Viennale – Oncle Bernard’s Doc Discourse

Fighting Austerity, Killed by Jihadis

Oncle Bernard, A Counter-Lesson in Economics, dir. Richard Brouillette, Canada/Spain, 2015, 79 minutes

At the Viennale — world premiere

Bernard Maris, known as Oncle Bernard, or Uncle Bernard, was many things – an economist, a university professor, a novelist, a television talking head, and a part owner of the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo, to which he contributed.

What free market?

What free market?

No conventional economist would invest in an unprofitable magazine – the product of a dying publishing industry. And imagine an economist in the United States who wrote for a satirical magazine – and we’re not talking about unintentional humor.

Satirizing Satirists

Satirizing Satirists

Maris was murdered last January when two French-born jihadists forced their way into the magazine’s headquarters and shot 11 people.

You don’t see anything related to those crimes in Oncle Bernard, A Counter-Lesson in Economics, although you get plenty of Maris’s irreverence and endearing humanity. This monument to an extraordinary intellect is 79 minutes of Maris talking to one camera, including the time that it took to change tapes and tell his colleagues to keep the noise down. It’s a tribute to the man, and to the power of cinema to explore the dismal science with a scholar who is anything but dismal.

The Science Is Anything But Dismal

The Science Is Anything But Dismal

If you follow debates over neo-liberalism and the imposition of austerity on debtor nations (and on those who aren’t in the one percent of wealthy nations), then you have seen Oncle Bernard before. He was one of a dozen economists whom the director Richard Brouillette interviewed in Encirclement: Neo-Liberalism Ensnares Democracy, or L’Encerclement – La démocratie dans les rets du néolibéralisme (2009). Maris was also a presence on French television. Oncle Bernard, A Counter-Lesson in Economics, is the long interview in the Charlie Hebdo offices with Maris that was the raw material for sections of Encirclement that featured him. There’s nothing stale about it.

Maris talked the way that he wrote, with a dazzling facility, in language that anyone could understand, without pretense. He mocked the notion that economics is a science. He scorned policies that keep less-paid workers in wage poverty, noting that the marketplace is highly incentivized to coax the wealthy to invest. Why is it, he wondered, that decent wages are said to corrupt the poor, whereas investors need extra benefits to part with their money? The notion of a free market, Maris said, was bullshit – “une foutaise.”

It’s an eloquent performance — and it’s not a performance. Maris sits there calmly, waiting for Brouilette to introduce a topic, and then he lets go with his views. Cinematic purists – let’s call them visualists – might say that this is no more than a radio play. You could also say that about arias and soliloquies. If that’s the case, then Maris was a virtuoso radio performer. But reducing this performance to its soundtrack does not explain the fact that you can’t take your eyes off Oncle Bernard, even in the absence of what Richard Brouilette calls “visual lubricant.” It’s inspiring, and heartbreaking. And tragic.

Yellow Journalism -- Oncle Bernard, Seen by a Friend

Yellow Journalism — Oncle Bernard, Seen by a Friend

The jihadists who despised satire killed a crucial voice in the battle against economic oppression. The world needs more free spirits like Oncle Bernard.

The doc, which made its world premiere at the Viennale, plays next at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM).


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