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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 mem