Interview: Jean-Gabriel Périot – Facing Darkness: Video as document vs. truth vs. oblivion

Also available in Romanian.

Facing Darkness begins with an impulse shared by Videograms of a Revolution (1992, dir. Harun Farocki, Andrei Ujică): the gesture of turning the camera – par excellence the video camera – to look out the window, where, on the other side, we can watch History as it’s erupting at the end of the century. To record, to document, as a historical reflex, against oblivion, but also against terror and inherent trauma. Here, the event renowned French documentarian Jean-Gabriel Périot goes back to is the Siege of Sarajevo, examining the tragedy not through the foreign coverage from the time, as we may have become accustomed to see it, but through local testimonies filmed by amateur filmmakers during the four years of toil. Périot’s films often have archival subjects at their core (see two excellent collective class and period portraits like A German Youth [2015] or Returning to Reims (Fragments) [2021]), but Facing Darkness supplements the so-called old material with new footage, filming, 30 years after the war, how these once youngsters look back at their films through an iPad. 

The film splits in two: a first part casts us into the heat of the moment, without many clues to guide us through personal archives, TV reportages and some artsy short films, all through which there creep in both the horrors of conflict and the reality of war, and moments of pause, visceral in that they remind us of the human after we’ve seen only a territory of trauma. The second part comes as a chance of reflection and to the aid of the outsider eye – the four young filmmakers look at the footage they’ve filmed and explain, as if therapeutically, their intentions and the underlying context, but also meditate on the relationship between what their cameras have captured and reality. One marvels at the revelatory power of the documentary, while another feels embarrassed, thinking that by pressing record, he did nothing more but film a mise en scène of a massacre, transforming it into aesthetics for the camera to prey on.

I talked with Jean-Gabriel Périot last year at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where the film also premiered, discussing what it means to operate with the collective memory of a historical event and the difference between an insider and an outsider’s perspective, the difference (or lack thereof) documentary and other types of cinema, as well as the mission documentary filmmaking has in relation to truth, as understood by the film’s protagonists.


There are a few lines in your film that very aptly point out how, while it was a major European event, the Siege of Sarajevo was treated at the time only through the lens of Western journalists who had been asked to go and report from there. How do you see these forms of inside/outside representation interacting in the film?

Not only in Sarajevo, when there is some very violent event that is happening, usually the point of view that we have is one outside of that place or of that country. It’s always a point of view given by the foreign journalists. That is, in a way, understandable, because people who are struggling or who find themselves during war situations, they may not have the time to express themselves. But that is not always or necessarily true, though, because, [even in these situations] there are always people trying to express themselves or to do journalistic work. Yet it’s easier for us, from the outside, as an audience to watch what is happening through the eyes of someone who is like us, and not through the eyes of the people from there. I don’t know why exactly – probably because it’s easier to have a journalist or someone else who is, in a way, translating what is happening. It’s easier to understand a translation of an event. But, at the other end, that is quite lazy, because in that situation you don’t have to push yourself to understand someone expressing themselves. [When you have a representation from the inside], you have to really work in order to understand what is happening – people are using names or words you don’t know.

I remember when I was about 18, when the war broke out in Yugoslavia, I was watching the news, yet after four years I still understood nothing. I mean nothing at all. If after four years you still don’t understand anything, then maybe something was not working anyway [about the news].

When I decided to make a film in Sarajevo, at the beginning it wasn’t very clear what kind of film I would make. But when I started to research the films and the documentaries that were produced within the city by local filmmakers – it’s not like there were not hundreds of things, but there was enough material filmed there. Out of all these things only so little material travelled outside of the country. Some films travelled in festivals at the end of the war, but it was just one screening here and there. Karlovy Vary had a screening in 1995 or 1996, there was one in Cannes – but there was just one screening, a very small thing, that was brought to audiences that would have been specifically concerned with or interested in the subject. These weren’t things that were broadcast on TV outside [of Sarajevo].

Some of these films are so impressive, so rooted. And I was very surprised that they had almost no effect or chance to help create some knowledge or representation of what was happening.

Would you say that this rootedness in terms of representation of a historical event, in terms of footage that is filmed in the moment, would be the more preferable or the more authentic one? Would you say these kinds of immediate representations are better for making us understand a certain historical event?

No, the way I see it, if we talk about creating some form of collective memory of an event, we need all kinds of testimonies of those events. We need images, and text. In terms of footage and film, we need [multiple sides]. We can never really understand an event if we haven’t experienced it, and even people who have experienced it, they experience just a part of it. We need to have different focal points or points of view for one event, and I am not sure if there’s one that is better than the other. Some should be subjected to more criticism than others, of course, but criticising is also a way of understanding what exactly is the point of view in which that specific footage was created and why it would be problematic. It’s a way to learn. For example, if you take French TV or American TV, or other [Western] TV – I watch a lot of it – sometimes it’s just so stupid. You can clearly see that they don’t really care about explaining a situation. And that is like a translation of our leaders, who are simply trying to do nothing [about that situation]. So, by criticising, you can at least understand something about a situation. But, as I was saying, I’m not sure if there exists one way of representing things that is better than the other.

Even in the films that you see these locals make, some are just making this kind of Camcorder footage of what was happening, others are working for the army, and that makes their footage different. There are others who tried to go for more ‘artsy’ documentary films. I like the fact that they made very different kinds of films as a reaction to try to understand something. Talking about strategies of filmmaking, one thing that is essentially missing from these films made by the people in Sarajevo pertains to the fact that they don’t care to explain the situation, because they are experiencing it. For an outsider, there is a clear lack of information about where and what is shot, why that is, who the enemy is, what is the name of that – all this because they are living there, they are making films about their own present. These films don’t have any goal to be educational or to be informative. So as someone coming from the outside, there are a lot of things you will be missing from these representations.

As a filmmaker, do you have different approaches when working with archives that come from events that happened during your lifetime or that you have already seen represented in the media, as opposed to events for which you can only access through archives?

I don’t really know. I think it depends on the way I encounter a topic or a question. This one is, of course, different because the filmmakers are alive. But I would say that the time frame is not that much closer than other archives that I’ve worked with, like the ones I’ve used in A German Youth (2015). With that too, even if the people from whom I’ve used the footage had all died, I did the same work and met a lot of colleagues and others who were part of this story, so as to try and understand their processes, to identify things, to learn how they made those films etc.

That is evidently different, for example, with archives coming from World War II, in which case everyone is most likely not alive and you can’t go back and ask to understand why it was like that. Perhaps that there is some kind of difference in this kind of gap, and that the films [I make] might be really different from one another, but the process is not so different for me. The result in Facing Darkness is different, because I [also] filmed these interviews, but in my own process of thinking about the film, about the materials, it’s still very similar.

Although, maybe there is one particular difference here, which I was suggesting before, in that it was easier to use footage or excerpts of films that were really complicated to understand. Some of them are really blurry. We can feel something, but it’s hard to tell what exactly. This was possible because I knew that the filmmakers would explain what they did later on. So I could sometimes take the risk for the audience to be lost, because I knew they will have the answers to their questions in maybe half an hour after that.

Upon rewatching now what they’ve made back then, these filmmakers seem, in a way, to be negotiating with themselves how they approached a certain subject, and having doubts or questions about it. There’s this juxtaposition that I really like in the film, where, in one scene, one of them is explaining how documentary is such a great medium for representing reality, how it’s capable of recording truth. And then, immediately in the next scene, another one seems rather despaired at the fact that he’s caught himself trying to frame things in an interesting way, trying to make a kind of mise-en-scène of the victims and of a massacre that he’s filming. I’d say this also shows the clash of multiple perspectives that you can have on an event.

The big questions of documentary filmmaking, is it truth, is it fiction, is there such a thing as pure truth – these filmmakers seem to have a lot of conflicting views on that. Do you yourself see fiction and documentary as two essentially incompatible forms? Or would you say they’re contaminated with each other?

For me, it’s impossible to have a strict line between documentary and cinema in general. People say that a documentary should be like this or that: “you have to make films like that if you want to be effective or to be honest or true”, or “it’s impossible to represent real violence in fiction, it should be done in documentary form”. Or, they say, “you need to present a victim, but it’s not ethical to present the victim because you’re making them appear as victims, to make them suffer again”. A lot of people pretend there are some very strict rules that you have to follow in film. But what I prefer more is just how these filmmakers are talking about the way they were filming the events unfolding in Sarajevo, just because they all have different answers.

When I was listening to them, I was thinking that you can’t have rules, that a film depends on the personal ethic of the filmmaker. And I think they were all right. The one that you were mentioning, the one who says that films are fiction, but in documentary you can perhaps reach a certain truth. But the other one as well, who is talking about how he felt he was staging a massacre for TV News, so he felt he needed to erase the tape. But there’s a third one after that, who’s also filming a massacre, and he says he just filmed a long shot and he sent it to the TV, because that’s something that  needs to be shown to an audience. It’s all different types of strategies – one is erasing a tape of a massacre because [it’s so horrific] that you can’t show it to an audience, and the other says we need to show it. These are not rules, but their own ethical point of view [in terms of what a documentary or film should do]. It’s really up to each filmmaker [how they define things]. 

This moment of erasing the tape also made me wonder about the very specific context of media at the time, particularly this physical dimension of the cassette and video as an accessible medium. I find that your films are often also about the evolution of technology in terms of film and representation. How do you personally feel that, in this span of 30 years, technology has changed our way of depicting events? Have things like smartphones, which these filmmakers are also commenting on, made reality more accessible; are they a better tool for representation?

For me, it’s complicated to understand what is happening in real time in terms of tech. It’s easier to watch back, a few years later, what happened, because you can see the result. For example, it’s still not really clear to me how the cell phone is used in the context of the war in Ukraine, by soldiers or by citizens. It’s still unclear what that is creating, what that is giving us. But, for sure, we can see there is something that is really different from Sarajevo, because people can film something just with their phones, they can easily put it online, and send it to people. Even what is broadcast in France, you can see that most of the images come from cell phones. So, in a way, it’s easier to have a [raw] image, or very current footage from something that is happening on the same day. That was impossible before – journalists could send tape, but even for that you needed a few hours. By now, we are used to seeing images on cell phones, but there is something still too fresh for me to really understand it.

However, back in the 90s, with these filmmakers what is really striking is how they always talk about electricity and the lack of tape. Just to film something, you needed a strategy. You needed to find electricity, find tape, and think about how to erase what you already filmed on the tape. You have to prioritise and to be sure of what and when to film, even if it’s just amateur footage. There are decisions to be made. And, in a way that makes [this footage] more moving. It’s more precious to them, because they had to decide to keep one bit, and not the other one.

In the film it seems like you discuss the process of these filmmakers together with them in a way that it uplifts their authorship, despite the fact that some of them are amateurs. Usually when you think of amateurs, you think they are very unprepared and they don’t know what they are thinking or filming. But with them, they seem very aware. Were you interested in exploring this kind of cinematic conscience that they have?

There were not quite exactly amateurs. There were amateurs mostly in terms of technique, because they only had a small camera. But some of them, like Shuba, went to art school. He did a lot of photography. He had never filmed before the war but he knew how to frame, for example. So, it is this kind of unprepared cinema, made with friends, with no technical means, but it’s not by people who know nothing about cinema. Another one was doing reportages for TV and went on to become a DP after the war. They do use an amateur kind of film grammar, but they weren’t amateurs in the real sense of it.

Also in terms of authorship, I was wondering if you feel some sort of responsibility in this regard given the different kinds of archives that you work with in most of your films. Here, obviously, you credit the filmmakers on the screen and you go through their work with them, but do you usually feel there is a greater responsibility as a filmmaker in how you source your archives or what you do with them?

It’s different if I’m making a feature film, or a short film. With my short films, I don’t care about where I’m picking up the footage, I just mix everything. Whereas for a feature film I need to respect the original material. But for me to respect the original material, this kind of authorship, the point of view of the film, does not mean to use captions or keywords on screen. It’s not about referencing something in the end credits, for me it’s important to try to respect the cinematographic object. If it’s [mixing random footage, making a new edit, that usually becomes a fiction short, and, so, it might be different], but it’s important for me to give an idea of the whole and to respect the work, the films.

I was lucky on this project, and it was a part of the film, that the filmmakers in question are still alive. So it was about creating time for them to talk about the films and to rewatch them.  It is quite unusual, actually, because we’re watching their film twice. And I like that, because it’s a way to really respect their work. We first discover the work, and after that we have time to rest, to listen to the explanation, and then we might be able to read them more precisely.

Speaking of looking at things twice, or double images, you film your interactions with these filmmakers from far away, showing yourself, mics and other equipment. I was curious whether you see this as a process of demystification of what you yourself are doing as a filmmaker in that moment.

It was important in the way that we filmed these interviews not to hide the filmmaking. What I really don’t like in documentaries is when it’s supposed to be natural that people are talking to the audience. Of course, we were a small crew, because documentary film is usually like that, but even in this case it’s impossible not to realise that you’re in front of five people and one camera, there’s another guy with another camera – it’s not easy as an exercise to talk [in front of that].

It makes a difference if we see the team or not. We can see a kind of heaviness of the work and how complicated it is to be filmed. And we always remember, on a second layer, that we are talking about cinema and that nothing is natural in cinema. You don’t film just like that. It’s always a process, a making. When we watch a film, we don’t think about the making, but it’s important to always remember this – even when it’s something made with only a small camera.

[This strategy, this mise en scène of showing the team also meant placing an emphasis on the space], because we needed to see Sarajevo. It’s impossible to understand what the city is like when they are talking about the frontline. Just 10 minutes by car from the city you can find yourself in this very green, wonderful scenery – and when you see these wide shots you can realise this was actually the frontline. What does this mean? I liked the effects of these shots, because of how complicated it is to figure out how this space was 30 years ago, and why it is so traumatic for these men to be in the middle of what we see are some wonderful trees.

Was there a feeling that you were making the film together with these filmmakers, given how much we see them?

No, I offer them the frame. I wanted them to explain the footage and they all agreed to do that, but I offered them a frame that was mine. After a certain point, it’s not really collaborative. The places we talk in were chosen by them, but I asked them where they wanted to be or not to be for each part of the interviews. [While they may have chosen the places], they didn’t decide the excerpts; I picked those out. In fact, the interviews were much longer, and we talked about far more filmed material.

It wasn’t exactly complicated for them to choose the places, because they had to be linked to the films they made, so there were some obvious decisions. But other times, for example on the frontlines, they were all moving during the war and didn’t stay in one place. So they had to decide, from all the places they went to, which ones were more meaningful for them. Not for the audience or for me, but for them. To some of these places they hadn’t gone in 30 years, so…

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