French director learns from executives, patients, clerks

Modest and discreet, French filmmaker Nicolas Philibert chooses his words carefully. A tribute to his work is currently being screened during the fifth Documentary Festival in Thessaloniki: Images of the 21st Century, which opened last Friday and runs to Sunday. Philibert was recently awarded the Cesar Prize at the annual French film awards for his latest documentary «Etre et Avoir» (To Be and To Have). His fundamental belief, as seen through his work for the past 25 years, is to enter the world of the others, to get to know them and to learn from them, something which he appears to have applied in his own life. The «others» can be pretty much anybody, people ranging from company directors and athletes to museum clerks and mental asylum patients. What is important is not the characters themselves, but their coexistence. You have stated that you are more interested in telling a story than in producing the traditional documentary of an educational nature. For a documentary to acquire cinematic value, its creator must give it a more human character by overcoming the strict limitations posed by the very theme of the documentary. Most of the reports and documentaries that we see on television are often trapped within those educative limitations, and I am sure that most of the time the viewers wish to know more about a certain subject. When the producer has predetermined the frame and the result of his work, and merely uses the camera to add to the concept which he has already shaped, then the documentary loses all cinematic value. When I decide to work on something, I never do any research beforehand, to avoid any prejudices that may influence my judgment. I believe that one must be open to all stimuli, because that is the essence of cinema. How difficult is it to eventually tell a story through your work? In my work, I deal with people’s personalities which might make us cry or laugh. Nothing in my documentaries is predetermined and watching them is like watching a movie, one never knows what will happen next. Besides, films have their own power. Take my last work, for example, «Etre et Avoir,» which is set in a one-teacher small elementary school in rural France. I don’t focus on the difficulties of teaching under these circumstances, but on childhood itself. Whereas watching a child trying to read and write may seem commonplace to us, for the child itself this is a small miracle. And that miracle applies to all humanity; children of any nation will experience the same uncertainty and stress when they pick up the pencil and attempt to write their first syllable. It is not easy being a child and that by itself is a story, a fairy tale, my story. You film constantly, with your subjects ranging from the Louvre without its visitors to a mental clinic or even a zoo. I am not so much interested in the location itself, as in the small communities that live in it. The aim of my work is to show how we can all coexist by surpassing our codes of behavior, our differences, how we can see other people’s desires and uniqueness – and therefore cooperate with each other. You know, it’s not an easy thing to do. Other people are always a nuisance because they take us out of our security and expose us to all sorts of emotional dangers; they put us through hardships and make us drop our defenses. I did a documentary on a mental clinic, the reason being that I wanted to get acquainted with the world of madness which scares us because the line between what we consider normality and what we call paranoia is very thin. I gradually managed to get close to these people and my prejudices were eliminated because I saw their personalities. Each one of us is a hero and the star of his own life. Cinema can draw on small events in our daily routine, like the one I mentioned before, a child learning to write and to withstand the critical look of its classmates. The five films directed by Philibert chosen for screenings during the fifth Thessaloniki Documentary Festival are «La Ville Louvre» (Louvre City, 1990), «Le Pays des Sourds» (In the Land of the Deaf, 1993), «La Moindre des Choses» (Every Little Thing, 1997), «Un Animal, des Animaux» (Animal, Animals, 1996), and «Etre et Avoir» (To Be and To Have, 2002).

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