Chris Marker

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 May, 2006, 12:00am

For more than 50 years, Chris Marker has cultivated an image as one of contemporary cinema's most mysterious figures.

The French director, who turns 85 on July 21, has rarely granted interviews, or allowed himself to be photographed. One of the few approved shots (right), captures him partially concealed behind the camera, beside one of his cats. Public appearances are unheard of. He shuns major retrospectives of his award-laden career.

Through the Eyes of Chris Marker, Le French May's showcase of some of his key works, will certainly have to do without the presence of its enigmatic subject.

Marker's retreat from public view contrasts with the transparency of his subject matter. He's one of the most overtly political filmmakers of his generation. Since 1953's anti-colonialist Statues Also Die, which he co-directed with Alain Resnais, Marker has never flinched from voicing his views on the twin subjects that fascinate him: popular social movements and the art of filmmaking.

Both of these obsessions are eloquently presented here, with screenings of The Last Bolshevik (about disgraced and largely forgotten Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin) and One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (about the films of Andrei Tarkovsky).

'Using the first person in films tends to be an act of humility - what I only have to offer is myself,' Marker once wrote. And in a career that has produced some of the most innovative and provocative cinematic moments of the past century, Marker has certainly revealed to the world his political convictions.

Some might remember Marker's futuristic 'film-novel' La Jetee - a 28-minute piece strung together from a stream of photographs, a post-apocalyptic tale about time-travel that Terry Gilliam adapted into 1995's Twelve Monkeys starring Bruce Willis - but his career is defined more by epic film essays that force viewers to contemplate a wide variety of cultural and social issues.

With Sans Soleil, for example, he manages to pack ideas and debates ranging from consumerism (in Japan) and guerilla warfare (in Guinea Bissau) to the aesthetics of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo into a 100-minute documentary - all underscored by a poetic script, which is supposed to read like a woman musing about letters she receives from a globe-trotting photographer friend. What makes Marker such an outstanding filmmaker - if not a storyteller - is the coherence he draws from the deeply varied content within the film. It's all about how ordinary lives are categorised, conducted and finally represented by the mass media.

Unlike some of his contemporaries - such as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut or Eric Rohmer - Marker has never attained widespread adulation. One reason was his exclusion from what is dubbed the French New Wave. While sharing the same experimentalism of films such as Godard's Breathless, Truffaut's 400 Blows or any of Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, Marker's emphasis is less driven by the experiences of individuals, focusing more on documentary-like ruminations about history and its continuing repercussions.

He made a series of documentaries that charted the young filmmaker's travels through socialist countries - Sunday in Peking (1956), is among the first documentaries to chronicle China under Mao Zedong. Later, he explored the first years of Castro's Cuba (Cuba Si!, 1961), French anxiety about the Algerian war of independence (Le Joli Mai, 1963), and the Vietnam war (Loin du Vietnam, a portmanteau also featuring Resnais, the constructivist Joris Ivens and the newly radicalised Godard).

The aforementioned works led to one of Marker's epics, Le Fond de l'Air est Rouge, or Grin Without a Cat. The three-hour 1977 essay, comprising newsreel footage from 1967 to the mid-1970s, documents the rise and fall of left-wing politics during the turbulent era, starting with Vietnam and the death of Che Guevara through to the Parisian demonstrations, the Prague Spring of 1968 and the CIA-sponsored coup that brought down Salvador Allende's government in Chile in 1974.

A mammoth undertaking, A Grin - which anchors the local showcase, screening on May 21 and 26 - still bristles with fury.

Through the Eyes of Chris Marker, Agnes b. Cinema, HK Arts Centre, 2 Harbour Rd, Wan Chai. Ends May 28. Inquiries: 2582 0200 or go to