French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot, who received international acclaim for his 2015 documentary A German Youth, is back with another fascinating work called Our Defeats. Featuring a group of high school film students from the Lycée Romain Rolland in Ivry-sur-Seine who work as cast and crew, Our Defeats is a comparative study between the charged sociopolitical climate of France in the late 1960s and the prevailing attitude of modern students.
More than anything else, Our Defeats is an intellectual exercise in political thought which constantly refers to the revolutionary works of auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker and Alain Tanner among others. As a part of the film’s explorations, Périot makes the students recreate pivotal scenes from the vastly influential French political masterpieces from that period before asking them about trade unions, capitalism and the revolution.
In an interview, Périot explained that he wants his films to challenge the audience. “For me, cinema is first of all a place to feel,” the filmmaker said. “I like music for the same reason. But cinema is also, at least for me, as audience or filmmaker, a place to think. I do not like films where everything is clear, obvious or underlined, [whether we] talk about fictions or documentaries. I like films with contradictions, lacks, and questions.”
The powerful scenes that are enacted by the students are immediately deconstructed by the follow-up questions posed by Périot. A student quotes Chairman Mao with deadly conviction, preaching to us that “a revolution is not a dinner party… A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” However, he falters and hesitates when he is asked about his own opinions regarding capitalism and the revolution that has been indefinitely deferred.
This becomes a recurring theme, with many students voicing their disapproval of police brutality and societal oppression but not being able to appropriately address questions about the subjective definitions of abstract topics like politics in general as well as objective descriptions of important things like trade unions. As a result of the restrictive curriculum of the Ideological State Apparatus that is the school, we are confronted with the brutal reality. The people in power systematically and silently quashed the revolution before it ever began by not providing proper education to the next generation.
The greatest achievement of Our Defeats is that Périot does not pass his judgement. As a documentarian, his job is to chronicle the condition and that’s exactly what he does. The outcome is stiflingly tragic, a harrowing analysis of young school students whose vocabularies are being stripped off ideas like communism and workers’ rights. Périot starts a dialogue between the past and the present by confronting the future of the revolution that has been laid to rest by youthful cynicism, censorship and the bourgeois constructs of modernity.