I’ve previously talked about cinema as a modern type of art form that is capable of preserving histories. Chris Marker’s documentary, Sans Soleil (1983), is similar in this regard of presenting history but differs in that Marker isn’t interested in preserving history so much as he in presenting what I call—since there is no name for it, as far as I know—lost histories. To explain what exactly a lost history is, I’ll first give background on what Sans Soliel is about because context is needed.
In Sans Soleil, Marker travels Japan and Africa and records quotidian life while a voice-over narrator voices Marker’s own personal thoughts on what’s presented on-screen. Some of the people Marker focuses on in the film are those relegated to the edges of society, such as Japanese drifters in the city of Namidabashi or the manual laborers of Guinea-Bissau in Africa.
As these images which are centered on the outcasts of society play out, Marker or “Sandor Krasna,” Marker’s alter ego for the film, muses on histories of the past that are linked to these modern images by way of connotation, symbolism, parallel, and so on.
A lost history then, is a piece of history that is focused on these fringes of society as seen from a Western perspective. These pieces of history aren’t relatively known, yet their effects on the past remain tremendous either through their ability to re-surge in everyday life or for how they’ve influenced the present. Two general examples would be how Marker argues the faces of Japanese citizens watching a ceremony in which dolls are burned recall the faces of citizens who would wave goodbye to kamikaze pilots and later on, how the Guinea-Bissau War of Independence jump started a whole revolution throughout Africa.
For an in depth example of how the past remains alive in the present, take the scene where Marker returns to a small village in Japan after having been away for a number of years. While there, we learn from the narrator that the first time Marker was in that village, the protestors were rallying against the building of an airport. Now in the present, another protest is happening and Marker points out that the same aspects of the past are all there: the policemen, the protestors, the helmets, and so forth. The only thing that has changed, as he concludes, is the airport which was built.
Marker’s display of the present and subsequent segue into how the past seems to be repeating itself, or how the past still exists in some forms within the present, consequently brings back these lost histories from the annals of time in which they have been forgotten in. The result of bringing back these lost histories then, is that the present never exists on its own and is thereby filtered through the lens of the past. The images of the past resurface in the present through connotation and through that connotation, the audience gains a different perspective and new understanding on the events of the present.
A small entertaining anecdote: My first experience watching Sans Soleil was somewhat embarrassing. I first watched the film on my laptop during a 4 hour bus ride. I had chosen Sans Soleil, because my experience in watching other art-house films were that they usually had violent or extremely sexual scenes; scenes which I would not want to display in public. Well, there is a scene in Sans Soleil where Marker is recording television, and he focuses on a late-night porno for a very long time, so I had to sit there and watch Marker watch Japanese porn and hope that no one else on the bus was looking at my screen.