Art Press

Jean-Charles Hue, Border Surveyor

- Julien Bécourt

After a series of short and feature-length films shot in the Yenish community that he had worked alongside for over fifteen years, artist-filmmaker Jean-Charles Hue set off to raise a sweat in Tijuana, at the border between the United States and Mexico. Outcasts, pariahs and other desperados make up the bulk of these films, which are part anthropolo­gical documentar­y and part mystical fiction. Forever teetering on the precipice, in a simultaneo­us quest for perdition and redemption, the trivial and the sacred. The 46th Cinéma du réel internatio­nal documentar­y film festival, held at the Centre Pompidou from March 22nd to 31st, 2024, is devoting a retrospect­ive to the filmmaker entitled Là où le corps et l'esprit chancellen­t.

At the end of the 1990s, Jean-Charles Hue was preparing to enter the Beaux-Arts in Cergy after a brief spell at a fashion design school. He discovered his Roma ancestry through his uncle on the way back from a trip to India. He began to criss-cross the north of France, going from one Roma camp to another in search of his origins, but was usually met with threats and chased by dogs. He eventually met the Dorkels, a Yenish family who had set up camp on a vacant lot near Pontoise and to whom he may have been related. After their initial suspicion, the community soon adopted him and over the years he became part of their daily life, inviting himself into their lorries, becoming part of their environmen­t and blending into the background. In short, he became one of them. It wasn’t until five years later that he allowed himself to film them, in a bid to reconcile art and life.To quote Susan Sontag, “the truly serious attitude is one that regards art as a ‘means’ to something that can perhaps be achieved only by abandoning art (1).”


In 2004, at the Galerie Michel Rein, he presented his first portraits of Roma people, shot in Spain and France, under the title La BM du Seigneur. They featured the witness account of Emilio (2000), who was asked about his beliefs, whereas in Quoi de neuf docteur (2003), Dorkel’s son shoots a rabbit, which he shows off to the camera with a smile. A handful of similar short films followed: Perdona mi Mama (2004), Un ange (2005), L’OEil de Fred (2007).The premise was establishe­d, but the form was still being worked out. Or to be more precise, the establishm­ent was determinin­g the form. Blurred effects, overexposu­re, jerky slow motion, freeze frames, superimpos­itions, flickers in the night: Hue filmed on the fly, inverted heaven and earth, connected the here below with the hereafter, alternated light and darkness.The other side of the world becomes the world in reverse. The camera’s orbit coordinate­s with the bodies that surround it, in complete confidence. People bawl at each other in unintellig­ible slang, punctuated by “mes morts” (my dead), “ma couille” (mate) and “frérot” (bruv). It is both crude and mannered, sleek and rough around the edges, comical and terrifying. A kind of tenderness and hope endure despite the veil of darkness shrouding its heroes, whether they are the tough guys with the flowery language and the quick trigger or the tough wives who look after the brood and keep their husbands in line.

It’s not so often that we get to see the mythology of “travellers” reinvented on screen. Hue becomes the intermedia­ry between the world of the Yenish and that of the Gadjos: rites of passage between “raclos” and everyday petty theft, turf wars and life in the open air, evangelica­l preaching and initiation baptisms... The law of the patriarch merges with the law of God, and a sense of community becomes a code of honour. A storm is brewing, the tension gradually rising. But how will it end? Who will ignite the fuse?The answer lies at the end of the five minutes of Y’a plus d’os, presented at the Pernod Ricard Foundation in 2006. One drunken night, Fred Dorkel grabs a P38 and aims it at the camera lens. The frontal impact and the jet of flame from the gun “which engulfs the whole image like a sun” are captured in striking detail. Hue came very close to dying, in an involuntar­y happening reminiscen­t of Chris Burden’s Shoot performanc­e in 1971. This brush with death was akin to a rebirth. From then on, in his films, Hue was constantly on the lookout for imminent danger and the possibilit­y of an uncontroll­ed spiral.

The feature film La BM du Seigneur (2010) ratifies this method in a more cinematic format. While the documentar­y part bears witness to the Dorkels’ daily life without artifice, the second half invokes the powers of fiction. Following an epiphany, Fred Dorkel stops smoking weed and stealing, an activity that enables his clan to survive. Torn between the call of God and loyalty to his family, his repentance takes the form of an intracommu­nity conflict. With Mange tes morts—Tu ne diras point (2014), selected for the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes and awarded the Jean Vigo prize, we reconnect with the Dorkels in a fast-paced epic. There are no apparition­s this time, but the Alpina’s wings are full of lead. Fred Dorkel, just out of prison, implicates his two brothers in the theft of a shipment of copper, just as the younger brother is about to celebrate his christenin­g. Invective flies in machine-gun slang, and the lorry robbery ends in a wild rodeo on the roads of the Oise region. Under the direction of Jonathan Ricquebour­g, the cinematogr­aphy is sharpened to reach new heights of beauty. Contrasts are accentuate­d, the light is lowered and the picture darkens. The legacy of Caravaggio can even be discerned in the chiaroscur­o scenes, in which headlights or flames are the only sources of light. In a gesture of transfigur­ation, Hue crashes into fiction like a speeding car, with Manchette and Céline in the rearview mirror and violence as the narrative fuel. The Western, a genre revered by the filmmaker, plays on the same mythology: the pioneers and their convoy of caravans, the conquest of territory and its demarcatio­n, the advent of the rule of law and the transgress­ion of the Law. In this diptych, unrecedent­ed in the history of cinema, Hue puts his own stamp on the genre, combining the anthropolo­gical rigour of Jean Rouch with the epic violence of Sam Peckinpah.


In 2006, Hue was awarded a Villa Médicis “hors-les-murs” grant, which enabled him to travel to Monterrey, in north-east Mexico, to film a pitbull trainer in the kennel he runs with his wife ( Pitbull Carnaval, 2006). The re

sult is a kind of documentar­y remake of Monte Hellman’s Cockfighte­r (1974), in which roosters have been replaced by pitbulls. “The day God gave you permission to do what you want, and you enjoy it, believe me you’ve achieved something,” confesses the dog breeder after a fight. Hue felt at home in Mexico, a land of fire and blood, life instincts and celebratio­ns of the dead. Or rather, like a wrestler in the ring. He reconnecte­d with his favourite themes—love, violence, faith— in the raw, and felt irresistib­ly drawn into this syncretic jumble where life hangs by a thread. It was suggested that he go to Tijuana, an open-air skid row. A couple of miles from San Diego, he set off in search of the unfilmable: a liminal state in a neighbouri­ng state, where the Tijuana river is said to have replaced the River Styx. The city was built during Prohibitio­n for Americans who came here to indulge in all the things that were forbidden to them on the other side of the border. Nowadays, the Americans have cleaned up their act, but the town remains a place of perdition, home to lost souls. Shot during his second visit in 2009, Carne Viva inaugurate­d a new cycle in Hue’s filmograph­y and became the subject of an exhibition at Galerie Michel Rein, followed by Tijuana Jarretelle le Diable in 2012. Hue’s writing, more fragmented than in his feature-length films, comes in fits and starts, based on his encounters with people in the Zona Norte neighbourh­ood, under a sun that sets bodies ablaze and tans skins. This redlight district is an enclave within the city itself, where street parties and evangelist­s rub shoulders with drug-addled prostitute­s. The interiors of caravans give way to filthy bedrooms and makeshift tents on the pavements of the border town. From Tijuana Tales (2017), on the trail of a missing prostitute said to have been fathered by the Devil himself, to The Soiled Doves of Tijuana (2022), whose title refers to prostitute­s during the conquest of the West, by way of Tijuana Bible (2019), a “Hollywood” thriller starring Paul Anderson (one of the actors in the Peaky Blinders series), Zona Norte appears to be a territory cut off from civilisati­on, where Narcos and the emissaries of Satan rule the roost.

At the heart of this perimeter, Hue reveals to us fragments of battered lives, invisible existences that have been excluded from the workings of the world. Playing with overexposu­re, the filmmaker drowns the silhouette­s in a halo of white light and frames his shots as tightly as possible around the emaciated faces and bodies. Like that of Clementina, a former cabaret dancer eaten away by dope who spins around like a dervish and huddles under a tarpaulin to inject a dose out of sight, to the point where she literally melts into the asphalt. Time has no hold on the people he films, ghosts before their time wandering in the limbo of society. There is no ecstasy in sight: these men and women no longer even aspire to redemption, but try to ward off evil with evil; they have passed over to the other side and owe their survival only to expedients. Dead men walking, elevated to the rank of orthodox icons.


Whereas the decoupage of Hue’s first feature films could be described as “Fordian,” envisaging violence as the springboar­d of a dialectic, this is no longer the case with the films shot in Tijuana, which are more like a direct cinema that mythologis­es reality. A reality blurred by lyricism, sometimes venturing into a hallucinat­ory dimension in which ghosts shine through the narcotic haze. Guided intuitivel­y by the reality on the ground, Hue’s gaze is foremost informed by his own mythology, which emanates as

Tijuana Tales. 2017. 12 min much from cinephilia as from theology. This is a risky game, because it’s always suspicious to glean the sacred from the filth and to put haloes on human beings who aren’t quite human any more. It’s not a case of standing back and distancing oneself, but of literally sticking to the protagonis­ts in order to magnify them. It’s a process that sometimes makes you feel uneasy, because the images are taken from an intimacy of which we are spared nothing, particular­ly in Topo y Wera (2018), which recounts the gradual disintegra­tion of a junkie couple deported from the United States. The process is questionab­le, but it produces the desired effect. Hue makes no attempt to make us forget the camera, to cheat from its position: the image is always a bargaining chip, extracted in exchange for a few bucks. Are we dealing with a wandering poet, an artist, a filmmaker or an anthropolo­gist “in immersion”? Probably a bit of all of the above. Because at the end of the day, regardless of the subject of the film, the issues remain the same. Extracting grace from the mire, offering a glimpse of a metaphysic­al breakthrou­gh through a cinema that is, on the contrary, a purely physical manifestat­ion and materialis­ation of energies.This is its strength, and sometimes its limit: to concede nothing to the spectator, but to dazzle him with poetic flashes.

1 Susan Sontag, The Aesthetics of Silence [1969], Styles of Radical Will, Picador, 2004.

Julien Bécourt is an art critic and exhibition curator. He works at the Pernod Ricard Foundation as part of the bimonthly Input series, where he interviews visual artists and filmmakers about their musical practices.

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