In 10th District Court and Profiles of Farmers, you have minimal camera movement. Did your background as a photographer influence this choice?
I don’t think so. Film is also a question of capturing time. People always think that my photographic background is the reason why I don’t move the camera. But when I first began filming long ago, I was also interested in recording the sound. Otherwise I would have become a photographer who made movies, which isn’t very interesting. Cinema and photography are two different things. Sound saved me. In my movies, all of my background is part of my way of shooting.
I don’t like to work with ‘mise en scène’. I lose some images, of course, because you must run after the images. With a judge or a farmer, you cannot start again. You always have to be in an ambush mood.
In *10th District, I didn’t see the point of going around with the camera handheld. The idea was to be discreet and to disappear as the filmmaker. I told myself, “you don’t have to move because if you move, you aren’t going to listen that well.” So I was still, like a coat on a hanger or a lamp. Then I could better see what the priorities are when I build my scenes. It wasn’t like taking photographs – taking into account the aesthetics of the scene. For me, the subjects and the sound were important. Of course, image is important in that film but I had to become invisible and make the camera invisible to let the subjects be themselves.
The film about the farmers is different. The timing is different. Time was important so it had to go very fast with them. I could not interview them twice. They were very difficult, more difficult than the Yaomami people of the Amazon. I think we can compare them with the Appalachian people in the documentary *The Appalachians [directed by Mari-Lynn Evans – ed.].
You really give the farmers time to speak.
What is new in the second chapter of the farmer’s trilogy is that this is the first time that I felt the need to talk. It’s completely different from my other movies. I never spoke with the subjects before. It’s not my interviewing style, but it was needed. The farmers know my family, they know where I come from, where I was born. They know more about me than I know about them. They didn’t care about the camera’s presence but some of them are not very talkative. If I don’t make them talk, we were never going to get anywhere, especially with Marcel Privat.
I even had to play a bit of the joker with Marcel to get him to talk. I know that it is very difficult to be a farmer, so I teased him on purpose, saying, “Oh, this is a very good job.” The most difficult thing for me was to find the best place to set the camera and shoot while talking to them off camera. In Paris, I never talk with people when I am behind the camera. I don’t believe that talking to the subject is the best way to get to know them. Some people are shocked when I say that but sometimes, to get the subjects to talk, you have to talk to them.
In 10th District, you received special permission to film inside a French courtroom. How many people did you film and what criteria did you use in choosing the final 12 people?
One hundred and sixty people signed releases and then over a three-month period, we filmed 100 people. When I went to the editing room, I made a lot of storyboards, keeping statistics – a woman, a black woman, a black man. I didn’t want only foreigners or poor people. I really wanted to show the average French subject. I was afraid of making a movie that was only illustrating all the cliché cases, all the prejudice, such as Africans without papers, people with forged documents, or illegal immigrants. Of course you have a lot of those people who come through the courts but I didn’t want to focus only on those people. I don’t care about that. Of course I don’t have French people without papers but I have a lot of French people with alcohol problems or attacking other people with a weapon. So I tried to include people of different backgrounds and different types of cases. Unfortunately, I only had one sexual harassment case, so I didn’t have a chance to choose which one would go in the film.
Your camera is shooting the defendants and their attorneys and the second cameraperson was on the judge and the prosecutor. How did you decide where to position your camera?
It’s very strange because the courtroom is small. For the subject, wherever I put my camera was not a problem. The best place to set the camera was in the prosecutor’s position because from there you can see the judge and the defendant. However, in French district court, the prosecutor is always at a [physically] higher position on a raised stand. But I didn’t want to be at that angle of superiority, looking down on the defendants.
The central point was for the camera to be in the right place. The great filmmaker [John] Houston said there is only one place to shoot. Fiction and non-fiction film always deal with the same question: where do you set your camera?
The defendants seem unaware of the camera. Did you tell them to ignore you?
No. The defendants were afraid because they are there for the hearing. Everything is set up in a way to make the defendants confess. Therefore the people were not at all interested in the camera. I had more issues with Michèle [Bernard-Requin, the judge] because she knew that her superiors, the French people, and other judges would see the film. So it was more difficult for her to forget about the camera. In the film I did 10 years ago, *Caught in the Act (Délits flagrants), she was the prosecutor at the time. It was so interesting to see her play another role.
I don’t think I can do so many films like this one because it’s a very difficult film to make. I bear a moral responsibility to the people who signed the releases and to the judicial system, the district court and the judge. They all deferred to me when they signed a release. I have to strike a balance between the defendants’ feelings and the logic behind the court’s justice. It’s a little like music. After three months of editing, there were some characters who I couldn’t stand anymore but I love them nevertheless. It’s a love story with those characters. I identity with the pain and suffering of the illegal immigrants in the district court. With all the people in the district court, you don’t do anything by saying “I’m sorry,” because you know nobody listens to them, so let them talk. My goal is to listen.
What are you working on now?
A fiction film, a love story. Also, I plan to do the third part of the farmer’s trilogy but that won’t be done before 2008.
Chuleenan Svetvilas is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California. Thanks to Marlène Velasco-Bégué for interpreting the interview.
Profiles of Farmers: Daily Life
Profils paysans: le quotidien
France 2004, 82 min.
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