geneviève De Bauw, SPECTRE productions / Olivier Marboeuf, CBA – Centre de l’Audiovisuel à Bruxelles / Javier Packer Comyn, MAGELLAN Films / Samuel Feller
With the support of: Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles , Service public francophone bruxellois, Vlaams audiovisueel fonds (VAF) et CNAP-Image/Mouvement, Centre Pompidou, Paris Mu.ZEE, Oostende, 34a Bienal de São Paulo Art et Recherche, Région Ile-de-France, Région Bretagne, Argos Centre for audiovisual arts, Belgium Federal Government Tax shelter

All informations about the film : https://justeunmouvement.film/#introduction