INTERNAL DISPLACEMENTS – Interview with Jean Christophe – “Photography gave me a greater range to play with the universe.”

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“Internal Displacements” touchingly explores Transnistria, an enclaved zone, between Moldova and the Ukraine, an unrecognized de facto state situated in the Republic of Moldova. This political entity with its own cultural attributes is not recognized by any country of the international community including Russia where its troops are still deployed. Transnistria has become a region of internal displacement. The music composed by Hans Op de Beeck recreates the pulse of each character and the eclectic rhythm of their space.

This is one of the enriching discussions with Jean Christophe Couet, the director of the film, regarding the process of discovering and interpreting internal and external realities.

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Ioana Mischie: What initially seems a collection of black and white photographs proves to be a complex manifest of a community “in search of the lost identity”, a monochromatic poem at its best. Why did you choose to talk about Transnistria through photography and not by using filmed material?

Jean Christophe: The original idea to go to Transnistria began when I returned from a trip to Abkhazia whilst working on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) with UNICEF. It had been the second part of a photographic series on the same theme that originated in Kosovo in 2007. I remember studying the negatives and they struck me as paintings from a distant time.  I had begun these series on a relatively old rangefinder camera with a 50mm lens. It is small and allows you to be, at times, quite intimate. You’re never looking directly through the lens but through a viewfinder that is never distorted. If you look through a piece of straight glass cut in a rectangle, all you see is what is in front of you. This was the same. The canvas was pure. In a still, as in a painting, you have time to study, digest and accumulate the different information given to you because there can be many focal points. The longer you study it the more its flaws become precise. Photography gave me a greater range to play with the universe I had wanted to “paint” and it also cuts itself from the sound. The playing field tends to be larger when the elements are not directly connected. In my mind this was always going to be a project that could be seen in a gallery as well as on screen.

Ioana Mischie: How did you start your research about internal displacements and what motivated you to explore Transnistria?

Jean Christophe: I’ll start with the second question first. Transnistria is not a recognized entity and I’ve always been attracted to fading cultures and transition. Following the trips to Kosovo and Abkhazia, Transnistria was always on my wish list to discover and to finalize the triptych. The motivation truly came from an article I read describing the place and “a place that doesn’t exist”. Incredibly I could speak about Transnistria, not only to my colleagues and friends working in journalism or documentaries, but also in small libraries in New York’s Brighton Beach. My research on a project like Internal Displacements is very similar to the way a producer or director might prepare to shoot a feature film.  I am first struck with a curiosity and interest in a certain location and research it extensively.  Then I travel to the given location and immerse myself in the culture, scouting intensely and meeting with local residents ranging from politicians to street vendors.  These conversations and scouting trips might continue for months and in some instances well over a year. There is a narrative quality I strive for in my photography that attempts to bridge my experiences as a filmmaker and film-lover.  Each image could just as easily be a selected still from a motion picture and the inhabitants of my frames are as much characters in a story as they are subjects of reportage.

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Ioana Mischie: Each photograph is a statement in itself: every detail has a hidden internal displacement, portraying a contemporary generation of neo- refugees. We witness a community of people that seem to feel they have no roots. What is even more scary is that, lately as globalization extends, it seems to become a social trend in more and more countries.  Could we also talk, in this context, about external displacements?

Jean Christophe: We could speak about external displacements, yes. I was born in one country but lived most of my life in others. I’ve learned new languages and in some cases, even replaced my native tongue. If we’re speaking about identity the subject is vast and raises many questions. Mobility and the amount of information we now have access to, allow us to be less dependent on where we come from.  I come from an immigrant family that have always lived in cities. With the economic crisis it appears that the “brain-drain” effect is growing but also, since one can almost recreate their life styles almost anywhere, the concept of borders are becoming more and more redundant. Is that good or bad? I don’t know.

Ioana Mischie: For how long did you explore the community and, because you seem to rather explore a collective character in the film, what individual “characters” impressed you the most?

Jean Christophe: I gave myself a couple of months to work and develop the story. I always tend to start with a handful of characters because I’m easily intrigued by everything. Through the process one ends up taking you by the hand. Though, I wouldn’t use the word “impressed”, there were two characters that seduced me and one that guided me. Mind you, the location itself is also a character. It was inspiring to allow these two different points of views paint their own image of Transnistria. One of the characters is never heard but seen and, since a large part of the images were taken whilst with him, his influence is felt. The other is never seen but heard. His testimony gives heart and honesty to the story. Everything is understood through his pauses.

Ioana Mischie: Your background combines, besides filmmaking, journalism and photography. How did this influence the type of filmmaking you are aiming for?

Jean Christophe: Everything I do influences the films and projects I do. You speak about journalism and photography but I can also speak to you all the other little jobs I had. The first job I had, when I finished my studies and art residencies, was as a translator for political refugees in New York. I read thousands of detailed letters and testimonies from war-ridden countries. I had direct contact with some of the people and their scars could be felt through the way they interacted with people. It is always about human relationships and sensations. When you’re translating someone else’s life you find the truth through tacit communication. Filmmaking is a complex language. I tend to dedicate more time to discover the elegance of simplicity rather than the spectacular. I spoke earlier about the way one of Internal Displacements’ characters’ paused when he spoke.  That particular detail rendered the entire sequence’s strength. We listen to what he says but we focus more on what isn’t said. With that you’re able to hear what he’s truly communicating.  What remains essential in what I’m aiming for in a story is where you show not tell.

More about INTERNAL DISPLACEMENTS.

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