Tuesday 22 December 2020

New perspectives: "Un Film Dramatique"

Eric Baudelaire's Un Film Dramatique could almost be a spiritual sequel to 2002's Être et Avoir. That breakout documentary hit, hewing to the time-honoured fly-on-the-wall tactics of director Nicolas Philibert, pitched up in a small village school as its pupils were patiently instructed in the basics of reading and writing. In Baudelaire's 21st century update, which proceeds from a notably more fragmented and diverse point-of-view, the subject being taught is media literacy: we're following the progress of the young multicultural scholars of the College Dora Maar on the outskirts of Paris as they're handed cameras and the assignment to make a series of films for themselves. The results are both a snapshot of la jeunesse and a teachable how-to. Baudelaire's subjects are encountered as individuals trying to define with words what a film is, then in groups as they discuss what they want their film to show and do, and then as working crews as they call action and push the red button on the handycams they've been assigned. This making-of action is intercut with the rushes, which prove sometimes quietly promising, more often than not subtly revealing (several students use their cameras to search out the Eiffel Tower on the skyline, allowing us to pinpoint exactly how far out of the city we are), occasionally wobbly and wayward. In the early stages of the project, there are a whole lot of rudimentary tracking shots taken through the window of the bus carrying students to and from college, setting us to wonder about the percentage of homework - even fun homework such as this - which gets completed on public transport mere moments before it's due to be handed in.

What can we discern from these directorial babysteps? Firstly, that these are children born into a certain moment. In an early sequence, we watch a group of boys debate - in their own giggling, semi-serious way - the ethics of filming a fake news report about a terror attack, two words schoolchildren wouldn't have been expected to put together at the time Être et Avoir was being filmed. Later, we sit in on a class discussion about Daesh, which one sweetheart seems to think is another subject, as in "they went to Syria to learn Daesh". (She's correct in a poetic way: Daesh as the language and science of hate, a bad education.) If there's an obvious difference between my generation and theirs, it lies in this group's open discussion of difference: in the language they have for it, and the ease with which they're shown discussing it. That discussion is partly a necessity, as individually they hail from such diverse ethnic backgrounds, but these kids also seem to be thrashing out any misunderstandings from an early age; otherness is but a passing phase for them. (One eight-year-old appears more alert to the divisions being opened up by the likes of Trump and Marine Le Pen than some 38-year-olds I know: that bodes well.) What Baudelaire's most interested in, however, is whether or not that difference starts to manifest in their filmed work. 

In theory, handing a dozen kids a dozen cameras should result in a dozen different films. In reality, as documented here, that's not quite the case - or perhaps it only becomes the case with time. Initially, a lot of what's handed in is rather formless: the kids set their cameras up, set them running, and see what comes to pass through their viewfinders. Here are your video artists-in-training and documentarists-to-be. There is also a strain of self-documentation, however, such as youngsters raised on Facebook and Instagram have become entirely au fait with. One comic highlight: the young pup who decides to film herself critiquing TV ads while simultaneously wolfing down a bowl of cheese puffs - part-Baudrillard, part-Beavis and Butt-Head - only to topple off the sofa mid-shot ("I meant to do that"). Yet look at her classmate panning over a wall of family photographs: here's a diarist-essayist in the Agnès Varda tradition - and there is something quietly touching in seeing such first, faltering images in the immediate wake of Varda's passing. With the noteworthy exception of the low-key horror opus we see being shot - noteworthy because it involves one pupil stalking the school corridors with her coat on backwards and the hood up over her face - there's not much in the way of fiction filmmaking on offer, nor the animation a voice speculates about making in the opening moments. All evidence points to the realist tradition holding sway within French cinema over the decades to come.

What's crucial, though, is that the films get stronger as we go along; the pupils become aware of the frame as a concept, and start giving serious consideration to its constituent elements, rather than wobbling the camera around in pursuit of any old shit. We know this project has taken imaginative root when a trio of lads, on a day trip to the beach, film a genuinely clever skit involving a tennis match being played without a ball; the girls respond with a carefully composed and choreographed dance routine that goes far beyond the ambition of the average TikTok. They've realised, as any filmmaker worth their salt must, that what's in the frame and who's in the frame - be that a young Deaf girl conjuring a joke about synch sound, or white and black shoes walking in tandem - is important, and has meaning beyond the simple reproduction of reality. Late on, we get another of those tracking shots from a moving vehicle, only this time it's cued by the sight of homeless people huddled under the Périphérique, and accompanied by a conversation the pupil filming is having with her dad about French immigration policy. They know now what they're looking for - and who they're looking out for. What the students ended up recording - and this is dramatic - was their own growth, not just as youngsters, but imagemakers and citizens, too. By the end - when it does seem important that Baudelaire takes a "directed with" rather than "directed by" credit - one pupil is announcing on camera his ambition to run for public office, while the rest appear ready for subscriptions to Cahiers and La Fémis scholarship forms. Is anyone attempting something similar with our youngsters? If not: is this not a fundamental difference between the British and French film industries?

Un Film Dramatique is now streaming via MUBI.

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