A Comic Turn
Jihadists, secessionists, revolutionaries: the subjects of Éric Baudelaire’s films tend to be proximate to political violence and heavy with the weight of history. His first feature, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images (2011), looks at the exile of Japanese Red Army members in Lebanon and, more particularly, the life of Masao Adachi, the director-turned-terrorist. Also Known as Jihadi (2017) loosely remakes Adachi’s landscape film A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969), borrowing its conceit to retrace the travels of Abdel Aziz Mekki, a young man from the Parisian banlieue who leaves home to join the Al-Nusra Front on the Turkish-Syrian border. As Baudelaire put it in text written for the 40th anniversary of the Cinéma du réel festival in 2018, “The subjects of my films have often been people who have struggled with the real… What they have in common is that they have rejected the real, and tried to reshape it, often in tragically flawed ways.”
By comparison, Un Film Dramatique (2019) seems to mark a significant shift. It is a film starring children, full of joy and humor, in which feelings of emergence and possibility predominate. Over a period of four years, Baudelaire convened a group of middle school students at the Collège Dora-Maar in Saint-Denis, a suburb north of Paris, filming their discussions and giving them cameras to produce images of themselves and their lives. His engagement with the students occurred at a crucial time of their maturation, between 11 and 15 years old, such that their passage into young adulthood is captured across the course of about two hours. As they grow, they speak of the everyday and the historical, of ethnicity and citizenship, of what makes a good movie. The result is a polyphonic film animated by the vivacity and creativity of its maker-performers, who experiment with how the production of images can serve as means of fashioning the self and understanding the world. In this regard, perhaps Un Film Dramatique isn’t as much of a break with Baudelaire’s previous films as it might superficially appear: like the terrorists and secessionists, the students are engaged in upending dominant frameworks of representation and comprehension, reshaping the real according to their own beliefs and desires. The difference is that tragedy has given way to hope.
I was talking to a friend about Un Film Dramatique around the time it came out. I remember very distinctly what he said to me: “It seems like Éric Baudelaire discovered pleasure with this film.”
[Laughs] Can we transcribe my laugh, please?
Yes, I’ll make sure that’s included! But I do wonder what you would say in response to this comment. Do you see this film as a departure from your previous work?
I can assure you that there was more suffering in the making of this film than in any of the previous. I think about it slightly differently. I realized how much fun it is to make a film that can cause an audience to laugh. The total number of laughs that I get from all my other films combined are probably fewer than the laughs this film produces in 20 minutes. It’s true that the previous films have very little funny material in them, but if you look at my broader practice as an artist, there is irony and humor. I wouldn’t say that I discovered pleasure in the making of this film, but it is the first in which humor emerges from the film itself. What some comic filmmakers say is absolutely true: humor is the most difficult form. I’d say that the lack of humor in the previous films is maybe because it’s very difficult material to work with.
I’m only partially joking when I say that this was one of the hardest films to make. There was so much uncertainty. Uncertainty is a cause of a lot of anxiety, and anxiety is not pleasure. But there was also a tremendous amount of joy in working with the kids. It’s difficult for me to reflect on how different this film is from the others because I see the similarities way more. This film has everything to do with improvisation and the question of authorship, and these ideas are present in several of my other films. But I should say that I’m very happy the film translates into an idea of pleasure and joy.
"I realized how much fun it is to make a film that can cause an audience to laugh."
Speaking of your interest in questioning authorship, I have often seen critics describe Un Film Dramatique as a collective film. However, I wouldn’t call it that—I’d call it a collaborative film. Does this distinction resonate with you? The film belongs to a genealogy of participatory documentary, but ultimately, it’s authored by you. Can you say something about the relationship between your role as a director and the delegation of some degree of authorship to the kids you worked with?
I think you’re the first person to pinpoint this distinction between a collectivity and a collaboration in relation to the film. Even though the question has been raised a lot, it has never been raised in terms of a distinction between these two words, and I think it’s a good way to think about it. You’re right, it is a collaborative film. It’s probably not a collective film in the tradition of collective cinema, of filmmaking made and signed by a group. The notion of authorship in this film is complicated. One of the reasons why the credit sequence at the end is a full five minutes long is because we really labored over the question of who did what, and how we could attribute credit to all these different roles. Filmmaking is always a collaborative endeavor, regardless of the film. But this film is far more collaborative than others because the ideas come from many of the participants. There is no central script written by an author, there is a lot of improvisation, and there is a real desire to place the question of collective creation at the center of the film itself. But it is not a collective film in the sense of who signs it. At the end of the credit sequence, having listed all the different things that everyone did, where the ideas came from, and who made the images, there is a single credit that says, “A film by Éric Baudelaire.” At some point, I had to take responsibility for the form that the film took when finished.
I separate the stages of filmmaking in my thinking about this question. I’m a big believer in the collective process of shooting, and I am not a believer in the collective process of editing. In other words, production is as collective as it can be: I brought some guidelines, structure, and funding, but I didn’t bring too much of a plan. I tried to let the situation that was unfolding within the group determine what happened on any given day. I trusted the collective dynamic to generate something interesting. If there’s anything worthwhile in the film, it comes from that collective process. But I do not believe in editing a film collectively. I think the editing process is a very intimate process between a filmmaker and an editor. It’s really about the encounter of the material with the editor’s sensibility and the filmmaker’s intention, and requires two people in a room for many, many days. It is not something that I find productive to involve many different voices in. It’s almost as if it’s a collective film in the shoot, and an auteur film in the postproduction. Together, what is it? I don’t know, that’s why I need five minutes of credits to explain.
Could you tell me a little about how you and your editor Claire Atherton approached the editing process? You must have had an immense amount of footage. Many of your previous films have harder-edged structures than this one. There’s something a little more intuitive about the organization of this film.
There’s an important part of the history of the film that isn’t visible when watching it, but is key to the process of making it: it was initially conceived like a TV series, with two episodes per year for four years. I started working with a different editor, François Gédigier, who typically works in narrative cinema. I went to a talk he gave in which he spoke about how he had never edited a documentary. He was very intimidated by the form. This was interesting to me because he’s one of the most famous editors in France and here he was talking about how scared he was. We worked together to edit the material of the first year and came up with two episodes, very much in a TV series kind of format, lasting about 50 minutes and with a beginning, middle, and end. The second year he was no longer available to work because he was doing some fiction films and so I asked Claire, with whom I had also edited Also Known as Jihadi, if she would do the third episode. A different editing vocabulary emerged from that work together and it made me think I had to abandon the series model. I had a feeling that the film needed a single form and not a constraining, episodic structure. But these intermediary episodes were important because the kids saw them. We showed them as works in progress at Cinéma du réel, and I did an exhibition with them. The kids were not involved in the editing, but they saw what had been edited on multiple occasions while we were still working together. Somehow that enabled there to be communication between the filming and the editing throughout the four years. I think that the way they filmed and discussed was informed by what they were seeing in the edited material. They didn’t wait four years before they saw something; that would have been an enormously long time for 15-year-olds to wait. There was a collective process of exchanging and conversing around the material in its intermediary edited form, so when they saw the final version of the film, it was not a sudden discovery.
To the other part of your question about how we worked, Claire has a really intuitive approach to editing. We went back to square one in the last year of the project. We watched every minute of footage chronologically, with notebooks, writing down our impressions. Sometimes these were things we had seen many times before, but towards the end, it was material we were seeing for the first time. The way we work is that we watch all the material together and Claire starts familiarizing herself with a proposition for the first few minutes of the film. She starts assembling things and never shows me anything until she feels there are a few minutes that she feels strongly about. Then we sit down and look at it together. Something really important happens in those first minutes of all the films we’ve worked together on: it’s a proposition of an approach to the material and signals my intention with the film as a whole.
In Un Film Dramatique, she starts with an image shot by the students, not by the adult crew. It’s from the second or third year. She establishes that we’re not going to use the material chronologically and that the images from the students are of equal importance to the images shot by the adults in the room, so to speak. There’s no distinction between who’s shooting what. This was a hugely important thing to propose because it evacuates an enormous number of problems that could emerge in this kind of film, like the distinction between adult and student. A number of decisions followed from that, like not having any adults onscreen in the film and to have my presence there in a remote vocal manner only. The film is really focused on the kids—not the school, the teachers, the administration, or the world outside. This is quite different from the episodes, in which there are plenty of adults and teachers, and much more of the typical documentary material that you get when you film in a school for several years.
There was a lot of material but not a monumental amount. I’m not a filmmaker who likes to film thousands of hours. It’s hundreds of hours, not thousands. The kids were even more parsimonious than I was. When we watched their material, it was very precise and with very little waste. Fatimata Sarr, whose images appear a lot in the film, would often bring back 20 minutes of footage, 15 of which would be really good. Watching the material was not such an overwhelming task, surprisingly, for a four-year project.
Questions of nationality, identity, and belonging are central to this film. They creep into the children’s discussions.
The school is populated by students coming from immigrant backgrounds, and the political climate today in France is obsessed in a very problematic way with these questions of belonging, origin, inclusion, and exclusion. Anything that happens in the society at large is concentrated in the minds of kids at this age. The film manifests that. If you sit in the courtyard of the school and listen to what’s happening, a third of what you will hear is in one way or another connected to these questions, because your early teens are an age in life where you are really thinking about your place in the world. Everybody’s background is foregrounded, so to speak, in the community that is the school. People are trying to figure out who they are and how they relate to each other.
There’s an irony to the film’s title. Many of your films deal with stories and events that are very dramatic and perhaps could be subject to a sensationalist treatment—like plane hijackings, for instance. But you seem to have an allergy to this. There’s an aversion to “drama” across your films, and yet here it’s cheekily embraced as a title. I wonder if this has any relation to a question that you’ve said is at the core of your practice, which is the question of how to film the real today. I suppose I’m asking about how you see the relationship between drama and reality.
Being interested in filming the real necessarily means thinking about dramatic events, because the real today is shaped by dramatic situations. History seems to be accelerating. The events of the world are violent—and dramatically so. But there’s a difference between true drama and hammed-up drama. In France, but perhaps elsewhere too, whenever you have a film that takes place in the equivalent of an inner-city neighborhood (which in France is actually the outer-city), it’s always about violence, gangs, drugs, and police. Whenever a camera enters into these spaces, artificial drama is increased. It’s as if the daily unfolding of events is completely determined by these things. But if you spend a certain amount of time in a neighborhood like the one where I made this film, you see that gangs, drugs, and the police are not an hourly preoccupation. The news media and industrial cinema are always going to ham these things up. This has a devastating effect on the people who live in those neighborhoods, and on the culture at large, because it feeds into a right-wing narrative that these places are no-go zones on the verge of civil war. They’re described in terms that are complete fantasies.
Towards the end of editing the film, I still didn’t have a title. Titles have a tendency to appear at the very beginning of a process or the very end. It’s always complicated when it’s the second situation. For four years, I had been calling the film “the Dora-Maar project” because it’s the name of the school, but it’s a terrible title because Dora Maar is an artist who has nothing to do with this story. In a viewing session with Claire, we were watching a scene in which the students are trying to figure out whether the film is a documentary or a fiction. For David Pop, one of the protagonists, it’s very important that we think of this film as a fiction and as a drama. He says, “It’s a dramatic film.” I noted that down and it was obvious from then on that this would be the title. I wanted to make the question of whether it’s a fiction or a documentary central, and poke fun at how drama is hammed up in most urban school films.
“In France, whenever you have a film that takes place in the equivalent of an inner-city neighborhood (which in France is actually the outer-city), it’s always about violence, gangs, drugs, and police."
Am I right to understand that there might be a sequel in the works?
There could be a sequel in the works. We continue to hang out with a subset of the students who were central to the project and we’ve been discussing the possibility of making another film together. They had a great intuition, which was that after having made a middle school film, we shouldn’t make a high school film. It would be interesting to start working again when they finish high school. It’s a really mature idea. Intuitively, maybe you would want to make the high school sequel, but it’s actually way more interesting to let a gap of time elapse. They’re interested in working again as they enter adulthood. However, along the way a few things did happen: there was the pandemic and the lockdowns, and some images were made during that time. There were also some images made at some of the festivals we went to with the film. So there is some material from the four years of high school, but we’ll see what people are into doing next year when they graduate. I would like to make a film again with them. It’s possible it would be a smaller group, maybe five or six of us. Certainly, Fatimata will be part of that. Some of the protagonists of this film will emerge again because they are tremendously gifted and we really enjoy spending time together. Making another film would be an excuse to spend a little more time together.
Erika Balsom is a reader in Film Studies at King’s College London and the author, most recently, of TEN SKIES (Fireflies Press, 2021).