Rebirth in Bosnia

Interview with Cinematographer Paul Guilhaume, AFC, about his work on Aude Léa Rapin’s film “Heros Don’t Die”

by Paul Guilhaume

[English] [français]

Cinematographer Paul Guilhaume, AFC, worked with Léa Mysius on Ava (Critics’ Week 2017, Best Cinematography award in Stokholm, 2017) and Marie Monge on Joueurs (Directors’ Fortnight 2018). He has regularly shot for documentarist Sébastien Lifshitz (Les Vies de Thérèse, Directors’ Fortnight 2016) and also Adolescentes and Sasha (to be released). He worked with Aude Léa Rapin on Heros Don’t Die, a film which mixes the genres of fiction and documentary, and which was selected in the 58th Critics’ Week. (BB)

In a Paris street, an unknown man believes he recognized in Joachim a soldier who died in Bosnia on 21 August 1983. Lo, 21 August 1983 is Joachim’s date of birth! Troubled by the possibility that he might be the reincarnation of war ghosts, he decides to leave for Sarajevo with his friends Alice and Virginie. In this country haunted by the ghosts of war, they throw themselves body and soul into finding the traces of Joachim’s past life.
Starring Adèle Haenel, Jonathan Couzinié, Antonia Buresi

Hero’s Don’t Die is a film that is hybrid in its form: a fiction filmed “from inside” by characters who are shooting a documentary… The story begins in Paris. The image is first that of a very small camera, held in the hand of Alice (Adèle Haenel), one of the characters. She is filming her friend, Joachim (Jonathan Couzinié) to record his testimony: a man recognized him in the marketplace, he called him “Zoran,” shouted at him that he had killed and tortured, and that he had died on 21 August 1983. Joachim seems to believe that he is the reincarnation of this Zoran, a criminal in a vanished country, Yugoslavia. Alice is a filmmaker, she sees a potential subject for a film in this story and hires a sound engineer, Virginie (Antonia Buresi) and a cameraman, Paul. They go to Bosnia… 
Then the format changes (from 4:3 to Scope) and from that moment on, the film is entirely seen from the cameraman’s camera, a member of this little crew lost in Bosnia.

Paul Guilhaume during shooting of “Heros Don’t Die”
Photo : Adrien Selbert

Something unique about this film is its point of view: we, the viewers, are watching an image produced by the camera held by one of the characters, Paul, and which is that of the documentary being shot by the crew. How did you work with this grammar of the “false” documentary within a fiction?

Paul Guilhaume: First of all, and in keeping with Aude Léa Rapin’s cinema, by using a camera on the shoulder for 90% of the film’s shots. This breathing room was necessary for the credibility of our “fake documentary”: we had to create a bit of a rough image so that we could seal a pact of believability with the viewer.
This is evidently paradoxical because, in fact, my work as a documentary cameraman – and the work of many before me – has been to bring a sort of “fiction” into that work: by the choice of lenses, the shallow depth of field, full shots…
But here, any attempt to take full shots or to structure a shot too visibly would have destroyed the believability of the image we were creating. On the contrary, we had to highlight accidents, invent shots that seemed as though they hadn’t been planned, that we weren’t “in a fiction”.
In real terms, in the directing, that meant we had mikes and poles in the frame, remarks made in voice over, actors making remarks at and looking into the camera, tremors, reflections of Virgine with her mixer and huge headset, microphone rubbing, etc.
Aude Léa Rapin and her actors embraced the comic potential of this situation: a crew of semi-amateurs is trying to make a film like pros, in a country of whose complex history they are initially completely ignorant, and they are trying to bring a film back home at all costs…

How does this grammar evolve as the plot advances?

PG: Once the pact has been made with the viewer and believability has been established, we had to put this set-up in the background so that it wouldn’t interfere with the story that is being played out. To simplify things, one might say there are three registers in the film: the first five minutes are very shaky (Alice is filming her friend’s testimony) and could have been filmed with a camcorder. In fact, it was shot with a Sony Alpha 7S, which trembles and vibrates when it is being held in the hand, and then we further degraded the image in post-production. In this part, the aperture is set at 16 to increase the depth of field. Then, the filmmaker’s documentary camera comes in, he films using Scope, and tries to structure his image, but the visual and sound mishaps cause the viewer to believe that a documentary is being filmed. The third register, as the plot thickens and the characters move forward with their investigation into their friend’s possible reincarnation, these accidents and mishaps disappear, the form becomes more discreet and more fictional. The story tends towards fantasy: their trip becomes crazier and they head towards a strange, and almost magical, denouement.

Jonathan Couzinié and Adèle Haenel
(Capture d’image)

What was the work like with the director and the actors?

PG : Aude Léa works based on rehearsals that leave room for the unforeseen and that often change the initial screenplay. Hers is a very free method of creation, founded on extreme attention to what is happening in the present moment.
After a first reading of the screenplay, we quickly added the camera to the rehearsals because it is being held by a character in the story, the actors speak to him, and sometimes ask him to film a particular element. Often, we came up with a long take that was supposed to be used as a jump cut, but which had all of the values and points of view we needed in it. Juliette Alexandre, the editor, could decide whether or not to use the transitions from one value to another, the movements, the panoramic between a shot and its counter-shot.
But as the plot moves forward, the shots were supposed to be less edited. There is a take of nearly five minutes between Adèle Haenel and Jonathan Couzinié that I think is an incredible performance by the actors.
Sometimes, we were simply making a purely observational film: we shot during the commemorations of 11 July 1995 in Srebrenica and the actors threw themselves into a real situation that was bigger than us. We knew the implications of the scene and we were confronting them with the real, without a second take, and it created one of the most astonishing moments of the film, in my opinion.

Did filming through the prism of Paul’s character make you an actor in the film?

PG: We’d imagined a storyline for the cameraman character, actually… We’d discuss his psychology, how he’d experience the adventure, the distance that he’d take to film his friends. Sometimes, the acting was expressed through a hesitation (he didn’t immediately dare to film an embarrassing situation) but usually, I simply made eye contact with the actors, keeping my second eye open so that we could interact with one another, so that they wouldn’t just be speaking to a camera lens.
Then, bit by bit, the story develops and the others stop being interested in him, and he starts filming long takes whose rhythm begins to dilate as the film slips into another genre.

This slip into fantasy can also be felt in the lighting…

PG: The idea was to go from very simple lighting, but that nonetheless left room for shadow, to a more lyrical light. We mainly worked outdoors, in reflection, with sources that were part of the sets for nights. Gaffer Marianne Lamour did an enormous amount of work, without any grips, and often without help, but with a sense of simplicity that I admire. One of the last scenes in the film is lit by a single light source whose beam is split and reflected by mirrors hidden in the minuscule ceiling of a wood cabin. The whole space is structured, and the faces are lit by a Joker 800.

What were the technical and aesthetic artistic decisions?

PG: We had to bring artistry and form back into our “all shoulder camera” grammar. Aude Léa feels drawn to anamorphic lenses and we were lucky to be able to use those mythical and very soft Panavision C-Series lenses. I like the “gaze” that they bring, the way that they modify the perception of space. I believe that in digital, it’s mainly the lenses that bring poetry to the image.
The depth of field was constant throughout the film, but we would adapt the aperture according to the shot: roughly 8 for a close up, 4 for a close medium shot, 2.8 for a full shot… Cyrille Humbert, the first AC, did an exceptional job from both a technical and artistic standpoint, and in documentary situations in Srebrenica, I felt both of us were behind the camera.
The treatment of the images by LUTs was close to the final image, Christophe Bousquet, the colourist, and I, came up with a relatively simple “development” that put emphasis on the saturation of low lights over that of the high lights, and it reminds me of the response of a 5213 negative.

(Interview by Brigitte Barbier for the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)