Documentarists tend to be an eccentric breed. They need to be, since none of the main film festivals allow their films into competition (an incomprehensible decision), and to get a documentary into a cinema these days is a fraught process. But there is no more highly personal yet elusive film-maker than Chris Marker. His importance lies not in how many audiences have been affected by his films, but in how many of his fellow film-makers regard him as something of a genius.
It would be possible to choose half a dozen of his films as classics. I only select the 1961 Cuba Si! because its importance at the time was so obvious, and it remains the best and most intimate film on the making of a revolution. Marker’s preface to the script is illuminating. “Shot rapidly in January 1961,” it reads, “during the first alert period (you know, at the time when the majority of French papers were hooting over Fidel’s paranoia in imagining himself threatened with invasion), it aims at communicating, if not the experience, at least the vibrations, the rhythm of a revolution that will one day perhaps be held to be the decisive moment of a whole era of contemporary history.
“It also aims at countering the monstrous wave of misinformation in the major part of the press. It is interesting that it was the same minister who tolerated in the press and sanctioned on the radio the most outrageous untruths at the moment of the invasion of April 1961 who had the nerve to ban Cuba Si! in the name of historical truth.”
As you can see, Marker has always been a slightly elliptical polemicist and was for many years a Marxist, or at least a left-leaning radical. He was born of an aristocratic family – his real name is Bouche-Villeneuve – in Mongolia in 1921. But he tends to keep his early life a secret. What isn’t a secret is his extreme modesty and dislike of fake celebrity, which means he attends few festivals and even fewer interviewers get to question him.
He sees himself as merely a concerned and inquisitive traveller, reporting back to the world on what he has found. He is, however, much more than that. His intelligence and perceptiveness, and his great knowledge of the cinema, history and culture, render him no ordinary observer.
Marker has been to Peking, Russia, Tokyo and Israel as well as Cuba but, though he was a leftist member of the French resistance during the second world war, his views on Castro’s tight little island are by no means orthodox. It is the capacity of ordinary Cubans to live as kings despite every deprivation that strikes them. Their vitality, expressed in their music, gives him as much hope as anything in Castro’s political credo.
Perhaps what makes Marker so valuable as a recorder of slices of our time is that he is also a writer and poet who, in another time, might have been a keeper of journals like Johnson or Goethe. It was not for nothing that someone once called him “our unknown cosmonaut”. Cuba Si!, like so many of his films – Letter from Siberia, Le Joli Mai, La Jetée and Sans Soleil, for instance – seems to discover what everyone else has missed. That, of course, is what the best kind of film-maker is supposed to do.