Survival of the Fireflies

Georges Didi-HubermanSurvival of the Fireflies, publ. Univocal, University of Minnesota Press, 2018 (Translated from the French by Lia Swope Mitchell).

Extract p. 83 -87

By Georges Didi-Huberman

Translated by Lia Swope Mitchell

We do not live in one world but between two worlds, at least. The first is inundated with light, the second crossed with flashes. At the center of the light, we’re supposed to believe, twist and turn those few who today are called, with a cruel Hollywood antiphrase, the People, or sometimes the stars—the stars, we know, carry divine names54—and we gorge ourselves with mostly useless information about them. Smoke and mirrors, part of the system of the “kingdom’s” effective glory: the glory demands only one thing from us, and that’s our unanimous acclamation. But making their way along the margins, across an infinitely more extensive territory, are innumerable peoples about whom we know too little and for whom counterinformation seems ever more necessary. Firefly-peoples, when they retreat into the night, seek their freedom of movement as they can, flee the spotlights of the “kingdom,” do the impossible to affirm their desires, to emit their own flashes and send their signals to others.Suddenly I’m reminded—this is only a recent example; there are many others I could mention—of the few, fragile images flashing through the night at the Sangatte camp, in 2002, in Laura Waddington’s film titled Border.55

Laura Waddington spent several months in the areas surrounding the Red Cross camp at Sangatte. She filmed Afghani and Iraqi refugees who were trying desperately to escape the police and to cross through the Channel Tunnel to reach England. Of all this, she could get only firefly-images: images on the brink of disappearance, always altered by the urgency of their flight, always close to those who, to fulfill their plans, hide in the night and attempt the impossible, risking their lives. The “diagonal force” of this film comes at the cost of clarity, of course: the need for lightweight equipment, the shutter at maximum, impure images, uncertain focus, invasive graininess, jerky rhythms that produce something like a slow-motion effect. Flash-images, even so. We can see only a little, only glimpses: bodies positioned in the ditch below a highway, beings crossing through the night toward an impossible horizon. Despite the overpowering darkness, these are not bodies rendered invisible but rather “particles of humanity” that the film manages precisely to make appear, however fragile and brief those apparitions may be.

What appears in these bodies in flight is nothing other than the persistence of a plan, the indestructible character of a desire. What appears is also, sometimes, grace: the grace contained in any desire that takes form. Gratuitous and unexpected beauty, as when a Kurdish refugee dances in the night, in the wind, with only his blanket for covering: this vestment for his dignity, and, somehow, for his fundamental joy, his joy in spite of all (see Figure 2). Border is an illegal film, crossed with all the states of light. On one hand, there are those glimmers in the night: infinitely precious, because they carry freedom, but also agonizing, because they are always subject to a palpable danger. On the other hand—as in the situation that Pasolini described in 1941—we see the “fierce spotlights” of the kingdom, if not the glory: beams [ faisceaux ] from police flashlights across the countryside, the implacable ray of light that sweeps from a helicopter, through the ambient shadows. Even the simple lights of houses, the streetlamps or headlights that pass on the highway, grip us by the throat, because of the painful—visually painful—contrast with all that humanity thrown into the night, thrown again into flight.

These contrasts of the states of light correspond to a striking contrast of sound in which two states of voice give Waddington’s narrative all its dialectical subtlety, despite the extreme simplicity of her formal choices. There is the voice of the artist herself: the voice of a very young woman, musical although artless, with an extraordinary tenderness. Modestly, she carries out the necessary work of the witness: she tells us her story as well as its intrinsic limits; she does not judge or dominate the story that she tells; she speaks to individual beings, people she has met and names specifically (Omar, Abdullah, Mohamed), without omitting the frightening perspective of the whole phenomenon (about sixty thousand refugees would come through Sangatte, we learn). When we spectators sometimes feel dazzled by an overexposed shot, Waddington tells us how the refugees themselves would return to camp blinded by tear gas.

Suddenly, in the midst of her narration and her voice— which reminds me not a little of the plaintive lyrics that the poet Forough Farrokhzad recited to accompany The House Is Black, her uncompromising documentary on an Iranian leper colony—explodes a sequence of live sound recordings, filmed from within the refugees’ protest against the imminent closure of the camp. Here we see not glimmers but explosions, flairs; these are no longer speeches but cries, yelled out at full force, to no avail. The camera itself protests and struggles. The image of all this is fumbled, in danger: it tries with every shot to save itself. Later the silence will gather again. We will see a group of refugees—but now we must not say “refugees”; instead we must say “fugitives”—guided by a smuggler, moving away through the shadows toward a vaguely luminous horizon. Their goal is over there, beyond, behind that line. Even if we know very well that “over there” will still not be a refuge for them. In the end, they blend into the darkness of underbrush and the line of the horizon. Headlights still shine out. The film ends on something like a halt in dazzlement.

Images, then, to organize our pessimism. Images to protest against the kingdom’s glory and its beams of hard light. Have the fireflies disappeared? Of course not. Some of them are very near to us—they brush against us in the night; others have gone elsewhere, beyond the horizon, trying to reform their community, their minority, their shared desire. Even here, Waddington’s images remain, as well as the names—in the closing credits—of all those people she met. We can watch the film again, we can show it, and circulate glimpses, which will spark others: firefly-images.

“Survival of the Fireflies” by Georges Didi-Huberman, trans. Lia Swope Mitchell, (publ. Univocal, University of Minnesota Press, 2018 ) pp129-141


54 By contrast, the choice of Eisenstein for his cinema on the history of peoples. See Sergei Eisenstein, Beyond the Stars; The Memoirs trans. William Powell (London, British Film Institute, 1995)

55 Laura Waddington Border (Lovestreams Productions 2004). See also Georges Didi-Huberman, “Figurants” in Dictionnaire mondial des images, ed. L Gervereau (Paris:Nouveau Monde, 2006), 398-400