On Smolders’ La part de l’ombre

In January of 1944, the famed Hungarian photographer Oskar Benedek disappeared. Olivier Smolders’ La part de l’ombre (‘A Share of Shadows,’ ‘The Shadow’s Share,’ ‘A Story of Shadows’), made seventy years after his disappearance, brings together Benedek’s photographs, archive footage, and interviews with acquaintances and colleagues in an attempt to solve the mystery behind that disappearance. Not only does Smolders explain the mystery, he indirectly reveals that that explanation is an invention, because Oskar Benedek is not a real photographer and La part de l’ombre is not a ‘real’ documentary.

La part de l’ombre is faux documentaire -fiction staged as a documentary- or a false documentary. Practically every false documentary one sees has been filmed with a tongue-in-cheek component. Watching This is Spinal Tap, the viewer knows logically that the footage is not a real documentary, however the comedy is predicated entirely on the fact that what you’re watching is real when it is in fact not real at all. La part de l’ombre is not a tongue-in-cheek. Smolders not only creates an entire life for Benedek but also an entire mythology surrounding that life. Smolders films the subject with absolute earnestness as if Benedek were a real person -through staged interviews, fabricated archive footage, and other coded staples of the genre.

La part de l’ombre originated in Smolders’ intention to make a film entirely from still photographs -taking its cue from Marker’s La Jetée (1962)- with photographs by Jean Francois Spricigo, whose works ‘play’ Benedek’s photographs in this film. The resulting film is comprised of a combination of both still and moving images. The viewer sees footage ostensibly from the mid-twentieth century -which was obviously not filmed in that time and doctored to appear as such. It is with this footage that Smolders draws the viewers attention to a ‘reproduction’ of sorts of the mid-twentieth century onscreen.

la jetee
La jetee (Chris Marker, 1962)
benedek photo
Oskar Benedek photo from La part de l’ombre (Olivier Smolders, 2014)

Smolders begins with the faux documentaire gimmick and ends with a thought on the exploits of faux documentaire -and by extension, the nature of photography itself. If photography documents a remnant of the past, keeping it in the present, the inverse holds for La part de l’ombre. Thematically, the film has much in common with Ivan Zulueta’s Arrebato (1979) or Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (2001). Like those films, La part de l’ombre portrays parasitism between technology and its users -video cameras in the former and computers in the latter.

The practice of photography thus functions as a kind of parasitism -erasing life rather than preserving it. Said Smolders in a 2014 interview:

“Photography is a weapon with which we defend ourselves from the hardness of reality. But what if it were otherwise? And if the image was on the contrary as destructive of the past as it is of the present, eating away at the imaginary, relationships, life? Because it lies, because it reduces reality, because it absurdly stops things. It’s a question that deserves to be asked, in this time of millions of screens around the world constantly vomiting billions of images.”

Indirectly, the film’s portrayal of technology’s effect on reality (photography taking life rather than preserving it) seems to signify how the viewer ‘wants’ to believe that what they’re seeing in a false documentary is real. An analogy would be hiring a magician or palm reader to ‘perform’ at a party, or on a larger media scale, consuming news analysis or a televised speech. To that end, many viewers believe (or want to believe) the events of La part de l’ombre are real (mistakenly or not, both Facebook and Pinterest credit Spricigo’s photographs to Benedek). The film thus causes the viewer to confront his desire to believe, or at least to be manipulated or taken advantage of, by something that is obviously fake.