By Yun-hua Chen.

I was already under the spell of Godard. I thought, why not just start in my home country as a self-taught filmmaker?”

From his teenage years, Swiss filmmaker Thomas Imbach was ensnared by Godard’s allure. Say God Bye, his latest documentary, chronicles his journey embarked upon with his colleague and friend David Charap, an Englishman – an on-foot pilgrimage from Lake Zurich to Rolle, the Swiss town where Godard resided from 1977 till his last day.

Stirred by the online speech of the aging master, Imbach senses the urgency to greet Godard and persuade him to collaborate on a film. This journey, captured through the intimate fusion of iPhone and 35mm footage, transforms this duo – complemented by their differing temperaments and mismatched levels of understandings of Godard – into a modern-day Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with Charap being the chirpy foil to Imbach’s solemn pilgrim. Their expedition is marked by light-hearted complaints about the unexpected physical demands of their quest, punctuated by curbside breaks to stretch their weary legs and finesse their iPhone selfie-videos. The accruing toll of blisters and escalating back pain, rather than discouraging the protagonists, lends the film a humorous, tactile sense of passing time.

Throughout the journey, a unique sense of levity emerges from Charap’s encounters with diverse Swiss German individuals. Their explanations of this pilgrimage to the “God of Cinema” often fall on uninitiated ears – those of locals engaging in a lakeside stroll, bird-watching, or fishing, collecting litter from the forest, or using drones for scenic footage. They might not share any affinity with Godard, but they all unwittingly contribute to the rich tapestry of Swiss life as powerful presence in the film.

Mirroring the physical trek to Godard, Imbach juxtaposes his spiritual ties to Godard by mapping the impact of Godard on his own filmmaking career, intertwining snippets from their respective filmographies, glimpses of their individual on-set methods, and Godard’s memorable quotes. It also goes into a more personal level and reveals the parallel between Imbach’s familial roots in the adventure tourism industry and his own cinematic adventures.  

This venture is not merely a physical odyssey, but a journey through cinematic history with Imbach’s personal take. As much as about the imprint of Godard on Imbach, it is about a Switzerland shared by Godard, Imbach, and all the chance encounters along their way. Making its premiere at the 57th Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Proxima section, Say God Bye is a testament to spiritual mentorship, an homage to a visionary whose insights have sustained the art form since the 1960s, an examination of the heritage of film imagery, and an exploration of the enduring impact of cinema – shared by filmmakers and film viewers alike.

Thomas Imbach talks with Film International in Karlovy Vary about Godard, journeying, and the film about many films.

Why Godard and why walking?

Thomas Imbach: Im Bann toxischer Männlichkeit - SWI

Jean-Luc Godard, because I was brought up with him, not literally, but my first step as a filmmaker was heavily influenced by him. I discovered his films when I was 18, and at the time there was no film school in Switzerland. So, I went to NYU for one semester, but I was already under the spell of Godard. I thought, why not just start in my home country as a self-taught filmmaker? I had already seen the film Every Man for Himself (Sauve qui peut (la vie), 1980) and thought that we could do such films in Switzerland, so why go to New York if I could do everything in Switzerland? This was really a birth film for me. In the ‘80s he was my master, but I also learned that you have to cut the apron strings in order to do something of your own. You can’t copy Godard. If you do, you’ll just stumble. I learned this lesson very early and stopped focusing on him although I knew he was very active until the very end.

Then, I saw him participating in this online discussion at the International Film Festival of Kerala. I knew about the film festival because my film was screened there, too. I was surprised to see how old he was, and I knew I had to do something. I knew it would be my last chance to pay my respects and to say hello to him in person and I decided to walk to him. Switzerland is a small country. Godard is universally known as a French filmmaker but for me he is very Swiss. Throughout his life he was always switching between being French and being Swiss, as his mother was French and his father was Swiss. He was in Paris as a child and then went back to Switzerland, so he was back and forth between two places. Then he became very successful in Paris in the early ‘60s and went to Grenoble, and from the mid-‘70s, he was based in Switzerland for the rest of his life.

Godard came from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and I’m from the German-speaking part, so it was natural for me to walk to him across this language border instead of just taking a train. Switzerland is like one big city; there is nowhere that is just landscape. It was also the time of the pandemic, so it felt natural to walk and not use public transport.

Is it a journey of saying goodbye in order to start something new?

I had to say hello first. I knew he was old, but when we knocked on his door and had a chat, I realized that he was in quite good shape. And I thought, I’ll go there again later to do what I really wanted to do, namely, to shoot a portrait with him. It’s not about having long talks because that’s been done with Godard already. The idea is different; it’s from filmmaker to filmmaker in order to produce a shot. My plan was to work out a more detailed proposal and present it to him. And suddenly he was gone. So, from a project to say hello, it became a goodbye film.

Your friend David commented in the film that you were elevating yourself to the level of Godard by putting yourself side by side with him. What do you think about his comment?

KVIFF.TV • Say God Bye (trailer) • Video on-line

I don’t have a problem with that because I wanted to do more than just bow to him. It wasn’t about an admirer making a portrait in his honor. What I was really looking for was a cinematic dialogue, out of which I could make a film. Meeting on equal terms but learning from what he has to say. I wanted to show how deeply he influenced me. He was like a puppeteer guiding his actors by the hands, like a maestro. I work differently, more like being a catalyst that brings out the actor’s personality. “Don’t film the characters but the actors.” Ironically, I learned that from him as well, although it comes across very differently when he’s directing. I usually try to infuse the actors with my thoughts and infect them with the virus of my story, so that the acting grows out of them organically and is not predetermined as in a carefully prepared Hitchcock scene. 

Is this film a bit like your own “Histoire(s) du Cinema”?

Yes, but “Histoire(s) du Cinema” is bigger than Godard and bigger than me. Godard said, “I am not really doing a film. I am doing cinema.” So, it’s not about making a film, but about participating in the project of cinema. And it’s about living in film history. I watch a lot of films and had other idols like Pasolini or Fassbinder, but the experience of cinema is much more than that. Godard used cinema to talk about the world and his audience discovers the world in his work. This includes politics, society, all the big and small issues, living together in a family, gender issues…

You used Godard’s quote about the visible and the invisible in the film. What’s your take on “filming the invisible” in cinema?

Godard is a genius, even a philosopher, when it comes to these quotes. That’s why I included them. Filming the invisible is about realizing that you can’t film “reality.” Besides, what you don’t show is more important, more eloquent than what you do show. When you work on a subject, you don’t settle on it like a fly, you sneak up on it; you try to discover what remains in the dark. Yesterday I saw Godard’s last short film. It was screened in Cannes and in it, someone says: “It’s difficult to discover a black cat in the dark especially when it is not there.”

There were a lot of playful moments….

One reason I took David along is because he is not very familiar with the Godard universe, but he’s curious. And he’s detached, especially regarding Godard’s last films, like Histoire(s) du Cinema. So, he was my devil’s advocate, which meant lively discussions between the two of us. And we had fun, horsing around, especially with David being an Englishman and meeting all these Swiss Germans. Everyday life on the street is an important part of the film. Sometimes people thought we were a bit crazy.  While editing I discovered Godard’s humor, the self-irony that comes out especially when he’s playing himself in his films. Those moments add to the humor of my film. I didn’t include much about his Mao years because I didn’t know him then and it didn’t influence me. I started with his second career. He always said Sauve qui peut (la vie) is his second first film. And of course, I knew practically everything he did in the ‘60s. When I grew up, people said that Godard was great but after a certain point, like in the ‘80s and ‘90s, people said forget him; he’s not interesting anymore. I felt a bit isolated in a way. In Switzerland, especially in German-speaking Switzerland, he was a loner; he was in a world of his own.

From Nemesis to Say God Bye, are you enjoying your newly found mobility, both in terms of physical mobility and camera mobility?

Nemesis (2020) | MUBI

Interesting question. I did Nemesis because it happened in front of my window and in a way, I had to do it. It was almost like a compulsion: I had to be a witness to this process. Say God Bye was very similar. In the sense of, hey, you saw this moment when Godard was online in Kerala. He really seemed weak, and I was afraid that he would soon die. I never planned to make a film on Godard. If you had asked me five years ago, “Why don’t you make a film about Godard,” I would have said, “Never!” There are tons of films about him; what’s left to say or show?  I like Bob Dylan, but I would never consider making a film about him. But then there was this moment when I saw Godard putting his microphone on for the interview. I had an emotional, gut reaction and knew I simply had to do it. Just that. Walking didn’t occur to me at the time. Between these two films, I had a lot of other work. I was preparing a feature film that I’m going to shoot in October. I do films like Nemesis and Say God Bye at night, after “working hours.”  They’re produced very independently. Without a proper crew. Lots of people provided input and supported me, and I thank them, but it’s not like a conventional film production. These are special projects for me. I have to do them, maybe because of my personal history and it’s a privilege to be able to do them.

In your opinion, what made Godard Godard? Why did he reach the status that he had and why didn’t we have another Godard-like or God-like figure in cinema?

He is a child of his time. He was not the first director involved in Nouvelle Vague. Truffaut had already presented The 400 Blows (400 Coups, 1959) in Cannes. Godard said, “Oh shit, my friend already had a film in Cannes; I have to do one, too.” He took a synopsis from his friend Truffaut, and in a couple of weeks, he had his film. But he did it so differently; he blithely broke all the rules, even simple ones like what he did with jump cuts and using a handheld camera. It was with Breathless (A Bout de Souffle, 1960) that he really hit the big time. He was wise enough not to target big budgets although he did make a few big movies, like Contempt (Mépris, 1963) or Pierrot le Fou (1965). But he was constantly evolving and trying out new things. Even though he made a lot of mistakes and lost his sense of direction, he never rested on his laurels; filmmaking was like living his own life. He didn’t follow the usual path to success. People were always saying, “You can’t do that.” I know that from my work as well when I made some pretty successful documentaries, and then I started on my first feature. Everybody said, “Why don’t you do documentaries anymore.” It’s hard for me to follow a path that already works – like a formula. Once you start making films, and people label you, you have to make an effort not to take the easy way out and let yourself be stereotyped. Some people, like Rohmer, stayed in the same universe for their entire career. I admire Rohmer very much and learned a lot from him, but I feel closer to somebody like Godard because he is at odds; he fights. He has a spirit that makes me feel at home somehow.

Why did Godard open his door, you think?

He probably thought it was the postman. A lot of people from Asia, from the US knocked on his door, so he was used to that, and more often than not, he didn’t answer the door. When you met him on the street or in the store, he was perfectly amiable. But if anybody moved beyond that, like proposing a project, it usually scared him.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and she has contributed to the edited volume Greek Film Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

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