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Olivier Zabat


Olivier Zabat: Beyond comprehension 


In one of the rare interviews to be found online, Olivier Zabat describes his method with an eloquent phrase that at first seems vaguely inadequate: “I always start my films in a simple and frank entendement [1]  with the protagonists.” In this rarely used French word, which Zabat seems to use to express a sense of mutual comprehension or simply exchanging, we actually find both the foundation and the horizon of his films. The foundation is this quality of a singular approach (best described as simple and frank) that establishes the character vis-à-vis the viewer in the stark reality of a presence, with no justification or context other than its immediate relationship to the world and the camera. Be it Mirek in Fading: his colossal body pierced with metal and words, riveted in the centre of a carousel of darkness, a living sculpture busy filming his image in the lens of a mobile telephone. Or else Yves, in the film bearing his name, Yves firmly positioned in the middle of a garden, right in the middle of the frame, offering his gentle gaze to the camera, which seems as much as a mystery to him as he is to the camera. The fact that Mirek is homeless, that Yves has a disability, never named in the film – all of this is of only marginal import: presence is the key requisite for comprehension.


And comprehension is exactly what is being questioned: what do Mirek and Yves comprehend of the world, how do they experience it, both in their life and in this sober, attentive frame in which Zabat places, observes and listens to them at great length? What is comprehended by someone who is a mine clearance expert and whose gestures expose him every day to the possibility of nothingness (Miguel et les Mines, 1/3 des yeux)? What does someone who indeed never stops hearing, is weary of hearing, because he is a “voice-hearer” (Arguments), or someone whose sensitivity and belief have convinced him that he is surrounded by the murmurs of the dead (Fading)? Just as Yves was not an essay on autism, Arguments makes no attempt to document psychosis, and it is telling that the film was for a time titled Percepts. In fact, nothing interests Olivier Zabat’s films apart from envisaging this point of contact through which the character perceives the world, in the dull violence of a punch (we meet numerous boxers, wrestlers, fighers of all kinds) or on the fuzzy border of an invisible continent (ghosts, “voices”).

A few motifs, here and there, clearly point to the intensity of this point of contact. In Arguments, a limpid shot captures the reflection of a voice-hearer in his apartment window as he looks out and describes the outside world: the silhouette of the trees on the horizon, the illuminated ballet of cars at dusk and, then, as he slowly detaches his perception from the viewer’s, the sound of the voices that torment him and that he alone hears, the voices lying “below the surface”, as another protagonist suffering from the same ailment later remarks. In Yves, the admirable idea of using condensation as a screen in the very first scenes epitomises not only the mystery of the character’s blurred perception but also the haze that his disability lays over the viewer’s comprehension. And of course, the most telling – and literally surgical – image of all, in 1/3 des yeux: the structure of an eye – at the same time, a fragile membrane, an open window and a screen.

This constantly recurring screen is of course a nod to cinema itself and, given the films’ often enigmatic weft, it encourages purely conceptual readings. Yet, this would mean, if not going down the wrong path, at least missing the essential. Firstly, because Olivier Zabat’s films, driven above all by the attention they give to their protagonists, do not strictly speaking belong to “dispositif” cinema, nor do they try to dissipate their subjects’ mystery through formal experimentation. The misunderstanding here is fuelled by the unique place occupied by the filmmaker, whose films are, shamefully, rarely shown in film theatres but have more than once found their place in art galleries. Their fragmentary nature lends itself well to such venues, as stand-alone segments can be readily extracted. The key, however, lies in the continuity between these segments: just as the investigation is oriented towards the point of encounter between the protagonists and their environment, the effect produced by the films relies for the most part on these intentionally cryptic articulations which,  without warning, switch from the words of a boxer to those of a jigsaw enthusiast (Miguel et les mines), from a conference on language to a boxing match (1/3 des yeux), from a church wedding to a clandestine motorbike race (Fading).

This modular aspect, more (1/3 des yeux) or less (Arguments) pronounced depending on the film, plays a key role in the very particular and rather paradoxical sensitivity of Zabat’s films. Here is a cinema clinging to reality in ways that are a little crude, a little akin to poor art, almost sullen, fascinated by abysses and strength, most often inclined to film men (especially the proletariat, men with big hands, swollen by factory work and boxing), but nonetheless strangely gentle, always loving, obsessed with the invisible, totally poetic – a contradiction that brings it close to the work of one filmmaker, Werner Herzog, whose influence Zabat readily affirms.

The poetry, here, hangs almost entirely on the editing. The unwarranted connections between these blocks of reality create discreet sparks, imperceptible short-circuits, which dig new underground galleries for comprehension. The sequences in Zabat’s films interact like drifting islands, or a cloud of atoms, inviting the viewer’s sensitivity to shape their arrangement. But, even though the viewers are required to participate, the editing confronting them still respects the rules of meticulous composition and shows a concern for balance, as attested by the  filmmaker’s well-known habit of re-editing his films after their first screening – removing a block here, adding a sequence there – for instance, the opening wedding scene in Fading, which appeared in the editing in between its first screening at the Venice Film Festival and a second at Belfort Festival. The behaviour of an obsessive sculptor (or painter, why not: Bonnard would even come to touch up his paintings in the museums), exhaustively kneading his raw material in the search to find there the path of the invisible.

This path, always unpredictable, never clearly identified by its form, is the splendour of Zabat’s films, where an unexpected emotion akin to vertigo always surges up. It is startling that a film like Arguments manages to accompany the literally fantastic perception of the voice-hearers as far as it does, without the slightest aesthetic strong-handedness. To achieve this, all that was needed (but this simplicity is, of course, only apparent) was for the film to become wholly absorbed in the description the voice-hearers give of it, and even find there the rules for its mise en scène. For, here, cinema never appears as an extra touch of sensitivity: it is always the protagonists’ words that shape and dramatize the space.

Fading thus promises us an incomparable experience, drawing on a unique quality (the deeply moving trust and friendship binding the film to its characters) to find the necessary resources to join the ghosts on the other side of the bridge. Deep in the shadowy basements of a psychiatric hospital where the security guards Marco and Verlisier are doing their night rounds, the two young men are convinced they have detected a presence, some hostile spectre recognised in a vague brilliance or distant murmur. They ask Zabat to record the traces of these apparitions and, in return, the filmmaker invites them to re-enact in the same basements the terror of their discovery. Here the feverish and childlike belief of the two characters is met by a symmetrical act of faith from the film, which is determined to espouse their anxious perceptions and use them to reshape the experience in the mundane settings around which Marco and Verlisier, like storybook heroes, lead us. Fiction in a documentary in a fiction – no matter, just as it barely matters whether the viewers see or not the ghosts that terrify these two marvellous characters: in the incredible arrangement that the film offers them, they will have tracked reality into the chasms that few films are able to find the way to.


Jérôme Momcilovic


[1] The French term “entendement” denotes the faculty to understand the meaning of something; all of the intellectual faculties – intelligence, reason. In this text, the English translation “comprehension” is used. See the interview at