Monday, January 13, 2014

'Journal De France' (2013) directed by Raymond Depardon & Claudine Nougaret

A nondescript van snakes through the lanes and squares of Anywhere, France.  A man climbs out and painstakingly erects a tripod, upon which he perches an enormous obsolete camera.  He waits, gazing at a tobacconist or a cafe until the street clears of people, then when the moment is absolutely perfect takes a photograph, gets back into his van and drives off.  This man is Raymond Depardon, one of France's most highly regarded photojournalists: veteran of warzones, revolutions, friend to armed rebels and pioneering documentary film-maker.

Journal De France is less a documentary and more of a recap of Depardon's 'greatest hits', the bulk of the film composed of footage from his vast archive showcasing his travels around the world.  Our guide through this man's life is his longtime companion and sound engineer Claudine Nougaret, who tasked herself with rummaging through hours and hours of dusty old footage in an attempt to showcase the work of a passionate and technically precise capturer of the world around him.

Depardon's past and present initially seem totally disconnected.  His early work is soundtracked by the faint crackle of gunfire off in the distance as he films wars, revolutions and guerilla fighting, his technique creating a visceral 'there'-ness that's the mark of successful journalism.  This footage is characterised by the hum of crowd as they surge around the camera, their eyes flicking to the camera lens in a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.  Often Depardon's eye is captured by someone in particular (usually a pretty woman).  He frames her within the picture, tracking her through the crowd until she's once again lost to anonymity.

One of Depardon's photos of contemporary France
The young Depardon's fascination with vast seas of strangers bustling through the world makes an interesting contrast with his present work. While still photographing urban landscapes, he now waits and waits for the streets to be totally devoid of life, the pastel shades of the buildings and the cobbles of the winding streets looking austere and sterile under the precisely set up lens of his camera.  This question of what changed Depardon's focus is never directly asked, yet it's always hanging gently over the film.

Though Depardon is most assuredly alive, there's a funereal quality throughout. Depardon always seems to photograph under fading light, or his interviews taking place to a sunset, creating a sensation that this journey is a wrapping up of loose ends.  There's a vagueness to his quest, a journey with no urgency, no particular direction and no visible end-point.  Happy to sleep overnight in his van, he continually works with a calm stoicism, the only faint glimmer of emotion we see is a craftsman's pride in doing a good job.

This all adds up to a rather numbly atmosphere, the real spice in the film coming from the astonishing footage shot during his travels around the world.  Most eye-catching among these are images from Chad of AK-47 toting rebels silently staring at vast shimmering sands. Similarly hypnotic is footage taken in the Central African Republic chronicling the rise to power of dictator Jean-B├ędel Bokassa, his coronation a whirl of flags, cheering and happy faces, all tinged with foreboding as we know about the murderous kleptocracy to come.

The most gripping the film gets is during Depardon's visit to Biafra.  He interviews French Mercenaries; men who behave like true dogs of war, explaining that their bloody talents are always needed somewhere in the world, guffawing about how much they're being paid and praising the eroticism of the Biafran women.  Chillingly, we next cut to footage of one the mercenary's bodies being dragged through the mud by the Biafran men, his jacket, money and equipment plucked from his corpse and his body apparently unceremoniously dumped for the jungle to reclaim.

These sequences are extremely disturbing and for precisely that reason they're the most interesting part of the film.  Attention begins to waver a little as Depardon's focus shifts from the warzone to the mechanics of bureaucracy, examining French political, health and systems. These interviews seek to pinpoint the spot at which the dispassionate state interacts with ragged human emotion: footage of a woman apparently being sectioned for mental health problems, or a man caught without a license given a dressing down by a judge. Whereas the earlier footage worked as snapshots of Depardon's work this later material feels a bit disconnected.  It's great, but stripped of its wider context it's difficult to ascribe meaning to it beyond "ooh, isn't this a pity".

By the time the credits roll it's difficult to say what Journal De France is all about.  The endpoint of Depardon's career appears to be a quest for the perfect still image, which turns out to be depopulated urban landscapes lying under overcast skies.  This conclusion appears to be borne of a philosophy that understands photography, film and journalism as strands of the same visual discipline, arguing that anyone seeking to accurately capture the world must avoid editing and shooting to further your own perspective, the ultimate goal being the viewer assembling their own subjective 'truth' from your footage, a technique Depardon refers to as "camera stylo".  Perhaps it's this underlying philosophy - making the man wielding the camera invisible - that explains why Journal De France is so opaque, nudging us towards our own arguments rather than engaging in hectoring didacticism.

It's difficult not to recommend Journal De France.  This film is stuffed to the gills with beautiful Kodachrome photography, moves along at a brisk pace and is suffused with an earthy and modest humanism.  There are some stunning visuals on this round-the-world trip and by the final sequences you even find yourself seduced by the austerity of Depardon's current obsession to catalogue the unglamourous towns of France.   But it's frustratingly ironic that, in a film so dominated by virtuoso examples of photographic technique, the end result should be so unfocussed.  


Journal De France is on limited release from 31 January 2014

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