R|R are very happy to present a guest contribution by filmmaker and writer Rodney Uhler on a recent masterclass from filmmaker Nicholas Philibert.
Nicolas Philibert looks too unassuming to be some one to throw everything you thought you knew about documentary filmmaking out the window. But, for me, he did just that at his masterclass at the Institute Francais on the 25th of June as part of the Open City Doc Festival. The French director is probably best known for his touching 2002 film Être et Avoir, which is a documentary portrait of a school teacher in rural France. Yet he has taken his observational lens to a varied selection of subjects; La Ville Louvre (1990) is a jaunt around the iconic museum’s reserves, he focuses on a mental institution in La Moindre des Choses(1997), then a theatre school in Qui Sait?(1999), and most recently he documents the life of orangutang Nénette(2010). Despite the variety of subjects a single philosophy echoes throughout his films, which seems to be an approach based in ignorance.
“When watching one of Philibert’s documentaries it’s not objectivity but the intimacy that resonates most profoundly.”
It is perhaps the opposite approach taken by other directors when making a non-fiction film in which extensive research, fieldwork, and familiarity are seen as key essentials to accessing a level of depth. Philibert actively avoids this entrenchment and finds magic in the meeting. He works to capture the sense of initial contact which is rooted in the unknown. This method of spontaneity creates excitement for the director as well; for Philibert, the chance and luck of the initial meeting and filming is at the heart of his production. Philibert described the benefit of his approach as “the less I know [about the subject], the more I bring to the subject”. Too much background research goes beyond the subjects, dictating to the viewer what they should think and how they should think it. One could argue that by avoiding premeditation Philibert is also creating a level of objectivity. While the debate over objectivity in documentaries is never-ending, it is agreed that true neutrality within film is a fallacy. Yet, Philibert’s unusual approach is perhaps a new method of retaining some sense of objectivity, of not clouding production with preconceptions. In essence, Philibert argues, the more one knows about a subject prior to filming, the stronger the opinion or bias is likely to be. Paradoxically, when watching one of Philibert’s documentaries it’s not objectivity but the intimacy that resonates most profoundly. One technique that aids this sense of intimacy is Philibert’s tendency to capture small moments that, without his arresting lens, would get lost in the momentum of the everyday. I believe that to achieve these distinctive moments, which frequently allude the most dedicated of documentarians, Philibert’s relationship with his subjects must be central.
Throughout the masterclass Philibert routinely returned to the subject of ethics, specifically the moral responsibility at the heart of the relationship between subject and filmmaker. It’s not a new realm of debate or discussion for nonfiction filmmakers but it is particularly significant to Philibert considering how frequently vulnerable subjects, like children or the disabled, are featured in his films. In nonfiction filmmaking and reality television subjects are often exploited by filmmakers in order to capture the most dramatic and/or expressive reactions. It is my opinion that Philibert is consciously working against this tendency.
“His filming practice is just as unorthodox as his philosophical approach.”
After showing a scene of a caretaker’s attempt to trim the beard of a patient from his 1997 film La Moindre des Choses Philibert discussed how the film was initially something he did not want to do at all. Unlike his other films, the idea did not originate with Philibert but was suggested to him and only after much persuasion did he agree to take on the project. Appropriately, the ultimate convincing came not from a producer or outside party but from the patients themselves, and their comfort with his presence as a filmmaker. He realized that this was a film “not on them, but with and because of them.” It seems that for Philibert it is important to show what his subjects are willing to share, not to pull things out via provocation. This mindset is certainly not universal among documentarians, who often take pride in their ability to draw out dramatic/emotional moments or confessions from their subjects.
Neither approach should be identified as ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ but should be seen as existing on opposite ends of the documentary spectrum. In fact, a lawsuit filed by the protagonist of Être et Avoir, teacher Georges Lopez, called Philibert’s idealistic outlook into question. In 2002, following the somewhat unexpected runaway success of the film, Lopez claims that both he and the children were misinformed about the plans for exhibition and distribution of the film. While the courts and general public tended towards discrediting Lopez’s claims, it still challenges how realistic operating on ideals can be.
“Philibert’s world is clearly not for everyone, it is unlikely to dominate our television and film screens.”
Unsurprisingly, yet somewhat disappointingly, questions about the controversy over Être et Avoir were not brought up during the masterclass. However the audience could draw an explanation from Philibert about his production method, which can often be one of the more illuminating aspects of documentary filmmaking: technique often informs content. His filming practice is just as unorthodox as his philosophical approach. He prefers to do multiple short shoots as opposed to an intensive block of time with his subjects. One filmmaker in the audience asked a practical question about how Philibert obtains funding without research or preliminary footage to show to producers. In his response, Philibert described the elaborate and extensive briefs he produces for these purposes which outline the mood of the film rather than give detailed information on the subject or narrative structure. While it is fun to imagine producers being swayed by an epic poem describing the quiet altruism of a one-room French schoolhouse, Philibert does in fact have a showreel: the nine highly acclaimed films he has already made. Prior to this he was apprentice to veteran French director René Allio when he no doubt was schooled both in technique and the greater practicalities of production.
The world of Nicolas Philibert is one of fascination and curiosity, governed by idealistic principles and guided by an independent philosophy. His is a world with inspiring moments of unexpected humanity. With a currency of trust where transparent communication is an essential element to successful filmic transactions, it is hard to imagine a better method of exchange. However, Philibert’s world is clearly not for everyone, and while his outlook works well producing products of subtle compassion it is unlikely to produce more explosive documentaries which dominate our television and film screens. While Philibert doesn’t have the name-weight of Davis Guggenheim, Michael Moore, or Nick Broomfield, he has earned respect from critics and fans alike for his restrained approach. Time spent with Philibert’s films is still time well spent. He manages to use an overarching ethical ideal and approach to produce inspired moments of intimacy that are universally effective.