For fourteen years, Theirry Garrel has been putting his stamp on many international documentary co-productions as head of documentaries for ARTE France. He fights for creativity and resists the limitations of strong formatting that is taking place in television. TUE STEEN MÜLLER met him at his office in Paris.

Theirry Garrel

On several occasions DOX has highlighted the so-called auteur documentary film. “Do personal signatures have a place in modern television?” is the question. Time and again filmmakers, producers and commissioning editors have singled out the French-German cultural channel Arte as the one defender of this classic form of expression that was about to disappear in France fourteen years ago when the channel started. Many have said that Arte is the only place left with an auteur policy. The man who more than anyone else has brought Arte France to its unique position is Thierry Garrel. After many years as head of the Unité Documentaire, Garrel still seems to be a passionate, intellectual fighter for high level documentary that, in his opinion, can only be generated by a creative, triangular collaboration between auteur/director, producer and commissioning editor.

I wanted to hear Garrel’s comments on the current status of the documentary to try and discover if Arte can withstand the pressure of commercial ratings in an era when public service television is considered by many to be undergoing a crisis. I also wanted to know if the channel is only for élitist, established documentary makers and whether the power of commissioning editors has damaged the creative position of directors and producers.

TSM: Let us start with French documentaries. What have you and Arte achieved? In terms of the current standard of French documentaries, would you say you have won?

TG: Winning is a never-ending process, like climbing an endless mountain. But the work I started fourteen years ago with La Sept Arte, now called Arte France, is a continuous effort that has led to a very positive and successful position. Let me divide the answer into three parts: the artistic dimension, the economic dimension and the programming.


On an artistic level, the École Francaise currently embodies the famous French touch in documentaries: a large number of directors, a very wide range of storytelling styles, new ways of putting images together and new genres inside the genre itself. To that extent I think we are in the midst of a very rich, creative period with a new budding movement. Artistically, a diversity of styles – in points of view and storytelling methods – has given new content. The horizon is wider, the films are much more complex and cope with more than well-known observational styles and factual issues. New generations have grown up, and a new documentary culture has emerged, for makers and viewers alike. There is a new literacy, I would say. Ten years ago documentaries hardly differed from reportages.

On the other hand there is a turning point, as there always is with such movements. We have to re-invent the genres to gain new space for documentaries, and we have to set new targets and goals. There have been a lot of social or psycho-social documentaries bringing characters into time and history, but there should be something new. Over the last few years, therefore, I have put a lot of effort into dealing with more abstract realities. We have seen a lot of films on the symptoms of societal crisis, but very few on the systems themselves, i.e. the systems of economy, politics and media power that are shaping our lives to an ever increasing extent on a global level. Documentarists have to ask questions and visually materialise these dimensions.

What you are saying is that documentaries should still perform the classic role in society?

I think so. The main role of the documentary today is to reconcile the viewer with mankind. After the monstrous twentieth century, which clearly marked the end of humanism and the fall of utopian thoughts and ideals, the important task for the documentarist must be to reconcile us with our own humanity. This is an encounter with the Other, but also an understanding of and reflection on the foundation of humanity, which includes a critical dimension. As a new field for both politics and aesthetics, documentaries must invent new ways of describing the present and future world.

That is why in April we are launching a series, La Bourse et ? la Vie (in German: Die Macht und das Geld) with four very different films made for our strand “La Vie en Face” to be broadcast prime time. The films are by Raoul Peck, Stan Neumann, Eric Rochant and Omar Amiralay, and they are as different as human beings are. The themes are profit-making, traders, the new economy in Eastern Europe and the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.


TG: Creativity is, of course, linked to economics. In France the economic survival of the documentary is still problematic. No one is really making enough money. There are a number of independent companies that have editorial aims and desires and are strongly committed with an optimum connection to co-production partners abroad. But you are always digging the hole – you are never filling it.

How many companies like this are you talking about?

More than thirty can go international, not only economically but also due to the personality and taste of the producer who can cope with the commissioning editors, the directors …and the bankers! There are 500 companies all together in France and that is the point. The number is big enough to have a creative, national network. We don’t want to repeat the same themes. Documentaries are clearly a craft and not an industry. The films are made one by one. There are a good number of producers with a personal editorial perspective. But they are starving.

… because Arte cannot feed them all

and because more than 90% of French documentaries are connected with French public television, so the question of the general policy of France Télévision (France 2, France 3 and La Cinquième) is of dramatic importance to the situation of the milieu.


So even though Arte is still strong in documentaries, overall the documentaries are not winning?

Let me take the third point: programming and the schedules. First of all the documentaries still have a strong position in Arte although it is always a fight to keep it. It is a dialectic situation. On one hand, documentary is the heart of a cultural channel, ‘le documentaire c´est la télévision même’, but on the other, there is a negative entropy leading to the repetition, industrialisation and “journalistification” of the documentary production. For personal films, which are unique and difficult, this is hard to cope with. And the ratings for the two kinds are not always the same. Even in Arte the natural trend is to guarantee a certain amount of viewers.

Are your bosses demanding a specific viewer share goal from you?

It has to be precisely defined slot by slot, strand by strand. It has not been done yet officially, but unofficially it is clear that Arte has to care about its overall share.


Firstly, to achieve a certain degree of public, political legitimacy. This is perfectly understandable, even if the required standard is not the same in France and Germany. On the other hand, the only sensible way to have a rating system is to operate with an average share computed once a year. But the trends behind rating systems like this always provoke the comment, “Why not a share goal for every day?” I receive the rating lists every day, and I read them because sometimes they can work against me when I present a new project in the same field. My main interest in ratings is the possibility of seeing whether viewers stay with a programme from start to finish. If the interest diminishes along the way, something might have been wrong with the dramaturgy. Other stations are under much more pressure, and their documentary slots are much more shaped and formatted. We see the same trend in France and Germany. The slots are pushed aside till late in the evening or are turned into more journalistic formats. Since these movements are negative, Arte must be successful, not only for itself, but also as a general example to influence public television.

If I say that I am worried about the future of the auteur documentary in television, what is your response?

I would say that I fight for it. We don’t have to worry: we have to fight. Worrying has no meaning.

But increasing pressure from ratings, more formatted slots and strands…

We have to struggle and become more inventive and successful. Documentaries are supposed to be ambitious, high level, unique, and in a new field we have to create situations where they become successful. This may be the main function of Arte in the big picture. We have to find the right moment and the right place. We know that the trend is against us, but nothing is final, and a sudden success where the programme really makes a ‘rencontre with the audience, raises a debate, changes politics… can change a lot for documentaries. Even if it is done through single programmes. These experiences can be significant and can influence even programmers. The power of the connection between the so-called auteur documentary – the real cinematic way of expression beyond words and through images, sound and constructions in time – and the viewer is big enough to ‘contaminate’ in a very lasting way so it is also constructive.

Are you open to young filmmakers in Arte, or is Arte only for well-known directors?

Our calculation for year 2000 shows that we made ninety different programmes and worked with forty-five different production companies. Twelve of these were new companies for us. Forty-six directors did the documentaries, twelve of whom were newcomers. I am still trying to use the documentary unit of Arte France as a showcase for new talent.

Commissioning editors and power

If a director, an auteur, comes to you and claims that he or she can only make the film for him- or herself, how would you react? 

I would say, please do it for me at least and not for yourself! Obviously, the whole audience issue is tricky. I think it is a perverted position that television professionals should think in terms of the number of viewers, think about the millions of people who are watching. That is impossible. Even in television the viewer is always a single person – multiplied a hundred times, that’s true – but still solitary. What we have to do as television professionals is help the producer and director to understand that television is their tool, and make them understand that there are some rules and dimensions like time schedules. Television is a way of helping a viewer to find certain films at certain times so that the encounter can happen between film and viewer. The principle of television is to organise these rendezvous.

Which brings us to our contemporary stars, who seem to be the commissioning editors and not the directors. Is it wise to have this shift of power from creativity to television?

I started to work for French public television more than thirty years ago. I started in the research department at ORTF, which used to be French television. The department was led by Pierre Schaeffer who was a very important person at that time for conceptualising media development. Schaeffer said that PC is always constant, P meaning Power and C Communication. So power multiplied by communication is constant. Power is inversely proportional to communication, and the greater the power, the lesser the communication. He said this to help me and other new people learn our profession.

I am still very aware of this in my work with the five deputy commissioning editors in my unit. First of all, they have to be committed to the jobs they do, so I am not the big chief who rules everything. Secondly, they have to be aware that in relation to directors and producers we have to invent a common language so that the triangular relation we have really focuses on the film above all. The more you take this into account and try to be honest, the better you counteract the possible abuse of power.

I agree that situations arise where producers and directors find themselves begging from television. This is a consequence of a perverted situation. Television has to be built around the programmes and not the other way around. Creativity expressed in images and sound is the core and everything else is peripheral. The general negative entropy leads to power systems where directors and producers are forced to beg. There is no magic formula or solution. People who work in public television must assume the same responsibility to the general public as a politician. We have a responsibility.

Different cultures and dubbing

Let us return to Arte, a French-German cultural channel. Two very different cultures indeed?

It is the same question as the one about Europe that has very different cultures. Where is the difference? When you cross the Atlantic you know that you are European. Diversity is a quality.

But in Germany many films are being produced in-house for Arte?

The way films are being made has a very strong influence on the final result. I don’t want to undermine in-house production, but I am critical of run-of-the-mill production. Sometimes you have the feeling that the programmes are just being made to fill out the schedule of technicians and machines. Transnational television in particular seems to be very uncreative and pedestrian. It could develop into a problem for Arte. However, there is a trend towards wider diversity in the origin of programmes where you have directors who are neither German nor French, but natives of the countries they are speaking about. That is good.

One issue is completely nonsensical to me – the dubbing of documentaries done by Arte.

You have to ask Arte Strasbourg about that. They are responsible for the second language. I am just responsible for delivering the programme in French. Obviously, whenever I buy or produce films without French dialogue, my natural choice, for creative reasons, is to subtitle. But I must add that in the case of some straightforward interviews at a high level where direct contact is extremely important, I don’t mind if they’re dubbed, i.e. voiced-over.

If we look at ratings again, experiments have been made with the same programme in a subtitled and a dubbed version. It is clear that subtitling divides the audience in two. There are a lot of people who can’t read subtitles or don’t make the effort. Therefore I would be in favour of high level subtitling or mixed devices. But I will always be bothered by the use of several voices dubbing individuals, as in a bad French version of a Hollywood Western.

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