The POV Interview: Thierry Garrel - Part 1

Part 1 of an interview with the programmer of DOXA’s retrospective on Chris Marker

The Case of the Grinning Cat
Courtesy of DOXA

Thierry Garrel, a French Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, joined the Research Department of French Television (ORTF) at the age of twenty and went on to become the Head of the Documentary and Junior Authors Division at the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA). From 1987 until 2008, he was the Head of the Documentary Film Department of La Sept and ARTE France. While in this position, he developed many highly remarked programs and the renowned “GRAND FORMAT” collection which has coproduced and aired over 200 international award-winning feature length documentaries. Since 2009, he has worked as a consultant, working on documentary projects and offering his expertise at workshops and seminars.

Thierry Garrel has been programming the series FRENCH FRENCH for DOXA for the past two years. Marc Glassman, editor of POV, conducted a long interview with Thierry Garrel on the occasion of this year’s DOXA. This is the first part of a series of interviews, which will be posted with Monsieur Garrel. It concentrates on his retrospective of the great cineaste Chris Marker for DOXA. [ Read Garrel’s DOXA essay on Marker here. ]

POV: Marc Glassman
Thierry: Thierry Garrel

POV: Your series looks at many aspects of Marker: the essayist, the traveler, the appreciator of art and film but, above all, there is an interest in politics.

Thierry: Let me explain the raison d’être of my choice of films. I was looking for a short retrospective, because DOXA is not that huge a festival. Two years ago, when Dorothy Woodend, Director of Programming, asked me to do the FRENCH FRENCH programme, it had to be with a small number, maybe seven or eight films. Dorothy had also mentioned the idea of showing selections from [the seminal French documentary series] Cinéma, de notre temps, as a retrospective. We decided, in the end, to have two “chapters”—seven new films and seven Cinéma, de notre temps. Last year the subject of the retrospective was Claire Simon, with the addition of some new films. This year we said, again, let’s make it double—seven new films and a seven-film retrospective. [For the retrospective,] I thought Marker was a good idea, but how could I select seven films from Marker’s prolific work? And then it came to me that the seven films would be the ones I was directly involved in the production of, and that was it!

"La jetée" by Chris Marker from minneapolis on Vimeo.

Actually the first time [I worked with Marker], I was not even 25 years old. I had discovered La jetée was co-produced by the Service de la recherche, and had screened at the Cinématheque française in the early ‘60s. In 1970, I was in charge of the catalogue of all the productions or co-productions of the Service de la Recherche of ORTF, [The Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française] that had been run since its creation by Pierre Schaeffer. For 10 years there had been a kind of big mess in their cinématheque, and I had to make a catalogue of it. That’s how I discovered La jetée and reviewed it for my catalogue. Also while I was working at Service de la Recherche, I discovered [in the early ‘70s] À bientôt, j’espère and The Train Rolls On. I started a TV magazine called Hiéroglyphes [which aired in 1975], in which I used a clip from The Train Rolls On, with Medvedkin explaining his ciné-train, and we used Letter from Siberia also, the famous sequence with the three different commentaries. I was already, you might say, walking around Marker.

After the “cleaning” of ORTF following “68”, Manette Bertin, a TV producer, had joined the Service de la Recherche—the ultimate “safe haven” in the early ‘70s—and I became kind of her right hand. In ’74-’75, with the break up of ORTF, she became Programme Director of the creative department of INA [Institut National de l’Audiovisuel] and I became her deputy. I was in charge of “the independent documentary” that was just being born in France. She was making very interesting innovations in television, even if it was within a very special research department of a very special body. She was instrumental in connecting the creative cinema industry with TV, with cineastes like Godard, Rene Allio, Akerman, etc. One day she said, “Okay Thierry, we’ve received this project with Chris Marker”—and it was Le Fond de l’air est rouge / A Grin without a Cat. I was not in charge of the whole thing, the contract and the budget, but she said, “You’re the contact. You go to Marker.” So I went to him.

POV: Radical politics is at the core of A Grin without a Cat. What kind of response do you expect from viewers in Vancouver who are unlikely to know very much about what happened in the Sixties?

Thierry: That’s a very good question, because I don’t know how it will be received here today. I hope it will help people think. That’s exactly the role of the film, and it’s the theme of almost all of Chris Marker’s films—the mark that history makes on the present. The film, to me, is a tombeau, with the double meaning the word has in French. It’s a tomb, a grave, but at the same time it is a kind of poetic composition to honour something or somebody; it’s a kind of tribute. That’s why he would use the word tombeau later in the original French title of The last Bolshevik, Le Tombeau d’Alexandre. To some extent both The Last Bolshevik and A Grin without a Cat are tributes and mournings for me.

POV: A mourning for radical politics.

Thierry: But what kind of radical politics? Because the first part of the film, Le Fond de l’air est rouge, Les mains fragiles, is before and after Vietnam, Paris, Prague, Mexico, Berkeley—the world situation and the rise of a new Left. What is the alternative to the promised death of communism? The film was released in ’77, and he was foreseeing the death of communism 12 years later. He was trying to have a comprehensive reflection—though subjective, highly subjective—of a moment of strong hope, and then disillusionment or failure. So there is a kind of sadness in it.

POV: Yes, a sense of melancholy.

Thierry: Melancholy, yes, but at the same time, he was using all these bits and pieces of footage about struggles that he had gathered himself, using the network that he had around the world, to think about it—to think and share his thoughts. And that’s what the film is.

POV: My assumption has always been that, for Marker, Le Fond was a summation of his years with SLON (Société pour le lancement des oeuvres nouvelles}. It was during the SLON period, one when he was part of a film collective, that Marker made the acquaintance of Medvedkin. What was it about the Medvedkin that so inspired Marker during those collectivist times? What did he take away from the idea of the ciné-train?

Thierry: Well, he understood it with complexity, and not in black and white—that’s why he made Le Tombeau d’Alexandre / The Last Bolshevik as post mortem letters addressed to his friend. But Marker was interested in the ciné-train because of this kind of connection with the workers he experienced himself, through the use of cinema as a very strong means of both communication and expression, between filmmakers and the real people. This is the kind of connection that he had tried making using cinema at the Rhodiacéta occupied factory, À bientôt, j’espère. The idea that cinema can be a tool in service of the construction of socialism—-that was Medvedkin’s ciné-train, with the good side and the bad side. The good side being direct participation of the workers in reflections about their working unit. The bad side, well, it was a very new kind of propaganda train, you could say.

Of course, Medvedkin was much more unique than that, as you can see through his wonderful movie Happiness. But then he was sort of taken by history later into becoming a kind of Soviet cinéaste. That’s the sad part of the story, and he died with the death of communism. That’s why Marker sends letters one-to-one to Medvedkin. Of course, he is taking advantage of that one-to-one mode of address, to tell the story of the life and work of Medvedkin, but, in writing to Medvedkin, he is at the same time making an assessment of the whole Soviet story post-mortem. Marker is making his own mourning, not only about the hopes, but also the commitment to betrayed values. Marker was not a compagnon de route [a fellow traveler], you would say; he was too much a free thinker to be a compagnon de route, as some have accused him to be, which is totally unfair. He was a cinéaste constantly reassessing his commitments.

The Owl’s Legacy

POV: You produced The Owl’s Legacy. How did it come about?

Thierry: The Owl’s Legacy was a turning point, because it was just for TV. For the first time, Marker was not making a film to be shown in the theatre; he was making a series for television. It’s a bit like when Rossellini had this big project of Encyclopedia with Italian TV—let’s make intelligent programming for TV. I will tell you the story of it. First, he had a producer, Jean-Pierre Ramsay, who had this contact with the Onassis Foundation, that wanted to partially finance a series about Greece. So when the project came to me on the 31st of December ’86–the day I was just starting my job as Head of Documentary at La Sept—the concept was already there: the shadow of ancient Greece cast over our civilization. This was clear. So he started to work, with a kind of bricolage, using small video tools and making interviews all over the world. He took the job very, very seriously. He was very committed to it. And he was committed to it because it’s joyful wisdom—the gay science, die freundliche Wissenchaft, the Nietzschean attitude: let’s share and think together. A kind of introduction to the potentialities of a new kind of television. Because the 13-part series talks about music, logomachy, democracy, philosophy, mythology, sexuality—everything is in it. It could have been a kind of programmatic introduction to a new culture of television. And it was the beginning of La Sept, so it was a kind of programmatic programme, or a kind of landmark you might say, a pierre blanche of La Sept which two years later would become Arte. While at INA, Manette had made the connection with Godard, for example, who directed for television Six fois deux. It’s the same idea: public television should connect with the great creators of our time in order to provide the best programmes to the general viewers.

POV: I wanted to ask you about photography, and of course you have a nice entry point because you were also very involved with Remembrance of Things to Come. Marker had a way of telling a story through photographs in cinema, and of course has done his own photography work as well.

Thierry: What’s interesting precisely in Le Souvenir d’un avenir / Remembrance of Things to Come is that those photographs are not his photographs. The project actually started 10 years before, in 1990, at the beginning of Arte, when Yannick Bellon, who is an interesting fiction director in her own right and was a documentary pioneer in the early ‘50s, wanted to make a film about her mother, Denise Bellon, a great photographer and pioneer of photojournalism. Her sister, Loleh Bellon, the great actress, was supposed to do the voiceover.

Yannick intended to have Claude Roy, Loleh’s husband, write the commentary. He was an intellectual, a poet, and a writer of Gallimard. But they died, one after the other—the mother in ‘97, then Loleh, then Claude Roy. And meanwhile, because Yannick Bellon went bankrupt in ’91 with a fiction film that she had made, she could not comply with the contract that she had signed with ARTE. So I kept postponing it for 10 years—the longest contract I have ever postponed. And of course she had no way to finish it—but then Marker came to help.

POV: Did you suggest Marker, or did she approach him?

Thierry: No, they were connected through Loleh and Claude Roy. Marker knew Claude Roy were friends; they had fought on the same side of the barricade. So Marker did the job also as a tribute to Claude Roy, who could not write it, and to Loleh, who could not do the voiceover. We discussed it with Marker. He had the pictures and had to invent a way to edit them and to make it into a story through the commentary. So it’s not only Yannick’s film; it became his film. Both names are in the titles because she was part of the project, but it’s a highly Markerian film. Of course he also made it and accepted it because he knew Bellon’s work, which covers exactly what he was really interested in: the ‘30s and the surrealists, therefore the war, therefore the colonies, and Vietnam. From his start in the early ‘50s or late ‘40s, he had this idea, which is the idea of La jetée: to decipher the future through an image of the past. The past and the future are connected.

La jetée

POV: I feel that that is what you’re doing with the whole curation. The past and the present should be connected. Perhaps you can say this in your own way, but it seems to me that we are now in a highly charged situation, politically, and I’m wondering whether, in your choices, you’re allowing people to connect to Marker not just as a wonderful essayist and filmmaker, but as someone who has reflected on politics in the past and who also has a relationship to what is going on right now and into the future.

Thierry: All his work talks about today and for today which is the hallmark of great art.I would say that [the programme] is not really a choice; it’s a found object. I have no intention. I am here in Vancouver; we are away from France. I’ll be able to talk about my experience, both as a viewer at that time, and also having been involved in the production, because viewers are always interested and Marker is not present anymore to reply. And then, you see that dimension of politics. Take Si j’avais quatre dromadaires, for example, which is kind of brilliant—the way he’s jumping from one place to another and changing gears with the commentary—if I had needed to commit to a list of films at a certain point, then it would have been among the seven films. And you would hear the political dimension even in Si j’avais quatre dromadaires, because Marker goes to Korea, he goes to China, he goes to Russia. He’s a world traveller, not for tourism; he’s a world traveller to assess the situation of the world. And certainly he’s not sent by any media; he’s not sent because he has a role in an institution or an organisation. He just travels, as a citizen of the world, to have a first-hand, very subjective knowledge of what the world is about and where the world is going.

POV: I show that short scene to my class every year from Letter from Siberia, where he repeats the same footage three times, with a different voiceover each time: one from a Soviet perspective, the second from an American and the third, objective.

Thierry: It’s wonderful, because you see he was already bringing, with a very witty example, the first real lesson about what commentary is. He could have done it with editing, too, like the Kuleshov effect.

POV: Exactly, it is the Kuleshov effect.

Thierry: And here, if you add the commentary, you can manipulate. It’s not only about propaganda; it’s also about what I say, and how I establish trust with you, the viewer—because I could cheat. So, in Letter from Siberia, sixty years ago, he made us aware of it as viewers. He was already pointing to the incredible power of documentary cinema, and the incredible potential creativity in it, not to manipulate, but to share complex thoughts. And sharing complex thoughts about the world is key, today. It was appropriate to the situation in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, but also today at the beginning of the 21st century.

Stay tuned for the continuation of this interview with Thierry Garrel.

Visit the POV DOXA Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!