Nicolas Philibert shakes his head with impatience. He is unwilling to be bestowed with the label “master” in any way. When we think of retrospectives and the concomitant master classes that accompany them, we might think of some august personage, a director that has been around for a few decades, has seen some things, and has much wisdom to impart, particularly to beginners. But what do you do with a filmmaker who is all of these things, but insists that he’s beginning again with each new project?
Philibert’s trajectory, as befits someone committed to a lifetime making films, might be considered slow and steady. But it’s a remarkable accomplishment nonetheless to have made 12 award-winning nonfiction feature films over the last three decades. His work always finds itself launched at top-tier international festivals, and quite often, also plays in the cinemas, particularly in his native France.
When I asked him what he finds a bit tedious for him in regards to talking about his work in general, and about the topic of documentary, in particular, he told me, “The same questions are asked, they come again and again. I just did an interview with a very charming young lady, but she asked me about In the Land of the Deaf (Le Pays des sourds) and how I came to make it, why I had wanted to make it, my motivation. It was a film made 20 years ago. I really don’t remember! And it’s not something I think about now.”
As for the ever-widening definitions of documentary, the 63-year-old filmmaker has said, “We should carry on with education. If it’s impossible to define the documentary in a 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. …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 one hand a large choice of approaches, styles, processes, scripts, and on the other 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.”
In March, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival – Images of the 21stCentury celebrated its 16th edition with an impressive program of nonfiction world cinema, accompanied by tributes to two men beloved by the festival, as well as the international community: Nicolas Philibert, and recently-deceased Canadian documentary ombudsman and international producer, Peter Wintonick.
Philibert is a very present, vibrant, exceedingly polite and courteous man. He intrepidly sat for interview after interview about the retrospective of his work in Thessaloniki. When he speaks about his films, it is with great authority and confidence, even though he insists on an ever-present ignorance about things.
Cinematically and narratively, the bar he sets for himself is high. He remains steadfast to his oft spoken statement about cinematic imperatives: “It seems to me that a documentary is cinema when it is greater than its subject.” This seems rather obtuse at first, but as Philibert explains it: “I don’t come to a film from a point of departure where I know or understand anything, really. It’s a question of my ignorance. So, essentially, the master knows nothing.”
It turns out the master does know a thing or two about what one must do to produce work that is as engaging, mysterious and life-affirming to viewers as it is to its maker. I think this is what Philibert means when he says that the film becomes bigger than its subject. It’s about the relationship between Philibert and his subjects and, in turn, our relationship to them when he presents his edited version of the time he spent in their company. Rather than following any kind of rubric of documentary filmmaking – or a retrofitted version for his own needs – a director like Philibert creates his own lexicon, his own grammar, as he puts it, by which to work. However, he and I also talked about scruples, and as old-fashioned and out of date a topic to talk about as some might believe this to be, continuing conversations about the responsibility of the one who is holding the camera when one films real people for a living is a conversation no lifelong documentarian can’t afford to keep having.
The trickiness of being the subject of a retrospective where audiences are seeing the work you’ve done over the course of many years is that it’s natural that people would try to make connections between the work you did decades ago to that of the work you’ve done recently. In these instances, do audiences teach you anything new about your older films? Do these new encounters to your earlier work bring anything useful to you that might inform your work now?
In a certain way, a film is never finished. It continues to exist in the experiences of the viewer and with the help of new viewers, in certain cases, the films continue to evolve. I say that because in the instances of meeting the public, in the Q&As, individuals make it their own film with their own perspectives. Sometimes, these interpretations bring about a really strong feeling and I appreciate that the work is still speaking so directly to people.
When one makes a film, one can pretend to control everything, that one can completely master the material. I can say that, for me, I make films with my unconscious since the finished film always says much more than I intended. And then someone can re-explain to me something they are seeing or feeling that I might not have consciously realized was there.
What do you bring to your work now that you mightn’t have when you were first starting out?
I don’t know, really. All I can say is that my questions, my doubts never leave me. I have never made a film from a stance of certainty – about anything. I always have new questions and new matters I’m thinking about and I continue to feel that this is the only approach, the best approach that fuels my imagination. There is this perception of me as a “master” of documentary. I don’t really like this label at all because to each according to their language, to their own grammar. I never feel like I have advice to impart to anyone, let alone another filmmaker. Each maker has his or her singular way of expression.
What about learning from other filmmakers? Do you go to the cinema a lot?
I go to the cinema as much as possible, seeing fiction films mostly. I see a lot that impresses me. Have you seen Fifi hurle de joie by Mitra Farahani? The director tracks down gay Iranian artist Bahman Mohasses after he disappeared following the revolution. In a hotel room in Rome, the artist and the director create an unlikely collaboration just as Mohasses is putting the finishing touches on his final painting. I also recently re-viewed Trilogie Bill Douglas, which I like very much. I have varied tastes.
Last night in the Q&A after Être et Avoir, you mentioned how much you love to edit. Do you already have the edit in mind when you shoot?
Yes, you can say it’s the case because please don’t imagine that the process of filming, for me, consists of just blindly collecting as much footage as possible and then sorting it all out in the editing. No. I’m always aware of construction. It’s a build where an idea brings you to another one and that informs another, etcetera. I continuously think about edition. I do improvise a lot. When I make a film, I figure out what I need, a strong starting point. I need a strong departure point.
For example in my latest film, La Maison de la radio, there is this big building where so much takes place; or the small single classroom in the countryside in Être et Avoir; the reorganization of the grand museum in La Ville Louvre. These are strong starting points to explore something, a promise of something. I was sure that being at the radio station with my camera something would happen. It’s a place that is a hive of activity, information, hundreds of journalists and producers, a huge range of programs, fiction, documentary, reports, news, all the guests that are there every single day, more than 130 guests every day. There could be a philosopher, a painter, all kinds of interesting people one can meet there. From that starting point, from all of those possibilities, I can improvise. I mean I don’t really have some kind of shot list of the things I want to capture. What I can do, though, is open various doors, look inside, ask questions, ask if I can stay and watch and listen or come take some images.
I would stop making films if I had to follow any kind of precise schedule or something like this. I need to allow chance to come in and wait for those unexpected things, encounters, circumstances. I also have a set of questions I’m thinking about. One of those questions could be: What am I doing here? Why am I in this place with a camera at all? I am secretly questioning my very presence there, the legitimacy of my presence.
When I made a film in a psychiatric clinic called Every Little Thing, I wasn’t sure I should have been there. I was asking myself what was I doing there with my camera? Is it legitimate to make a spectacle from mental illness? We live in a world where there is a constant avalanche of images. We have to question that. Filmmakers should question the nature of images, their power. When you have a camera in your hands, you have power upon others around you. We have to think about the possible abuses of this power.
Let’s go back to the rhythm and impulses of editing, the choices of a long gaze versus something more abrupt where you allow us to see something but then take it away rather quickly.
It’s a bit like psychoanalysis. As the psychoanalyst, I get to be the one who decides where the cut is, for how long the shot remains, the one who says, ‘It’s time to stop for today. See you next week.’ That moment when I say this is finished and now we move on is very important. These impulses are intuitive a vast majority of the time. This is how I work. I’m not a theorist when I’m making a film. So in line with my intuition, editing, for me, is like music. [He takes a long pause.] Can I tell you a short story?
My first film is called His Master’s Voice. It’s a film in which 12 chairmen of major industrial companies face the camera and recite their vision of the world, their world of capitalism. I co-directed the film with Gérard Mordillat. It was our first film. We were 25-26 years old. At the end of the shooting, we had something like 25 hours of talking heads. We started with the transcription, writing down the whole movie. We took pairs of scissors and we started to cut and construct, build the skeleton of the film from their words. When this was done, we went into the edit room and we precisely followed this “script” with the images and words we had assembled.
It didn’t work at all, not at all. The logic of the paper against that of the images didn’t hold up. The construction was not good. We had forgotten something important. The scene isn’t only words but the way in which things are told. The gestures, the intonation, the parenthetical aside in the speech – the ellipsis: all of this is important, the music of the words, and of language. That was the last editing plan I ever created. I started editing musically.
In La Maison de la radio it’s all constructed like a piece of music – a symphony with lots of voices. Short scenes. And then, a longer one. Someone speaking loudly, another voice speaking very softly. There are crescendos. Much of the time, in my films I’m not that interested in what people are saying as much as I am in the eyes, the faces, the act of people listening. The content is secondary. When I was editing, I left a good amount of scenes out that were very informational with hard news playing in the background about things like the Arab Spring, Fukushima. I filmed in that period. The news being broadcast was very important. But I wasn’t making a film about Fukushima or Cairo. This was in the film here and there, but not very prominently. I use all the visual queues around me because I’ve created the space for that. And in the worlds I create, time can become sort of malleable, or relegated to a mere detail.
Part of the reason why your films remain so memorable for me is that there is room for me to step in, a space to see myself – not in comparison to the subjects in the film, but as one of them, if alternate worlds were possible.
Here and there, I notice that people call my style observational and I find it absolutely bizarre. I don’t agree. I am involved; I’m not merely looking. I’m discreet, of course. I’m not in the image. All of my films are based on relationships and the film talks about that relationship – albeit discreetly.
When you are somewhere with a camera, your presence changes behavior. What is La Moindre des choses about? Is it about mental illness? Not really. Is it about theatre? Not really. It was a place where people with mental illness live and they built a play together. What is the real subject of the film? It is about the relationship between them and me, them and us. It’s an encounter with people where there is already some prejudice built in about who they are and how they are.
You said that you remember my films because you see something on the screen, something you can recognize and share in, yes? I think that is linked to the question of cinema. Very often I wonder myself, from what moment can you say that a documentary is cinema, or cinematic? Or not. Is it linked to the format? Of course not. You can watch a documentary on your laptop or on television and you can have your breath taken away and realize you are watching cinema. You can watch a documentary on the biggest screen and not have that.
There’s a significant difference between watching footage – no matter how captivating or magnificent it might be – and watching a film that takes your breath away.
Yes, it’s footage only. It’s bad television, something you have seen many times before. The mise-en-scène is completely flat, the acting is bad, and it’s boring. So when does something become cinema? You can be watching a film shot on the other side of the planet with people whose language you don’t understand. And then you see your story; you have this moment of recognition that this is your story, too.
How do you create those encounters?
My job is to program the chance of it happening. I must create the conditions that will allow the chance of something happening to come. Cinema can be considered an art certainly, but for me, a series of shots however beautiful they might be don’t necessarily make something cinematic.
LA VILLE LOUVRE
Directed by Nicolas Philibert
France, 1988, 84 minutes
For me, the artistry is linked to the unexpected, to the invisible element. I can tell when a director is consumed by, or too conscious about, making Art – this is obvious much of the time. They are bigger than the work, in this case, not the other way around. True artists are searching. We don’t know for what. Oftentimes, we don’t even know why. When I come to the end of most of my films, I still don’t know what I was looking for.
HIS MASTER’S VOICE
Directed by Nicolas Philibert and Gérard Mordillat
France, 1978, 100 minutes
Directed by Bill Douglas
UK, 1972, 47 minutes
MY AIN FOLK
Directed by Bill Douglas
UK, 1973, 54 minutes
MY WAY HOME
Directed by Bill Douglas
UK, 1978, 72 minutes