P.O.V. No.22 - On Documentary Film

An interview with Bertrand Tavernier on documentary filmmaking

Isabelle Meerstein
NB. I would like to dedicate this interview to the memory of Ms Laure Ecker-Tripier, the late Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy in Dublin.

On Thursday March 9th 2006, after the screening of 'Holy Lola' I went to introduce myself to Ms Ecker-Tripier. A dark haired, dark eyed French woman elegantly clad in a black "tailleur", her face reflecting an intense sensitivity and a sharp intelligence, she surprised me by almost immediately admitting she was very tired. She dropped into an armchair in the lobby. I walked away, to let her rest. A few moments later, spotting me standing awkwardly in the queue of admirers waiting for autographs, she got up, walked over to me and introduced me to the French film veteran who was on a UK and Ireland tour to promote his 2004 feature.

A few minutes later we were all walking in the strangely mild Cork night. I found myself ambling on the pavement beside Mr. Tavernier, and expressed the wish to interview him. The old Lyonnese master looked down at me (he is very tall, and I am not) and snapped in a gravelly voice: "Come on, you want an interview? Here's your chance; fire away!" My mind went blank with fear, I stammered a stupid question, finally uttering loud and clear my refusal to continue. In spite of her exhaustion, Ms Ecker-Tripier heard me and undertook to intercede in my favour: swiftly and skillfully, she got her guest to agree to a fair meeting the following morning, for breakfast.

As you can imagine, when I arrived at 9 o'clock on Friday morning at the Clarion Hotel, I was not as relaxed as I would have liked to be. But to my delight, as the interview went on, Bertrand Tavernier changed his attitude and became more cooperative, finally becoming the passionate man we know, and he didn't mind my pressing him with questions. Twenty-five minutes later, we left on good terms.

Shortly after this, I learnt that Ms Ecker-Tripier had suddenly died of a cancer-related illness. That Thursday night was the only time I saw her, but I had time to appreciate the kind of profoundly human being she was.

I would also like to thank the President of the Alliance Française of Cork City, Ms Nora Callanan, for her hospitality.

Mr. Tavernier, thank you for accepting this interview on the morning of your return to Paris. I would like to ask about your documentary work. What is your approach to editing for the documentary; how much footage do you discard, how much do you keep in the finished film?

Well, that depends on the film. Generally, we are faced with a lot of footage, and I am no exception to this rule. And so we need sometimes to take our time to find out how to organise the material.

For La Guerre sans nom (The Undeclared War, 1992), I had 40 or 50 hours of material that I reduced to 4 hours. I cut and cut. Some things are easy to discard, such as uninteresting moments or people. So, there are those things that at first glance you have to get rid of. They amount to 20% or 30 % of all the footage.

And then, you have to discover organically the structure of your film, it's in there, somewhere. That architecture cannot be imposed from the outside. We hadn't decided on a structure before the shoot. We were not merely illustrating a point when we were shooting War without a Nameor De l'autre côté du périph (The Other Side of the Tracks, 1997) . You have to find your structure at the editing stage. We applied to both films more or less the same principle: switching between two ways of narration. Going from an all-encompassing one that tells a collective story to an individual story, so you tell the story of the group and then you interrupt it suddenly to focus on one single experience. Then you go back to something more general, before switching back again onto one single person, and so on. And so, at some point in our editing process, for both La Guerre sans nom and De l'autre côté du périph, we had discovered recurring topics, which in turn introduced us to so many parts under so many themes. For instance, in La Guerre sans nom, the following themes emerged: grub, fear, exactions; torture, and seeing one's fellow soldiers dead. So you find your structure little by little.

But there are certain things that escape a clear discrimination, I mean when something forms the core of a subject, it shows up both in a theme and in a character, so you leave it in both. You leave those things both in the collective drama and in the individual drama. In short, that's it. It requires you to grope your way, it takes time to reach it, to find it. Time to manage to keep that impression of paths that cross. Ultimately it's that individual emotion.

Do you always work with the same editor?

Well, I try… but sometimes, there are things in the way of that. For example, both La Guerre sans nom and Au-delà du périph were edited by Luce Grunenwald, but she died just after finishing that second film. She died because of a mistake during a liver transplant, so I could no longer work with her. Then I took Sophie Brunet. Very often I take people who can go from documentary to fiction, people who are able to alternate between both, and who take pleasure in doing so. That's Sophie Brunet to a T. Luce had been the assistant of my editor Armand Pseny for years, and then she became my editor. As for Sophie, I met her when we were producing Veillée d'armes (The Troubles We've Seen: A History of Journalism in Wartime, 1994) by Marcel Ophüls. She was the editor of Marcel Ophüls. So I told myself that if she could survive Ophüls, then she would be able to survive me! And that was it.

Can you tell me, please, about the use of sounds in your documentary practice, live sound and those background sounds that are so present in your films?

Very often, I go back to a place to try and get more. In La Guerre sans nom I was working with the sound engineer who works on all my features. We had gathered a lot of live sound; great ambient sounds, individual sounds very useful for the editing. While shooting in Algeria, the Algerian sound engineer had little experience of live sound because at the time, in Algeria, most was done in post-sync. If they needed a live sound, they would ask a French guy to come over. And yet, he managed two or three lovely ambient sounds.

There are times I want to keep the ambient sound even if it is aggressive. That sometimes compels us to be acrobats! And sometimes, in my documentaries, this led us to make mistakes; sometimes the mikes were badly placed; we were less experienced but in the end, it all came out all right.

There is always quite a strong texture, with music too…

Yes, I work a lot with musical moments. The purpose is to give some breathing space, to offer openness, calm, distance, and lyricism inside the narrative. I also include a lot of songs. In La Guerre sans nom, there was no original music. Instead, we had songs the participants were referring to, like songs the soldier told me they used to listen to during meal-time. They were listening to Gloria Lasso singing L'étranger au paradis. Or Yves Montand; I included several of his songs. The soldiers also listened to Sydney Bechet's Petite Fleur a lot.

But there was one thing I did not do. I ran into a conflict over a song with an executive of the production company that was doing La Guerre sans nom - not Mr Guérin who was great, but someone else. There was a man, a male character in the film, a worker, who said that prior taking part to all those battles [The French State called the Algerian war of Independence (1954-62) "les événements," The Events; The Troubles'; hence the title of the film], he used to sing all the time. He worked in a factory. And there was a song he used to sing often, C'était mon copain (He was my buddy) , the famous song by the late Gilbert Bécaud. And then, there came a day when, having seen so many of his buddies dying in the dirty war, he said: "I will never sing again." And that exec was telling me that I had to include that very song in the film! So I told this person: "That's the very thing I will never do." When a bloke says he will never sing that song again, I won't put it in, no way. He refuses to sing it. I would use another song; I used Un jour, tu verras (One day, you'll see) sung by Mouloudji. I believe I was getting the same result, the same melancholy. There is a guy who says: "I cannot bear to hear that song ever again" and then you include it!? I find that despicable! All of a sudden, you just would violate the private life of one of your characters. I am very reluctant to do such a thing. Oh, it would certainly have "paid off" emotionally, the viewers would have had tears in their eyes, but the price to pay was very questionable to me!

And this leads me to another question about the way you approach reality. You are obviously not a TV person who seeks to induce a very strong emotion, a shock in the viewer to get attention. How do you bring about an emotion? What is an emotion made of, according to you? How do you seek it, also, regarding your characters?

I try to understand, yes, I do. I try to let someone speak, to give my characters the time they need to speak at length. And, yes, that gives a style that is not even remotely fashionable nowadays on TV. What is hot on TV is this: people you let utter only two or three sentences, you try and get them to say two or three very striking things. That's all fine for TV shows such as Envoyé special [on the French public channel France 2], for reportages. But for a documentary, I think that's not it at all! A documentary involves coming to an understanding of your characters. I very often deal with people who have never been given a voice, I mean an opportunity to say things in their own words. With them, I cannot just take a sentence, just like that, just for the sake of the point I want to make. I must respect their way of thinking, of reacting, and sometimes, their hesitations. Because a hesitation in their speech is the very thing that will give the scene its emotion, that thing they find hard to say. If I shoot and keep only the emotional sentence such as someone crying and if I don't show the way he/she holds his/her tears, struggles with their emotions, I lose very important things: what I lose is that very groping for one's thoughts. I lose a palette of sentences, of words, which belong to his/her profession, to his/her origins or culture and so, no, I don't feel like cutting it out! In Histoires de vies brisées (Stories of Broken Lives, 2001), I even went very far in that direction. I was a bit compelled to do so because some material we had shot went missing: cutaways. We had characters, men and women who had been hunger-striking for 40 days. There was a great urgency in them. They wanted to speak. They had to speak. Everyone could see it was very difficult. I didn't have to encourage them to speak. I had to let them speak. I had to respect them. It had to go far, they had to get to the bottom of what they wanted to say, to release it all. For example, at the beginning of the film, one of the participants is speaking. And little by little it builds into an extraordinary emotion. But it becomes such an intense emotion thanks to the fact that we have taken our time, that we have given them all the time they needed.

There are people who work for public channels in France who tell me: "We will buy your film when it has been turned into an audio-visual product." That is to say when those moments of listening have been cut out. That makes me really mad! I am also enraged by the fact that in our world, we are so scared to just listen to someone who is speaking, so scared that we want to turn that into "cinema," into a show! And so, we cut instead to documents such as photographs, archive excerpts, objects. Ah, I can't believe it! When someone speaks, don't you know? You just do not interrupt them. Ah, but in some TV talk-shows, what do they do? They make it a priority to interrupt people non-stop! In some broadcasts, it's even become a trademark. There are presenters who have built their notoriety on interrupting their guests systematically! I am for letting the viewers listen to those who are speaking. In daily life too. I like to be listened to sometimes and other times I feel like giving someone else the space to speak and be listened to. It really is worth taking five more minutes without interrupting, without cutting it out, in order to try and understand what is happening. And that is always complex, it cannot be summarised into five or six striking sentences.

From a practical point of view, where do you position yourself physically in relation to the camera and sound recording, when you are in that process of listening?

I never hold the camera. First of all, I am not a good camera person. A few times I happened to hold the boom, yes, and to deal with the sound recording, but it's not my thing, really. What I want is to be close to people, and to look all around me in order to see the context, and to catch a good cutaway opportunity. What matters to me is to be the one who is listening. Often, I have by my side my son, Nils, who, unlike me, handles the camera very well. He's great. He's very quick. Sometimes, he would cut too soon. And yet, once he did not listen when I said: "Cut!" and he was so right. There was someone who burst into tears in front of the camera and he let the camera roll and that was good because that moment when the person was weeping was excellent. I trust Nils very much. I'm relaxed with him. I let him shoot the way he feels like it. Now and then, I would ask him for a specific shot but generally I focus essentially on what's happening in the scene. To answer your question more precisely: I am beside Nils. Sometimes also, I am opposite the person I am speaking with so as to let her/him see me and not speak and gaze into the camera lens! I need to be in contact with the person I am listening to. Or at other times, the camera is behind me with a long lens. Or a wide angle if I need to appear in the shot. And also, Nils moves around. He moves in. Or if the camera is on a dolly, he zooms in with a similar effect, and he frames the shot in several different ways, maybe over-the-shoulder, or close-ups if that's what he feels the shot needs. But very often, he will position himself so as to be comfortable. He will handle the camera, carry it or put it on a tripod, then he feels something is going on or I signal to him to go closer and so he does. We get on really well. It's special. The shots he did for De l'autre côté du périph or for Histoires de vies brisées and the shots other people did, nobody can tell the difference. So it means on the one hand that there is a great, obvious unity, and on the other there is a way of seeing, a common vision in all those films.

Another thing that is very important: as far possible, I try not to meet the participants prior to the shooting. I try to avoid meeting them in order to prepare them, to talk with them beforehand. I really think this is bad for a film. That is the lesson I learned from Marcel Ophüls who used to say: "You must never meet your protagonists and talk with them before the shooting."

In the case of La Guerre sans nom, how did we select the participants? We still had to see if their story was a bit interesting, so there was someone whose job was to determine this. Georges Mattei was the researcher on that film. You see, if you have someone telling too much of what they have lived through, when we reach the shoot, this person will feel he or she has already said it all. That has happened to me. I remember that man who had practised torture in Algeria. He had in later years been so disturbed by his experience that he had seriously envisaged becoming a monk. And he said that to us before the shoot. Of course, when the camera was on, he would not say it again. We tried hard to get him to repeat his experience, but to no avail. It was just too late. The moment had passed. So you've got to be extremely careful with that kind of stuff, you must never dry up your witnesses, your participants. You must take great care. And if when you are shooting, you don't get anything because it's too early, your participants and you don't know each other yet, it's too close to the first meeting, what do you do? Well, of course you see them again, but you won't speak of the matter. One, two or three months later, you get back to them. [You have had time to build trust in the meantime.]

With my documentaries, there are a few very clear rules: the participants know, I tell each person each time we are filming that they can come back whenever they feel like it if they realise they have not said something they wanted to, or if they are unhappy with something, we would always welcome them. The people can also watch the rushes, they can drop in the editing room to see how they have done. They let me know what they think, and I take them onboard - or not! But I do not hide anything. I tell my participants: "This film is also your film, so you have to feel we haven't come here to film you against your will, or that we are going to distort what you say. You can check." The greatest compliment I got came with La Guerre sans nom. After the screening, all thirty participants said they felt we had perfectly respected what they wanted to say, even though we had cut so much out. They could recognise themselves in the film. They had not been misrepresented. There was nothing they had regrets about.

That is a compliment indeed. And finally, I wanted to ask your definition of a critical mind?

A critical mind is something you must keep ticking on at all times when you make a documentary. It is to tell yourself: "What this person is telling me, it's great, but is it accurate?" It is so only when you can back it up with one, two, three or four other people. So exercising your critical mind is not to sacrifice everything straight away and accept immediately a detail that can be striking, or funny, or tragic. Or suddenly very shocking so as to make a show. It's about constantly questioning everything, doubting everything. Not "Is he telling me the truth?" because that's too simple, because there are always several kinds of truth. It's to tell oneself: "Isn't he painting too black a picture of the situation?" or the opposite: "Isn't he embellishing the facts?" Or: "Isn't this too picturesque a detail?" For example, the fact that quite a few French conscripts were given World War One rifles in the Algerian War of Independence. But then you hear the same story from a guy who did not and could not have known the first guy. And a third, and a fourth who was somewhere else. So you tell yourself: "Ok, that's not too good to be true. I can keep that." And anything that has been told only once, I mean by one single person, I discard. So to have a critical mind is this: to tell yourself that the person you are filming, who is certainly innocent, is he or she to be believed just like that? No, you have got to get to the other side, to hear the story from the opposition. When the young lads were complaining about the police in De l'autre côté du périph, we got to hear what the other party had to say. You must get the other version, the other point of view!

Clarion Hotel, Cork, Ireland
Friday 10th March 2006
Translated from the French by the author

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