When I had the privilege of learning about photographer and film maker Raymond Depardon at the Robert Burns Centre Film Theatre Film Club screening of the documentary Journal du France (2012) little did I know that filmmaker and friend Frederic Erpelding would send me some earlier examples of Depardon’s documentary film making spread across two French DVD’s. Both of which have under titles for the main feature but not for the interviews with the director, which is a great shame.
The first film I watched was Delits Flagrants, or to give it its English title Caught in the Acts, released in 1994. The documentary opens with us witnessing two men handcuffed to policemen who are escorting them through the long inhospitable corridors that lead from the Prefecture of Police to the Paris Courthouse. This is the first documentary to be shot in the Palais de Justice in Paris and allows Depardon to show his audience some of the everyday working’s of the French legal system.
A person caught in a criminal act by the police is held in custody then ordered by a Public Prosecutor to be sent to a hearing in the Law Courts. This person appears before a District Attorney who informs him/her of the alleged felony and hears their statement in the offices of the 8th district in charge of crimes. After the first hearing either the person is given what is known as an ‘immediate pleading’ in which case he/she may consult a lawyer prior to trial by a public criminal court or he/she are dismissed and ordered to appear in court at a later date. Depardon follows the procedural itinerary of the accused from arrival in the holding cell until seeing a lawyer.
Strangely enough 86 arrested people agreed to be filmed and 14 of these were chosen for inclusion in the final cut. They all had their family names changed to help safeguard their anonymity. Using a fixed camera and no commentary we are spectators to this rather sad demonstration of the legal system and how it deals with people. Most of the ‘accused’ have been mixed up with drugs and/or alcohol, some have anger problems both verbal and physical and others just can’t keep their hands of off other peoples property. We see both men and women appear before the District Attorney. One of the women is a prostitute, deals drugs and is HIV positive and not for the first time, by the sound of it, has been charged with stealing a motor car for which she has no licence to drive. The odd one out of the ‘14’ is an 18 year old middle class student charged with spraying graffiti on the public transport system and when confronted by the guard, sprayed him as well, a violent act according to his charge sheet. Put on probation he is released to appear in court at a later date.
I would sum this documentary up by saying that although it’s very interesting it’s also very sad to see that most of the people that appear are from the lower end of the French social ladder with no way up. But Depardon is certainly a filmmaker that shows empathy with his subjects, be they the accused or the hard working court officials.
The second film Ten Minutes of Silence for John Lennon (1980) is a 10-minute documentary filmed by Raymond Depardon in New Yorks Central Park with no real sound other than the helicopters that hover over the crowds. Filmed in one long take it shows the respectful ceremony dedicated by the American people to John Lennon after his murder. A moving document to not only a great man but also to the end of an era. “Imagine no heaven or hell. Imagine no country’s therefore nothing to kill or die for” Maybe I am a dreamer?
The final documentary is Reporters (1981). Filmed over one month in October 1981 it follows a group of Gamma Agency photojournalist as they go about their work photographing various politicians including Jacques Chirac and Georges Marchais General Secretary of the French Communist Party who they follow closely on the French Presidential election trail. We also get a chance to see a very funny sequence when the photojournalist hassle Richard Gere. They are always on the lookout for so-called “superstars” like the ones at the opulent Cartier sponsored party, which included Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve, Ursula Andress and a rather disinterested Serge Gainsbourg. You find out that Gene Kelly can speak French being photographed along side singing star Mireille Mathieu and that Jean-Luc Godard needs a haircut! More seriously we observe anti fascist and anti racialist demonstrations.
Using a handheld camera and never saying a word Depardon allows the photographers to do the talking. It demonstrates how hard these men have to work with very little time off, rarely seeing their families and appearing to be stressed and bored most of the time – hanging about for hours to eventually miss your target will not help. The documentary also shows us French life that goes on around all these “important luminaries” and gives the impression that with a camera in your hand you are allowed access anywhere! A special thank you to my friend in Luxembourg for the opportunity of seeing these inspired documentaries.