LB: We could start our discussion with the ‘creative documentary’, taking into consideration the two words composing this concept: ‘documentary’, and ‘creative’. In which way are they completing each other?
NP: This question is not new, but it seems that we have to get back to it regularly, as the misunderstandings hanging over the word ‘documentary’ are incredibly persistent. For most people, as the documentary shows ‘real’ people and ‘real’ situations, it’s not exactly cinema, in the artistic, creative meaning of the word. They classify documentary as news, as journalism, as so-called objective, without seeing that watching the world is already rebuilding it, or understanding that from the moment we put a camera somewhere, we already have a point of view. Then, with time passing, the field of documentary has been expanded. Today it includes the most various forms and practices, from the diary to the activist movie, passing through the investigative movie, the one called ‘immersion’, the poetic essay… Consequently we should carry on with education. If it’s impossible to define the documentary in few words, we should at least make it clear that it is always a personal vision and, in any case, it is less faithful to the described reality than to the intentions of the filmmaker.
LB: Does the distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘documentary’ – a question we have been debating for a while – still make sense?
t seems to me that a documentary is cinema, when it is greater than its subject
NP: Here again, we should first agree on the meaning of the words, especially the meaning of the word ‘fiction’. As far as I’m concerned, I would say that… documentary is fiction! By saying it, I obviously don’t mean a fiction movie, in which actors play characters from a story invented from scratch. Here, the word ‘fiction’ rather means this secret yarn, thanks to which each of us is linking the shots, sewing temporalities and spaces. When I am filming a reverse shot, I am already producing fiction. During the editing, when I put together two shots filmed at an interval of ten days, it is the same. Basically, we can say that a documentary, as any other account, is a piece of fiction. As Godard used to say: ‘Fiction is me, documentary is the others’. This being said, there are hundreds of ways to play with the border line separating the two registers, hundreds of ways to cross it, to mix it up, to get around it, and everybody knows that it can produce very good things, as well as the worst: films swindling the audience, by pretending to be what they are not. Basically, what’s important for me is the place given to the viewer, the respect we have for the audience.
LB: Among the films we receive at Visions du Réel – almost 3000 per year – I find fewer and fewer movies, close to the model considered for a long time by television as ‘the’ documentary: those ‘objective documentaries’, in which we were giving the state of things about a certain matter, with pictures and expert’s talks, explaining or confirming what the pictures showed. Today we see more and more audacious films. And this audacity doesn’t stem from a provocative intention, but comes from the self-confidence of the filmmakers, from their talent for attention and their cinematic devices, to communicate to the public something, which doesn’t belong to information, but more to evocation. Such emotion – a sensation comparable to the one the filmmaker or the filmed person had at the time of the filmmaking – is building itself through a very precise dramaturgy. This dramaturgy interests me a lot, and I am asking myself how do you work, for example, when you are filming someone’s life?
NP: What you say about formal audacities is strengthening my idea that very often, from my point of view, the subject is not the priority! It is more the way we look at things. The subject is sometimes just an excuse. It is the surface. I remember a conversation with the actor Fabrice Luchini. He just watched my movie In the Land of the Deaf and said: ‘It is great! It is not a documentary, nor a film about the deaf!’ And it pleased me – it flattered me a lot, he perceived the movie as much bigger than the subject, and by talking about the deaf, it talked about us.
In the world of documentary, all these questions about the relationship between subject and form are gripping, and absolutely decisive. When we make movies for cinema, we have in principle a large formal freedom, but when we work for television – it’s not my case anymore, but I am however quite aware of it – we have to make it in due form, smoothly. When I directed La Ville Louvre in 1988, I had to fight in order to avoid any comment with voice-over. Since then, things haven’t really changed on TV. We can offer them any kind of subject, but if the narrative form doesn’t fit the norms, it doesn’t work. Obviously, I speak about our Occidental democracies, because there are many countries where it is impossible to talk about certain matters. Here, the restrictions and the pressures are first about form: You don’t have to shake up the public’s habits, then he will zap! Don’t disturb him… meaning don’t oblige him to think! It’s amazing to see the gap between documentaries we can watch during festivals and the ones television is producing and showing. It’s like two parallel worlds. On the other hand a large choice of approaches, styles, processes, scripts, and on another hand, behind a so-called choice of subjects, the biggest formal uniformity. There are some exceptions, of course, some late evening cases, where it’s different, but they are reserved for sleepless people.
LB: I recently had the opportunity to check a quite curious thing. During a presentation of documentary projects, the professionals (TV programmers, international sales people, fund-raising managers…) were making quite singular remarks in front of filmmakers and producers. For example, during the markets, we often present the first ten minutes of movies in post production, in order to find out about the potentiality of the broadcasting. And I have been shocked to hear someone saying: ‘This movie is interesting. But you could give more details about the character at the beginning, in order for the public to be immediately attracted’. I.e. in order to be attracted, they should know. At Visions du Réel I find myself in a completely opposite situation. In the selection process we are also paying attention to the first ten minutes, but if we immediately understand the subject, we usually give up. On the other side, we keep movies that fascinate us during the first ten minutes but don’t show us where they go.
NP: About that… I would like to tell you a story, which happened to me a short time ago. During spring 2012, I was invited to London to head the jury of a new festival, sponsored by a big university, called the ‘Open City London Documentary Festival’ or something like that. In order to save money on hotel expenses and projections, the organizers had sent us the DVDs of the selected movies one or two weeks prior to the event. Each of the six juries arrives in London the day of deliberation. We have a drink together, get to know each other a bit more, then we lock ourselves in a room and the deliberation starts. I suggest a first roundtable and ask individually about the general feeling. And then, the five other juries spontaneously propose to award the prize to Five Broken Cameras, you know, a movie already awarded here and there, initiated and filmed by a young inexperienced Palestinian farmer, self-made man, Emad Burnad, who was joined, for the editing, by a more experienced Israeli filmmaker, Guy Davidi. Have you seen it?
LB: Yes, of course.
NP: Then it’s my turn. I have another favourite movie: The Summer of Giacomo, the first one by a young Italian, Alessandro Comodin. And then, amazement! The others don’t want to hear anything and refuse to start any discussion: it’s 9.30 pm, they are hungry, and for them, the writing is on the wall! I insist on taking the time to discuss, to argue a little bit, but none of them feel it’s necessary: as they all agree and are all convinced about their choice, it’s useless to spend more time, I have no chance to reverse the tendency! It begins to infuriate me, and I also have a deep feeling of frustration. However I start to explain the reasons for my own choice, but I feel like I am rowing against the current. Among the others, there is a guy from Polish TV, who makes me understand that he doesn’t care, a British deputy spending her time on the phone, and the dean of this university, for whom The Summer of Giacomo is the most boring movie he’s ever seen… On that point, he specifies that he stopped watching it after fifteen minutes! Finally, an English filmmaker and a writer are willing to listen to my point of view, even if they don’t agree. If you remember, the movie starts with a long sequence, during which we follow a boy and a girl taking a long walk through a forest path surrounded by brambles. We don’t know anything about them yet, where they are going, why, what they have in common, if they are a couple, simply friends, a brother and his sister. But all the beauty of this beginning is linked to this feeling of uncertainty discreetly maintained. So, this guy you were talking about, the one who said ‘it is necessary to give more information from the beginning’, I do not know what he would have said about watching Giacomo, but for sure he would have been lost.
LB: It’s a film asking you questions. It surprises you, because you’re here and say: ‘Ah! I have felt it as well’. For example, there is a sequence, when you think that something could happen between the two young people. And there is actually a probability. But it also disappears straight away. This fantasy of an unfulfilled desire is something happening in each of us in life. On the other hand I think Five Broken Cameras is a good activist movie. But it’s also a movie I will call, without being scornful, a movie of emotional blackmail. I have the same problems with Michael Moore’s movies, who’s also an ideological blackmail filmmaker, and with whom I could share a political idea, but absolutely not the way to make movies. For me, politics is made through formal choices.
NP: For me too. We cannot separate content and form. And through this jury experience I understood that, if the movie was so successful, it was, first of all, due to the cause it defends, in front of which it’s of course very difficult to stay insensitive: the one of the colonized Palestinian villagers, victims of brutalities, almost every day, by the Israeli army. For my colleagues in the jury in London, it was inconceivable to give the prize to someone else, as it is a great subject, a great cause, evoked by touching characters, while The Summer of Giacomo is almost a movie without subject.
LB: Even more since he had his five cameras successively broken, in order to make his movie, the filmmaker is given as a victim from the beginning, as he’s himself one of the villagers.
NP: To get back to what we were saying previously… I have the feeling that today, with the multiplication of broadcasting’s tools, the world of documentary has become quite fragmented, made of networks, channels, and even sometimes ‘clans’, connected to each other very partially. Between the documentaries produced and broadcast by television, those which have cinema financing, and are consequently theatrically released, those which are not distributed in cinemas, but have anyway a career at festivals, the institutional films, those accompanying big exhibitions or commemorations, web documentaries, not including those made in a parallel economy, without broadcaster, often with ridiculous budgets, among which we can however find ‘nuggets’ – the stakes are not the same, people don’t exactly speak the same language. And the way of watching movies is also changing. The cinema operators are aware of it. It’s amazing that the same movie is played to a full house at the Cinéma du Réel, and is not attracting anyone the following month, when released in a Quartier Latin small theatre. Not because it would have attracted all its potential public within two projections at the Réel, but because there are movies we want to see during a festival, within that energy, and that we will not see in another context. There we know we will meet friends, maybe go out for a drink, and maybe carry on with another movie…
LB: I have often discussed this matter with other professional people from the cinema. I am quite convinced about the fact that today, beyond the traditional market – theatres, home video, VOD, internet TV – the real broadcasting channel for the documentary is the worldwide network of festivals. I.e. a movie has more chances to be seen by the public by passing from one festival to another one in the world than to be presented at cinemas in these same countries.
That is the invisible.
If movies manage
to capture it, without
saying it explicitly,
then, for me, that is cinema
NP: Yes, under the condition that festivals stop quarrelling with each other by demanding the scoop and the exclusivity. The competition between Cannes, Venice or Berlin is normal, that’s the game. But within the documentary field, it’s a bit different, as most of them are not released in the cinemas. Consequently they are penalized, as well as the public.
LB: In principle, I agree with you, but it also depends on the situation. Which means we have to find a balance in the programming. We cannot only show exclusivities, nor movies presented during other festivals. Otherwise we will always show the same movies. Let’s say that 20 movies are exceptional in Cannes, Venice or Berlin, that would mean that all year long, there will only be those 20 movies passing from one festival to another. And there are others, which are very good, and didn’t pass the selection of those three big festivals. In the documentary field, we cannot say that those presented in Cannes, Venice or Berlin are systematically the best of the year. They certainly have the best promotional broadcasting, but that doesn’t mean they are the best. As well as other directors or programmers of festivals only dedicated to documentaries, I can affirm without any doubt that among the 3000 movies we receive each year, at least 10 % of them have very good artistic quality. But we cannot keep everything in a festival’s program. We have to make choices. So we often take original movies, as we give the preference to movies that haven’t been given the chance yet. This said, at Visions du Réel, there is always an ‘out of competition’ space for great movies, which are not original.
NP: Such a space is important, if we want to develop what you previously said, i.e. this circulation from a festival to another, on an international scale, which will allow a film to be shown in Nyon, Buenos Aires, Lisbon, Montreal or Yamagata… Regarding the theatrical distribution, that’s something else again, and it’s very different from one country to another. During the past 20 years the situation has substantially changed in France. When I started – my first film, La Voix de Son Maître (His Master’s Voice), was released in 1978 – there were almost no documentaries in the cinemas. So few that I hardly knew what it was! It’s only after I achieved it that I started to understand, when discovering films by Fred Wiseman, Pierre Perrault, Van der Keuken, Robert Kramer… that there were all kinds of processes, styles and individual approaches, very distinguishable from each other. Today everything has changed: with the multiplication of channels, the numeric era, small cameras, internet, the number of documentaries filmed every year exploded, and among those movies, there are more and more released at the cinemas. Just during the week of the 16th of October, approximately 15 movies were released in Paris, six of them were documentaries! They are finally competing with each other. But it’s better that way than the opposite, isn’t it? In Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, Belgium or Netherlands, as well as in most of the European countries and the world, it’s much more complicated. Very few documentaries at cinemas, very few in their programming. From this point of view, France is an exception, as well as Switzerland.
LB: Yes, the documentary distribution in the cinemas in Switzerland is remarkable. And Swiss documentaries are often among big national successes.
NP: But among those documentaries released in cinemas, we see everything and nothing, in particular activist movies, looking for the awareness of the opinion about this or that question: junk food, ravages of the agro food industry, sea pollution, climate changes… They have their audience and are sometimes successful. Here again, we find the subject’s problematic! When those movies are successful, it is generally due to their subject, much more than to their cinematographic intrinsic qualities.
LB: But how do you distinguish a cinema movie? I am asking you this question as I have been impressed by the speech of Marie-José Mondzain, opposing ‘visibility’ to ‘image’. From that moment, I started to interpret the word ‘visibility’ as a systematic tool for the validation of the visible, and the word ‘image’ as the search for a link between visible and invisible.
NP: For me the cinematographic value of a movie – a documentary, as well as a fiction movie – is not necessarily linked to its technical or aesthetic qualities. Even less to the size of the screen. I could be shaken by a movie with bad technical quality, by watching it on a computer or on TV. I often had the opportunity to say it, then sorry, if I’m repeating myself, but it seems to me that a documentary is cinema when it is greater than its subject. It transcends it, and then raises us. It could be again a kind of Godard’s vision. Godard used to say: ‘Cinema raises our head, when TV makes us look down’.
We watch a movie directed ten thousand kilometres away, among the Inuits or the Hmongs, in a language we don’t know, a culture that doesn’t have anything to do with ours… and suddenly that movie shakes us. By talking about them, it talks about us, it builds a secret link, without us really being able to explain it: it is not explicit.
I know you are sensitive to this articulation between visible and invisible. We already talked about it. I remember a day in Alba, organized by Carlo Chatrian and you, around this subject; it’s an important question to me, as well as in my movies. Nénette, the film I directed at the Botanical Garden (Jardin des Plantes) in Paris, is entirely based on the disjunction between sound and image, meaning that we see the animals without ever hearing them, and hear the humans without ever seeing them.
There is no reverse angle. Nénette and the three other orangutans, with whom she’s sharing her cage are taking the screen from the beginning to the end, while the soundtrack blends several kinds of words: the spontaneous comments of the visitors, families, couples, foreign tourists, a gang of teenagers… But I also recorded the keepers, especially the older ones: they saw Nénette growing and knew her story. Finally I asked a few friends from different backgrounds to come along and I recorded their reactions: an actor, a psychoanalyst, a drawing teacher… In La Maison de la Radio, the question of visible and hidden is also very present. The idea of filming the voices. A movie about the radio, it was almost unnatural: How can you film radio without shattering its mystery? And then, which images to shoot?
LB: I had the pleasure to see it at the Berlinale last February, and what surprised me is the change of perspective in the perception of the radio. Effectively, when you are listening to it at home or in your car, your relation to it is a relation of fullness, meaning that the radio is attracting all your attention, your presence and your imagination. You are listening and you imagine. In your movie, you show something else: we are in the ‘time off’ of the radio, i.e. emptiness versus fullness. Here you are filming what we could call the ‘bodies’ orchestras’, because the movie is like a musical score…
NP: Yes, for me, this movie was like a musical score, a work about polyphony. I wanted all of us to plunge into the hive of activity, which is Radio France, where hundreds of journalists, technicians, hosts are working, where every day tens of famous or unknown guests are coming. I did it during a period of major events, the beginning of the Arab revolutions, the tsunami and the Fukushima catastrophe… Nevertheless I didn’t really pay attention to content. Those events are mentioned in the movie, but they are not in the foreground. They didn’t have to take too much space, to become awkward. The purpose of the movie was the voices, the accents, the voice’s tone, the faces, the gestures, bodies, people looking at each other, the stress of the live show, and even more, the listening time. It’s a movie about listening, and in order to do it, I had to play a lot with the ‘out of scope’. I am more and more convinced that the cinema exists only if we create a tension between what we show and what we don’t show. To center, to make a shot, it is about choosing, what we will not show, what will stay ‘out of the scope’.
LB: Once you told me something I never forgot: ‘In a documentary the most important things are maybe not the ones which are said, but the ones which are untold.’ For me, it’s really like that. I.e. sometimes you see things, which are not there to explain themselves, but to tell you something else, something which is not visible on the screen… but is nevertheless present.
NP: But this… We are not always aware of it in advance, we don’t master it. Once the film is done, and sometimes a long time after, we start to find out that it carried other matters than the ones we initially put into it. When we make a film, there is always a part of invisibility to our own work, so that our perception is improving over time. And sometimes the public is telling you about things that you didn’t even see yourself, because a film is a surface, on which each of us is casting his imagination. Sometimes it gives wonderful moments. I remember a woman, raising her hand at the end of one of the first screenings of Etre et Avoir and said: ‘You made a movie about separation.’ Until then, I didn’t realize it, and yet it was so exact! Indeed, what is growing up, if not learning to turn the page, to get separated?
LB: That is the invisible. If movies manage to capture it, without saying it explicitly, then, for me, that is cinema.
NP: Giving our general survey we didn’t talk about what links today more and more openly the documentary with contemporary art, passing by the installations… I must admit I don’t know it so well…
LB: I mainly have a humanist education. For that reason, I am more attracted by films speaking about human values. But what often fascinates me in objects related to art, contemporary art, plastic art, is the position of the filmmaker in front of something unexplainable. The mystery. It’s the same thing, when you watch, for example, a film from the origins of the cinema. In a fixed image about a place that probably doesn’t exist anymore or is completely transformed, you see simultaneously fascinating and unexplainable things. You just have two elements: a reality and its mystery. That’s the specter of existence, something dead, but however still alive to our eyes. It’s always within a specter, this transition movement from the present to the past that we find ourselves facing mystery. This specter is haunting us.
NP: What you say makes me think about Uncle Boonmee, the film from Apichatpong Weerasethakul. During the screening, a lot of people left, but I immediately felt like I let myself go…
LB: But here, it’s not only a question of mystery, it’s also about beauty. Because often it’s beauty that attracts us, the beauty of a landscape, a face, a spirit. A poet from classical antiquity said: ‘Beauty conquers more than the sword’. This is also the way it is in cinema. So, more beauty than activist spirit. _
IN THE LAND OF THE DEAF
Directed by Nicolas Philibert,
Italy, France, UK, Switzerland, 1992. 99 mins.
LA VILLE LOUVRE
Directed by Nicolas Philibert,
France, 1988. 84 mins.
5 BROKEN CAMERAS
Directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi,
Palestine, Israel, France, Netherlands, 2011. 94 mins.
SUMMER OF GIACOMO
Directed by Alessandro Comodin,
Italy, France, Belgium, 2011. 78 mins
HIS MASTER’S VOICE
Directed by Gérard Mordillat and Nicolas Philibert,
France, 1978. 100 mins.
Directed by Nicolas Philibert,
France, 2010. 70 mins.
LA MAISON DE LA RADIO
Directed by Nicolas Philibert,
France, Japan, 2013. 99 mins.
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul,
Thailand, UK, France, Germany, Spain, Netherlands, 2010. 114 mins.
Luciano Barisone. Film-club host, journalist and film critic for specialist magazines. Since 1997 Luciano Barisone has contributed to numerous international film festivals, including the Locarno International Film Festival and the Venice International Film Festival. In 2002, he founded the Alba Infinity Festival, for which he has acted as artistic director until 2007. From 2008 to 2010 he was artistic director at Festival dei Popoli in Florence. Since 2011 he has been the director of Visions du Réel in Nyon.
Nicolas Philibert. Director of La Maison de la Radio, You Could Mention Louvre City (1990), In the Land of the Deaf (1996), To Be and to Have (2002), Back to Narmandy (2007) and Nénette (2010).