A Conversation with Nicolas Philibert
For someone who describes himself as shy, documentary filmmaker Nicolas Philibert is anything but reserved when it comes to talking about his work. When discussing it, he takes on a quality similar to his films, the rhythmic, thoughtful restlessness of an enthusiast.
“I really like to improvise, it’s true,” he says of his style. “I like not to know too much about the topic of the film, the subject itself. I like to say that the less I know about the topic the better I feel.” It’s this attitude that has lead to the great diversity of subjects he’s explored in his films, from the lives of the deaf to the experiences of schoolchildren to the day to day activities of Radio France; the subject of his latest film, La Maison de la Radio.
“I don’t make my films from the point of view of a savant. I’m not the guy who tells the viewers ‘Listen, I’m going to explain to you everything you should know about this question,’ I’m not in that sort of relationship with my films.” This willingness to approach things as an outsider and not an expert allows him to use the filmmaking process to explore rather than explain. “When I start filming, I don’t know exactly its path. I need to have a strong idea to start with.” A strong idea, though, doesn’t mean a rigid structure. “I just have to find the way to tell a kind of story, to show a place and make a stimulating film. But I don’t have a schedule like: tomorrow I’m shooting this, day after tomorrow this scene, next week this and this and next week this. No. And if I had to make a film from a too precise schedule for me it would be boring.”
That he’s guided by the stimulus of interest and curiosity comes across not only in the films, but in the way he talks about his subjects. The love of Radio France that lead to him to make La Maison de la Radio is apparent in the way he discusses its importance both to himself and to French culture. “It’s our radio,” he insists, and describes a relationship between loyal listeners and a medium they think of as a companion throughout their day to day lives. While it’s not unusual to hear of devotees spending their meals, weekends, or workdays constantly listening, what Philibert sees as a unique to France’s relationship with radio is the hold that radio has on the nation’s culture. “The number of listeners didn’t decline despite all the new media, as opposed to television, television viewers have declined. Young people, like everywhere, they go to the internet, they watch less television. Amongst all these changes that are happening in the different kinds of media we have access to, the radio audience has always stayed steady.”
But the sheer number of listeners isn’t the reason he sees Radio France as important; it’s because of its reach across the culture that Philibert feels it is worthy of exploring. “It’s for everyone. It’s supposed to reach everyone. It’s supposed to talk about all kinds of subjects; they have to invite all kinds of people, for example, of all religions to offer different systems of thought, to open that debate between people that don’t necessarily have the same opinion.” It’s that exchange of voices that Philibert hopes to capture in its figurative and literal senses. “It’s not French radio for very French people. It’s the opposite. In the film–maybe people who aren’t French can’t notice–but we can listen to many different accents. In the beginning, one of the hosts is a Moroccan lady. . . She has a strong Moroccan accent. A few scenes later we have Umberto Eco and his Italian accent, a Spanish singer singing in Galician (which is a regional dialect), an American singer, the chief of a chorus giving a German pronunciation lesson. You have many different people of all origins and all different accents and as a film about voices, this element is quite important to the film.”
While attempting to portray the diversity of experiences offered by Radio France, Philibert insists that doesn’t mean yoking his film to an ideal of representing all of its stations. “This film is not based on sociological, didactic purposes. To make a documentary doesn’t mean for me to give a lecture or give statistics,” instead, he compares it to an entirely different art form. “For me it’s like creating a piece of music rather than a didactic piece, following a certain outline made of voices, faces, gazes, and gestures.” Philibert also points to the sheer size of Radio France as something that would complicate that demand; the building where La Maison de la Radio was shot contains seven different Radio France stations, and the station France Bleu alone has 43 local affiliates and 6,000 employees. “Some of these 7 stations are not in the film. Many people are not in the film. Many more people are not in the film than are in the film.” With over 150 guests a day passing through the Radio France building, let alone hosts and staff, doing it otherwise seems impossible.
Rather than trying to include everyone or basing his decisions levels of fame, Philibert relied on a harder to define criteria-presence-himself admitting that “my choices were both instinctive and also depended on the characters, the faces, the gestures. It’s like in everyday life. . .we choose people to approach and people we don’t want. Sometimes we don’t know why.” A decision making process like this is hard pin down. “It’s not based on a certain theory. It’s not choices made based on intellectual ideas. In the film there are serious shows and then more entertaining shows.”
Philibert’s insistence that his documentaries are not intended to be sociological portraits has drawn criticism in the past. “Years ago, I made another film in the countryside; To Be and To Have. Here and there, when the film was released, some people said I was guilty because that school was not representative. First, I had chosen a school where the schoolteacher was a man when today 80-85% of school teachers are women. [Second,] I had chosen a school in the countryside when 70% of French people today live in cities. That’s stupid; I don’t care.”
One thing it is clear that Philibert cares about is remaining true to the media he’s covering, even if he’s not seeking to represent it. “For a filmmaker it’s a very [motivating] question: how to make a film about radio and avoid shattering the mystery of radio. How to keep mystery? That was my question while shooting.” Preserving mystery, oddly, becomes a manner of preserving the possibility of intimacy as a form of knowledge distinct from factual revelation. “My films are based on encounters. In each encounter, part of it is a mystery and the unknown. If we knew everything in advance from the person that you just met, then the actual encounter hasn’t really happened.” To deny this possibility is damaging to both the radio and its listener. “The radio is a media without images, and people like me and others who love radio, maybe we love radio because of this lack of images, so we can imagine.”
To maintain a lack of images seems like as odd a goal for a filmmaker as to keep secrets as documentarian, but Philibert’s ultimate aim with La Maison de la Radio appears to belong neither to the realm of visuals nor revelation. It is instead celebration of what makes radio a singular thing, and as a dear a companion as so many find it. “In the radio studios now there are more and more web cameras,” he says, worried. “Radio would like to look like television,” a force that Philibert finds as flattening and homogenizing as the proliferation of chain stores and fast food. “If radio becomes like television it will lose its soul. You have to resist and go against that, you have to fight to preserve this very singular thing. You have to preserve the different cuisines; you can’t just eat the same thing. I’m all for multiple recipes, for multiple cuisines.”