I met with Serge Lalou in Paris on the 14th of March just before the outbreak of the Iraqi War. In the lobby of Les Films d’Ici, two grand posters told me that the company was involved in both Iran, Veiled Appearances, by Thierry Michel, and Etre et Avoir, by Nicolas Philibert. That made the first question easy to ask.
Tue Steen Müller: ”Etre et Avoir has sold almost two million tickets in France. How can a film about a teacher and a school class in Auvergne generate such a box office miracle for a documentary? Is it because the French love to watch French culture or…?”
Serge Lalou: “No, it is not. In Germany, they have sold almost 200,000 tickets, and other countries are showing it, too (Italy, Greece, USA, Canada, Korea, Japan, Belgium, Switzerland, Brazil, and others). I think it is a combination of many elements. It is a beautifully shot and edited film. It is a story that touches us all. The appeal of children. And we would all love to have had a teacher like that! It is an optimistic film, a film that tells us how the director would like the world to look. And, very important, the marketing work was superb! Films des Losanges did it the right way. Before the official screening at the Cannes Film Festival, they organized a special ‘séance’ for the cinema owners in France. 240 came to see the film, and they know what can attract an audience. 123 prints were sent out for the premiere, a lot of targeted marketing had been directed on educational circles. The week after they had to double the number of prints.”
Back to the company and to Serge Lalou, who is known in France as well as in the international documentary environment. He works at Les Films d’Ici as a producer and is one of three shareholders (Richard Copans and Frédéric Chéret are the other two) who own 50% of the company. The Lagardère media group owns the remaining 50%. According to its web site (www.lesfilmsdici.fr), Les Films d’Ici has produced more than 450 films since 1984. The catalogue includes impressive names from recent documentary history such as Claire Simon, Robert Kramer, Nicolas Philibert, Patricio Guzman, Stan Neumann, Judit Kele, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Avi Mograbi, Thierry Michel and Eliane de Latour. Lalou recently co-produced Etre et Avoir by Nicolas Philibert, August by Avi Mograbi, Latina Littoria by Gianfranco Pannone and Iran, Veiled Appearances by Thierry Michel. Last year Lalou directed a film himself, a fiction film entitled Entre Nous.
Serge Lalou: ”We have a permanent staff of 12. We make 25 to 30 films a year. Besides production, we now have started to do some of our own distributing. We have released 6 to 8 documentaries a year in cinemas. It’s a militant kind of activity. Yesterday we set up Thierry Michel’s film in the Parisian cinema L’Espace St. Michel, and we had 200 people the first day. This was without any kind of normal marketing, based solely on a couple of good reviews. This is not at all profitable, but we wanted it to happen as there is an audience looking for content. There is a concern about the war, and people are interested in films that deal with the world. There is a need for debate.
“Three exceptional things happened to documentaries in this country. The successes of Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore) and Etre et Avoir are enormous, and on television L’Odyssée des Especes reached 38% of the audience. Although this may give cause for optimism, be careful! Philibert knows that it might not happen to him again in his lifetime. There won’t be one like that every year. But a psychological barrier that prevents people from going to the cinema to buy a ticket for a documentary has fallen.”
Shift in Company Position
Serge Lalou continues, “L’Odyssée des Especes is a producer’s film and therefore a television programme. It’s conceptual. It does not have a filmmaker’s approach. It is completely different from Etre et Avoir in which Nicolas (Philibert – ed.) wants to make a film. They represent two different schools. I have learned that we have to be present in both categories. In other words, we must include the more industrial approach to television where the typical budget is three or four times greater than that of Etre et Avoir. We will move into that market, we want to and we have to. If you are not present on that market, you lose the other one, the classical auteur documentary. L’Odyssée des Especes was a big international co-production, which proved that France can make programmes traditionally made by the English and Americans.
“There is no need to hide the fact that influence on documentaries by ’industry’ is ascending, while ’the art’ itself is declining. We can only fight this decline by being present in industry as well, and thereby get away from the image of being only ’militant activists’. I need power to be able to continue to support Mograbi and Pannone and to take in new talents like the Romanian Alexandru Solomon and the Italians Sergio Fergnachino and Enrico Cerasuolo, who are now ready to make films on a communist bank robbery and the mystery of sleep, respectively.”
Serge Lalou learned about these documentary projects through the MEDIA training programme, Discovery Campus. When in Leipzig for one of the sessions, he was asked “What are you doing here?” by people from the more commercial segment of the documentary business. It is an on-going concern of Lalou during this interview to shed the image of representing a company that makes only Art. He says, “They have to see us also as a prime time deliverer. I am working with people and not with genres. I see myself as a publisher of quality who works with people.”
Producer and Director
TSM: ”This urge to change the company’s direction – does that also change your role as a producer?”
SL: “Absolutely. We used to have people coming to us. Now we (also) set up teams for the development of the stories. The control is in the hands of the producer. In the filmmaking, however, the producer is still a tool of the director. I can’t make a film with people I don’t like. I have to find out how they speak. If we agree on what we eventually are going to do together and if we can do it like that. Is it possible? We discuss, we don’t fight. I follow the production closely, I come up with suggestions… but I also get scared if they listen too much. The biggest problems always centre on moral issues.”
TSM: “The final cut…?”
SL: “…always lies with the director.”
Arte and Public Broadcasting
Serge Lalou: ”Arte is still the most important channel for us, but we also work with FR2 and 3. We have provided programmes for all documentary slots in Arte. I see that as a sign of good health. Arte itself is more endangered from within than without. To what degree can they remain a station of ’offer’ and not become a station of ’demand’? A new structure is proclaimed. I am not completely against any kind of change, but the originality of Arte must be saved. There is a general debate in France right now about television. That’s good. You have to be open to changes.”
TSM: ”Compared to other countries, France seems to be a paradise for documentary producers.”
SL: ”It is still a very fragile community, and the sort of documentaries we produce are under heavy pressure. There is a new generation of ‘media boys’ who produce quick, streamlined, non-fiction products that do not fall into the tradition of directors’ films. We have to fight that tendency, and at the same time we have to be ready for the future. We are now digitalizing the titles in our catalogue to be ready to serve a new market on the Internet, DVD distribution, digital channels and so on. The films we have made still have a life in sociological and political contexts.”
PS: A visit to the web site of Les Films d’Ici (www.lesfilmsdici.fr) makes you hope that Lalou is right. Entering the catalogue of the company (structured in an exemplary way so you can search for directors, titles, years of publication and subjects) is like taking a journey into your own past of documentaries you have seen here or there and that you would like to see again. Robert Kramer’s Route One, Claire Simon’s Coûte que Coûte, Philibert’s previous films, the many titles for Arte’s slots on architecture and travel to cities around the world, and many others. One day you will be able to visit a web catalogue like this one and click your way to seeing the whole film in good quality.