Director Guillaume de Fontenay and cinematographer Pierre Aïm, AFC, discuss shooting “Sympathy for the Devil” during a Q&A Session at Camerimage

By Margot Cavret

Contre-Champ AFC n°314

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A short time before the start of the Camerimage Film Festival, at which Sympathy for the Devil was selected in the Director’s Debuts Competition, cinematographer Pierre Aïm (winner of the Grenouille d’or in 1995 for La Haine) granted the AFC an interview about his work on that film. During the festival, he reminisced about his experience during a Q&A session held right after a Q&A by the film’s director, Guillaume de Fontenay.

Guillaume de Fontenay’s first feature film was Sympathy for the Devil ; before, he was a director in the theatre, and then a director of advertisements and short films. But the idea for this film is nearly 30 years old, since it was then that the Siege of Sarajevo was in the news, and it was during that time that Paul Marchand’s war reporting on the radio left a strong impression on the future director. Paul Marchand is the author of the book Sympathy for the Devil, which the film adapts, and is also the main character in the film. Fontenay was strongly affected by the events and deeply marked by Paul Marchand’s reporting ; he describes Marchand as the only journalist who enabled his audience to face the reality on the ground and the injustice the citizens of Sarajevo were suffering. “It wasn’t a far-away and complicated problem ; it all became very clear.” He wrote a play at the time, but he didn’t dare to contact Paul Marchand or to begin the process of turning it into a film adaptation.

Guillaume de Fontenay
Guillaume de Fontenay

The director began shooting full of humility faced with the reality described in his film, of respect for his main character, and a strong desire to make his film as arresting as the discovery of Paul Marchand’s reporting had been for him. From his point of view, what is of utmost importance is to immerse the viewer, and to make the viewer experience the reality of what that war was as much as possible. He undertook intense and in-depth preparatory work with the actors : he brought them to live in Sarajevo, to meet the actual people they were going to play, to learn the way those people speak, the way they move, and their energy. He worked with Niels Schneider, who plays Paul Marchand, to show the character’s immense humanity without idealizing him. In order to make it seem real, he made the actor constantly look over his shoulder, on the lookout for danger. This character guides the viewer through the action of the film. The director wanted the film to look nervy, like the images the reporters collected, full of the adrenaline of survival. Pierre Aïm said the following about this topic : shooting was done entirely with a shoulder-carried camera, in order to enable us to imitate the images from reporters, and in 4:3 format, because images from that time were televised, and television sets were square. The director shot long takes, in order to immerse his actors and viewers in the energy of the danger. He paid tribute to Pierre Aïm for having succeeded in difficult and intense shooting conditions, in winter, with lots of car scenes, without budget and without grip equipment. As for the cinematographer himself, he is grateful for the opportunity of having been able to shoot this intense film, which required a lot of camera work. He emphasized that for the first time in his career, he tried to create something perfectly realistic and said he is proud of his shots, his movements, and the idea of freedom he succeeded in communicating via this film.

Pierre Aïm
Pierre Aïm

For Pierre Aïm, cinema is first and foremost a means for escaping from reality and for dreaming. For Guillaume de Fontenay, it is a means of communicating, and changing minds. He describes his film as a mission he devoted himself to, a mission to seriously, humbly and respectfully show the everyday violence experienced by those who lived through this siege, but also their vital force, and their day-by-day resolve to live. In the end, their two visions harmonize through this film, which, in spite of its tough subject, uses its realistic aspect to create an immersive feeling. The film is arresting, it brings the viewer into the heart of danger and the attacks, into the everyday lives of innocent people and journalists who were targeted by these attacks. Pierre Aïm said that he himself was transported and shaken when he watched the film. The director concluded : “Speaking with the greatest humility, I believe the film touches people. Some young people from Sarajevo, who did not experience the war, told me they’d changed after watching the film. Artists can change souls. I myself have been touched by theatre, reading, photography, sculpture, painting. Artists speak through a megaphone.”

Margot Cavret is a 3rd year Cinema student at ENS Louis-Lumière.

  • Watch or rewatch the video of the interview given by Pierre Aïm about his work on Sympathy for the Devil.