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DOXA series explores the French touch

Q&A with documentary festival guest curator Thierry Garrel

DOXA Documentary Film Festival at various venues until May 10. Visit for schedule.

As part of this year's DOXA Documentary Film Festival, the French French series guest curated by Thierry Garrel pays tribute not only to French filmmakers but to a legendary TV series about cinematic art, Cinéastes de notre temps, that began airing on France's public television network ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) in 1964.

Created by Janine Bazin (widow of film critic/theorist André Bazin) and cinéaste André S. Labarthe (who, as an actor, costarred alongside Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie), the series featured filmmakers profiling the work of other filmmakers and ran in that format until the early '70s. Garrel, head of documentary for the European cultural channel ARTE, revived the series in 1987, under a slightly different title Cinéma, de notre temps, and oversaw its production for several more decades.

For DOXA, Garrel pairs seven archival films from the Cinéastes de notre temps/Cinéma, de notre temps series with seven new documentaries by French filmmakers. He spoke to the North Shore News from Paris about the series and French documentary filmmaking in general.

North Shore News: What was your involvement with ORTF?

Thierry Garrel: I started there when I was 20 so that means I did little jobs inside the cinémathèque, there in the research department and then I made it a whole career. ORTF was split in 1975 into different departments but it was still public television. I started in 1969 when I was 20 and I stayed until 2009 when I was 60.

North Shore News: Did you work on the documentary series with Labarthe?

Thierry Garrel: Yes I did. The documentary series started in 1964 but was stopped in 1970. In 1987 I went to Labarthe and said let's restart the collection. I took the initiative to do that because it's a great collection. I worked from '87 to 2009 on the collection.

North Shore News: Was it a true extension of the original series?

Thierry Garrel: It was similar to the philosophy of André Labarthe and Janine Bazin - making films on cinéastes by cinéastes. That's why in the program we show Renoir shot by Rivette and then when we restarted the series Rivette was a great filmmaker himself so we have Rivette shot by Claire Denis.

The idea remained in not making simple interviews or simple portraits but really having a cinematic approach of how you can try and come closer to cinema practice. We had discussions with ARTE over the comma in the change of the title because Labarthe changed the title from Cinéastes de notre temps which was used at the time. He said, 'No, it's not just about contemporary filmmakers it's how cinema is the art of our time.' So that's why it's Cinema, comma, of our Time. But it was basically the same. Maybe a tiny difference was the choice to have a cinematic essay each time was more creative in the second part of the collection.

In the first part of Cinéastes de notre temps documentary wasn't really widespread. They were very deep interviews, as they used to do, but the recent ones are more interesting and unique. That's why I only chose to show one from the first part of the series, on Renoir, which is a great film. For us he is the greatest French filmmaker. He explains in great detail La Règle du jeu. Not just for French people but for world audiences, La Règle du jeu remains top cinema.

North Shore News: And as you mention the filmmaker who made that film, Jacques Rivette, is covered himself in the second part of the series.

Thierry Garrel: Exactly. When he shot the Renoir he had only made two films. He was mostly known as one of the nouvelle vague (New Wave) but he was a beginner as a director. When he was himself portrayed by Claire Denis in the early '90s he was one of the masters of French cinema. The same (approach) has somebody like Pedro Costa on Straub and Huillet. It's very interesting. That's what makes the collection so unique. 

North Shore News: Labarthe's look at Franju extends over a number of years. He went back again and again for more interviews.

Thierry Garrel: He had shot Franju in the '60s. Franju has been forgotten outside of France but he is really a great master and especially for documentary. In the '70s when there was no Cinéastes de notre temps at all the general appeal of making interesting films about cineastes remained in Labarthe's head and he was making some shorts for magazines. When (he combined the six interviews with Franju) it was a way to make a creative film today of somebody who had disappeared (from the scene).

Franju by the way is probably the very best example of what Cinema, comma, of all time means. He's a cinéaste who made his first documentary Le Sang des bêtes in '49. It's a fantastic documentary about the abattoir, slaughterhouse. It's incredible but most of his films were in the '60s and '70s, so some would say it was the cinema of yesterday but, no, it's really powerful.

At the DOXA launch of the French French series I was amazed - there were three young men that came up to me, they were not even in their thirties, and they were thrilled at the idea of having Labarthe (at the festival). I said, 'How do you know Labarthe?' 'Well, we've seen one or two of the collection' so his fame has come even here to Vancouver. People that love cinema, cinéphiles, love the idea that this series exists. It hasn't (been shown) a lot out of France. There was a full retrospective in New York a few years ago and then it went to China in Beijing, and then Brazil. This is only the second time in North America.

North Shore News: Eric Rohmer had two conditions if he was to be included in the series. Labarthe had to shoot the film himself and it could only be shown posthumously after Rohmer had died. You get a sense of the man from his preconditions.

Thierry Garrel: Rohmer was a very peculiar director. When Labarthe contacted him it took weeks and months (for him to agree). When you see the Rohmer film Labarthe is the cinéaste himself and he plays with the idea, he makes fun of Rohmer's (reticence) and this condition of showing it only after his death.

North Shore News: What was your role during the production of the films?

Thierry Garrel: I was the (assignment) editor and we had very close discussions each time with the director and the production company. It was interesting to be the (assignment) editor of a cultural channel to not only fight for creative projects but help the film's (look) their best. We had discussions with Labarthe during the editing process, first when he described what we were going to do, and then working on the editing table.

North Shore News: What time-frame was there for making a film and having it broadcast?

Thierry Garrel: It was a slow-paced collection. We produced like maybe two or three a year. It was not a systematic production as in (a regular) series. Labarthe and Bazin knew that ARTE was committed to developing the collection and they were in contact with cinéastes in choosing cinéastes and also looking for opportunities from other cinéastes. We were just seizing the moment.

As for as airing - when we had three new ones we would organize a small season of six weeks maybe and have three reruns and three new programs so the collection Cinema, notre le temps was airing not every year but maybe every other year.

North Shore News: Like Rivette in the first series the second has Claire Denis and Pedro Costa as young filmmakers shooting other filmmakers. All of the subjects are French in the series at DOXA.

Thierry Garrel: We chose seven French directors but the entire collection has filmmakers from other countries. Paulo Richard, for example, made a film on the Portuguese diretor Manoel de Oliveira (who died April 2 this year at the age of 106). The idea was to look for connections between cinéastes.

North Shore News: How did you choose the seven new documentaries screening at DOXA?

Thierry Garrel: The idea was to have very recent productions that show the scope of the genre. They were all released in 2014. They are not chosen for patriotic reasons but there is something in the French school of documentary that allows for a very free development in style in the genre itself.

I tried to choose seven great directors, masters such as Alain Cavalier but also really young, first-time directors. It's really important to cover a wide range because I think documentary is opening new territories. The documentary genre is spreading with incredible diversity and richness. There's a real uniqueness in style of writing, what we call écriture, in French. I tried to have very different films such as Je suis le peuple, shot over three years in a remote village with the Egyptian revolution in the background, to a pure philosophical diary, that's the Cavalier. They are completely different from each other.

The whole story started when I met (DOXA director of programming) Dorothy (Woodend) a few years ago. We became friends and we discussed how few French documentaries had been shown to Vancouver audiences. Nothing very significant and it's a very strong movement in France. Created with the help of public television, ARTE mainly, but also in cinemas. There is an audience building up there in the cinemas more and more. Dorothy suggested I make a program inside the festival and then I matched the idea with the Cinéma, de notre temps collection. We chose to have a two-part, two-sided program. The philosophy that developed by the mostly fiction directors of the nouvelle vague is also something that influenced French documentary filmmakers. A very unique way of approaching cinematic reality.

North Shore News: The French touch.

Thierry Garrel: Yes, I call it the French touch.

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