“It is easier to share with people a story of images in images rather than a story of language...” Interview with Jean-Gabriel Périot


What is your training? Did you study Cinema?

I knew I wanted to be filmmaker but I’ve never been to a proper film school. I did a science and technique audiovisual training. During my spare time, I was an intern, for a year and a half, in the Pompidou Centre where I basically worked as an editor. After that I kept making a living as an editor and at some point I started making films. During this internship, I was working a lot with archives and archive editing, which gave me a basic knowledge and tools to work in a certain type of cinema.


What type of archives were you handling?

I was re-editing movies for one of the biggest exhibitions organized by the Pompidou Centre, L’art de l’ingénieur. There were about a hundred movies about architecture, each of them was to be reduced to three minutes, be silent, and contain at the most ten subtitles. For example, one if those films should explain how to build three different types of piles used to construct a bridge. I had to manage to convey that only through the images I had, without subtitles and voice-over. That was a very good exercise, a real exercise of editing and I’ve learnt a lot from it.


Concerning your movies about homosexuality, what made you want to produce a movie for your coming-out?

It’s a fake coming out! Sometimes we do movies we don’t necessarily think about doing but that we were asked to do. I was working for Canal + for a television show about “coming-outs”, and I was asked if I could do a little film about the topic. It became an independent movie but I think that without this show, I wouldn’t have thought about doing a movie about a coming out, even though I was happy to do it cause I find the result funny enough.


We had a good laugh as well.

Several of my movie were done like this one. I was asked to do those films for festivals, dance companies… Generally, I refuse such requests, but sometimes it comes at an ideal moment, I have time and the subject corresponds to what I want to go along with. Gay? is the first of those movies.


Is someone request you the movie Before I Was Sad?

Yes, it was exactly in the same context than Gay? In the 90’s, there was a very important TV show on Canal +, called “Nuit Gay”, it was the first gay TV shows in France. I was working for the producers of it and they liked what I was doing aside from work so they asked me if I could do some little films for some of the show.


We did like your movie Rain a lot.

Yes! (laughs) That was a joke! In the beginning I had a tendency to make first a serious film that would take me a year of my life and then I would feel the need to get my breath and do films likes this one, done in a few days, childish but that would say something else. It’s childish, but they are all dealing with the question of differences, the non-negotiable place with normality. We are still so uncomfortable with talking about sexuality, moreover homosexual one. Being homosexual is a good thing as long as you’re married and you have kids but you mustn’t talk about sex! We’re still living in a very Jewish-Christian society, “sex is evil”. Doing something differently, it’s filthy, we tend not to accept the otherness so easily. Rain, it’s nice, it’s fun and at the same time it refers to a sexual practice people judge derogatorily.


The movies we are talking about are quite old, are your recent movies more “serious”?
I did a new silly one recently, entitled #67 (Laughs). It was also request; I wouldn’t have done it by myself! I did for a website, which a hundred days before the presidential elections would daily put online a movie about politics. I asked them if I could freely speak my mind on the topic. Making a political movie, very neat, very clean-cut and very serious didn’t interest me.


Did you intend to be provocative against the electoral system?

This wasn’t a provocation; I sincerely think was the film stated! There are always other more delicate, philosophical and levelheaded ways of talking about democracy, presidential elections and their limits. And there’s this way of saying: “at the end of the day I think this is bullshit!” One could turn it into a serious 90 minutes length movie, but from time to time it’s good to be rude, it sets your teeth on edge.


Did you write all your movies? Don’t you improvise at all?

Generally I write everything but improvisation could happen such as any shooting or editing. There are always some things that diverge from the initial project. It was only during the two documentaries I shoot in prison that I was confronted with the unexpected. I’ve done the settings but I couldn’t control everything. I generally wrote the script, and when I do movies as Intimate Diary that don’t need a script, I perfectly knew what I want to do.


What was the context of the making of the two films in the prison in Orleans?

For Our Days, Absolutely, Have To Be Enlightened, the beginning of the project was a invitation of Mixar, a contemporary art association specialized in public space in Orleans who invited me to create an art work. Contemporary art in public space is not my field of experience, I didn’t know what to do. And then I thought of the prison in Orléans because I went there years ago to present one of my films and that was a very bad experience. I’ve promised myself to come back with more time… So I organized a concert with the inmates that was sound broadcasted to the public outside. That was the original project, the film was an accident.


What do you mean an accident?

My idea was to organize the concert. But we shoot the concert for many reasons. The first was that I were supposed to bring back the images of the outside to the inmates afterwards. Then, the people from Mixar and I thought we could broadcast the concert in their gallery for a few days. So, I asked two cameramen to join me. asked them to shoot portraits of the people listening to the concert with fixed cameras. As I was attending the concert with the inmates, they filmed without me. A week later I saw the rushes and I was like “wow!”


So, what the people were listening to is a soundtrack?

Yes, but they knew it. We couldn’t record live for many reasons… The first one was a “security reason”, so that the inmates wouldn’t be tempted to shout: “bring down the cops” or “bring down the prison” during the show! Besides we had to take an hour break between the male and the female concert, that is too long for the audience. Then, with the delay, it was possible to do some retakes if something was about to go wrong. All the more we couldn’t broadcast from the inside to the outside because there wasn’t any network and the distances were too long for our cables.

So we recorded the concert, we ran outside with the record players and we informed the people that the inmates were just behind the wall and that they could listen to their applause. People were listening as if they were attending it live bearing in mind that the prisoners were behind the wall. Actually they weren’t, but they didn’t know it... The prisoners watched the images afterwards.


Was it the same context of making of for the movie The Day Has Conquered The Night?

It is the same context, but this time it was the people from the SPIP (prison facility which takes care of the matters of culture, professional integration and family relations) who asked me to do a “musical” which finally turned into that movie. To make a movies like one, to be invited is already to have done half do the work. It is usually so complicated to shoot in a prison

What did you ask the inmates to do?

It was a film about dreams, I was looking for something we could all share, so I asked them to talk about their dreams. Naturally, some of them don’t dream or scarcely do, others dream a lot, so we had a type of global canvas so we could prevent it from being redundant. Then we quickly agreed on who was going to say what and we devoted our time to writing. Some of them don’t write at all. So we had to record their dreams, transcribe its, work on the language so it would be very different from one another. Some of them wrote very good pieces, so with them it was much more of a correction job to do. Those who included music in their parts took a lot of time since they had to write according to the rhythm, we did demos and composed the songs. Then we had to do some camera shoot trials so that they would learn to face the camera and read their text.


Were they learning their parts by heart?

It is only towards the end that they started to learn their parts by heart but it was a bit painful and complicated. The texts were very long. There were some sequence shots during which they could not make a mistake.


What was the reaction of the prison workers to the movie? Was that what they were expecting?

I don’t know, I don’t think that’s what they like in cinema in general! We only showed them once in Orléans with the inmates who were out for the occasion, the SPIP and the officials. There were a lot of people who appreciated it and for others it was: “It’s not my cup of tea but it’s really good!” Usually, the people working in prison environment were unbelievably surprised by the commitment of the inmates present in the movie! Being able to recite a four minutes text without making mistake, facing the camera and following the rhythm, that is already hard work, even for a comedian. That is a movie that shows the amount of work that was necessary to achieve it. In any case for people who knew the penal life and the inmates, that was huge!


How were you feeling as you were intervening with the prisoners? You said you already wanted to come back and be in daily contact with the inmates after your first movie?

The first time I came in prison, I was only to present one of my movie and to talk abut it for an hour. That was absolutely ridiculous! I went there because I’m a “political filmmaker” or I pretend to be, and when I was invited to intervene in a prison, I had no choice but go! I went without putting much thought in it and I realized that is not the way things should be done., I was coming and priding myself I was doing something good, as for them, they were coming and giving it an hour of their time, there isn’t much interest into it! I told myself that I should come back to the prison and spend some time with prisoners and strike up a relation. When I did the two projects one after the other, and especially during the last one, that was the first time I felt useful at what I was doing. The time I spent with them was useful for them, for myself, here the cinema brought about a meeting of people.


How do you define yourself as a filmmaker, more experimental or political? Or both?

Absolutely not an experimental filmmaker! I would simply say filmmaker. If I had to be specific about it I would say documentary filmmaker. Those adjectives reduce the scope of the movies or the movies such as movies in themselves. Maybe “political movies” making would interest me more but for sure I’m not into experimental movie making. I do documentary films with studied forms. But if all those who are looking for forms are experimentalists, all the interesting filmmakers are experimentalists.

Would you like to recall some of the filmmakers you appreciate or that you’re inspired by?

Drawing my inspiration from other filmmakers I don’t think so, or I hope I don’t do so, there’s nothing worse than repeating what was already done! I try with all due modesty to tell myself that I haven’t invented new forms. It’s a good thing not to be naïve and it’s also good to be uneducated! Otherwise we would stop making movies. What is surprising is that sometimes we discover some filmmakers and we tell ourselves: “I’ve actually copied his style without knowing it!” I could parallel my work with some of the movies by Godard, by the Dziga Vertov group, Santiago Alvarez and Guy Debord. These are filmmakers that I fortunately knew about very lately; otherwise I would have not done my movies the way they are. I can still say that they are important filmmakers to me. I’m in direct relation but that was unintentional.


Can you talk about movies as statements, movies such as The Barbarians, We Are Winning Don’t Forget, and 21.04.02, which express an idea through the image and present a reference in the end?

That is the legacy of Vertov and of a certain type of cinema for which the cinema would suffice itself, using its own tools as means of enunciation without requiring the use of tools that wouldn’t be cinematographic. It is the notion of a very political cinema, if not propaganda. It is easier to share with people a story in images rather than a story of language, which can be limited by the gaps in the knowledge of the language or the different styles of language used. The image talks to everybody, we don’t have the same cultural references when we see something, but there is nevertheless more commonness in this way of sharing. My idea of filmmaking is to work and content myself with the tools of editing as a grammatical tool to tell things.

We were talking about #67 earlier; it is a joke because in this film, I just say: “I think that these elections are bullshit, that’s enough!” That is a very poor language! As we are expressing something with words, unless we working in a very poetic language, we usually tend to be affirmative or explanatory, we’re giving our point of view, whereas when we’re working with the image, it is more a matter of interrogation. We understand that something is told but it is not so clear and this leaves more room for the viewer to think. For my part, I prefer films that raise questions that state answers.

The Barbarians is an adaptation of a book by Alain Brossat, The Infinite Resistance. He says that politics nowadays is about consensus and true politics is about dissensus, that we should accept that we can disagree and that, at the end, we’ll never agree. We should go beyond our differences and try not to create a fake commonness. The Barbarians deals with this idea.

At the beginning of The Barbarians, we see Nicolas Sarkozy and other politicians. It’s rather “funny”. Slowly grows a discomfort in the audience, as family pictures and other kind of pictures appear. Now, we are not only the one having laugh abut the “bad guys”, but we are also part of some groups, par of the society, we are also part of the problem. The film blurs the boundaries. The sentence in the end, that I find very beautiful, says that there is a place where true politics springs up and is elusive. Politics is a dangerous and difficult thing to apprehend. This sentence makes the movie more complex and challenges us to question the true nature of politics. It is not conclusive but sets out a truth.


Why did you choose to work with still image?

On one hand chance has something to do with it and the other hand contingency does. “Chance” was that the 21 April, is a date very closed to my birthday my birthday. So, April, the 21th of 2002, day of presidential elections, I was drinking champagne with friends when we learnt that Le Pen goes to the second round and people start to demonstrate. I was asking myself what part I have played in all this, I went back and interrogated my own history and decided to do an installation: I’ve scanned all image that I had home and I put the pictures in sequences by themes. The result was very raw and a little bit hard to look at but there were some good sequences, better than the others. There are even moments when they were almost animated. I told myself I would keep on doing so, using the same technique and it was because of this coincidence that I start on working that way. Back in the days I also wanted to do these films on my own, without money, producer or crew. To work with still images allows me to do so.


How do you pick up the music for your movies? Does it happen that music triggers a making of a movie?

There are no rules. In the beginning, with 21.04.02, I edited the music as I edited the image. That gives to the movie a violent aspect, not so much bearable. I realized then that if I wanted pursuit to make films with such fast editing, I had to work the soundtrack more quietly. The music carries on softly for the viewer and brings forth elements of construction, and poetic accounts that colors the movie. For We Are Winning Don’t Forget, I had the images for months but not the movie. I went to the concert of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and, at one precise moment of a song, the movie came up to me! I went back home, and I made the movie in a few days.


The Delicate Art Of The Bludgeon can be mistaken for a video clip, as the movie uses a cover of This is Not a Love Song by the Public Image Ltd. band

It could give you this impression of a video clip but it’s not. There is an illogical construction in this film comparing to the real video clip. In this film, we follow a chronological story and also a narrative one. The image don’t illustrate the music, it is the music that illustrates the images giving to the film a kind of cynical or bitter reading.


In 200 000 Phantoms you picked up a love song, why?

It is not a regular love song: it’s a gothic one made by an artist famous in industrial music. When I was in Hiroshima, I was spending my days taking pictures, it was very long and I was listening to a lot of music, especially that song. Speaking English on a daily basis, you end up understanding clearly the music you’re listening to. The lyrics f this song struck me and echoed what I was living in Hiroshima. It talks about fated photos, destruction, bells (Hiroshima is a Catholic city, so bells church there were important), dying fishes…  And this song tells also a story of resurrection and memory. Moreover, the song was constructed on a piano loop, as I wanted my film to be constructed on a visual loop around the Dome. The viewers often think the music was composed for the movie but it’s not.


Is there any obsessive relation with symmetry in your movies Nijuman no borei (200 000 Phantoms) and Under Twilight?

If Under Twilight is obviously constructed with a symmetrical patterns, it is not the case with Nijuman no borei. It’s more relevant to compare Nijuman no borei with Dies Irae. In the first film, we are revolving around the Dome that it is always in the middle of the image as in Dies Irae, we follow a central road during all the films.


This building is in Hiroshima as a relic, is that why you’re interested in it?

It’s a detail, but the Dome is not the only building that resisted the bombing, but this building was special for the inhabitants of the city because it used to be frequented by the people of Hiroshima before the bombing. This building is for me very important and interesting because it is stuck in between the Peace Park devolved to mourning and remembering and the contemporary city. This specificity allowed me to work upon the link between the need to remember and the need to forget. This building is in-between; it allowed us to have those two ideas in the same space, in the same geography, to permanently move from one side to another.


The credits inform us that you’ve mixed Japanese and American archives.

I would have gladly prefer it without the American archives but I didn’t have any other choice. The first post-war photos are American ones. Then, there were Australian photos because the Australian army was settled in Hiroshima. Past the first years, there are only Japanese photos. If I haven’t put the American photos, there wouldn’t have been pictures of the days after the bombing.


You display quite a mechanistic vision of history in your movie Undo, it is quite ironic comparing to the general view of history or are you pessimistic?

This movie is a game, I mean a hypothesis: we always have the impression that “it was better before” or we always complain that the world is changing and that “it was much simpler before”. Indeed, in the movie, we grasp that we’re not heading in the good direction. But it ends up with Adam and Eve and we realize while keeping going back in time that it wasn’t that awesome before. The important thing is where we’re going and not really where we’re coming from.


Your movies are quite violent, they’re harsh, and the accumulation of images creates several impregnating layers of memories which we can’t all seize at the same time. There are so many images that it is saturating!

We can only see piles of images in my movies either the images are often difficult to watch or if they’re not, I often make it difficult to watch them. Thank god my movies are short, I wouldn’t be able to make them longer because in a certain way, the images catch the viewers and make it “prisoner”. My movies are not done to be watched in a row. During some projections of my films, I meet some spectators who get out during the screening but who come and see me to tell that they enjoy the films but that it was too violent for them, that they need to get their breath!


What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently editing a short fiction entitled Optimism. I’m also going to finish the movie in prison, I have to fill an application for subsidies for a long documentary film archive project about the Baader-Meinhof Group and I’m working on a drama play!


Margot Farenc, Jessica Macor, Josselin Carey, Laure Weiss,Tiana Valencourt, Maxime Lambert, Taegyun Yun
Self-made filmmakers – academic seminar under the supervision of Nicole Brenez, 2012-2013