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Shooting People
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Nicolas Philibert interviewed by Jess Search

Shooting People's Jess Search interviewed director Nicolas Philibert about his film Etre et Avoir as part of the Edinburgh Television Festival in August 2004.

JESS: What's really striking about the film is how incredibly long you've held a lot of the shots. It seems quite brave and I wondered how early on you decided that was the tempo? And whether people looked at it in the edit and said, you know, you were crazy and you should shorten it?

N.P: But I think it's very important to give an idea of the context of the film from the very start, to give an idea of what sort of pace the film will have. It's like reading a book. From the first page, you'll either see very long or very short sentences, so we become accustomed to the style of the writing.

JESS: Did you work with an executive producer, because I looked at the credits and it seems like this is very much your film and you filmed some of it yourself and I know you also edited it, so this is very much a solo effort. Or were there producers involved who came and advised you in the edit?

N.P: Well you know the fact that you're making a film for the cinema gives you a lot of freedom which I wouldn't have had if I'd been commissioned by a TV channel. Because when you work for TV, things are more constrained. In cinema, you have complete freedom, and the producer will always be someone who is there to help me make the film that I want to make, as much as possible and to the best of my ability. If I don't feel the producer's, let's call them arguments' are those of someone who is willing to help me go that far, I won't work with them. It's very important.

Had the film been made for television, this very long opening would almost certainly have been under scrutiny, but that wasn't the case. And I think that the cinema audiences have accepted the introduction to the pace of the film that I've given them.

What I'm going to say might sound a bit simplistic so excuse me advance, but I think that a documentary, particularly one made for TV, is mostly done from a didactic perspective, in an informative way, it's information. Documentaries tend to have this dimension, this attribute, they're mostly done from an informative angle. I try to restrain myself when it comes to this aspect and to make documentaries that are distinctly narrative in style, that tell stories.

JESS: I think you should tell us a little bit about how the project came around. Was it that you decided that you wanted to make a film, a long film shot over many months at a school and then you went to find a school? Or was it because you found this school and this schoolteacher that you decided to make the film?

N.P: The origin of the film is not so much its subject. The question of subject, the subject for a film is in the background for me. It's not the main thing. I mean that we always, when we have to define a documentary, we always refer to its subject; it's a film about this, about Scotland, about this conference centre, whatever, about this, about that. I try, maybe, not to make films about, but to make films with, with these people. It means that my point of view, I don't have a great message for the others, to say about education, about school, I'm not an expert. I do not make films from an expert point of view. To tell the audience what it has to think about this question, or teach all you should know about this subject. I don't have anything to teach. I'm maybe the one who tries, myself, to learn something when making a film so it means that when I start, the less I know about the subject is, the better I feel in a way. And I don't read books and for, in this example, about education, countryside, single classrooms, single-class schools. I don't want to learn, because I'm not the one who aims to reproduce what I know.

JESS: Did you make a decision to make a film with a small school, and then go and look at many and choose one, or did you hear about, or discover this school and you were inspired by that one? Which way around?

N.P: I had an idea about making a film in such a kind of school, a single-class school in the countryside. When children of different ages are put together, from age 3 to 11, it becomes like a large family, or a small family. Twelve or thirteen kids, the older ones help the smaller ones to do their work etc. It's like they become responsible and self-governing. So I had the idea, not really about the subject, but an idea for the film. And then I started to look for a school like the one in the film, and as I visited more and more schools, bit by bit, my criteria for selecting one became more and more refined. But at the beginning it wasn't so much about the subject, but about a conviction. I have this conviction that we can make film, documentaries from tiny things, about tiny things. Banal things, things which seem banal to us at first sight. When you go to see producers and say 'I would like to make a film in your school and spend time in school', most of the time the producer is likely to say Ok, but you know your idea is quite banal' and of course it's banal. We've all been at school and what know what school is about. But for those kids who are currently at school, its not at all banal, its extremely important. It's more a question of the look of the film than the subject, I think it's a question of the scale of this look.

JESS: Congratulations on the film's success because its been one of the biggest documentaries in the cinema both here in the UK, I'm sure in France, but also in America. So your producers must be ecstatic, no?!

N.P: You've mentioned the success of Etre et Avoir' and I wasn't at all prepared for it. It was a big surprise for everyone. A nice surprise, but all the same the success was sometimes a bit too much. I'd say that the best thing about it was that the film didn't have a massive publicity campaign, like Michael Moore's film. It was through word of mouth. The people who saw the film wanted to share it.

I think the success is due to the fact, I'm going back to the issue of subject, I think the success of the film is due to the fact that there is something in the film that surpasses its subject, something that gives it a metaphorical, a universal dimension. This has a profound effect on people, be they British, Japanese or Mexican. The film surpasses the narrow subject matter of a little school in central France to focus on something that we've all shared in; the difficulties of growing up, the difficulty of learning, of learning to grow up. The difficulty of finding your path in life. The difficulty of trying to have faith in one's own future.

It means that documentaries start to be considered as cinema. Not all of them are cinema, you know, but some of them can be considered as being as cinematic as fiction film. It's very important for me that when people start to see that documentary is not, how do you say, real reality', what's on the screen is not a photocopy of reality. Many people still consider that what they see on the screen is reality, so documentary is not yet considered totally as cinema. Many times, even in my own family, when I show the new film, my uncle always says It's wonderful, but now when will you make a proper film.

It's a big misunderstanding about documentary. People should see, perhaps, that a documentary is the subjective viewpoint of one person, of one film maker who decides to put the camera here or here and to follow the children in the class or to just film from one spot, or to film this, or that, or not film this particular moment etc. You make choices every second and at the end the film is not reality but reconstruction of reality, re-reading of the events and the world.

JESS: Would you say that your film is an observational documentary or do you think that you've gone much further than that in creating the action and deciding what happened, that that label wouldn't apply?

N.P: We should probably talk first of all about the conditions that exist that allow us to make a film like this. I think, firstly, in order to make a film like this there needs to be trust, you need to be accepted. The kids, the teacher, they're at ease, they don't feel judged by the camera. This isn't a surveillance camera, it's a more welcoming camera, a camera that is with them, near them. And you need to make them feel that we're not there to film at any random moment, to film no matter what or all the time. The film maker needs to be able to stop himself from filming if he feels his presence is becoming uncomfortable, annoying, suffocating, unbearable. That's very important. Often, when people have seen the film, they'll ask me 'But how did you make them forget you were there?' and I always tell them its not about making them forget you're there, its about being accepted, it's not the same thing at all. The attitude of the director and his team is 80% responsible for what happens.

JESS: But was your technique observational? Where you say nothing and you just let action occur?

N.P: There are different kinds of scenes and strategies in the film, there are scenes taken from life and you film and you may have the chance to film this or to miss interesting things. And you miss many, many things because when you are filming here, something much more interesting is happening behind your back . But that's life and you have to accept to miss many things.
But in the film there are also scenes that sometimes I suggest or provoke. Maybe I give you an example. In the film there's a scene where the teacher, who is 55 years old, speaks to the pupils, talks about his retirement. One year later he was to retire so I asked him Did you ever talk to the children?', Oh no, not yet', Do you plan to do this?', Oh yes, sure!'. Well, I would like very much to film this, so when you feel like, just tell me because I would like to film this and I would like you to talk'. You know, I spend 10 weeks in the class but in separate periods, so I wanted to be here, to film this moment because, I don't know, I thought it seems to be, to me, very interesting that the teacher could speak about his own future in one scene. In this clip we saw, its quite different, it's filmed, it's filmed off the cuff.

These different moments are from life, but it's editing. I shot this in two or three different days in the same way, you know? I start one morning filming Jojo drawing and a few things happened, interesting, and so the day after I start again and maybe the day after and so I collect moments about Jojo drawing and when editing I made strong sequences and long sequences from these small moments.

JESS: But the story in this scene, that story that Jojo is not working fast enough and at the end he must stay behind. Would you say that that was something that you created or something that is taken from life, the story of the scene?

N.P: I think it looks like things I see everyday. But I changed it a bit, reconstructed it. Sometimes, you need to provoke things a little. For example, the scene when they come in. The first image, when they come in, it's a scene I made many shots of that, because every morning, they come in, so maybe 4, 5 times I filmed that.

JESS: I thought that was interesting that you obviously move in a world where you have friends who are making fiction films and I wondered if that maybe was one of the reasons why you're quite keen to break down some of the supposed distinction between documentary and fiction, because it does make a lot of freedom for directors when they are released from having to worry very much about the truth.

N.P: But what is fiction? For me, there is fiction from the moment that the spectator can project their own imagination onto the images they see. That's fiction, so you can have fiction in a documentary if the documentary in question says something to the spectator, tickles their imagination. I think it's a central question. Earlier we spoke about Michael Moore whom I personally don't like much. I didn't enjoy his last two films very much. To take an example of a film I think a lot of you will know. Because it's a film that is a bit patronising to the viewer, that takes us hostage, that tells us what we should think. I prefer not to tell the viewer what they must think but rather give them something to think about. Giving them something to think about is, I think, different politically as well.

JESS: You may have been aware from the press that after the financial success of the film the schoolteacher and also I believe some of the parents of the contributors are suing for a share of the profit. Is that correct?

N.P: From the outset, when we were in discussions with teachers, parents, everything was clear. They were told everything. I explained everything in advance. The only thing I couldn't really have told them was that the film would be such a success. But it was always clear that it was a documentary and in documentaries, in France at any rate, people aren't paid to be in documentaries.

It was a very beautiful, shared adventure. Filming, editing, when they saw the film. The children and their parents came to Cannes Festival and when the film came out everybody was happy and that lasted for months. It's recent, this change in events is very recent.

It was long after the success of the film that the parents decided to sue us. It was more than a year after the film came out, almost two years in fact, that a few of the parents decided to take us to court. It's sad.

JESS: I think we're going to have to leave it there. I think we should wrap it up because people have got other sessions to get to. But I'd like to thank Nicholas Philibert so much for joining us and to thank him for his fantastic film.

N.P: Thank you!