Directors: Annie Ernaux, David Ernaux (France). Year of Release: 2022
Before the film starts, there’s an indication that this is not going to be a typical film. As the screen curtains open, they stop, leaving just enough space for a screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio. This is going to be an old-school film, shot – as the title suggests – on Super-8 format, by the recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Actually, that’s not quite true. While Ernaux provides the narration, 90% of the film is shot by her ex-husband, a man who she rather coldly refers to throughout as “Philippe Ernaux”. As she explained: “he was the one who had a monopoly on the use of the camera. In a very gendered division that characterized our relationship, I didn’t dispute that. When I took the camera, it was to film him! I don’t know if you noticed, but he poses horribly!”
In this sense, the film, which covers the period 1972-1981 is very political. Behind the camera is a couple in their 30s who are coming out of the 1968 movement, and seeing how the values that they learned on the streets fit their life together (for the Ernaux, it ended in divorce, which is why the film ends quite abruptly in 1981. Philippe got custody of the camera, Annie of the film, which she occasionally showed to relatives, but now has created this film with her son David).
The film is also about class. Like her rough contemporary Didier Eribon, writer of Return to Reims, Ernaux has struggled with coming to terms with her new bourgeois bohemian lifestyle. When her mother came to live with them, as shown in the film, she almost acts as a reminder to Annie of where she came from. Ernaux again: “She represented the daily presence of the world of my working-class origins within the intellectual bourgeois home that I created with my husband.”
Ernaux brings a sense of class consciousness to experiences that, in the 1970s before the development of package holidays, were only really avaiulable to those with a certain amount of money. Having said this, these are not the jaunts of the super-rich – some were made available through Philippe’s work, and the first trip, to Pinochet’s Chile, were organised by Le Nouvel Observateur, which Ernaux describes as the weekly newspaper of the non-Stalinist Left.
Although the Ernaux are clearly politically aware – who else would holiday in Chile, North Africa, Albania and Russia? – they do not seem to by over-inquisitive. Her description of the Chile visit makes it sound like a non-stop visit to newly nationalised mines, where they listened to long lists of production figures. They were welcomed by President Allende himself, and were devastated by his overthrow in a coup the following year, but say little about how and why that happened.
Visiting Albania, their party of 8 is closely guarded and not allowed to speak to the locals. They are even given a special part of the beach for themselves. Arnaux didn’t even join many of the heavily guided trips, preferring to stay at home and finish off the book that she was writing. In Morocco, they had a similar lack of contact with the locals, but this was more of their own choosing. Ernaux felt bored and trapped within what she calls the rigorously codified tourist system.
Ernaux has said that she felt that the film of their visits to other countries “were of no interest to anyone, as is often the case.” In general, she says that “there was no question of writing a descriptive commentary. The images belong to the grammar of family movies, holidays, parties and anniversaries, travel films.” The result is an intimate portrait of Ernaux just as she was starting to write, showing how she was not born but became a published author.
The question is, is this the sort of film that an audience wants to see? For me, the answer is “only up to a point”. Ernaux is not just a good writer – she can be an astute political commentator when she wants to be. But here, despite rarely seen footage from Albania and Chile in the 1970s, and even Russia in 1981, she offers very little analysis or depth beyond the personal experiences of herself and her family.
These reminiscences are never less than fascinating, and the 50-year old footage from a time when handheld cameras were not ubiquitous is worth seeing on its own merits. Ernaux has made the film she wanted to see – as has her son David, who started the project when his son wanted to know more about his grandfather. It seems churlish to complain too much that they didn’t quite make the film I wanted to see, especially given the quality of what Is on offer.
Under the motto “if you’d like a different film, go and make it yourself”, let’s judge Die Super-8 Jahre on its own merits. Presumably it was started long before Ernaux won the Nobel Prize, and gained international support and villification for her support of the BDS movement. This has led many, including myself, to want to know more about her, and this film provides a perfect opportunity. She is clearly the subject of the film, which is the main reason this review quotes her so often.
In this sense, here’s one final quote from Ernaux which neatly summarizes the film: “In re-viewing our super eight films, shot between 1972 and 1981, it occurred to me that they comprised not only a family archive but a testimony to the pastimes, lifestyle and aspirations of a social class in the decade after 1968. I wanted to incorporate these silent images into a story which combined the intimate with the social and with history, to convey the taste and colour of those years.”
That’s something worth watching, isn’t it?