La Vie moderne, 2009. In an episode in Richard Copans’s autobiographical essay, Racines, an elderly man provides Copans with a tour of his grandparents’ house in Picardy, explaining that, like the expression “to put under glass” something that is cherished, he was inspired to convert the modest, turn of the (nineteenth) century home into a museum as a means of capturing the essence of a way of life that no longer exists. In a sense, La Vie moderne, the third chapter in Raymond Depardon’s pastoral work in progress Profils paysans, expresses a similar sentiment of admiration and nostalgia. Returning to the farming village of Le Villaret in the mountainous region of Cévennes in the Massif Central, Depardon first visits the remote farm of cattle ranchers, brothers Marcel and Raymond Privat who, both already in their 80s, find the physical demands of their livelihood an increasing challenge, even with the begrudging addition of a family member, Cécile, the new wife of their middle-aged nephew Alain, who left the city life of Calais to live as a farmer after meeting her future husband through a personal ad in the newspaper. Struggling to adjust with unfamiliar household dynamics caused by Cécile and her teenaged daughter, Camille’s introduction into what had been a bachelors’ home for decades – and perhaps more subtly, their waning authority over family matters as a result of Cécile’s influence on Alain – Marcel and Raymond bristle at the idea of a generation gap that has widened since Cécile’s arrival, even as they complain of a general lack of deference to elders and the old ways.
Incorporating recurring, seasonal images of long, winding roads that weave the farms together into a collective portrait of isolation and obsolescence – a theme that is insightfully prefigured in the landing shot of Marcel grazing a flock of sheep with his Occitan-trained dog, Mirette – Depardon further juxtaposes images of death that implicitly correlate the fate of these ancestral farms: a visit to the reclusive Paul Argaud who is watching a televised broadcast of Abbé Pierre’s funeral; the rapidly declining health of Raymond’s prized cow; the news of Marcelle Brès’s death, who had been the last inhabitant of the neighboring hamlet of Lhermet. However, the crisis of a disappearing way of life is not only relegated to an aging rural population, as a younger generation of farmers also echo similar tales of hardship and a limited future: Brès’s former tenant farmers, Jean-François and Nathalie recount their struggle in the previous year with a virulent parasite that killed several cows, providing not so subtle encouragement to their son to study hard in order to have better opportunities and not follow in their footsteps; Germaine and Marcel Challaye, planning for their retirement, are resigned to selling the family farm after their children expressed a lack of interest in assuming control; Abel Jean and Gilberte Roy have entrusted the farm to their youngest son, Daniel who, in turn, resents being rooted to one place, and prefers the itinerant life of a seasonal worker; a young mother, Amandine Valla, eager to try her hand at farming, cannot afford the added maintenance of raising livestock and is forced to abandon her avocation. Closing with the shot of a sunlit narrow road that now leads away from familiar pastures, Depardon abstains from a direct commentary on cultural extinction and instead, captures the ephemeral moment under his own preservative glass, casting a lingering, reverent gaze over a gradually transforming landscape that is distant and sublime.
Les Années déclic, 1984. Composed of a series of personal archives, commissioned photographs, and film excerpts projected onto a blank screen by photojournalist and filmmaker Raymond Depardon as he provides a humble and self-effacing stream of consciousness biographical commentary on a self-assembled pictorial curriculum vitae to commemorate 20 years of professional photography, Les Années déclic favorably recalls the meditative film essays of Chris Marker, most notably Sans soleil (albeit narrated in first-person), as Depardon interweaves memory (at times, triggered by the recognition of images and at other times, selectively trivialized or highlighted by the benefit of hindsight), captured images, and vocational (and existential) introspection on the toll of his career on his relationship with his beloved parents. Mapping his bold (if not naïvely reckless) career trajectory from introverted hobbyist and reluctant farm beneficiary, to optical and photography studio apprentice, to freelance celebrity photographer, then to international photojournalist, Depardon assembles an equally fascinating and heartbreaking personal testimony of post World War II global crisis and social upheaval: the Algerian War, the Vietnam War, the secession of Biafra, the May 68 protests, the rise of the Khymer Rouge in Cambodia, the civil war in Chad, and (perhaps the most contemporarily portentous and sobering) the Soviet phase of the Afghan War. Integrating objective commentary of international tragedy with the pensive reflection of personal loss, Depardon achieves a thoughtful, distilled, lucid, and articulate introspection on the human imprint of turbulent history.
Un Homme sans l’occident (Untouched By the West), 1992. Adapted from the Diégo Brosset novel, , the film chronicles the life of a nomadic tracker called Alifa at the turn of the century African desert as he struggles against the assimilation of increasingly hostile rival hunting tribes (undoubtedly due to the influx of western-made rifles made increasingly available at their disposal) and widespread banditry. From the sublime, high contrast, extended opening sequence that depicts Alifa’s rescue as a last survivor of his nomadic family – in a final, desperate act of instinctive human survival (captured in extreme long shot that culminates to an uncomfortably cruel close-up) that willingly sacrifices the most valuable (and viably essential) possession of the tribe in order to offer a chance at survival for its lone (and perhaps, last) descendent – to his “adoption” into a hunting tribe where he hones his instinctual skill as a tracker, to his fall from grace at the hands of a formidable, rival tribe, Depardon creates an exquisitely photographed ethnographic portrait that is unobtrusive and objective, yet intimate. Depardon’s raw, yet aesthetically refined, meticulously observed, and intrinsically detailed camerawork powerfully, but understatedly, illustrates the unsentimental brutality and austere, savage beauty of the unforgiving landscape: a forgotten region where relentless sandstorms and indistinct, featureless topography literally erode and sweep away with time the evidentiary tracks of human trespass – and figuratively, man’s transgression against nature, humanity, and indigenous culture.
Empty Quarter: A Woman in Africa, 1985. The untranslated, partial English title of French photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Raymond Depardon’s first feature film, Empty Quarter: Une femme en Afrique provides an early clue into the nature of its indirect structure. Serving as a silent, but perceptive, omniscient, and inalterable translator for the unseen filmmaker’s retrospection, the camera functions as a voyeur as well as a subjective filter through which he searches the residual aftermath of a failed relationship in the resigned desire to make sense of it. Proceeding in voiceover commentary, the film chronicles the journey of a displaced, globe-trotting filmmaker who offers a spare bed in his hotel room to an aimless, jilted young woman (Françoise Prenant) – a shared accommodation and co-dependency (if not emotional intimacy) that would inevitably lead her to become his constant companion, erstwhile muse, and eventual lover as they travel on an extended road trip from Djibouty to Alexandria. Hiding behind a perpetually recording camera, the unseen filmmaker becomes an existential paradox of presence and absence, directness and evasiveness, estrangement and intimacy, as the young woman begins to fill the empty silence with mundane, passing thoughts, attempting – often in frustration – to communicate with him through the opaque veil of a refracting camera lens (note the recurring images of her silhouette through translucent muslin curtains and mosquito netting). Rather than using the camera as an instrument of direct truth, the object serves as a safe obstruction for the silent filmmaker. But can the camera conceal the implication of his gaze? Perhaps the key lies in his filming of the young woman at a zoological exhibition where her image is captured, not directly, but through her reflections on a series of glass enclosures. Indeed, Depardon’s theme of perspective and reflection can be seen in both the temporal and psychological framework for the film, as the cumulative footage of the trip not only serves as a visual chronicle for the failed love affair, but also as a translating mirror for the enigmatic filmmaker’s unarticulated desire – where lingering shots of the contours of the young woman’s body, her sleeping form, the nape of her neck, and her disembodied legs wading in the water reveal an intrinsic sensuality, melancholic wanderlust, and ache of longing within the intranscendable, empty spaces of the human heart.
Captive of the Desert, 1990. A caravan lackadaisically assembles at the foreground near the site of a desert fortress at dawn, and is spurred into action by the appearance of three figures bisecting the frame as they emerge from the fortress to join the expedition. An extended, medium shot of the cavalcade as they traverse the stationary frame on an undefined journey through the seemingly endless desert reveals the curious sight of a lone, non-native young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) at the rear of the procession of nomadic tribespeople and camels, as a pair of men dressed in paramilitary gear flank her to prevent escape. A subsequent, sublimely photographed image at dusk taken from an extreme long, axial shot of a crepuscular sun disappearing into the horizon captures the caravan longitudinally traversing the horizon. These establishing images of dislocation, separation, and inevitable transformation provide an understated, yet incisive framework into Raymond Depardon’s poetic, elegantly rendered, and thoughtful portrait of alterity and isolation in Captive of Desert. Drawing inspiration from his extensive coverage of the 1974 hostage kidnapping and protracted captivity of French archaeologist Françoise Claustre by Toubou rebels in Chad during the Frolinat Rebellion, Depardon eschews the underlying international politicization, geographic specificity, and social repercussions of the incident to create a broader social exposition on the eternal nature of cultural isolation and assimilation – a sense of timeless division that is established in the introductory sequences of silent migration and decontextualized spaces (note the absence of a specific geographic destination in their tribal migration, only to a series of self-constructed encampments). At the core of the film is the unnamed European woman’s paradoxical imprisonment in a land of vast, open – and largely unsecured – spaces, where scarcity of life-sustaining resources and distance from western civilization imposes its own natural and psychological imprisonment. Through recurring aesthetic compositions of intersection, bifurcation, and symmetry, Depardon creates a metaphoric landscape where communion between civilizations is not hindered by ethnography or language, but by the very consciousness of an intranscendable distance of otherness.
Acquarello (2004-2009) [reprinted]