One benefit of shooting digitally is that a director doesn’t require as large of a crew as she’d use when shooting on film. For Denis, this newfound intimacy allows her to make a movie that proceeds like a series of snapshots. Her documentary To the Devil (44 min.) deploys casual interviews and observations to consider the history of the Alukus, Africans who re-created traditional village life in French Guiana (present-day Suriname) after escaping from slavery in the 17th century. Denis rarely discusses this history directly, however. She centers her study around Jean Béna, an Aluku who recently tried to go into business as a gold prospector only to be attacked in the press by local whites (the fact that he employed illegal immigrants from Brazil didn’t help his case). Béna doesn’t appear until the final 15 minutes, but he’s the subject of discussion for most of the movie. This gives him a mythic dimension, comparable to that accorded the rarely seen African revolutionary in Denis’s White Material (2009). To the Devil might seem like a footnote to that major work, but there’s a lot happening beneath the surface. Denis continues to chart the complex interactions between colonial history and post-colonial present, and she’s such a sharp observer that she sees this exchange nearly everywhere she looks.
The program concludes with An Heir (21 min.), which finds the legendary Jean-Marie Straub using the heightened realism of video to grant immediate presence to a story written in 1903. Straub stages the story (though text would be a more accurate way of describing it, as the performers have been instructed to recite rather than act) in the Lorraine locations where author Maurice Barres lived and wrote. I find much of Straub’s work punishingly dull, and An Heir is pretty symptomatic of his approach. That’s not to say that it shirks the challenges of the Jeonju Digital Project: it’s carefully composed and as keen to the weight of history as Denis’s documentary. On a formal level, it interacts gregariously with the other shorts on the program.