The film opens on a shot of stairs sitting waiting in the haze of early morning sunshine on a runway, waiting to do their job of making the crucial connection between there and here, between the air and the ground, between leaving and taking off. A queue of people start ascending up towards the door into the aircraft. Their muscular frame, and the fact they appear to be only men carrying no baggage, should probably already tell us that something strange is happening here – deportation? the transportation of labourers? Their heavy shoes, which we see in close up, massive against the brilliance of the tarmac in the sun, confirm this intuition, and their low-hanging trousers. Then we’re back up at the door, the procession has reached its objective, but the bodies seem to stall, to move sideways, the camera is right up close to a broad chest printed with the letters of some organisation, not a commercial one, but the body has moved slightly and we see a face staring over a shoulder, then another, looking to see what the blockage is… and all of a sudden we find ourselves also involved in a different sort of looking, a looking that we are rarely invited to do. We’re looking at time and weather and exposure, at slightly puffy lips, deep lines around the eyes, a scar that has broken an eyebrow. We’re looking at toil, at its effects, at the way it has made these very specific marks on these faces, and, as the camera pulls back a little to let us see the crowd massed at the top of the stairs, we’re also looking at something that inheres in and across all these faces. I’m not sure if the notion of a universal or general humanity is useful here; better is an intense expectiveness projected forward in unwavering gazes off the edge of the ramp towards elsewhere.
Didi-Huberman has described something of this quality of gaze in his discussion of Philippe Bazin’s photographs of old people in long-term care: « On accède ici à l’extrême proximité […] d’une lutte intime entre deux mouvements: mouvement du temps qui passe (chronos) et qui a presque fini de réduire ce visage comme une feuille de papier que l’on chiffonnerait avant de la jeter à la poubelle; et celui du temps qui résiste (aiôn), qui n’en finit pas d’adresser sa question, sa supplique, sa colère, son refus, son énergie de survie. » [Peuples exposés, Peuples figurants, 2012, p. 41]
This is not a gaze we can meet. At best we can sustain it, and as the camera offers us shot after shot of these air stairs moored like a strange vertical raft in the middle of nowhere, the congregation of bodies acquires a sort of solidarity that makes all the more acute the feeling of solitariness that fixates us too as we look at these silent yet eloquent faces.
Centro di Permaneza Temporanea Adrian Paci Albanie, Italie / 2007 / vidéo / 5’25″ / couleur © Adrian Paci
The film can be seen on YouTube, but to see it properly, better go to the retrospective of Paci’s work currently being shown at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.