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As leading figures of the influential French New Wave movement, filmmakers Chris Marker and Alain Renais produced experimental documentaries and essay films throughout their lives that critically engage history, politics, and culture.
The film Statues Also Die (1953), an early collaboration by Marker and Renais, offers a critique on European museology and the colonialist mindset by examining westerners’ treatment of traditional African sculptures and masks. Significantly, it distinguishes corporeal death from cultural death, and physical endurance from cultural immortality. “When statues die, they become art”—the museums’ preservation of artifacts necessitates their removal from the webs of relationships that breathed life into them. Their expressions are vacant, their gazes lost: the figural sculptures became “dead” projection screens for the colonial tastes, beliefs and fantasies. This type of museological practice segregates the past from the present, rendering the past entirely passive—an idea that opposes the beliefs in many indigenous cultures of sub-Saharan Africa. The filmmakers attribute the differences in attitudes towards the past to cosmological differences evident in mortuary practices: While Europeans “put stones over our dead to prevent them from escaping,” among many African cultures, the dead were revered as “the roots of the living,” their remains maintained nearby and incorporated into cultural lives. By allowing the cultural pasts to exist around us as ghosts, even if that means acknowledging their “deaths” in some sense, the living could grant them a different kind of immortality.