There’s a stretch of land in northwestern France that’s spent the past six decades fighting prospects of total annihilation. Plans to build a new international airport began to hover above Notre-Dame-des-Landes, a rural commune a few miles from Nantes, as early as the 1960s. In the years since, evicted farmers refused to leave and joined forces to squat their old turf back. Thus began the ZAD (Zone to Defend) as local residents and activists turned the reclaimed area into a self-sufficient community. “The airport will happen,” then-PM Jean-Marc Ayrault brayed in 2012. It didn’t. Governments from both left and right sought to remove the squatters, sometimes with astonishing force––during a large eviction campaign that spanned a couple of weeks in April 2018, the police fired an estimated 8000 tear gas canisters and 3000 stun grenades a day. Yet the ZAD prevailed, cementing itself as a successful example of collective living––a 21st-century heterotopia, if you will––that’s received as much attention from the cops as it has from the media. Journalists and filmmakers have been struggling to illuminate its inner workings ever since it came to life, spawning a canon of shorts, docs, and TV exposés that have treaded a dangerous line between voyeurism and cheap spectacle. In a place so flooded with images, what’s there left to show, and how?   

Directed by Guillaume Cailleau and Ben Russell, Direct Action is that rare documentary that seems to exist in symbiosis with the people and place it captures, by which I mean it allows the ZADists’ preoccupations with horizontal understandings of power to guide its own image-making. Where so many other attempts to shed light on this 4,000-acre community have embraced a top-down approach, focusing almost exclusively on its fraught relationship with the authorities, their film works the opposite way––shooting with as opposed to at, forsaking facile sensationalizing for a far richer, eye-opening study. It’s not that violence and abuse are glossed over. This remains, after all, a film bookended by scenes of obscene police brutality, kicking off with clips of the late-2010s evictions and rounding things up with March 2023’s clashes between cops and members of the Earth Uprisings Collective. Yet Cailleau and Russell, reuniting after their short Austerity Measures––a portrait of a neighborhood in Athens made during the 2011 anti-austerity protests––are after something wildly different. The threat of eviction hangs over Direct Action like a sword of Damocles, but it’s not what keeps it together; the film’s interest, and the source of its cumulatively engrossing power, lie elsewhere. 

That’s because the focus, title notwithstanding, isn’t on a political action as an abstract notion, but an umbrella term for myriad everyday activities inside the ZAD, which the filmmakers, over the course of a leisurely three-and-a-half hours, observe with a mix of wonder and respect. People ploughing fields, baking bread, cooking for each other, planting seeds, tending to horses and pigs, building and renovating houses––between 2022 and 2023, Cailleau and Russell spent a combined three months shooting and recording life within the ZAD. Which means Direct Action is, on some basic level, a film that’s concerned with work: the pains of hard toil and the strangely hypnotic charms that come from endless practice and repetition. But in contrast to documentaries that seek to account for the zombifying drudgery of life under capitalism, theirs oozes a real sense of creative energy. There’s no trace of automatism in the innumerable actions we witness; every act, whether that’s operating a sawmill or making crepes, feels like it’s been discovered and invented right in front of the camera. 

Part of that can be chalked up to the fact that the people we see, or rather catch glimpses of had to teach themselves their own chores. (The ZADists’ fear of police violence might go some way toward explaining the film’s attempts to protect their anonymity, its focus on hands and first-names-only credits.) There’s something very refreshing about the directors’ efforts to skirt facile back-to-the-land messages. Direct Action paints the ZAD as a boisterous place, but Cailleau and Russell never prettify it as a kind of heaven on Earth. This is a project that’s as attuned to the electrifying freedom borne out of an alternative lifestyle as it is with the limitations and imperfections––hence the emphasis on mistakes, on work not going well or not going at all. 

But there’s another reason behind the energy this film radiates, one that has little to do with the actions themselves and more with how the directors document them. Shot entirely on Super 16mm and composed of static shots roughly averaging five minutes in length, Direct Action turns duration into a structuring principle. If the film’s about work, it’s also about the time needed to carry it out, to practice and master one’s craft. Cailleau and Russell seem to posit space as an accretion of different actions and the different times required to complete them. The length of each shot speaks to their project’s scope: not to give a bird’s-eye view of the ZAD (though with a breathtaking drone segment where the camera’s suspended above clouds and land, the film does that too), but to capture a vast lattice of processes and relationships. The sound design heightens this interconnectedness; working with 5.1 as opposed to mono allows each frame to echo other offscreen activities, suggesting a whole web of people and actions happening everywhere all at once. Russell has relied on Super 16mm all through his filmography; here, celluloid makes for an interesting parallel with the anachronistic lifestyles it immortalizes, but also gestures at a tension between those lives and the painstaking efforts to capture them. 

Late into the film, as the focus shifts to the March 2023 clashes between police and militants of the Earth Uprisings Collective, an activist shouts at the camera: “This is not what you should be filming!” Stones and stun grenades fly everywhere around her; she walks away; Cailleau and Russell don’t––not immediately. In the few seconds that pass between her plea and the next cut, the film tips its hand. Russell’s cinema has long provoked the boundary between the observer and the observed, between those behind the lens and those in front. Direct Action complicates that gap further, pulling us viewers into a larger debate around our own role, toward what’s shown onscreen. This immersive journey lands on a rousing wake-up call; if not for direct action, then for a profound reckoning over the images we produce, how we watch, and what we do with them. 

Direct Action premiered at the 2024 Berlinale.

Grade: B+

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