Photojournalists have a unique view of
the world. If they are successful, in one photo they can tell
a complete story. For them, one moment encapsulates an entire
French filmmaker Raymond Depardon began his career as a photojournalist and as such covered some of the most important historical events of his time. When he turned to filmmaking, he used the same technique with his moving images.
Depardon’s documentaries follow the precepts of the "direct cinema" practiced by American filmmakers Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers. In his 1993 book, "Depardon/Cinema" (written with Frédéric Sabouraud), Depardon writes that his photo editor at the Dalmas Agency, where he was a staff photographer, told him to study the work of the aforementioned filmmakers, and then to take a camera and shoot sequences on the street, but without sound and without cutting. The exercise enabled him to locate the important shot, the moment that tells an entire story.
His resultant non-fiction films blend realism with exquisite photography. Much of this work is on view at the BAM Rose Cinemas from April 1 through April 11 in the series titled "I Need a Camera: Raymond Depardon."
Depardon can do many things with his camera. In short documentaries, such as "10 Minutes of Silence for John Lennon" and "Jan Palach" he slowly and simply captures the process of public mourning.
In 1969, Depardon went to Prague and focused his camera on the city during a memorial service for Palach, a Czech student who, in protest of the Soviet invasion of his country, committed suicide by setting himself on fire. Depardon depicts people throughout the city who stand silently on the steps of the subway, in the trolleys - which have themselves stopped momentarily - and those who walk by his coffin, paying their respects.
Along with brief questions about suicide and politics to a few onlookers, all of the images together create a sense of communal grief. Thirteen years later, he captures the faces of people who gathered in Central Park the day after Lennon’s murder. The camera, in one take, pans the crowd using only ambient sound until, as the people finally leave the park, we hear a recording of "Imagine."
Both films will be shown with the documentary "Numeros Zeros," which explores the newsroom of a French daily newspaper, on April 1 at 4:30 pm, 6:50 pm and 9:10 pm.
Lost in Paris
The feature-length 1987 documentary "Emergencies" ("Urgences"), follows the patients and staff at a Parisian psychiatric hospital. The film recalls the work of Frederick Weissman, an American proponent of the cinema verite style - no questions or comments from the filmmaker, the camera is trained on the subjects at hand and it captures what transpires.
Of course, in choosing exactly where to place the camera, Depardon decides where our attention will be. In this case, the viewer encounters various individuals dealing with their own personal demons - from something as simple as a middle-aged housewife talking about the lack of direction of her life, to an illegal immigrant who attempts to jump off the roof of a building because he can no longer stand the uncertainty of possibly being expelled from France anymore. All of these patients, and the psychiatrists who attempt to heal them, are brought into sharp focus, as if under a microscope. There are no great cures; no revelatory moments. All we get is the devastation of lives that have slipped through the cracks.
The camera goes from close-ups to long shots in the hospital’s corridors, so we find ourselves looking through doorways at the action. Sometimes it’s an uncomfortable feeling that wells up - are we examining social issues, or are we being voyeurs? Depardon doesn’t let us off the hook; we are, after all, doing both. "Emergencies" will be shown Saturday, April 10, at 4:30 pm and 9:10 pm
A few years later, in 1994, Depardon used the same technique in "Caught in the Act" ("Délits Flagrants") to examine detainees and the police who arrest them.
Depardon roamed the corridors of a Parisian police station, and filmed interviews with 87 "perps," winnowing these subjects down to 14 for the final edit. The accused speak with prosecutors, with the occasional public defender trying to deal with an obstinate client. From the ridiculous (an accused car thief claims he couldn’t have stolen the car, saying, "Yeah, I was trying to start it, but I couldn’t steal it because I can’t drive") to the wannabe sublime (a woman arrested for hotwiring a car, when asked if she would agree to be filmed, asks, "Does my hair look alright?") these are mostly petty criminals, with nothing too dramatic getting in the way of the minutiae of law enforcement. This film screens on April 10, at 2 pm and 6:50 pm.
On the outskirts
In "Profils paysans: l’approche" Depardon spent time with farmers in the town of Lozere in 2001. The French title isn’t translated, but he profiles many of the members of this small community. Many of these people are old, and there is the classic problem - will the young people be willing to stay and keep up the farm? Most of these people are not very talkative, yet it’s amazing to see how they will still open their mouths for the camera. Once again, Depardon’s background as a photographer is evident.
He uses a stationery camera for the most part, and his subjects move in and out of the frame as they go about their business. Depardon’s main focus is on Louis, an ailing farmer whose neighbor cleans his house for him. Eventually Louis sells most of his livestock and goes to the hospital where he dies peacefully. Although this may seem like the end, for Depardon, this film is only the first installment. He plans to follow up with the rest of his subjects to see what kind of lives they will be able to make for themselves in a new era. This film will screen on Friday, April 9, at 2 pm, 4:30 pm, 6:50 pm and 9:10 pm.
Depardon has made only a few fiction films, among them "Untouched by the West" ("Un homme sans l’occident"), in 2002. This film, based on a novel by Diego Brosset, was shot in black-and-white. The story concerns a young boy who, after his father and uncle die in the desert, is raised by another tribe. As a young man, Alifa becomes a hunter and a leader in the desert war among various factions. In making his way through various adventures, he finds his own identity. This is a simply wrought film. There are long stretches without narration or dialogue, and the stark contrast of men and animals against the white sands of the desert gives the impression of elegant line drawings. This film will screen on Saturday, April 3, at 2 pm and 6:50 pm.
In addition to these films, BAM will also present two other Depardon fiction films ("Empty Quarter: A Woman in Africa," his first fiction film, made in 1985, and 1990’s "Captive of the Desert," with Sandrine Bonnaire), and many more documentaries. The series is a great study in how uncomplicated filmmaking can have complex, and meaningful, consequences for the viewer.
Marian Masone is the associate director of programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chief curator of the New York Video Festival at Lincoln Center.
"I Need a Camera: Raymond Depardon," screens at BAM Rose Cinemas, 30 Layfayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene April 1-11. Tickets are $10, $7 for students (with valid ID, Monday-Thursday) and $6 for seniors and BAM Cinema Club members. Tickets available at the box office, by phone (718) 777-FILM, or online at www.bam.org. The BAMcinématek hotline is (718) 636-4100.