By Tim Palmer and Liza Palmer.
The recent work of Françoise Marie explores a child-centered view of the world. Setting up a series of improvised games, then filming the results with little or no intervention, her films show young children re-enacting, from their perspective, the actions of adults in their absolute authority and unfathomable contradictions. Her short, Petits histoires du reins du tout (1999), for example, focuses on a group of young children who need regular kidney dialysis. The children initially talk about the matter-of-fact: the unthinking prejudices of their friends about hospital visits, the fatigue of constant medical care, the pain of injections, the social stigma of being chronically ill. Remarkably sophisticated – and cheerful – they then take on through play the roles of confused and overwhelmed parents, concerned but busy doctors, and recently diagnosed young patients, shocked at being told that they can’t eat chocolate cake anymore. These children’s caregivers, it seems, are a dedicated group, reliably involved but also distracted, preoccupied, slightly out of touch.
Marie’s latest project, the feature-length On dirait que… (2007), follows the same approach but dramatically expands her canvas. The new film documents seven groups of eight- to thirteen-year-olds in different regions of France, asking them to demonstrate the workplace behavior of their parents. A fascinating sociological experiment, the film offers a demographic snapshot of contemporary French society. The jobs we see re-enacted – farmers, doctors, the police, shopkeepers, teachers, restaurateurs, entertainers – reveal different classes and racial backgrounds, as well as a range of social positions, gender roles, and career orientations, from second-generation immigrants struggling to keep their supermarket open, to overworked healthcare professionals neglecting their home lives and battling with stress. Beyond the multi-faceted view of French society, however, Marie’s film defamiliarizes the daily routines of work-minded adults, as seen by the curious, nonjudgmental yet exacting eyes of their offspring. While the children’s games illuminate adults’ often unthinking work rituals, they also show socialization in action, whether it is children grasping the need to enforce consistent discipline in the classroom, or the professional ambition instilled in the child of a Libyan immigrant, qualified as a doctor yet reduced to working as a grocery clerk in France, or farmers’ sons and daughters learning about the concept of death by helping deliver still-born cattle.
Film International met with Françoise Marie to discuss her approach to filmmaking.
Tim Palmer: If we could start with a little background about what led you to cinema, your background studying films, and what got you behind the camera, ultimately.
Françoise Marie: Yes, I started early, actually, because I went to the two major schools in France, the two state schools. One is a technical school; it’s called the Louis Lumière [L’Ecole National Supérieure Louis Lumière, France’s national film, photography and sound engineering school] so it teaches you how to be a camera operator, a director of photography, basically. And the other one is L’IDHEC [L’Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques], which is now La Fémis [L’École Nationale Supérieure des Métiers de l’Image et du Son, the most prestigious film school in France].
TP: How would you describe the film schools? Was the instruction you received useful or foundational to you later in your career?
FM: I think it’s a bit complex, because it’s contradictory. Film school shapes you sometimes in ways you want to get rid of [laughs]! I would say that I had the opportunity to meet different people, for a school is very interesting in connecting students with professionals. It encourages a deep connection, not just to talk for an hour but to work with them and learn from them. I think it’s important in school to have time to dream, like when you’re a child. You need to dream, you need to have time to do your own research, and to be free to do your own films. The school should be a way to help you find your way as a professional. It’s about a path, it helps you to go down the path. To know what you really need to learn, you need to learn by yourself. I’m teaching now, and I don’t teach the way I was taught. The first thing I do is give my students a camera and say, “Go shoot something, come back with images.” So they do that, and they come back with horrible things [laughs]. They’re very proud, and then we look at them and they realize, uh-oh, we can’t hear anything, the interview is not interesting, the lighting isn’t good, and then we start from that. And I think that’s appropriate. I guess it’s because schools now have a lot of equipment, now it’s possible. In my time the cameras were only film cameras, before the big developments in DV, so you couldn’t just take a camera and make mistakes, you had to be controlled by a teacher.
TP: Historically, French film schools were often attacked, I mean in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. But it seems like now, more recently, people I’ve spoken to talk much more positively about the system and what goes on there. It seems like your experiences go along with that, too. Would you say it was a very positive experience for you?
FM: Yes, but I couldn’t say it was all very positive, because also at that time of your life − I was 20 − you have to deal with a lot of other things. I mean being on your own, and a lot of things, which I found difficult when I went to Paris. So I can’t picture that as a positive time, globally. But I really liked that it offered me a lot of things, and I could just grab what I wanted. I think the most important thing now is just to be able to try. When you try, when you do things, it’s a step, you see what you can do and then you go ahead. This is possible now in all these schools, so that’s why it’s much better. You don’t have to think and write a lot before taking up a camera.
TP: So DV has really opened things up as far as students are concerned?
FM: Oh a lot, a lot.
Liza Palmer: Would you consider yourself primarily to be a documentary filmmaker?
FM: Since I do documentaries, yes, but I’d also like to be a fiction filmmaker. I was first a camera person, since I had the background from Lous Lumière, which is a very technical school. My first jobs were working in the image field; I worked years as an assistant camera and then a cameraman, and I did some lighting work. I started to write a feature film, but I was not really happy with what I did. I showed it to someone, and he was a bit sorry for me [laughs]. He said it wasn’t good enough, and I agreed. He said you should go and do documentaries, and that was the right answer, because when you do documentaries you learn yourself, you meet a lot of people, you approach real life and the field you work in. You learn so much in documentaries, and then you can feed your films with your experiences, and that’s what I did. Now I have the experience of working on one documentary, and I’m working on a second feature film, which is just at the beginning, but it’s based on my first documentary. So documentaries, I think, are very important. It’s like studying the subject for a screenwriter, actually.
LP: Or like doing sketches before painting.
FM: Yes, exactly. And you meet real people. I mean it could be interesting as a fiction exercise in school to ask someone to do a documentary about a subject and then to do a mini-fiction about it. I think it might be interesting to force the student to work on documentary first, not to be too far apart from the real world, you know? It’s a bit of a digression, but when I came out of IDHEC all I knew about life was the difficulty of writing, and I was in my room trying to write a story and thinking I have to get lost somewhere, and I wrote a story about getting lost. And a lot of directors do the same thing − it’s a French thing, to get lost writing, writing a traveling movie, a road movie.
TP: So it’s getting physically and philosophically lost, right?
FM: [laughs] Exactly! It was very funny because I realized that a lot of first writing was about that problem.
LP: It’s interesting that you say that because in America I think particularly that we specialize very early and say, I’m a documentary filmmaker or a fiction filmmaker.
TP: Right, there are tracks.
LP: So it’s interesting that you talk about a blending of the experiences.
FM: Yes, and in documentary you learn respect. We were talking about the first screenplay, and what was funny was at that time I went to LA and I happened to watch first films from students in film school, and they all wrote stories about young screenwriters [laughs]! It was young screenwriters, in America, so it’s different; they never questioned their talent. In a French film, the person would wonder, “How am I an author?” Very personal questions. But in America the students have no doubt about their talents, the only issue is finding money. So one film was a love story between two young screenwriters who want to get attention from the same producer, so they fight, fight, fight for love − and they both get produced!
TP: It sounds very symbolic [laughs].
FM: [laughs] Basically, what I’ve realized is that working with documentaries teaches you humility, respect, because if you really want to do a great job you really have to listen, to feel, to pay attention to what you have around you.
TP: If we could talk a little more specifically about On dirait que…. How did you get from film school graduation, to a short film, which played successfully, to then getting a feature film off the ground and released? How challenging was that?
FM: It’s a big question because I realize now I don’t see it as a goal that was achieved. I still have the feeling of being on the way to something. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s easy, because you get recognition; yet sometimes you get grant applications rejected, so it’s up and down all the time. There are good things, then at the same time you get bad news, so I think every day is challenging. It’s challenging to be in the right place every day, to remember that you got that one thing but you have to work a lot on this other thing. I never had the feeling that I achieved anything. It’s amazing, it’s tiring!
TP: In terms of coming up with the idea and deciding that you wanted to work very closely with children, how did that process come about?
FM: A friend of mine, a psychologist in a hospital, talked to me about children she was taking care of, in charge of. She told me that they were amazing; a documentary should be made about those kids. I met them and I was surprised. I didn’t have a child at that time; I was not close to children. I was never a teacher; I never went to summer camp to take care of children. But I feel like even though it was far from me, everything came from that, I had a feeling it was my mission to work on that. In On dirait que… I’m interested in how people grow, how they model themselves on someone else. That’s what interests me − models. I realized that my whole life I myself was looking for role models, so that’s why I’m interested in teaching, in talking about what witnessing is. I’m interested in people talking about their lives; it’s so amazing and so moving. I can’t get used to that; I can’t get bored with that.
TP: Somewhat on that subject, a critic I read just recently, David MacDougall, suggests that cinema has not done justice to children, to the perceptions and points of view of children, their observational skills. He says that cinema tends to look down on them, to speak for them in a very blunt way.
FM: That’s so right.
TP: But the exceptions he makes are filmmakers like Jean Vigo and François Truffaut. And it’s interesting to me that a lot of French directors recently are choosing to use child protagonists, or frame their films around children. Would you care to respond to that? What makes the subject of children cinematically original for you?
FM: One answer is a personal one, from my own childhood. As a child I had the feeling that I could understand a lot, but it was difficult, because there were a lot of troubling things around me. I felt that children were not respected, they were taken as objects, like flowers − you can move them around, what they say is not important, you don’t try to understand them. You just get the fun things out of them, they’re cute, but you don’t go through what it means to be them. I’m really overwhelmed by children suffering, I can’t stand it. I mean if I hear a child crying in the Métro, I get crazy; it’s painful. I can feel how this child, when he is alone with his mother and the mother gets nasty and slaps him, he is alone in the face of this adult. I’m terrified by this lack of power, the power of adults over little things. So the idea is to show that children have a lot of strengths, which can be so easily brutalized, but which can also be respected, can bring you so many things. Now, I have a child, but it took me a while because I thought I wouldn’t be a good mother, I wouldn’t be patient enough. I think I got from my mother that having a child was difficult, it prevented her from doing what she wanted to do in life. But when I had a child I was overwhelmed because I thought it was so beautiful, a source of beauty in the world. To see that beauty, how a child develops, I think that’s what we should get back to every time we start getting too broad, too political. We should go back to the simplicity of humanity. I mean children can be so sensible, it warms me up every day.
LP: They really have their priorities set.
TP: Right, and they take such pleasure from simple things.
FM: Sometimes I think it should be written on the front page of every magazine, “It’s great to have a child!” But a child that’s desired, not a child which is imposed, because I’m definitely for abortion, as there are so many unwanted children suffering.
LP: Specifically about the film, and the kids off-camera, the footage we don’t see, or when the camera wasn’t shooting. Did the children play well together? How did they interact?
FM: Well, the shooting was just for one day. When they arrived, I worked with a psychotherapist. My fear was always about abusing the children, because you can abuse them without being aware of it; you can force the interjections you want, especially when you have just one day, you know? You can tell them: Now you should play like that. So I wanted someone next to me to observe quietly, to be a reminder, putting the children first, above all the rest. So this woman was there to welcome the children. Her job is to organize theater therapy for kids who don’t know how to express themselves. I thought she was the perfect person to help because she was used to playing games, to help children interact. So before the shooting, she would arrive and take care of them while I was taking care of the technical side. So when the children came on the set, they knew each other, they’d played together, they knew their names, they felt good together, they’d already laughed and screamed together. They knew each other.
LP: Watching some of the scenarios, like when it’s a policeman arresting a drug dealer or something like that, were there roles that the kids didn’t want to play? Did they ever say, “I don’t want to be the parent,” or, “I don’t want to be the kid”?
FM: No, they were ready to share, to change, so there was no problem. It was funny, but all the children wanted to play the part of the doctor. All of them. On my first short [Petits histoires de reins du tout] there was one kid who was almost the main character because he was so unbelievable at improvising. But I didn’t leave in the part where he plays the doctor; I thought if I left it in, it’s a film about him and not the group. I always wanted to keep the idea of the group, not to take the children from one shot and leave the others out. But when the kid saw the film he didn’t seem that happy, so I asked around and found out that he was disappointed because I took out the part when he was the doctor [laughs]!
TP: Your producer, Annie Miller, mentioned that you had about 60 hours of footage. When you were cutting it down to an 82-minute film, did you feel that you were imposing yourself, or that you were forcing things, intruding on what they had created naturally?
FM: No, I didn’t have that feeling. I think I just had a lot of pieces put on the side. I know sometimes it was difficult for the children. For instance, if there was a good scene, which wasn’t in the film, when I told them about editing, I used the idea of going through a forest. You know that in that forest there are so many different things to look at − trees, mountains, rocks − but you want to go to the other side and you have to make a path, a path which shows most of the things but which gets you through. It was just an idea to show that you have to leave things out.
LP: Did the children know that things were going to be edited down? I know it was a couple of years between when the footage was shot and when they saw the final product, but were they surprised? Or were they pretty savvy about how films are constructed?
FM: I don’t know. No, I don’t think they knew about editing, I don’t think they knew what would be done with the film. Especially, for instance, on a ten-minute improvisation, I would use three minutes. I think also that they forgot because they were watching a new story of what they had done. I don’t think they remembered, “Okay, there was a cut here.” I don’t think they were aware of that. Some were, though, because two kids told me, “Your editing was good!” [laughs].
TP: French cinema is sometimes accused of being too Paris-centered − my students joke that the Eiffel Tower always has to appear in the first two minutes. But your film moves around from region to region, and you mentioned that you went to some areas that you didn’t know that well. Why did you decide to do that?
FM: Definitely to escape Paris. It’s not only that Paris is always shown in films but also that Parisians decide everything in the country. There’s a certain kind of Parisian spirit or take on things. If you go out to the countryside, things are different; the Parisian is a very specific animal [laughs]. Which is very self-centered, sometimes a bit arrogant. I lived in Belgium for six years and I realized that Parisians are taken as very self-centered, impatient people, because Belgians used to make jokes about it [laughs]. It was very good for me to get that point of view. So I wanted definitely to escape this kind of crowd. I could have put it in if we’d had one part in Paris but it didn’t happen for financial reasons. I think the Eiffel Tower in every movie is a distributor’s choice.
TP: The picture postcard look.
FM: It’s possible to find some films that don’t have it in [laughs]!
TP: A final question: It’s been said that as a parent, you’re a teacher but you’re a teacher all the time. Children learn when you don’t realize they’re learning, they pick up everything. Is this what On dirait que… is about: how children learn, how they’re socialized?
FM: Yes, exactly, that’s the point of the film. To understand that children grab everything, that they’re sponges; they imitate adults and they need adults around them to grow, as models. So if the model is good and lets them go their own way, they grow well. And I think it’s important for adults to realize that. An example would be parents telling a child standing in line, in a queue: “Don’t go around, don’t pass by, don’t do that.” Then at the same time, the adults do it themselves when they’re driving. That’s a contradiction, and the child has to deal with that, to pick one position. So I think it’s important that there are no contradictions. If the parents are true to themselves, then it’s easier for the child to grow up. If not, then it’s very hard to know what you can rely on, what to build yourself on; it’s like you’re on quicksand. I hope that one of the first things people realize about the film is that as adults, we’re models. Sometimes, for example, you meet adults who knew you before, when they were children. And they tell you, “Oh, you’re the person that did that for me.” So they keep a memory of it, they stay attached to something you don’t remember, and it helps them.
Thanks to Angélique Tresse, Jennifer Gore, and the organizers of the VCU French Film Festival.
Tim Palmer is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His last article, “An Amateur of Quality: Postwar French Cinema and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la mer” appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Journal of Film and Video.
Liza Palmer is Review Section Editor of Film International and Creative & Fine Arts Librarian at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.