My Favorite Obsessive-Compulsive Political Filmmaker: Jean-Gabriel Périot


The first time I saw Jean-Gabriel Périot's work was at Detmold International Short Film Festival in 2006. Eût-Elle Été Criminelle… (Even If She Had Been a Criminal  ) began innocently enough as a super-condensed history of World War II: men in mustaches, helmets, aerial bombing, tanks… all to La Marseillaise. The time speeds up from 30 frames per second to 30 frames per year; the song overlaps with itself, time collapses into an echo chamber with a tolling bell. The thick sound soup blurs both heroics and atrocities, before it opens again to a scene of the 1944 liberation of Paris.

Shocking is too mild a word: women paraded on the streets, slapped around, their heads shaved, swastikas painted on foreheads. These women were accused of consorting with the enemy. The French must have thoroughly hated the Germans - and everything connected with them - by then. Leni Riefenstahl writes of her grave mistake at the end of the war in her Memoir: She stayed in Berlin, working, waiting for the French to arrive. (The French had been her best audiences before the war and had always treated her well.) Instead of being "liberated" as she had hoped, she found herself in the hands of the most hostile captors.

After the Detmold festival, I met Périot in Ankara, Turkey, where I saw more of his short films, including Dies Irae - a "road movie" made entirely of still images pulled from the Internet that rushes headlong into the gate of Auschwitz - and he gave me his DVD, which included Nijuman no Borei (200,000 Phantoms), a time-collage of Hiroshima before and after 1945 composed entirely of archival photographs.


Is your training in visual arts?

Not really. I did university in media (communication) and audiovisual. But it was useless, as we had not a lot of practice, and unfortunately poor theoretical courses. I learnt my work in internship. I had the chance to spend one year and a half working in Centre Georges Pompidou in the audiovisual service. I learned everything there.


You were doing one-shot, one-take live pieces just a few years ago, like a live performance on camera. Have the Internet and other technological advances prompted your move into this super-imagist phase?

Simply, when I did my first works, I had no computer. So I couldn't edit, or did it poorly. My works changed when I got my first computer.

In the same period when I was doing my first one-shot video works, I did several installations dealing with archives. To have a computer at home allowed me to make my first archives video (21 04 02). In fact, I never was into "filming," but more into editing. So as soon as I had a computer, I stopped using a camera. The process for 21 04 02 was to use all the pictures I have at home, so I scanned them - a long process.

The Internet made the process easier and faster for my next films. I didn't have to scan anymore to obtain digital pictures; I just had to pick them up on the Internet. But we have to remember that only few years ago, to find good quality pictures, in terms of compression, was not so simple. Moreover, I never used only one or two pictures, but needed thousands of them.


You've said that you don't use film to make your pieces, but have you ever worked in analog video?

When I started to work, digital film technologies existed already, but they were rare, and it was expensive to use them. I learned and worked with analog material. It was luck, I guess! Even if you have a lot of useful tools with digital technologies, you need to be rigorous to use them. It is not true that because you can do everything you want that you can do it well. Analog editing forced us to think about the project and the editing before starting to work. Yet even now, I always prepare my editing beforehand.


Digital video seems particularly well suited to the demands of making works like 200,000 no Borei and Dies Irae. Would these pieces have been impossible without digital technology?

If fact, technically, it could have been possible to do those kinds of works in analog cinema or video. But surely it could take years to do it, and with not such precision. Digital editing allows a kind of swiftness too complicated to obtain with analog techniques.


Has anyone offered to develop a new software for you?

No. But I am not sure that would be useful.


Are Final Cut Pro and Photoshop the main tools you use?

Yes! I As I know them really well, I can do whatever I want. So I don't need to use other tools like After Effects or more complicated software.


Your sound collage is so beautiful. Is this also achieved with Final Cut Pro? And can you tell me more about you + music?

Probably the work with sounds is my favorite part of the filmmaking process. Even if I like the editing for itself, the music, the sound editing, the sound mix are so creative.

I have no real rules to work with it. Sometimes I work on an existing music, as with We are winning don't forget or Under Twilight, and in fact there are no-sound works as well. But usually, I need to create sound spaces for the films, and in that case there are two processes: I have some money to make the movie, or not. If yes, I like to work with a sound editor, in a real sound studio. I prepare everything quite well in Final Cut, but the precise work on sounds and music is done with the sound editor (Xavier Thibault, with whom I always work). If I have no money, I've done it myself. And for that, I only use Final Cut, as I don't know how to use other sound software. In fact, Final Cut is quite poor for sound editing and sound mix. But I manage!


When you went into the French national archives, did you already know the focus of your film would be these women in Eût-Elle Été Criminelle … ?

I never went in the French national archives! I usually pick up archival footage from existing films, on the Internet, in books, etc.  For Even if she had been a criminal … , I picked the footage from documentaries about WWII in France. I didn't do any special research, but every time I saw footages about it, I picked them up.


In selecting archival material for 200,000 no Borei, then, did you have an idea what you were looking for?

Yes, this project was really written before I went to Hiroshima to find the archive. But the fact is, I didn't know if so much archival material existed, or if it would be available, and if I would be able to do the movie as I wrote it, simply because I didn't know the city, the building or the area around it when I wrote the project. But even if I wouldn't have been able to do the movie I wrote, I would have done another movie.


Are the archives of the world opening their doors to you? Or do you still have to knock hard?

It is a complicated question to have access to archives. First, there is the question of money. Secondly, there is the question of the goals of the archives. In fact most of the archives are just there to make money. Private archives such as Getty, or TV archives, are obviously only a commercial industry. So you have to pay, whatever your project is. But even some public archives have this kind of approach. They don't care about memory, history and so on.

Fortunately, some archives were created to be a place of memory, as in Hiroshima, where I found archivists who really knew the importance of the remembering of history. They helped me a lot. But even there it was not so easy. For example, the Peace Museum (the most important institution for the remembering of the destruction of the city) didn't want to give me their pictures. They pretended that those pictures are "art pieces," and that they are not sure about what I will do with them. They want to keep their archives as their own properties. To question memory is always a political act. And political acts can always seem dangerous.

It's easier for me to work with rights-free archives, as in Even if she had been a criminal … , but for some projects I have to take care about the rights. And then it is complicated. Money is not enough. You need to convince the archives owner of the honesty of your project.


Which doors are you knocking on now?

German archives. But as the subject of my next project is quite controversial, it is complicated, even with money, to have access to some footage. I'm working on a piece about the RAF, the German red army, a revolutionary guerrilla group that did several bombings during the '70s. And some of them were, before the creation of the group, journalists, filmmakers, artists, writers …


Are you collaborating with choreographers?

Sometimes. I really like that. The time spent to work onstage is so particular; technically it's complicated for me, because I don't know much about projectors, synchronization, video wires, etc.


Can you comment on how the focus of your work has shifted or expanded? Your work now seems to be about the whole of humanity. Can you pinpoint anything that might have helped you think more "universally"?

In fact I never tried to make a humanity portrait or whatever. But as I've worked with a large body of images, that could give this idea of a portrait.

I usually don't use languages. That choice is important. The images I've used are factual by themselves, because they are documentary images; they represent a part of the real world at a certain moment. But usually those kinds of "realistic" pictures need explanations to be read, even if it is only "when, where, who," etc. We are not used to looking at pictures without a translation in words. (I don't speak about artistic pictures that are created to be read without language.) But to show those images without language allows me (as other creators that use this kind of process) to make them more open, as they no more stick to factuality. For example, an image of a shaved woman in France after the war is no longer just an image of a shaved woman in France, it is a symbol of suffering, a symbol of revenge.

Aby Warburg, an art historian during the '20s, made an atlas with pictures, paintings and press photographs. He tried to make a visual history of the images by using the images themselves without commentary. The name of this atlas was Mnemosyne Atlas, but in fact he defined it as a "ghost story for adults."

I like this idea of images as specters that haunt our imaginations. For that, you only need to forget the language that hides the ghosts in the pictures.

Interview by Rika Ohara
Blue fat, 2009