Credit: FIDMarseille
by Zachary Goldkind Featured Film

De Facto — Selma Doborac [FIDMarseille ’23 Review]

July 14, 2023

Having premiered at the Berlinale earlier this year and going on to win the 2023 Caligari Film Award — supplemented by the almost parodic jury statement: “an extraordinary and highly intense film that, like hardly any other before it, makes us think philosophically about destructive (group) dynamics and the inhuman in human beings” — Selma Doborac’s De Facto continues its fairly healthy transit through festival circuitry, now finding itself snug within FIDMarseille’s International Competition. One’s initial question and response to this placement is, why? But we will expand on that later. A second question is this: what does a radically political film look like nowadays? De Facto is an attempt at disaffected formal reflexivity, a work made of shot-reverse-shot composition, which breaks this traditional logic through methods such as: cuts to black within the montage that moves us between the shifting of our gaze from actor to actor; a reconfiguring of the camera’s position that emphasizes the reflective table before them — one we initially can believe they sit at opposite ends of, but is, in fact, not one they share, isolated within each actor’s respective shots; and the increasingly obvious revelation that these two figureheads we observe, incessantly monologuing for over two hours, are not addressing one another.

Certainly, their anecdotal discourse is curated as a charted, responsive cognition that flows through their words and into the conceptualization at the core of the film, but it is consistently assured to us that these two men are not in dialogue. Our first talking head, Christoph Bach, takes on the perspective of those who have committed war crimes. His monologues are decontextualized excerpts of the now anonymous monsters of our past, their speech organized as to cohere into a rising tide of passivity and horror. The second, Cornelius Obonya, addresses similar subject matter, though his texts seek to articulate a psychoanalytical assessment of the acts and perspectives being recounted by Bach. This is a dialogue of ideas, not one of diegesis. And within this strenuous, hyper-designed austerity lie Doborac’s inquiries: can cinema properly embody history and, through a modus operandi of negation, manifest a specter of the contemporary? And can the horrors of our past — divorced from their context — be adapted and transposed onto our present and into our awareness of our environs through aesthetic tactics that approach the durational? The answer is generally no.

De Facto naturally comes across to anyone initiated with the filmic practices of Straub-Huillet as a riff on their central tenets of Brechtian landscape photography. More specifically, it appears to be a cross between their Fortini/Cani and Workers, Peasants. But where the Marxist duo sought dialectical investigation into the relationships among landscape, text, and image, Doborac seeks total vacuity. And where Straub-Huillet were intent on making their films out of history, Doborac is intent on fashioning hers without, as demonstrated through the banality of evil on display commingled with pedestrian reflections on the Fascist Doctrine. A sentiment shared by one of Obonya’s texts provides some perspective on the form: historically, as art became more radical, the belief of change became increasingly distant. For a film taking after Marxist aesthetic inquiry, there’s a serious lacking of dialectical montage, not only in its curatorial faculties with regards to the text, but also in its image design, utilizing its frame as a tunnel, a shaft of infinite detachment — this is unmistakably Brechtian modality, but one that rejects Brecht’s desire for the intellect to become an affect in and of itself. This is the disappearance of image as language and the embolization of language as abstract representation — nothing more.

But it goes maddeningly beyond that. Such a purposeful intervention into the affective realm keeps the whole fully isolated and contained, failing to rouse any substantive ideological investigation. An exercise with bravura, to be sure, but one myopic and without responsibility for its images; cinema, but refusing to engage with the material relationship of an image and its syntax, actively etching out — in fact — the divorce of these faculties. This is a work dug so far down its own tunnel vision that it has, in theory, devised a Fascist formalism not unlike Leni Riefenstahl’s ode to her Führer. Where Riefenstahl’s spectacle isolates the fanaticism and specter of ideological homogeneity, Deborac’s anti-spectacle devises and manifests the estranged homogeneity of brutality. Only in the final image and its hilariously trite juxtaposition of sensibility — the film’s soundtrack is made entirely of a near-cacophonous symphony of environmental ambience, except for the final sequence, which hurls a Krautrock needle-drop as its concluding sonic punctuation — does this sensibility of monolithic ahistoricism break down. This audible puncture in continuity leans away from rigidity, thankfully, but in a manner derivative of far superior and open works.

Doborac is in no way a fascist. But the formalism underpinning her work is intensely misguided. One would be easily predisposed throughout her film to recall the Antideutsch, a sect of German “Marxists” whose theoretical application led to a current of decontextualized, reactionary progressivism. In their contradictions, they’ve aligned with the fascists, unintentionally or otherwise. Returning to our initial second question, then: what does a radically political film look like nowadays? And why its snug festival placement?

De Facto is, in practice, the opposite of radical. Its reduction of political and cinematic theory into total aestheticism proves dogmatic and homogenizing. The institutional backing it has gotten thus far, then, appears to  contradict the supposed ethos of an art scene seeking new perceptions, new articulations of the political present. Perhaps, this normalized process of placing “political” works in a competition is something worth reconsidering. The Berlinale jury’s aforementioned statement discerns a clear ignorance many have approached the film with, quarantining it within history much like what the work does to its subjects by assigning a portentousness that lacks both basis and position. How can politics breathe when subsumed under bourgeois power structures? That old adage about films no longer belonging to the filmmaker once someone else has seen it is a lie, an idealized attempt to excuse both artists and audiences alike. A work like De Facto is a brilliant case for this, a film with such great walls built around it, we’re nothing if not forced to perceive history through the perspective of its curator.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 28.