A fiercely unsettling mood and vivid handmade cinema girds Sylvain George’s “May They Rest in Revolt (Figures of War),” a black-and-white study of undocumented emigres and refugees battling powers that be in the French port city of Calais. Constructed in two slightly disparate parts and delivered halfway between experimental and docu modes, the pic develops into an epic saga of protest against the state, with cops applying blunt techniques as they destroy a refugee camp near city hall. Buyers may puzzle at the pic’s construction, but progressive-minded fests should line up for this top prize-winner at the Buenos Aires fest.
Pic preemed at the FID Marseilles festival in 2010 and has been flying below the radar since. George, who has been making docs with different collaborators for most of the decade on the complex issue of immigration in Europe, represents an interesting cross-current in independent French filmmaking. While he adopts many of the precepts of photojournalistic docu filmmaking by making sure that his camera is in the heat of the moment, his grammar is a radical rejection of logical sequencing in favor of dramatic jump-cuts, sudden switches of time and place and an interest in rough visual textures.
The result is a deeply artistic chronicling of episodes covered from summer 2007 through last year, as mostly young and middle-aged men from North Africa and the Middle East attempt to get to the U.K. via Calais, a traditional jumping-off point across the English Channel. In pic’s first half, which clocks in at more than an hour-and-a-half, George follows refugees and police in a city park in the center of town. So intensive is the camerawork, often resembling wartime coverage, that it puts the viewer in the shoes of someone trying desperately to avoid arrest.
George never conceals his sympathies, allowing the refugees to express their fears and anger (“They make us slaves, and we can’t change our lives.”). In turn, they allow his camera observe the literal pains they take to conceal their identity, such as using a hot nail to alter their fingerprints. In many ways, “May They Rest in Revolt” is an observation of men with absolutely nothing to lose.
Thus, the groundwork is laid for the riveting second half, which begins at night with European social and health workers warning camp dwellers to flee in advance of a dawn police raid. Some comply, others don’t, but the recording of the eventual clampdown is a small masterpiece of direct cinema in its dogged refusal to get out of the way of the rough stuff, further charged by George’s alternately taut and loose editing. The cops’ victory is perhaps a foregone conclusion, but events at pic’s end make it seem somewhat Pyrrhic, as a new wave of immigrants comes to town.
If a film can be made by one man, this is it, with George taking credit in all tech areas.