Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Exclusive Interview with Robert Guediguian

Robert Guediguian
In March 2011, I programmed a season of 4 French films from the 1990s at the great Side Cinema, Newcastle, UK (http://www.amber-online.com/sections/side-cinema).

I tried to programme films that were not so famous in the UK, and to show that there were other things than La Haine (Kassovitz, 1995) happening in French cinema in the 1990s!

The 4 films that I programmed were: Betty (Chabrol, 1992), Every Little Thing (Philibert, 1997), Beau Travail (Denis, 1999) and The Town is Quiet (Guediguian, 2000).

For the screening of Betty, Prof Guy Austin, from Newcastle University, introduced the screening and stayed for a post-film discussion. Prof Austin has written a book about Chabrol, and Betty is one of his favourite films from that director.

For The Town is Quiet, Robert Guediguian very kindly accepted that I interview him over the phone before the screening, and that I distribute a translation of the interview to the audience. I interviewed him for one hour, and asked him questions about his film The Town is Quiet, but also about filmmaking in general, about politics (inevitably), and about French cinema. By talking about The Town is Quiet, he says a lot about the kind of cinema that he likes to make. This is the interview that you can find below.

His films have not always been very well distributed abroad. His latest film, The Snows of Kilimandjaro (2011), premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and got great reviews. It also won the Silver Spike at the Valladolid International Film Festival. Despite that, it only got a very small release on Fri 14 Sept 2012 in the UK.

Exclusive Interview with Robert Guediguian, 1 March 2011, for the screening of THE TOWN IS QUIET (2000, Dir. Robert Guediguian) at the Side Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne
French poster for The Town is Quiet
Why do you make films?
RG: It’s a way for me to be involved with politics. I make films like I could be involved with any other art, but it so happened that I started being involved with cinema. I used to belong to the communist party but for various reasons I left the party in the 80’s. Now I generally support any left-wing movement or party, without belonging to any party in particular. But it’s not possible for me not to be involved politically, at some level.
Is this linked to your roots maybe?
RG: Probably – my dad was Armenian and my mother German, and that’s 2 countries with a heavy history. The Armenians were victims of genocide in 1915, and Germany was involved with another genocide. Also, my family were working class people – my dad worked in the Marseille docks, and my mother was a cleaner, so it is important for me to make films about these people. I will always be on the side of the working class.
Is this also linked to the fact that the working class is not very much represented in French cinema today?
RG: Totally. French cinema today is dominated by representations of the high-middle class, and the working class has disappeared from French films today. Between the 2 world wars, the working class was more represented, but this has stopped, and “popular cinema” has disappeared. Cinema doesn’t give a sense a pride to people like it used to. The way I make films is that I try to make Greek tragedies in a working class setting.
Why do you think that the working class has disappeared from French cinema?
RG: It’s just representative of France at the moment in general – politically, social movements are not represented at the moment. I think it’s great that French people often strike and go to the street when they disagree with a political decision – I am proud of being French in that sense - but these social movements are not represented politically (and this has been the case since the 80’s and the end of communism).
But you are still politically active, you haven’t given up on politics, have you?
RG: No, I haven’t given up on politics, but I wouldn’t publicly support any particular party at the moment – many f them are worth supporting. I wouldn’t support the socialist party, but any other left-wing party is for me interesting. But the best way for me to be politically active, the way in which I am the most useful and original, is when I make films. If I start belonging to a political party, that’s not very original – but when I make films, my views can be expressed more clearly and openly, and can reach more people.
Also, I think that there are many other ways of doing politics than belonging to a party – it is possible to be involved with unions, with charities. The biggest political changes don’t generally come from political parties – they come from popular movements, through other ways in which people get involved.
The Town is Quiet is a very dark film – is this the vision that you had of France at the time?
RG: I think that there are 2 ways of making films – either you make films that are like a “proposition” – you show what things could be like, characters that show what we should be doing. These films are more positive – one of my films, Marius et Jeannette [1996, his biggest popular success in France] is one of those. Or you can make films that show reality as it is, and these films are darker – like The Town is Quiet. It’s a violent film, where there is no hope, and that shows all the things that are going wrong. Several characters in the film are very right-wing, and have turned to that alternative because they don’t know what else to do, they don’t see any other way out. That issue is actually topical as right-wing movements/parties are progressing at the moment everywhere in Europe.
But my vision of the world encompasses these 2 ways of making films: I see the world as positive and negative at the same time. Both sides are present and coexist. However, I don’t think that it is possible to mix these 2 visions in one single film. When you make a film, I think that it’s better to be a bit extreme in the way you show things, to exaggerate the picture slightly. So I make films that are quite dark, or films that are quite positive – but in separate films.
One of the characters in the film says to her husband “I prefer poor people who vote for the national front, than “petit bourgeois” people like you who pretend to defend these same poor people”. Is it something that you feel yourself?
RG: Totally. People who vote for the national front – I want to talk to them. I can understand them and their motivations. They are tired and don’t know for who else to vote anymore.
One day I met an old man in the street, who told me that he had voted for the National Front once. Later he had seen my film Marius et Jeannette [in which one character votes for the national front once], and that made him feel ashamed of having voted this way, and he said that he wouldn’t do it anymore. It was great for me to hear that, and that’s why I want to make films. Making films is a good way of reaching these right-wing people.
Ariane Ascaride in The Town is Quiet
The Town is Quiet is quite distinctive in that it is a film based on several characters that we follow at the same time – why did you chose that kind of structure?
RG: I had wanted to make a film like that for a long time, that showed people from many different social classes, many different situations. In general, cinema doesn’t allow you to do that – most people will try and discourage you from making a film like that, they will say that it’s too confusing for the audience, that you should always just have one central character, and that too many characters make it impossible for the audience to follow.
But I wanted to do that – ever since I read the book from Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer. Altmann also made a great film with that structure, with Short Cuts.
One of the characters in the film [ played by actor Jacques Pieiller, the one whose wife wants to divorce him], used to be a left-wing activist, but seems to now have been seduced by power and given up on his beliefs – does this portray a certain kind of left-wing activist for you?
RG: Absolutely. He represents some left-wing people who have changed, who consider that there is not that much that you can do after all, who are fatalistic, and who think that you can’t really change reality. Once, Jospin [French socialist politician] went to a Renault factory where the workers were on strike, and he said to them “The State cannot do everything”. I think that’s appalling – the State can’t do everything, but it can do a lot.
There are a lot of terraces in the film – places where people see the city from above. One of the characters in the film says at some point “the point of view is the place from which you’re looking at the world”. In the film, Yves Froment goes to parties where rich heads of companies and right-wing people are invited, parties taking place at these terraces – and I think that it is not possible to mix with such people and to not be influenced by them at all. I don’t think that left-wing people should attend such parties.
The theme of abortion is present in the film – with the character of Ariane Ascaride who had a very painful abortion from the time when it was still illegal (abortion was legalised in France in 1975), and with the character of Veronique Balme (the young flirtatious woman) who is against abortion. Was it important for you to talk about this issue in the film?
RG: Yes totally. I sometimes have the impression that there can be great confusion in society, and a regression too. All occidental countries have anti-abortion campaigns at some level, with varying degrees of success. It’s important to talk about it, regression is a danger and it scares me.
It’s not because there is no future that we should find refuge in the past, in past beliefs or practices. It is easy to be reassured by visions of the past, and there is a danger to fall back on religion, on conservative values of order or nationalism. I wanted to make reference to that and show that I am against this way of thinking.
How do you understand the character of Veronique Balme? [that’s the character of the young and quite flirtatious woman] Her personality and intentions are difficult to grasp.
RG: She is a bit mad. She represents a certain branch of the extreme right movement that I call “naturalist”. They talk about nature, and can have a strange link with nudity or sexuality. She is a bit mad, and mixes a bit everything, many different values. She is a bit delirious and her values don’t really make any sense.
She has the same name as the baby, Ameline – was there a reason why the 2 characters have the same name?
RG: I wanted to create links between the characters – some of them have the same name, or use the same car, or listen to the same music. It’s a way of linking the characters, while they might not meet. As there are many different characters it was a way of creating meaning in the film. It was also to reinforce the idea that all these characters live in the same place, talk about the same things, and deal with the same problems – but they just have very different points of view on one situation. So it was a way of creating a sense of togetherness.
The film ends with the young Georgian boy playing piano – was it important for you to choose an immigrant, and a child?
RG: Yes, it was very important for me to choose an immigrant as a representation of hope – and also, he plays “Que Ma Joie Demeure” (“Let my joy be” from Bach – part of Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben). Immigrants often have an incredible strength and vitality. They arrive in a new country, have to learn a new language, and have to adapt to a new society. They often have a lot of energy.
Also, music, and art in general, are important symbols for me. Art, beauty and harmony are concepts that are linked for me – art shows a certain degree of civilization, in a good sense. Art is one way of making peace. Another character [the blond woman who wants to divorce her husband] is also a positive character – and she’s a music teacher, so again, she is linked to art and beauty.
How do you understand the character of the actor Jean-Pierre Daroussin [the taxi driver]?
RG: He’s a coward. His dad’s generation was more politically active, but he is mistaken, he doesn’t have a strong position, or a strong set of beliefs. He’s lost and opportunistic. He’s a bit “wet”, he’s not a likeable character. He is ready to do anything. Also, he takes the redundancy money from the docks and doesn’t fight, but in the end he doesn’t manage as a taxi driver either.
The character of the black young man is a very positive character – how do you understand him?
RG: Yes he’s a very positive character; he remains alert and linked to reality. Him, the boy who plays piano, and the character of Christine Brucher [the woman who wants to get divorced] are positive characters who see what is happening, and, even though they might not have solutions, they try, they do what they can. They are linked to reality and to beauty.

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