Interview of Pierre Hébert by Yaoting, programmer of the Shanghai International Film Festival.
- We know that Le Film de Bazin is part of your project, PLACES AND MONUMENTS. Would you please introduce the series to us?
Places and Monuments is an open-ended series of films, video installations, and Web projects that centres on monuments—or, more generally, places bearing a commemorative value—in their relationship with the daily, ordinary flow of life. It always has to do with the passage of time, with history, commemoration, memory, forgetting, and oblivion. As a rule, the project seeks to explore locations spread across as many countries as possible, in all parts of the world, so that the addition of the various works would ultimately constitute a strange or oblique representation of humanity’s current state. The project is always based on live action shooting, which is reworked through digital processing and the insertion of animations in order to transform and modulate its temporal flux and lend its images an allegorical value. For details, you can consult my website:
- You have already finished 10 films/videos in the project. How do you pick the themes and what motivates you to finish the uncompleted movie by Bazin?
There is no preconceived plan governing my decision to go ahead and work on a given film about a specific monument or place. I have a quite elaborate archive of many images, which I have collected through my travels. So, at any given moment, I can choose between many possible new episodes. The decision always depends on various circumstances: someone I meet, or something that happens—important or trivial—and triggers my mind into action. For example, my last film, The Statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, was a direct response to the events that took place in Charlottesville in August 2017. In the case of Bazin’s film, it was more complex. My association with the French scholar Hervé Joubert-Laurencin was a key element. Through him, for some years I have been a witness to the current resurgence of international interest in and reassessment of André Bazin and his works, which will ultimately lead to the publication of his complete writings. The driving force behind this huge undertaking, it was Joubert-Laurencin who drew my attention to the Romanesque churches in the Saintonge film project, and made the first shoot expedition possible in the spring of 2015. Before then I had no special interest in thisparticular type of church. As it happened, however, they made the grade as “monuments” for the sake of my series, and I could readily relate Bazin’s appraisal of these churches to the Places and Monuments project’s underlying themes. The fact that Bazin’s film was never made (by the way, I did not aim to “finish” the uncompleted film) and that he died later that year—and that it was the year the first tome of What Is Cinema? was published—were all key elements in my decision, as well as the fact that sixty years had passed since then. My own personal, problematic relationship with Bazin’s writings as an animator since the early 1960s represented another timeframe for the decision, as was the imminent event of the hundredth anniversary of his birth. So the decision to work on this subject was at the centre of a complex web of different timelines, which, at the same time, formed the real subject matter of the film. If I were to summarize, I would say that my main concern in this film was to capture the breach in time between the spring of 1958, when Bazin was travelling in Saintonge and photographing its churches, and the spring of 2015, when we were following his footsteps from one village to another; and to question the mode of representation between old, overexposed photographs, modern HD video, animation inserts, and drawings.
- Bazin’s interests in churches and architectures is connected to his understanding of films, especially Italian Neo Realism. Your work explains part of his idea. How do you understand his theory?
I am not a scholar, nor a specialist in Bazin. In the early 1960s, as a young filmmaker, it was unavoidable to be exposed to his ideas and writings. As an animator who was always more interested in the relationship between animation and reality than in animation-as-fantasy, I was drawn to Bazin’s legacy (perhaps I should add that my interest in this regard was mediated through a deep connection with the thinking of Bazin’s colleague André Martin, who was more directly involved with animation); but I was also very puzzled by the narrow interpretation of Bazin’s so-called “realism,” which has been common wisdom for years amongst scholars and critics. This is why I became very interested and felt very liberated by the current reappraisal of Bazin’s theories: the opening to discussion of his complete body of writings, rather than just the few articles in What Is Cinema? It makes possible much wider perspectives, which can help interpret the famous seminal texts collected in What Is Cinema? (in particular, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”) and to understand the specific scope of Bazin as a writer.
- Though he effects so many directors and critics, we’ve never seen Bazin’s image works. According to your research, what will it be like if his film finished? Did you collect other people’s description or discussion of Bazin’s unfinished project?
It is very difficult to imagine how Bazin’s film would have looked. One thing we do know, which may offer a clue, is the fact that at the time he was developing this film, a group of other young directors (Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, François Truffaut, etc.) were making their first short projects, all with the same producer, Pierre Braunberger. So maybe it would have fit into this rather well defined, poetic short-film tradition, wherein music and literary commentary played important parts. Had he lived, maybe André Bazin, like the others, would have become one of the New Wave directors. But the question is very much hypothetical, since, as he was preparing his film, he knew he had severe health problems and was likely to die soon. In regard to his film on the Romanesque churches, we received from his son a briefcase full of notes, contact sheets of the photographs he had taken, lists of books he had consulted, etc. This was the material available, together with the text published in Les Cahiers du Cinéma no. 100 (more an expression of intent than a screenplay in the strict sense of the term). This is the text that Michael Lonsdale reads in my film—but there is no evidence that this text was intended to form the narration of Bazin’s film. Sixty years on, there seems to be no direct witness still living who might offer us more information about Bazin’s work on this film.
- How much do you reproduce his script and have you find any inspiration or interests different from Bazin’s during the visit to Roman churches?
My intention was not to follow his script (and as I said, there is no script, really) but to use the photographs, the notes, and the “screenplay” published in Les Cahiers du Cinéma—as documentary evidence relating to the unfinished film—in a cinematographic construction that is totally new and different from Bazin’s project. Yet, Bazin expressed very precise concerns about the Romanesque churches of Saintonge, namely to try to capture what he called the “contemporary charm of those churches”—meaning how, so many centuries after they were built, they continued to serve as meaningful elements of French rural life in 1958. This was my main inspiration; however, we must take into account that, by 2015, the rural life of the French countryside had been totally transformed (industrialized agriculture, villages becoming bedroom communities for people commuting to work in cities), and the churches as well (many of the
churches that attracted Bazin’s attention have become tourist attractions with no connection to daily village life), all of which gives rise to concerns regarding the problem of the restoration of historical buildings. So, the meaning of this “contemporary charm” has changed. Today, therefore, it is impossible to make the film that Bazin was dreaming of, but it is possible to keep within in the same lines of thought.
- We notice that the black dots and the use of line segments add a lot of emotions to the film. What is the intention of using these details to create a sense of old and simulate the effect of Kodachrome film？
The use of the animated white lines inserted into the live action images and photographs had many objectives. At a formal level (and this is true of all my Places and Monuments films), it was a way to try to modulate the flow of time in the film, and it is true that a certain intensity of emotion may result. It was also a way to direct the viewer’s attention toward certain parts of the image, toward certain actions. More generally, it is an effort to change the way the viewer looks at those images, to impose a certain distance and a different kind of engagement. As a starting point, I had planned to use the flickering lines and the drawings to make material the passage of time between Bazin’s photographs and the contemporary 2015 video footage. As we shot, we took care to use the same angle as appeared in Bazin’s photographs, so that I might create transitions between the photographs and the video. At first, the lines and the drawings were supposed to be used as part of those transitions. As the film moved forward, however, my use of those elements developed and they became stylistic patterns, which assumed a life of their own.
- The core of Bazin’s theory seems to focus on objective reality. So will the addition of Kodachrome film effects emphasize more on form but distort the objective reality in some extents？
I believe (as I said earlier) that Bazin’s concern with the realism implied by the photographic image is more complex than how it is usually understood. From a sentence in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” which I quote in the film, it is quite clear that the objective relation between the photographic image and the real-life model need not be understood as a realism of appearances. He stresses the fact that even if the photographs are out of focus or unclear, barely recognizable, the objective, fluidic relation between the photograph and the model still exists. So strict realism is not a given merely because the photographic process is used; it opens onto a grey zone where animation, digital manipulation, and drawing may be used together with the photographic image to convey a deeper sense of reality. This grey zone is at the centre of my work, and I think it may connect, in a way, to Bazin’s thinking.
- You had been devoted to the production of animation, and Le Film de Bazin is an essay documentary. What are the similarities and differences in directing the two totally different types? Are there any experiences that can be drawn from the process of directing animation?
My understanding of animation has changed a great deal over the years. As I have written above in answer to your questions, I was always more interested in how animation might relate to real life than how it can create a fantasy world. But under the influence of André Martin’s thinking (a French animation critic of the 1950s and ’60s who was close to Bazin), I became more and more concerned with the idea of the power of animation—that is, how the use of animation might affect and transform our perception of live action images. From there on, I developed a more and more minimalist approach to this question, namely: What is the minimal intervention using animation that can modify totally our perception of a live action image? In this respect, and with this understanding of animation, I don’t see that there is any contradiction between the use of animation and making a documentary essay. Again, this overlapping territory—this grey zone I was talking about in the previous answer—is at the centre of my work and at the centre of the Places and Monuments project.