With the stubbornness of a bumblebee…

Thoughts about the AFC Masterclass at Camerimage 2019, by Jean Marc Selva, AFC

par Jean-Marc Selva

[ English ] [ français ]

On 13 November, at 11:15 a.m., Screening Room 6 of Torun’s Cinema City was full with expectant faces and latecomers continued to quickly make their way past the stage well after the event had begun, to be sure not to miss the talk by Julie Grünebaum, Éric Guichard, and Julien Poupard. Julie was slotted to speak about Chant d’hiver and Dzma, Eric about Saisons and Donne-moi des ailes, and Julien about Misérables.
Le public lors de la Master Class - Photo Tommaso Vergallo
Le public lors de la Master Class
Photo Tommaso Vergallo

Last year’s trio format was maintained this year so that extracts from films shot by these members of the AFC could be screened. Moderated by Benjamin B, and co-translated by Tommaso Vergallo of Leitz, the screening began with stunning images from Saisons, which impressed the audience with the energy they give off and the audaciousness of its purely narrative approach to animal scenes. After some technical questions (the film was mainly shot with Sony F65 and F55 cameras and one Arri Alexa M, all outfitted with Angénieux lenses), the discussion turned towards the question of the feasibility of shooting such images in nature, in daytime or nighttime, with wild animals and editing worthy of a fiction with actors ; the multiplication of camera angles within a single sequence, the proximity of the camera, the use of normal and short focal lengths…

The range of solutions that Éric Guichard and his entire film crew came up with during their long preparation period is deserving of the greatest respect.
How do you keep the camera as mobile as possible, at ground level, close to a wolf chasing its prey at breakneck speed ? By digging a trench in the forest and directing the animals’ path with a system of fences that must always remain invisible.
How do you get a nocturnal bird to accept having a camera under its beak for hours ? By setting up the camera on a crane arm and making sure that everything human remains as invisible as possible.
How do you light a barn owl’s nocturnal hunt, when barn owls usually prefer darkness ? By getting it used to the presence of artificial light over several months before shooting. And last, how do you get two ultralight aircraft, their pilots, actors, and cameras, to closely approach a gaggle of geese in flight without frightening them for Donne-moi des ailes ? By getting them used to having humans around them in flight as soon as they hatch.
And these are just a few examples of the many solutions Eric found for these two films which enchanted those attending the Masterclass.

Julien Poupard, Julie Grünebaum, Eric Guichard, Tommaso Vergallo et Benjamin B - Photo François Dupuy
Julien Poupard, Julie Grünebaum, Eric Guichard, Tommaso Vergallo et Benjamin B
Photo François Dupuy

Other films have other challenges. Those shot by Julie Grünebaum in Georgia for Otar Iosseliani and the couple Téona and Thierry Grenade. The first film involved the extreme demandingness of a director who sees the world only in long takes, never uses close ups, and never uses shot reverse shot. On the other film, the horrors of an ultra-low-budget period piece (1990s) : for example, only one single light source available (Luciole Nano) for the nighttime curfew scenes in Dzma !
And yet, or perhaps in part thanks to that, tension and sensitivity are apparent on the surface of each image. The simplicity of the shoot confers finesse and precision to each scene shot. As is often the case, necessity is the mother of invention…
This is the opposite of a “quick cut” edit which might leave viewers flabbergasted and unsure of what they’ve seen. Here, the shots take their time and really convey how difficult daily life is in Georgia during its civil war.
Just like the long take that opens the film, which was entirely shot from a crane, and which—using only image and sound—prefigures the ingredients of the tale which is about to begin.

Similarly, but in another style, in the clip from Chant d’hiver, Julie Grünebaum and Otar Iosseliani successfully show the cruelty and the absurdity of the war by keeping an ironic distance from the events. The long takes nonjudgmentally show the soldiers’ routine as they pillage a village and brutalize its inhabitants. The camera and the characters unfold in their own ballet within the film’s sets and the protagonists seem caught up in a pantomime that far surpasses them. Far from taking a documentary approach to the subject, there is rather a distance that makes it possible to portray another sort of “human comedy”.

A fate that surpasses its characters is also present in Les Misérables, the film shot by Julien Poupard. For this Masterclass, he chose to comment the scene of police brutality, which the message of the entire film is based around. Several different approaches to filming are used in this scene : camera on a tripod, carried on the shoulder, Steadicam, quad, drone… It is so interesting to see how the different approaches are combined and how they all play off one another and converge to bring the scene towards its climax. Rather than giving the scene an unstructured appearance, these different points of view add to one another in the sequence and build a spiralling tension that brings it towards its inevitable conclusion. These choices were effective, courageous and absolutely narrative, especially given that this film also had a very limited budget and that it was shot with a lot of non-actor children. It was also audacious in the approach to shooting that posited that the camera ought to capture the unpredictable actions that are taking place before it. A big round of applause to the first assistant Maxime Gerigny for his ability to perfectly manage that unpredictability.

And then, the participants exited the Masterclass, they walked through the halls of Camerimage, they attended other talks, and they often heard the word industry, as in “We, the people in the film industry…”
An expression that suggests that films are born on assembly lines… But what strikes me and what I like about Julie, Julien and Eric’s work is its artisanal and personal dimension. It is the dogged inventiveness with which the three cinematographers approach their work. The way in which, no matter the size of the project, they find a way around its difficulties and limitations to bring, in spite of it all, the fullest possible cinematic experience to the viewer. Not necessarily by relying on material and financial solutions, but by rolling up their sleeves and looking for technical or staging solutions, by creating specific tools or by using existing tools in new ways, and through it all, by customizing their approach to the film they are making. In a word, by trying to creatively adapt their approach to the human and technical means, and to the time that they have been allotted.
That artisanal aspect, that propensity for always seeking out new ideas with the stubbornness of a bumblebee, no matter the project, so that the story of the film can best be told, is what I think is truly at the heart of our profession.

Recently, Martin Scorsese created controversy by attacking the Marvel Movies, arguing that in his opinion, “cinema was about revelation – aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters—the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures”. These are all things that cinematographers can help express by judiciously choosing their tools and by putting their ideas in service of storytelling. In the end, that is all about taking a position and truly performing creative work, not against the director, but alongside the director, so that together, a quality cinematographic work can be made.

So, might it not once again be time to reopen the debate about the status of cinematographers’ authorship in France, given that this is something that our colleagues of the BVK (as I learnt at Camerimage) have just obtained ? I think it would be only proper…

(Translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe)