GASPAR NOE MEETS
Portrait and Narration by Jan-Willem Dikkers
“If you begin to lie to yourself,
whether it be in film or in real life, all is lost,
you betray yourself.”
— Hubert Sauper
Born in 1963 in Argenitina, Noé spent his childhood between Buenos Aires and New York. At age 12 he moved to France. After studying philosophy and cinema at l’Ecole Louis Lumière de Paris, he released his first short films in the 80s: Tintarella di Luna and Pulpe Amere. In 1991 he made a short film Carne introducing the character of the Butcher, played by Philippe Nahon. An angry man, the Butcher seeks revenge on whoever hurt his disabled daughter. After working as an actor, cinematographer, writer, and director on some other projects with the backing of Agnes B., Noé made his first feature film, I Stand Alone, continuing the story of the Butcher after he does time in jail and abandons his daughter. In 2002 Noé received major public notice and outrage with the controversial Irréversible.
Born in a village of Tyrol, Austrian Alps. He lived in Great Britain, Italy, the USA, and since ten years in France. He studied film directing in Vienna (Univ. of Performing Arts) and in Paris (Univ. de Paris VIII.) and graduated B.A.(Mag. art). Hubert teaches film classes in Europe and USA. The last two documentaries he wrote and directed (Darwin’s Nightmare and Alone With Our Stories) were awarded twelve International Film Prizes.
Gaspard Noé: You have been to Africa severals times? Even before going there to film, right?
Hubert Sauper: Yes, Kisangany Diary was made at the end of a long stay, actually my first. Aside from that I lived briefly in Tanzania in 97 working with a friend that had openned a production company. This was the first such business in Tanzania’s history. I helped out in making TV commercials for the national Tanzanian soap, know as the Findi or Winner, a sort of long yellow baguette that you cut pieces off of. This soap was used to wash yourself, for laundry, cars, boats, airplanes … It was during the shooting of an airplane washing scene that I met these Russian pilots that later played a role in Darwin’s Nightmare.
GN: But that wasn’t actually the town where you filmed Darwin’s Nightmare? Why did you go there initially?
HS: The first trip was for the soap.
GN: Why this town and not another?
HS: It just worked out that way, I don’t quite remember. My friend had landed a bunch of contracts and had asked me to help out in making these ads as he was overwhelmed. We spent a whole month crossing Tanzania. I already had a project in mind dealing with the refugies in the The Congo, as the air lifts had been removed from Tanzania. I had already been in touch with the UN. Then after meeting the Russians, I went back to see the UN, “so there, I know a few pilots, can you take me along in the planes?” and I was off to the east of the The Congo with my partner Suzanna.
“I lived briefly in Tanzania in 97… I helped out
in making TV commercials … It was during
the shooting of an airplane washing scene that
I met these Russian pilots that later played
a role in Darwin’s Nightmare”— Sauper
GN: And what the heck was she doing there?
HS: Suzanna? She played the accordian. No, she actaully did a bunch of things. She took care of the children. We were discovering Africa. We were meeting a lot of people, and I was preparing this documentary. And the only way to get into the Congo, was via the UN transport planes. So the end of my 6-7 month stay in Africa, was a month and a half in the Congo.
GN: Did you use a professional
HS: No, it was this crappy Hi 8.
GN: The thing is that, the sound is surprisingly clear.
HS: It’s clear, since the people I am filming are relatively close, and there are no highways near by.
GN: Because I remember, you have this shot with a bunch of kids and this guy getting up, and the image is rough looking with really big grain, but the sound is super clear.
HS: It’s just the mike from the camera, it’s because the is no noise. That’s the advantage of filming in the jungle, everything is very present.
GN: When making documentary films these days, it no longer crosses your mind to do it in 16mm? The whole process of putting the reel in the camera, changing it, knowing that you need to stop in 10 min, develop the negative … a lot more complicated than using a camera like the Panasonic DVX100 …
HS: I guess it all depends on your level of concentration. Sometimes when you need to film a lot, it is hard to keep up.
GN: Getting back to Africa, in comparison to the west, death is delt with on a daily basis. Everyone is telling you that they have lost half their
children, that their brother is dead… You say it is a sort of general hecatombe, but suprisingly, I don’t have the impression that they
themselves feel they are punished, I mean for them, the hardships they endure, having lost a child, or the wife that has lost an eye … they’ve taken so many blows for such a long time.
HS: Yes, I think this is more so just a part of their life, but the mourning associated with the loss of a child is the same. 100 years ago in Europe, it was just as common to watch your child die.
GN: Have you seen the film Children Underground (Edet Belzberg, 2000)? It’s about these kids that live in the subway in Roumania. These kids that have been abandonned by their
families. This little girl gets raped, yet when you see her hideous step-father threatening her, who’s a meter taller than her, you can understand why she would prefer to live in the subway surrounded by all these other kids that hit her. When it comes to human cruelty, documentaries can go so much further than films.
HS: Documentary can play a better role of representation if it is used as cinema. Documentary is too often thought of as a news report, a sort of illustrated text in our minds. I just try to see the firemen when they arrive, and to hear their voices when they arrive: When one does that, who does he think I am? Does he think that I can’t see the firemen arrive? Am I considered an idiot? If considered an idiot, the mind will go to sleep after three times. We don’t just loose our attention span, but also all sense of responsibility, because this voice is explaining everything we see. If you want to fly an airplane, you need a licence, or even a car, you need a licence. If you spread idiotic images throughout the world, you don’t need anything, anyone is free to do so. It’s quite strange, as there ought to be responibility associated with the making of images and sound without the know-how required.
GN: I’m in the process of looking for special effects for my next film, which has lead me to watch all the Armaggedon, Apollo 13, … science fiction films … I’ve watched about 60 films. In conclusion, you realise that it’s all propaganda film making. It’s all the self confident Americans, sympathetically sending their people to go fight martians or the destruction of the world. It’s always the Americans going off and saving everything. This doesn’t exist in Italian cinema or French cinema.
HS: Well, it’s all part of a much longer conversation related to the second world war, because you have the British and the Americans that let Hitler go a long way before reacting, till things had gone much too far. So in a sense, just as they saved the world, they also let it sink.
GN: And then they took part in sectioning Europe which lead to many more problems, and the same with the Middle East. Actually, they came to share the cake. There’s a fabulous 3 hour documentary on Saudi Arabia, The Saoud’s House, and how the Americans infiltrated. In the past, wars were over politics or religion, now it’s nothing but economic wars for taking over markets.
“When it comes to human cruelty, documentaries can go so much further than films.”— Noé
HS: I think that if you were to make a film about the state of our times, it would be about nothing more than economics. Before it was more about the ideas, Marxism, etc. Now the bottom line is always the dollar. All human relations have been reduced to this sort of game “I give to you, you give to me”.
JWD: There are people that seem to believe there is a conflict when creating a documentary or news report, if you already have a premeditated outcome to your work.
HS: For Darwin, the film existed in my head well before I even began filming.
JWD: I think this is probably the first time I have seen something that has been put together in such a way, a documentary film where there isn’t any sort of narration guiding you throughout, like a new form in cinema.
HS: It’s hard to say. In a sense it is classic narration, where you give certain elements. Well, I knew one thing: The mind does not like to receive orders, but rather elements from which it can draw its own conclusions. If you get the impression that you start to be aware of something that I already know, you get this sort of intellectual satisfaction. This way you will really learn something. This is what makes the art of it, it’s been this way since the beginning of time: giving clues from which you create your own internal film or story, where the unspoken can be so much greater than what actually is said. Darwin was a reflexion. I wanted to go back to this part of the earth, I wanted to get a better understanding of what was going on, wanted to make it better understood and share what I had learnt. For quite some time, I had been wanting to make a film on the foolishness of global exchanges that really don’t lead anywhere, but I hadn’t found which angle to attack from. I had found the core and place for the story. There are all sorts of theories about form and body, but I also just did a lot based on pure instinct. The thesis often comes later.
GN: Have you seen the film Mémoire d’un saccage (Fernando Solanas, 2004)? It’s a lesson in economics about the stock market crash in Argentina. It’s really complex, and really educational. I think that the lesson learnt in Darwin is pretty simple. Documentaries contain many more useful elements for the human mind than do fiction films.
HS: You also have educational fiction films. I prefer to speak of cinema or non-cinema. Cinema is typically a sort of poetic product, intelligent and artistic, in contast to fast-food images void of meaning. I will be making a fiction film in The Congo. A fiction film with so-called actors, a script, yet it will still be pretty heavy as well. It will be a film that will emotionally and intellectually strike the same cords.
GN: In Africa, in particular, you have so many existential plots. I had interviewed this guy that had quite recently discovered that he had AIDS, and he still hadn’t told his wife or kids. He didn’t know if he should tell them. He’d think to himself: “If I tell my wife, she will leave running, and I’ll find myself alone with my three kids.” He had no money, no electricity, nothing. It had been four months that he would no longer make love to his wife. When we filmed in his house, the kids were so excited to see an electric light bulb for the first time, yet his wife would just keep asking him why he was being filmed. A very strange situation. You very rarely run into such existential cases in rich countries. In Africa, you can make a real tear-jerkers from just about anyones life.
HS: In a way this is a good point. Could you imagine making a film on global capitalism in New York? You just can’t find things on the surface like that: You have computer screens, people on the phones, everything is very indirect. In Africa things are much closer to their true nature.
GN: Will you be using documentary elements in your next film?
HS: I may use certain images.
GN: You can also make fiction with people that are actually close to the subject. A lot of films are made this way. I notice this in this film Lilja 4-ever (Lukas Moodysson, 2002), which was shot in part in Russia and in Sweden. It’s the story of this Russian girl whose mother disappears, abandonning her. This guy offers her work, and she ends up at age 16 hooking in the streets of Sweden.
“I am not the missionary that tells you that Africa is in deap shit and that children are dying. Yet, I do feel that we are missing different image treatments, put together in a different kind of way … that can make a difference in bringing more complexity to this reality”— Sauper
HS: This film had a political impact in Sweden.
GN: Actually a little eveywhere. It was used trying to stop sex traffic. There is a poetic sequence that I found quite poignant in the film, when you see this young prostitute’s subjective view of all the guys she’s had. It is a 2-3 minute sequence where you see about 50 faces that come and go. Some guys that are not too unpleasant 45 year olds or young athletic 20 year olds. You see all these faces run by one after another. It becomes really suffocating. You think to yourself: this is what work is for a prostitute. Prostitues must have between 30-40 guys a day. And when you ask them if they take pleasure, they answer: “ ya, twice a week, there are some guys that I like”. But when you do the maths, two guys out of 200, what’s that? Films that present protitution as assebly line work are quite rare.
Did you have moments during the making of your film where you felt the urge to cry? During my filming in Africa, I had moments of deep sadness.
HS: I cried at the editing table. Alone with 200 hours of footage, I was faced with seeing it all and hearing the voices. Seeing Elizabeth, that had been killed. I watched her speak knowing that she was dead. When I was there I was with my friend who was assisting me. Often, we would find ourselves in our small room at night and we would ask ourselves, what was this day all about. Sometimes, you just don’t find what you are looking for anymore. And then all of a sudden, there is like an explosion of new elements that start working together.
GN: And don’t you feel that when you are faced up close to people’s true sadness that it strengthens you, not from sadism, but that your life by comparision seems magnificent, your little narcissistic problems are stunted by comparission to their true sadness, linked to genocide and sickness.
HS: Yes, but then it’s the big question as to the definition of sadness, and I think that sadness is pretty equally dispersed throught out the world. Having nothing to eat, that is sadness, but being alone in an apartment at 90 years old, not being loved, or for a child to see his father go off to work, that is another form of sadness. Here, our sort of glaciation of society is as collective a sadness as hunger in Sudan.
GN: In Kisangany Diary, you have lots of moments that are really disturbing. Like when you see that child born dead. But one of the worst: The little child that is all alone, that is put on the ground, that is picked up, then put down again, he is dead, he is not dead, and you see this photographer pass him by with his huge lens. The man is well fed, he has clean pants. He looks and asks himself:” What do we do with this baby?”, and then all of a sudden, it is as if he himself no longer perceives this as a human life. It’s useful, or not useful: It’s something quite simple when you see the baby, you just want to take him in your arms and take him away, yet you know you can’t, because when you are sitting there, watching the scene, there is nothing can be done, that baby has already died.
HS: In film, the scene is unbearable, but in real life it is quite banal. It’s strange how film isolates this view. It is just part of rows of children all in the same state, and when you live within this, you can’t be at the battle of Stalingrad and cry when you see someone die, no, in reality everyone around is dying. Here it was the same, and I don’t recall this particular moment as being particularly unbearable, just another moment among others. Sometimes the camera can see better than our own eye. It’s almost a miracle.
GN: The goal is to try to create more consiousness, so that people make the effort to think their own way, to take part in change, or rather to be able to create something that will exist longterm, to create continuity and balance in regards to what is happening?
HS: Hard to say. My reflex is not to make a film for the good of the world. I think I do have the desire, as do many other authors, to reveal myself, to bring my perspective and to say clearly, here, this is what I think, this is what I see and I have personally experienced this story and I would like to tell it to you.
GN: In your film, you don’t have the bad guys on one side and the good guys on the other. That’s talent.
HS: I know that not everything I film is new. I am not the missionary that tells you that Africa is in deap shit and that children are dying. Yet, I do feel that we are missing different image treatments, put together in a different kind of way. I think it spefically works on the form, the rythm, and the editing, that can make a difference in bringing more complexity to this reality: the polarity of the white man, with his large lens camera, and at the same time not trying to denounce him, or make him out to be some kind of
living asshole. I wanted to show this because it was important, but without saying: Here, this is the ass, because he was there, just like I was. I was there too.
“The mind does not like to receive orders, but rather elements from which it can draw its own conclusions. If you get the impression that you start to be aware of something that I already know, you get this sort of intellectual satisfaction. This way you will really learn something.”— Sauper
GN: In Darwin there isn’t any music and sound effects. Yet in Kisangany Diary, you use this effect that I like, which is quite artificial and usually used in horrow films, it’s the use of infr-bass sound. There are lots of sequences where aside from the music, you have this infra-bass going “ououou”. It creates this feeling of fear, which is presumably the true feeling you would have in such a place, because the military forces are not far, because you have people being eaten away by sickness, and then you feel this sort of uneasiness, and it’s this artifice, almost fictional, but it works really well. In the same way, you can do things in color or black and white: Black and white tends to be more dramatic, but with this sound thing, it is as you you were underlining part, as if you were saying these are the parts where you should feel scared.
HS: The use of black and white was not about dramatisation, it was rather a technical issue: the tapes were so fucked that I need to take the color out. Yet the use of bass and music in the film, when I see it today, I think it is a bit much. A lot of people have critisized me for this, but I do understand. I was looking for a very direct way to express this extremely deep sense of anxiety, so I looked to push the form really far. In this regard, I take responsibility for my choice. To tranfer what is lived or the anxiety, the state of being, is also an essential element of documentary film making. It might be this as well that separates this sort of film from other documentaries, because their goal is to represent a true reality, a story as truly as possible. I can show the reality of an airport by showing the flies on the on the window panes, since the flies represent this sort of strange unspoken element. Actually, they are much more truthful than some kind of numbers showing the time it takes the Kalashnikovs to be transfered within the airport. I have been critisized at time for not showing certain things, it had not been understood. Too bad.
GN: With an agressive film, you will get aggressive reactions. Darwin is extremely aggressive, and frankly, I am very pleased that it is able to do so well commercially.
JWD: It seems that whether it is about truth or lies, the need to manipulate, choose, cut, or reformat still exists.
HS: There are two kinds of lies when it comes to documentaries: the real lie and the poetic lie. In Kisangany for instance, there is a poetic lie, it is at the beginning of the film when we go through the forest by train. This really did happen, except that I was unable to film as the military had confiscated my equipment. I filmed the return journey of the train and inversed it: in the film it is the arrival. I can handle this. The jungle is the same. It would be a real lie if I said: here these are the indians, when they are not. In a film, at an emotional moment, you can say anything and everyone will believe you. These are little manipulations that all documentary makers have a tendency to do. I can film the head of a company in Rwanda, and want to put a plastic fish in his office to make it a funny scene. But if I do that, I am lying.
GN: There are a lot of documentaries where you see people walking and you have the feeling that there are so many angles, like the camera had been moved, and that they must have asked the guy, “look, now you walk forward, now back.” Then you have had this guy repeat the move several times to get this kind of cinematographic cutting. In the end it works, but it’s a little strange, because you have these notions of directing as you can see that the guy must had repeated his steps 4 or 5 times, such that it feels normal and the entire sequence is covered. Is this cheating or not? You play with the guy and he becomes an actor?
HS: That’s something that I do not do, yet it is a sort of set up that is not cheating, since the guy actually walking in reality. Just, usually it is poorly set up. The guy isn’t completely at ease walking anymore. Here I was with the man in his office and I say to him: “It is a nice fish, what you think of turning it on?” That’s what I said to him. And it is not luck that the fish worked. In the part with all the skeletons, there’s a guy with a skeleton on his t-shirt. If I came there with this skeleton t-shirt and asked him to put it on, I would be a liar. No one aside from me would have known, but in doing that, I would have taken energy out of the film, that’s for sur. Yet if I capture the scene, then I have captured a particularly strong absurd moment, and this gives me the energy to aim for that. There’s also the prostitute singing with the Russian: it was not by accident that I was there filming them when they were singing together. I knew the Russian, I knew the prostitute, we would drink together, I would buy them beers, and I knew that this girl could sing, so I asked if she might want to sing something for us, and then the situation created itself and it was authentic. I don’t
pretend not to be there, invisible. You hear my voice and you see how the camera is moving, as if I were drunk too, it was a little blurry. It became authentic as well because of this. If you begin to lie to yourself, whether it be in film or in real life, all is lost, you betray yourself.
“The goal is to try to create more consiousness, so that people make the effort to think their own way, to take part in change, or rather to be able to create something that will exist longterm, to create continuity and balance in regards to what is happening?”— Noé
GN: Do you know the film Isle of Flowers (Jorge Furtado, 1989), It is this Brazilian short film, very arty, funny, and very mean. A film about garbage, a garbage island in Brazil, with these kids from the shanty towns that come to eat the leftovers that the pigs have not eaten. Because you can sell pigs and unfortunately, you cannot sell kids. Then afterwards there is this whole lecture on the fact that the pigs get to eat first because you can sell them, yet you can’t do this trade with children. In regards to the cynicism of commerciality, there are common points with Darwin. Except it is more condensed. This film had made it all around the world.
HS: One last thing. People often ask me if the people in the film have had a chance to see the film. This is something that I started in late 2005. I went to Tanzania earlier this year to meet them again and show them the film. I will go to the Ukrain as well in this little plane that I fly myself, sitting on the outside. I will be landing on the runway where you can find these big guys from the film. It will be another film, to confront these Russians with their image, to see how it all goes. It is a necessary continuation, as I want to know the reactions of people that play a role in the film. Also to gain a better understanding of this type of work for the future. I am not waiting for anything that’s necessarily romantic or consentual. It would be nice if the Russians saw this as a work of art, and that they would like to participate in something important like this, yet they could very well become angry. I hope for the first option.
GN: When you make a fiction film, and you are paying people like this, and they don’t really know the storyline of the film. On Irreversible, some of them assumed that the film was too violent, and they’d wish to remove their image from the film when it is already too late. Then it depends on what the people around them are saying. And when it is a documentary, and the guy is actually exposing himself, because he is saying things that maybe he shouldn’t be saying, in effect it could be a bit of a problem showing it to them.
HS: But it is a true adventure, not the Camel Trophy