HER NAME IS JUMAI VICTOR
A conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévy on the occasion of the New York premiere of his film
The Will to See.
(special thanks to Emily Hamilton for editing the translation of the original post)
The Will To See, directed by Bernard-Henri Lévy and Marc Roussel
92 minutes in French and English with English subtitles
New York Jewish Film Festival 2022 at Lincoln Center
Walter Reade Theater on January 16, 2022 at 4pm
The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Bernard-Henri Lévy
Ticket: Click Here
At the end of 2019, Bernard-Henri Lévy returns from Nigeria with a report of rare strength. He describes the heinous, murderous, and terrorist acts of a group “more or less linked to Boko Haram,” “Islamists of a new kind” : the Fulani. They attack Christians in Nigeria from village to village, they burn their houses and kill them. In his movie, Bernard-Henri Lévy introduces us to one of their recent victims, Jumai Victor. This woman, “an evangelist,” is collecting her prayers at her husband and four children’s grave, brutally killed by the Fulani. She survived the attack. Pregnant, the Fulani spared her life, but some of them cut off, one after the other, first her fingers, then her hand, and her forearm
The image is striking, frightening even. I discover it, sitting comfortably at the Core Club in Manhattan during a private screening of The Will to See. I am transported in a different dimension. An hour and a half later, neither I nor any of the other spectators, journalists, diplomats, and guests will remain insensitive to these insane journeys to Libya, Kurdistan, Ukraine, Mogadishu in Somalia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and the island of Lesbos in Greece, “Europe’s capital of pain.”
Since March 2020, Bernard-Henri Lévy has traveled far away, elsewhere, to meet those who are no longer spoken of, while the borders were closed, while a large part of the world shut down, while people were ecstatic as they witnessed nature re-owning the streets of cities, when they applauded every evening a nursing corps that has since been forgotten, when they promised themselves to build a more empathetic world, and when they drowned themselves hypnotized by the daily accounts of the covid-19 contaminated and dead cases. If the governments, with the support of the doctors, transformed the meaning of the word “essential” into a restrictive catalog à la Prévert, the French philosopher and movie maker refused to follow this dead-end path.
In the last two years, Bernard-Henri Lévy, you wrote The Virus in the Age of Madness; you published accounts of eight stories reported from around the world, and then you combined them, in another book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, which also contained a first part devoted to the reasons and form of your commitment over the past 50 years. Now your new documentary film, The Will to See, based on your travels, will premiere on January 16 at the New York Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center. How does all this work come together?
You just described exactly how the film came about. I went on the road, got out of Europe, and made this film precisely because I was appalled by the unreality of the world we had entered. The fight against COVID-19 was sending us in a parallel universe where nothing else existed but our health. And in this parallel universe, I felt a wave of selfishness emerging that seemed absolutely disastrous for the world and for us. I took the pandemic very seriously, of course, and I scrupulously respected the health guidelines, but my immediate reflex was to think that we also had to fight against this epidemic of selfishness, this epidemic of blindness that was hitting us.
A civilization exists when you prioritize others over yourself.Emmanuel Levinas
War was the rhetoric of this epidemic. We even had the impression that other conflicts suddenly disappeared, at least from the media perspective. Putin, Erdogan and Xi Jinping seemed for a moment to become great and harmless democrats. It is in this context that you went in search of distant conflicts’ victims, of forgotten war heroes, of children in misery, of the voiceless, the damned souls of the earth, and the refugees excluded from all societies, “of the other,” as Emmanuel Levinas would say.
I made this film to explain to my contemporaries that we cannot employ this word ‘war’ improperly and that the word ‘war’ is a word that unfortunately designates a reality quite different from the struggle of doctors and researchers fighting against a virus. Wars exist, they are neither inevitable nor natural. It is within our power to stop or prevent them, and they are even more tragic — because they are linked to the madness and imbecility of men. We cannot build a world based on walls, on closed spaces, on lasting and deep exclusions and by turning our backs on the requirements of minimal fraternity that make humans truly human.
To do this, it would thus be necessary to be enlightened by those who are lurking in the shadows of society.
The role of an intellectual is to show what is hidden, to invite people to open their eyes to obscure realities and to help them see what they do not want to see, or what the rest of the world is trying to prevent them from seeing. When people are invisible, when they are deprived not only of their voices but also of their names, of their existence, sometimes of their deaths—because they die anonymously—it is the role of an intellectual to try to bring them into the light. I insist on this point because there is a whole movement in the United States that, in claiming to fight against what is sometimes called “cultural appropriation,” makes it impossible to relay the words of those whose voices are not heard. I fight against this. When people deprived of speech, one must return it to them, give it back to them.
I mentioned above this encounter with Jumai Victor thanks to your book and your film. There is also Fawza Youssef, the writer and feminist of Rojava in Kurdistan and the Birangona in Bangladesh, heroines of the nation. In fact, women are particularly present in these stories.
Among these voices occulted by our time, there are often the voices of women. This film is a hymn to women. There are martyrs and heroines. Victims and fighters. I was moved by all of them. The victims are the woman tortured by Boko Haram with whom the film opens; they are the women raped at the time of the war of independence in Bangladesh that I meet again after 50 years. The heroines are the women fighters of Rojava who defend the values of feminism, weapons in hand.
And then there are these children, this boy “who has an angelic face with lovely gray eyes and an empty look,” you write, who “would gather the heads that his father, an executioner in Raqqa, cut off,” these teenagers imprisoned in Kurdistan who stand at the frontier of humanity, or more exactly of inhumanity.
They are children who are victims of the most terrifying injustice, the one that comes from the idea of collective guilt. ‘Your parents are criminals; therefore, you are a criminal.’ I absolutely reject this logic. I am very proud to have succeeded in filming these sons of criminals who, for the most part, are determined to take a step, and even several steps, out of the ranks of the murderers. And I’m happy if I could help them to make this leap out of the ranks of murderers, even if the murderers are their own parents. There is an essential fight against the idea that guilt is passed on like a disease.
So, you want to help some of these teenagers, those who express the wish to join the ranks of civilization. You often intervene in your film. You even sometimes address the crowds, as it is the case in Libya and in Ukraine. You state in the first part of The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope that despite appearances, you are not a journalist “because my slant is the inverse of a journalist’s.” You voluntarily become an actor of what you describe, you are a writer, an author, and a documentary filmmaker. You are not the envoy of France either, you say, but you speak in its name. You are sometimes criticized for the form of your reporting, so why this need to stage your work?
Out of honesty. And because the scenes that a documentary filmmaker films in general—and me in
particular—are situations largely created by the very presence of the documentary filmmaker.
It is an illusion to believe that there is a situation that is waiting in limbo for someone to pick it up, capture it, and reproduce it. The mere presence of a camera, of a film crew, modifies the situation and sometimes creates it for a part. The honesty is to say it. The situations I film are at the exact confluence of objectivity and subjectivity.
To the point of sometimes becoming the story itself and facing real danger such as being the target of Kalashnikov bullets as it was the case on a road between Misrata and Tripoli in Libya.
On this day, I am not filming an ambush in general, but an ambush targeted at me. I am filming assassins who aim for me, I am filming bands of mad jihadists who are there, in that place, because I am there.
Because you are a Jew!
Because I am who I am, that is, French, a writer, and a Jew. When they shout, ‘Out, you Jewish dog,” it is to me that they talk about, and it is by my name that they call me. The honesty is to report this scene, assuming my part of subjectivity and its intrusion into reality.
Upon returning from one of your trips, you find yourself on the streets of Paris in the middle of violent demonstrations of Yellow Vests and anti-vaxxers. Can you understand at that moment, after having witnessed the deepest human misery, that in a country protected by medicine, by the economy and by democracy, people still want to publicly demonstrate their incomprehension and anger against the decisions of their government?
I’ve been reporting, particularly on war, for 50 years, and for 50 years I’ve always had trouble adapting when I return to France or the United States. But when I witnessed the Yellow Vests and the anti-vax demonstrations in France, when I hear them scream against the health dictatorship, when I hear them scream that France has become a fascist state as I am just coming back from a place where dictatorship is really wreaking havoc and where fascism is really in action, I have a hard time accepting that.
I obviously have here in mind the three picaresque characters that you quote in a poetic text on the back cover of The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope. The first is Cervantes’ Don Quixote; the second published one of the most beautiful tales of the 20th century, Promise at Dawn: the writer, filmmaker, and author of remarkable reports for Life Magazine, Romain Gary; and the third is an English officer, an idealist, famous for his memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence, whom you speak of a lot. Don Quixote, Romain Gary and Lawrence of Arabia, what do they have in common?
A taste for lost causes. It is even more important to fight for lost causes than for victorious ones. A lost cause that would be forgotten, that would be erased from the memory of men, is a double loss and a loss without recourse. There is a great virtue in them, fictional or real characters: they know the nobility of advocating for lost causes.
The greatest disease of human beings is blindness, it is the will not to see.Bernard-Henri Lévy
Your reports, your film, are part of a story that remains particularly newsworthy. This is the case in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, I saw two things. Contrary to what all the defeatists in America and Europe tirelessly repeat, the West had succeeded in Afghanistan. With 20 times less soldiers than in Japan, 50 times less than in Korea, 15 times less than in some European countries, the West had succeeded in creating a civil society and in helping Afghan women to live with dignity and freedom. But our film also shows the inevitable catastrophe when the Westerners, especially the Americans, carry out their threat, their promise to leave. At the time of the shooting, the irreducible optimist in me did not want to believe it. I thought that there was still a chance to prevent the madness of the American troops leaving. This optimism also showed what a chain of catastrophes would follow. Afghanistan is one of the few times in my life when I was really very sad to be right.
And then there is Ukraine. May I use here this sentence by Saint Exupéry that you quote, “War is not an adventure. War is a disease. Like typhus.” You filmed in the same trenches where a potentially tragic destiny is played out today.
We see in the film the exact spot where Putin’s tanks are preparing, as we speak, to attack. I would like these images to be seen by all those in the United States who have the power to prevent the great crime of Putin’s attack on Ukraine.
The question I ask myself, as a spectator and receiver of what you have just shared, is what can we do, we individuals and we nations now that we know?
Turn the tide, regain a sense of brotherhood, break out of this double trap of isolationism among Republicans and the ideology of identity and closure to others on the left wing of Democrats. There is a trap here: the isolationism of the right and the identitarianism of the left, the result of which is the same. It is a Western society that closes itself off and lets the rest of humanity die.
How can we achieve this?
Each one of us has the power to stop this terrible tidal wave that is sweeping our societies and which, if it were to prevail, would signify their definitive decline.
Beyond the will to see, there is the will to discuss. What would be essential in our lives, if we can give this word a meaning, is the other person.
And it is to see him. The greatest disease of human beings is blindness, it is the will not to see. I have the will to see, especially the will to see what people try to prevent me from seeing, and I would like to transmit this will to see to my contemporaries.
Jumai Victor, this Nigerian woman of Christian faith, this “very beautiful young woman, who was missing one arm, though this was not immediately noticeable because of her off-center way of standing sideways…” writes Bernard-Henri Levy in his book, will not see this film.
Jumai will never testify before an international court of justice against her husband and children’s murderers, nor before a United Nations commission, nor at a Vital Voices event in Washington, D.C.
A few months after the filming, just as the editing of The Will to See was being completed, Bernard-Henri Lévy tells us, the Fulani tortured her again, and this time, murdered her.
I will never forget her name, nor her face and her calm sadness visible on the screen, her resignation also bent over the grave of her family. Jumai Victor will never again be anonymous.
Information on the Premiere: The Will to See, directed by Bernard-Henri Lévy
Sunday, January 16, 2022, at the Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater at 4pm.
The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Bernard-Henri Lévy
Tickets : https://www.filmlinc.org/films/the-will-to-see/