La Captive du Désert


A caravan passes in the desert. From its low, stationary angle, the camera records this procession of men and women, dressed in turbans, sandals, and robes. Some are wearing sneakers. Periodically, a camel passes by loaded down with materials. At the end of the group, a woman dressed in Western garb is followed by a man with a machine gun.

This is the opening shot of Raymond Depardon’s La Captive du désert (The captive of the desert, 1990), a film inspired by the experience of a French schoolteacher who was taken hostage by guerrilla groups during the civil war in Chad. Although Depardon is known primarily as a photographer, this is his second narrative film. The use of the static camera and the long take are characteristic of Depardon’s approach to film, yet the fixed position of his camera is offset by the constant movement of its subject within the frame. In playing each movement through to its logical end, the director has produced a film that partakes of both photography and cinema, fiction and documentary.

Depardon uses composition and montage as a means to suggest the passage of time during this trek across the desert. Relying on a concept of duration that can be compared with Robert Wilson or Marguerite Duras’, he fashions a narrative in which events, seemingly disparate, accumulate to produce a sense of coherence. Through this distension of time and the repetition of particular actions and gestures, La Captive du désert demands that the viewer construct the larger picture.

The facts that Depardon chooses to present concerning a specific event reflect a pared-down view of narrative. We locate the Westerner within this group and deduce for ourselves her situation. There is no explanatory prologue, no flashbacks, no denouement, save for a helicopter that comes to pick her up, and the parting remark of one of the revolutionaries, “This is not your country, miss.”

Depardon’s method of telling this tale concentrates on the minutiae of day-to-day travel at the expense of contextual details; it manages to portray the characters without isolating the Africans as the Other. To be sure, the emphasis of the film is on the French woman and her attempts to cope with the situation, but her captors are never exoticized, never made to represent any kind of narrative imbalance. In fact, she is the element that causes the conflict.

Sandrine Bonnaire’s performance as the schoolteacher is integral to the film’s rhythm and tone. In a situation in which language itself is denied, she uses her body to express what dialogue cannot. The discomfort, the boredom, the fear, the alienation: everything is communicated by gesture and movement. She and Depardon do not dramatize the daily life of a hostage. Rather, they suggest a space and a context in which we, as viewers, may experience the captive’s predicament.

Michael Tarantino

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