Nicolas Philibert: interview

Wally Hammond meets Nicolas Philibert, the French documentary-maker behind the 2003 hit ’Etre et Avoir‘ and finds that his latest film – ’Back to Normandy‘ – is both spontaneous and beautifully crafted

Nicolas Philibert: interview
Nicolas Philibert shooting his latest documentary, 'Back to Normandy'
Of the new talents to have emerged in this special decade for documentary – the era of the ‘event’ feature documentary kicked off, say, with ‘Hoop Dreams’ in the mid-’90s though ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ to the super-sizing present – that of Nicolas Philibert is possibly the most fascinating and intriguing. The success, domestically and worldwide, of the hitherto little-known director’s 2003 film, ‘Etre et Avoir’ – you remember the poster of sweet, paint-splattered little ‘Jojo’? – may have catapulted him into the documentary big league, but there was something about his charming and thoughtful portrait of an Auvergne school that distinguished him from his contemporaries.

Evident in his marvellous new film, ‘Back to Normandy’ – where Philibert revisits the farm area where, as a young assistant director in 1976, he recruited locals for René Allio’s reconstructive feature on a celebrated mid-nineteenth century rural triple murder, ‘I, Pierre Rivière’ – and developed over a career that encompasses five cinema documentaries, is Philibert’s unique, sensitive and rewarding way of looking at the world. His cinema is notable for its discreet, observant and cinematically rich insights and is devoid of the didactic and over-emphatic tendencies that can overwhelm the work of some of his contemporaries.

‘I am a bit of an anti-Michael Moore,’ the director says of politics in cinema. ‘For me, the political dimension comes in trying to give something to people to think about. And not, as Michael Moore does, to think for people. Am I to tell people what to think? I try to give them some material, a basis on which they can think for themselves.’

Talking the morning after a Q&A in London, the 57-year-old director is still slightly stung by a questioner’s attribution of nostalgia to ‘Etre et Avoir’. ‘That film is not nostalgic for a rural school,’ he says. ‘I chose to film at such a school because of what interests me and that’s political; it was the mixture of age groups in that class. The old ones help the little ones.’ With the children and their teachers, he perceived a paradigm:
‘You have to be autonomous and, at the same time, work with others. That’s how we learn to live together.’

You could say that this interest in how people live together – or are made to live apart – has been paramount in Philibert’s work. As his absorbing 1987 portrait of mountaineer Christophe Profit for ‘Trilogy for a Lonely Man’ understands the human need for solitude, for instance, so his interest in work helps humanise a forbidding institution in ‘Louvre City’ (1990). Likewise, his sensitivity to his subjects qualifies the separation felt by the hearing-impaired who feature in ‘Land of the Deaf’ (1992).

‘Maybe “Back to Normandy” is particularly different to my other films – friends have even said it’s a self-portrait,’ continues Philibert. ‘But what it has in common with the others is that when I shoot, I prepare as little as possible. When I started this shoot, I knew I could meet four of the original actors again. I also knew I wanted to use Rivière’s text, his diaries, and that I would use voiceover, that I would go to the jail after the courtroom, etcetera. But the ideas come when shooting, and I love that. The fact that we are inventing a film little by little.’

This sense of spontaneity is astonishing given how much of ‘Back to Normandy’s richness comes from Philibert’s deft – and sublimely edited – interweaving of information. Allio’s original film was made possible by philosopher-historian Michel Foucault’s exploratory account of the Rivière case and the wide-ranging documents he assembled and deposited in the IMEC foundation in Caen – including Rivière’s ‘dazzlingly beautiful’ memoir explaining his sad and tragic deeds – extracts and examples of which Philibert includes.

‘There’s a very beautiful sentence in the notebooks of René Allio,’ explains the director, ‘and I cite it because it means something deep to me. It’s a mirror on my own work. “We must make a film,” he says, “to express as best as possible the world in artistic and poetic terms what I write here, or say so often. Namely my deep desire to save from oblivion those vibrant, intense, beautiful moments of all these lives of those…who leave no trace and yet who display skill, imagination, bravery, invention and love in order to simply exist, to go on existing or
to change, or simply to endure.”’

There’s a spiritual dimension to how Philibert honours the fruits of his close attention – how small keys can unlock large doors. But his work is distinguished too by a wonder at the world. There’s a delightful shock and surprise, for instance, in the surrealism and sympathy he shows in the studies of the stuffed menagerie in ‘Animals’ (1996). ‘I was like a child with “Animals”,’ he enthuses. ‘I felt a sort of astonishment… I wanted to turn my back on documentary when it can be too serious and boring and give it a sort of fun dimension, a dream-like direction.’

Back to Normandy’ touches on broad themes – the relationship of the peasant with his/her past, how past actions are transformed in memory, the strange contingencies of human relations, the interactions of cinema with real life – but this sense of play is never lost. The film opens with a shot of cows traipsing across a yard. ‘Yes, they seem to be on high heels, don’t they? I’m not somebody who has an optimistic vision of the world. But I’ve tried to hang on to things that make me smile or have a bit of laughter in them.’

Back to Normandy’ opens on Jan 18.

A restored copy of ‘I, Pierre Rivière’ will screen at BFI Southbank, where Nicolas Philibert will be in conversation on Sat Jan 19.





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