Collective trauma and shared memories, the presence of the past in a sacred place, the ghosts of history, blockage and release, wreckage and healing.
Bring this history with you to this video, which will otherwise remain illegible: two calamities, separated by almost a century, in the ancient fortress town of Verdun, France, on the Meuse River.
In 1916, in the largest land-battle in European history, German artillery was unleashed, and a million shells fell on the forts, forests and ravines of Verdun. A sacred forest was planted over the war ruins, and pilgrims come from across the world. The town is defined by the Battle of Verdun, of which nobody has first-hand memory.
In 1999, Storm Lothar razed the same place. Weather agencies did not predict the heavy winter storm and all the energy disruption it brought, and yet it crossed northern France on much the same path as the Western Front.
In Gabriella Hirst’s new essay film, the townspeople of Verdun remember the cyclonic winds of Storm Lothar. At times, it feels as though they could be recounting the Battle of Verdun – like a pre-memory, or a double existence. Two collective traumas, one recalled first-hand through memory and the second by evocation. Our narrators, Marc and Veronique Petit, are mainly unseen, but their son appears onscreen, unburdened by the memory of the storm or the town’s narrative of the war, playing violent video games and aping soldiers in affray. We end in the Petit family garden, where roses arise from the landscape’s traces of warfare and wreckage.
We speak alot, now, of endless war and end days and precarious climatic events. Verdun is a fractious epicentre for all of these. And yet the scenes in the sacred forest and the Petit family’s garden hold a sense of something magical – that the world stretches beyond the visible. Categories collapse. Dimensions proliferate. Histories connect.
About Gabriella Hirst
Living in London, Gabriella Hirst is the 2020 recipient of the Ian Potter Moving Image Commission.