This fantastic interview with Agnès Varda, who pioneered French New Wave film is great, and I loved hearing her thoughts on Instagram and digital filmmaking.
The interview covers quite a few things, but her thoughts on documenting traumatic events and death is really stayed with me — it's so timely. It reminded me of Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson — a film made up of edited B-roll of previously shot documentaries including ones on Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur, that she had shot as a cinematographer. I pulled up an interview with Johnston, to help me sort through what seemed to me like parallels in their work.
Cameraperson is a film that is considers the implications of documenting traumatic or difficult events. Part way through the film there is a direct discussion about this, with a professor speaking to an audience about the use of images of death — images from Syria — in the news media. He argues that it's ultimately immoral to do this since the dead have no agency.
Cameraperson delicately considers the cost of witnessing violence, and what documenting trauma and its aftermath brings to a community (or takes from it). Over the course of the film she interviews people who have survived war, as well as the people who record their experiences, a task which can also be traumatic. I think of a photojournalist I met when I was a child who had documented the Khmer Rouge (I know he was represented in the Killing Fields but I don't remember his name) and had later moved to Thailand, where we stayed in the same small hotel. His walls were covered in his own black-and-white photographs of the war, which were obviously incredibly devastating. He would sit on the sill of an open window in the hotel and place pieces of sticky tape onto the ants which came in and out of the hotel. He would also stick these pieces of tape onto his wall. Nobody bothered him. He didn't speak very much. I hope he eventually recovered to some degree, but I don't know what happened to him. I always think of him when I see reporting from Syria or Iraq, so lately a lot. His work had really cost him.
What really struck me about the film is seeing people with experience like this in their everyday lives. Sometimes reliving the past, but other times just doing chores or hanging out.
The director had asked me to include [women in Darfur] chopping down the tree in the distant background of another shot. That happens a lot in filming; we see something and think, “Oh, that’s a powerful image.” I’m always struggling to not see people as “powerful images” but to look at what’s really going on with them. I wanted to talk to these women who were so far away in my first shot of them. And then to find them able to laugh and see the absurdity of their situation was a marvel to me. That’s the kind of surprise I’m always searching for in these relationships. So much of the time we are foregrounding people’s victimhood. I know much of that is a necessary responsibility and obligation, but such scenes often don’t capture the rest of their humanity. So I love it when the singularity of people shines through.
Agnès says this, about presenting documentary footage of violence:
I’ve been hurt, in the heart, just by watching these images when [Syrian refugees] are on a boat and they die in the ocean and sometimes they are saved. But we cannot save them. We cannot go and take another boat and save three people and give them food and bring them home.
And the documentary we made with JR was happening during the attack at the Bataclan, and the attack on Belgium. We were in the middle of it, and we went there. And we filmed things, but we won’t use [that footage].
We cannot solve the problem. We can just speak with other people in the country, people who look for peace, people who look for sharing. Because… The lack is that, it’s there. We have to share with people, share words, share time. And if the film reflects that, it’s a drop of… Friendship and compassion in the world.
Agnès and Kirsten both approach violence in a clear-eyed way. There's no dramatic score. They are aware of their limitations and don't see present themselves as heroic, nor as the centre of the story. I think they share a desire to remain connected to the humanity of the people who experience it.
Another thing I noticed is their relationship with the formal elements of film and the camera — what it means to use a camera, and how the film's meaning can easily shift if you change its context. Agnès uses outdated film strips to create little buildings that can be inhabited. Kirsten pulls out footage from years earlier and brings it to the family she had shot to film their reaction and winds up recording her surprise at how she had misremembered her own documentary.
In separate interviews, Agnès and Kirsten both consider moving images versus still images—
[Agnès] “When I started to make a lot of films, I stopped taking photos. Even when I went on trips, I can’t believe it, like when I went to Mexico, but I wouldn’t take my stills camera. But I started to take photos again, after 2000. So I have recent photos. Something I do now is I join silver prints, with silver negatives, and on the side of a triptych I do photos with digital and color. I like to reconciliate black and white and color, the past and the present, the digital and the authentic. It’s like trying to make everything simple for me. It’s not ‘that time’ or ‘this time’. It’s mixing time and technique.”
One haunting photo of a man and a boy, taken on a beach in Calais in May 1954, Agnès would make a film about forty years later (Ulysee), tracking down the subjects and discovering the history of their lives absent in the photograph at first glance. This is a recurring idea in her work, that beyond the representational space of a film frame, an edit, a single image, a gallery space, there is an outside world only implied or imagined or rendered as unknown history.
[Scott Macauley, interview Kirsten Johnston for Filmmaker] I picked 11 still frames from the movie, from scenes that made a particular impact on me, and sat with Johnson as she pondered the meanings, associations and emotions they provoked. While the intent was to transport her back to the circumstances of shooting those scenes, something different resulted, as she notes in these final comments: “Of course, I’ve seen Cameraperson, the film, many times, so I am rather surprised to experience how completely and distinctly different it is for me to look at shots from the film as still images. In each of these frames, I am seeing something different than I have ever seen while watching the film. The fact of stopping the moving image and freezing the frame allows distinct details to reveal themselves. It gives me new insight into how much more is still hidden to me in Cameraperson.”
Both filmmakers include themselves in their work, their subjectivity is right out front. Both are curious about stories and people that are underrepresented. I also noticed their relationships to time. Cleo from 5 to 7 is a story told in real time, and is more about the experience of that time than in telling a plot-driven story. In general many of Agnès' pieces include time as a considered element. In Cameraperson, Kirsten intersperses footage from different times and places, so the viewer is travelling through the material almost like following a sequence of thoughts. She also brings her mother, who is experiencing memory loss into the documentary, making it the most recent footage to be shot. This flattens the space between the different time periods included in the film: when she is shooting her mother, which feels like the present as you're watching it; the future when she knows her mother will be gone (which is now the past: we know that her mother has died); and their memories of each other which the audience witnesses being erased by time and documented on camera simultaneously.
The relationship between female artists and time is really fascinating to me. There are so many female protagonists created by men, and so few auteurs who are women, that I wonder if we really know what the world feels like from a woman’s point of view, even for those of us who are women. After all, the versions of our lives we see reflected by art helps us understand ourselves. Chantal Ackerman wanted the audience to feel time going by, rather than being overwhelmed or entertained in such a way as to forget time. This is something that Varda and Johnston both do. They make me feel time.