Oana Ghera: I know that OUR DAYS, ABSOLUTELY, HAVE TO BE ENLIGHTENED started as a piece of performance art, a concert you worked out with the inmates, but I was curious to know how did you go from that to the experimental documentary that is Our Days…?
Jean-Gabriel Périot: At the very end of the workshop organized with the prisoners during which we had prepared the concert, we decided to make a film about this performance. I write “we” as it was not my own idea, but one that popped up from discussions I had with the curator who invited me and with the musician who worked with the inmates. There were two reasons to film the concert “outside”: we needed to shoot some images to bring back a video about what happened to the prisoners who stayed “inside” and we wanted to make some kind of testimony of the event. We didn’t spend all of the little money we had for this project, so we thought about a small edition of a box-set including a CD with the complete concert mixed with a sound documentary of the workshop, a booklet explaining the project and a DVD. With this DVD, the idea was more to make some kind of visual testimony of the event, I didn’t think we could make a “real” film. As I was working on the concert, I couldn’t really organize the shooting and I couldn’t be there as I was working on the music. But we thought that it could be possible to make “something”.
I asked to three DOPs to come and film the concert. The first one captured images for this short video I had to show inside the prison, for the inmates. That video was like a TV newscast, it had nothing to do with what will become “Our Days…” I asked to the two others to only film the audience of the concert. I asked them to take close-ups of the audience’s faces and to keep shooting each of them for more than a song.
As we had some very bad cameras and some very light foots, it was not really easy to make such lengthy close-up shots. But when I discovered the images some days after the concert, I was amazed by what the DOP did and I was really moved by the images they managed to shoot. Then, it was possible to do something more than a “testimony”, it was possible to make a film.
O. G.: I’m not even sure if calling it an experimental documentary is correct because I got the feeling that it’s more to your work than recording reality since your editing, the way you link those people’s reactions to the music they hear encourages the viewer to create fictional life stories for each character. How do you see it? Or better yet, how did you intend it while editing the footage?
J.-G. P.: For me, this film is a documentary, it shows what really happened during a concrete event. For sure, I understand one could question the frontiers of documentary and fiction within such a film. Who are the people on the images? Did they know they were being filmed? What did we ask of them?… It seems so incredible that those people never pay attention to the camera. One could think everything is “mise-en-scène”, that everything is staged. But nothing was asked from those people. The DPOs just filmed those people like they were.
During the concert, it was like everyone in the audience was experiencing an inner journey. No matter if they were linked to the inmates (as family members of some of them, or as people working with them inside the prison) or “random” people who just passed by or came because they read about it. During the screenings, the audience of the film questions who those persons are, their links with the prisoners etc. and creates its own stories to answers to those questions.
O.G.: I was actually meaning to ask you if they knew they were being filmed because I wondered if they were aware of the cameras, how you managed to capture all those emotions on their faces. People tend to be quite scared of the camera, yet here they seem so exposed.
J.-G. P.: Like I was saying, it’s almost unbelievable, but none of the people in the film paid attention to the camera. Even if they were really close to them as we didn’t have zooms. I think there are three reasons. The first one is that there were a lot of cameras during the concert: ours, the ones of TV journalists and also the ones of some random people. The second one is probably that those people didn’t realize that they were being filmed in close-up, perhaps they thought the DPOs were shooting large, wide shots. But, I think the real reason is that all the people in the audience were really moved by the concert. As if nothing else existed but the voices. When we showed the film in Orléans, the city where we filmed it, some people who had appeared in the film came and only then discovered they had been filmed. So I really believe that during the concert they were transported outside reality.
O.G. : Why did you chose to show only them, the people outside the walls of the prison?
J.-G. P.: My idea with the project was to create a link between the inmates and the audience, each of them on a side of the wall. As soon as I started to work on this project, I knew that this link will only be the voices of the prisoners. I really believe in the power of music as a tool to share emotions. I thought those voices, coming up from a closed place, will be enough to move the audience. I didn’t want to use images. Moreover, in France, the laws about the rights to film or photograph prisoners are really strict and complicated. As my project was about the voices, I didn’t want to go through the complicated administration labyrinth for something that was not the heart of the project. (And I was quite sure I would never get the authorization.)
So, when we planned to make a “remembering” of the event, we knew already we could only do so with the voices of the prisoners and the images of the audience.
O.G.: You end this “remembering” with a child applauding. Is there a meaning to that? Has this anything to do with the title you’ve chosen for your film?
J.-G. P.: When I decided to use this footage of the child, I knew this end could be a bit naïve. This shot was one of my favorites, but it was done at the end of the concert and the music is gone. So I couldn’t use this image during the film. I kept it for the end. For me, it is just another person in the audience, not a child. We could feel that he was as moved as the adults. It was enough for me to use it, even if I was aware that some people could read it differently.
O.G. : I was asking you before about the way your film came together while editing your raw footage and I’m also wondering how did your previous work, based especially on working with found footage, influenced the way you approached “Our days…” ?
J.-G. P.: I simply don’t know. I think this film, with its very slow editing, is closer to my fiction works to my archives films. All my fiction are really slow. I like to use a very slow rhythm in fiction as it is the only way to let little events – that couldn’t appear when one uses more traditional rhythm – happen on the actors’ faces or bodies. Some small changes in body-language, some actions or gestures bring us back to the actor/actress him/ herself, instead of just staying in the fictional layer of the actor’s performance.
O. G.: But it isn’t by any means a work of fiction. So where does this particular film stand in your work?
J.-G.P.: It opened some doors in my work… For sure, I discovered that, as filmmaker, I could believe in chance and spontaneity. I’m always planning everything in my films. But there, I did this film by chance. We decided to do it two days before the shooting, I was not there during it, we had bad cameras, but at the end, it’s a film I’m very proud of.
Until this film, I’ve never confronted myself to the “real world”. I only did found footage films and fiction ones. I thought that I would never make such a documentary as I was afraid to film within reality. In order to film I needed a point of view and I was not sure I had one. Now, I know I could go within reality and work with it.
And it has given me an unexpected opportunity. The woman in charge of the cultural activities in the jail asked me to come back to make a film inside. And I did. Making this first concert gave me the strength to go and work with the prisoners with my own tool, the cinema. And I understood then that I was able to go and work in such hard places with people experiencing complicated situations. It has really opened up my own work.