Cannes Docs Talk: Working With Archives: Jean-Gabriel Périot’s method


During the Visions du Réel Working With Archives session at Cannes 2021, Jean-Gabriel Périot was happy to concede that his adaptation of Didier Eribon’s novel ‘Returning to Reims,’ which chronicles the political and personal history of the French working class from the beginning of the 1950s to today, was very much a ‘free’ adaptation, and one informed by his own upbringing.

His first step, he said, was to embark on a process of editing of the source text and to determine the specific editorial and thematic lines he was going to follow.

“The book is really like a kaleidoscope, which always jumps from one character to the other [note: or to ‘the author’] to the mother and the father…but it’s impossible for our film of one hour and a half, which is so rich, to jump from one topic to the other and one time to the other,” he said. “So I wanted… to create a line…to put everything in order, in terms of chronology and to reduce the number of characters. So I decide to skip the author of the book and to focus on the mother.”

“I wanted to make a film from where I am coming more than a film about where I am today,” he added. “And I think to focus on a woman; it’s more because simply, in my family, it’s mainly a female family. I have one uncle and seven aunts… So everything in the book links to the story of the woman [which] in this class moved me more than the men’s stories.”

Périot was catholic in his application of archival choices to tell the story and illustrate the text, he said, whether it be contemporary and historic “cinema fiction, film, TV, documentary, creative documentary, music video, news from the TV.” He added that “the last strategy was to find pieces of more unexpected kind of excerpts that could open the space, give some liberty or poetry… like songs that are not 100% related to the text [nor] to the topic itself, but [which] just give some kind of time to grow.”

But why turn to the archive in the first place to tell this and other stories?

“For me, one of the qualities to use pre-existing film is that…when you are going to the past, people in the films made in whatever period, they are talking in the present time,” he answers. “So therefore this film, for example, where it’s a lot of workers that talk, that make testimonies…we can hear them in the present time. There is no more, ‘it was like that at this time’, we can feel the time… We have no more references on what is the past or the present. It’s something more edgy… It’s no more the past and for sure, it’s not [exactly] the present, but it’s something in between that is for me, really interesting with using pre-existing film.”

Périot also spoke about his new project Facing Darkness, which he pitched at Visions du Réel Industry 2021, which is based upon archives of young filmmakers who, while involved in the Siege of Sarajevo, carried their cameras into war. 

The first part of Facing Darkness will be a montage exclusively composed of pre-existing films made during the war mainly by Sarajevan filmmakers. It will go chronologically through the almost four years of the Siege and some of its concrete repercussions on the inhabitants, whether men forced to go to the front line or others who also had to face daily violence and desolation. It will also point out the different ways the filmmakers translated their own experiences of this war into films and how they cinematographically expressed what they saw and felt.

The second part of the film will consist of interviews conducted today with the youngest of these filmmakers. Then aged between 18 and 25, some of them voluntarily joined the army, others were mobilised, and still others preferred to be integrated into civil defence. How and why did they start or continue making films? Did they take their camera as they could have taken guns? Twenty-five years later, they will recall for us the dark experiences they went through.

Rebecca de Pas, member of the Visions du Réel selection committee, commented how this approach would create a dialectic within the film which is destined to be “completely different.”

“From the first to the second part of Facing Darkness, we will switch from 1995 to 2021, from a rather demanding archive montage, to a filmmaking based on interviews, with a more restrained rhythm. In a way, we will move from filmmaking focusing on “images“  to one focusing on ‘language,’” Périot commented in his pitch VdR notes for the film. 

“Around six men will be appearing. Each of them had a unique experience of the Siege regarding how he participated in the war: as a volunteer or as a mobilised soldier; on the front line, in the audiovisual section of the army or in the civil defence,” he added. “And how he made films at this time: for the army, for a production company, independently; as a professional, as an artist or as an amateur. Today, each of them lives differently from the other. Some dropped their camera; others became renowned national or international filmmakers.”

“Probably because they are alive… but can they explain [to] me or us, what was the meaning for them of doing that [during] such a time?” he asked. “The films are amazing, but they are not enough to…I wanted, at least to understand how they do this material and why,” Périot underlined during the Cannes panel.


Nick Cunningham
July 18, 2021
Business doc Europe