Nicolas Philibert Interview
French documentary maker Nicolas Philibert, the subject of a retrospective in the recent French Film Festival in Dublin's IFI, spoke to Village about his belief that documentary is the victim of many misconceptions.
Village: You were a teenager in France in the 1960's. Did the politics of the time have an effect on you?
Nicolas Philibert: My father was a philosophy teacher, my parents were very concerned with political issues, with cultural issues. My dad was mad about the theatre and the cinema and my parents went out a lot, so in the environment I grew up in culture and politics were very important. My parents were politically committed, they were involved, not affiliated to any party, but they felt it was their civic interest.
V: Did your father's work encourage you to study philosophy?
NP: I wanted to study cinema. When I was young it was my dream to study cinema, but I didn't know which channel I would take to enter it. At that time in France to go to cinema training school you had to have maths, physics and chemistry as subjects and be good at them to get in. I wasn't good at those subjects, I had no chance to get in, so I decided to study philosophy, which I did with gusto. I was interested in discovering more about philosophers, but I knew that it would not be a world I would stay in that long, not for the rest of my life. When I was a student I always looked out for some training opportunities to be involved in cinema, so that's how I got my foot in the door.
When I was a teenager, the thing that attracted me was the sense that cinema was not only a medium of entertainment, but also a means to travel. It allowed you to understand the world and that was a great pull for me.
V: Etre y Avoir was a critical and commercial success. Has it made a big difference on you career since?
NP: I wasn't at all prepared for its success. I made it the way I had made my previous films, without asking myself how the public would react to it. I just followed my conscience and the goals I had set for myself. Even while we were shooting I didn't think it would have the success it would have. It success was unexpected for me, for everyone, it was far beyond what we could have hoped. It sold in 45 countries.
After it came out there followed two years of what I call full-time success management, as I spent two years travelling, promoting the film. I couldn't really get around to doing anything else while I was doing that. Having such a successful film changes things a lot, there is a pressure on you that didn't exist before, there are expectations as to what shape and form your next film will have, people are monitoring you, keeping an eye on you, looking over your shoulder. Many film felt my next film would be similar to Etre y avoir, and that my next film would also be a success. There were economic pressures as well. So I tried to withdraw from all that, and my next film was made according to my plans and my wishes, I didn't give in to that pressure.
V: After Etre y avoir, were you more wary when filmmaking, due to the court cases that were taken by people in the documentary looking for money?
NP: Certainly the legal problems that arose affected me, it was a difficult time to go through, but it didn't turn me off from making films, the kind of films and documentaries that I wanted to make. There's no denying that today money is crucial and a central aspect of our lives, image is also an important thing. Something went wrong and that was that. It doesn't mean it has to be the same each time and the next film didn't trigger a similar round of problems.
It's important to stress that justice found in our favour. The demands made by the teacher were overturned, we were listened to, it would have been a turning point for documentary makers if we had lost the case. If the demands for compensation had been listened to, it would have threatened the making of documentaries. But as I say, justice found in our favour, it was an important landmark.
V: Do you think observation of subjects in documentaries always changes their behaviour?
NP: It depends on the individuals, filming certainly will change their behaviour, but it changes them in different proportions. Some will find the camera intimidating, others will get quite giddy, geared up and excited. When we are filming we try not to be invasive, but we can't pretend that it doesn't alter people's reactions and behaviours. When I am filming people I try not to interfere with the normal patterns of things, but yes of course it can alter things.
In some cases, when I'm directing things I propose, I suggest, I provoke, but I assume the responsibility for that. Documentary making is not only a point of view, a documentary maker makes choices but takes responsibility for them and looks at things with their own perspective. It's not reality, it's an interpretation of what you're seeing and filming, it's a rereading of the world, and a rereading of events.
Documentary is always the victim of the same misunderstanding, of the pretext that we film true situations, true people, that what appears on the screen is the reality. But its not, it's the subjective. What you see is the end result of the perspective of the filmmaker, it's a very personal perspective. Ten filmmakers filming the same event will result in ten different films. It's the same for journalists, if you see the same event, one will write short sentences, another will write long sentences, and the articles will be very different.
V: You have been quoted as saying ‘documentary is not considered totally as cinema' by people in general. You mentioned an uncle who enjoyed a documentary, then asked when you are going to make a proper film.
NP: It's just an anecdote about my uncle. It is changing, but a lot of people feel that documentaries are not fully fledged films and cinematic expressions. Yes we are filming real people in real situations, and yes many people classify it as a minor genre, but there are misunderstandings about documentaries, and documentaries are victims of those misunderstandings. The territory of documentaries is as wide, as large as that of fiction.