Credit: CaSk Films
by Joshua Peinado Featured Film

DIRECT ACTION — Guillaume Cailleau & Ben Russell [Cinéma du Réel ’24 Review]

April 3, 2024

DIRECT ACTION, co-directed by Guillaume Cailleau & Ben Russell, traces the outer contours and inner lives of the persons within the ZAD de Notre-Dame-des-Landes (the Zone to Defend). The area in Western France has been home to an autonomous zone in opposition to planned construction of an airport, with both local farmers and environmental activists taking part in defying attempts to evict them. The first occupation was in 2007, and over a decade of work and pressure resulted in the airport project being abandoned in 2018. Cailleau and Russell pick up in 2022-2023, where a very different challenge is being posed to the community. Eviction has been a looming threat since 2018, and some in the zone have tried to pursue a legalization process while others want nothing to do with the French government. 

The documentary opens on footage captured by the group of previous encounters with the police — bulldozers, tear gas, and protest chants echo as clip after clip demonstrates the enormity of the challenge before them. The rest of the documentary departs radically from this mode, luxuriating in long takes (averaging about five minutes) and questioning audience conceptions of what “activism” means — children celebrate a birthday party, a man kneads flour into dough, comrades screen-print signs. Cailleau and Russell embrace the apparent mundanity of the zone and the day-to-day work it takes to sustain such a large-scale and decades-long effort to live communally and in opposition to one’s government. Much of the film operates between patient still-lifes and political messaging: a woman reads from a book about police interrogation techniques, a horse roams a field, young people dance at a leftist punk concert, a cow wanders down the road. In many ways, it seems most reminiscent of a Straub-Huillet film, especially in its dazzling super 16mm landscapes, though the film feels distinctly like its own in its long silences and durational aspirations. 

A major formal breakthrough for the film occurs around the halfway point, when the audience is privy to an aerial survey of the zone. At first, it’s a dance with the sky — something like an image from Benning’s Ten Skies vis-a-vis a Michael Bay drone-shot. The camera swirls over, around, and through cotton-wisp clouds, choreographed with a dexterity that feels like a decided break from the largely still-camera approach of the film thus far. Narratively, the biggest breakthrough seems to occur just before the third hour, when the audience is suddenly thrust into action again. A parade of tractors blocks traffic on a highway, police fire tear gas at protestors marching a float, and in the film’s most impactful moments, comrades grab each others’ arms to help another out of a ditch. Police launch attacks and protestors attack back. In a scene where habitants of the zone throw stones at what are presumably police vehicles, a woman yells at the camera: “This isn’t what you should be filming! This isn’t…” And perhaps for a moment, the audience must consider what they wanted or expected to see in this documentary. In the film’s only real show of force against the government, it breaks the fourth wall to tell on itself: this isn’t what it should be filming. 

In the end, Cailleau and Russell return to the community. A man inspects farmland, another man plays the piano, and finally, the community debriefs. In DIRECT ACTION’s final moments, the community reflects on what their project means. There are questions of shock in the community after the most recent clashes with police, wherein many members of the ZAD and those outside their community were arrested. The zone refuses intimidation, leading others to take a stand: “The important thing is not the shock, but how people rise up collectively to continue what has already begun.”

Published as part of Cinéma du Réel 2024.