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.

Art

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.

Economics

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.

Programming

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.

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