There’s an unspoken relationship between a nation and its artists that rarely gets exposed during the artists’ lifetime. While history can be conceived as a linear time-line of events, resulting from various scenarios of cause and effect, it is not until after the death of an artist that it becomes clear how their work can be seen as a reflection of various cultural milestones and happenings. In other words, the artist’s work will always, once canonized, be able to be conceived as something formed by the goings on the world around them. Raymond Depardon and Claudine Nougret present a different examination of this relationship.
Similarly to the recently released Stuart Hall Project by John Akromfrah, Journal de France details a life that is not only one deeply affected by the political and cultural events of the times lived through but a life that is still ongoing. For a film to reflect this, it could be argued that distancing itself from the subject in hand (that of the work of Depardon, a prevalent and daring photo and video journalist from France) would perhaps be the best policy. Instead, Journal De France benefits enormously from being a highly autobiographical product showcasing a hugely complex career that, in equal complexity, shows the last forty years of France’s political and historical dialogues.
Depardon presents himself as a travelling photographer, using an extremely traditional looking camera as a means to visit his past haunts. In this sense, the film beautifully captures perception, allowing the modern digital images and the journeys they display as a way into the memories of the journalist and into the mass of Depardon’s archive footage. The natural clash between the beautifully crisp digital footage and the various different types of archive footage is handled well, almost creating chapter-like rhythms to the film in spite of being very earnestly in chronological order (in terms of the archive footage).
One of the big draws to Journal De France being advertised is its footage of French New Wave directors and stars, namely Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Alain Delon. While these moments prove interesting, they pale in comparison to the more affecting war and on-the-ground footage. The Godard and Delon footage in particular is not only fleeting but almost deliberately there as a contrast to the brutality that was being witness within the more adventurous projects of Depardon mere minutes before. Rohmer’s presence in the film is more natural and seems a gentler inclusion with it being early feature work for Claudine Nougaret as a sound recordist in Summer (or The Green Ray, 1986).
For the rest of Depardon’s archive footage, much time is spent examining conflict, particularly that caused by the last dying breaths of France’s imperialist past. There’s an even starker contrast between the peaceful modern day life of the photographer and the raw, ravaged places whose conscious confusion of identity is resulting in copious bloodshed. The film makes use of this jolt, if only to show the undercurrents behind the psyche of Depardon; beneath a calm and gentle exterior is a vast experience of close-up brutality.
Perhaps the most poignant element comes from Depardon’s coverage of the Chad hostage situation involving Francoise Claustre. Given unprecedented access to the situation, the photographs and footage is emotionally draining, perhaps even infuriating given the French government’s subsequent incarcerating of Depardon himself for trying to highlight the hostage’s situation. His work seems more than just that of a documenter but that of an activist, deliberately highlighting the travesties of the post-war collapse of power and uncomfortably forcing the public to acknowledge it.
Outside of these moments, the film’s modern counterpoint does provide some light relief. Revisiting a town, he remembers a group of gentlemen sitting outside a building and pleasingly finds them still there twenty years later. He takes their picture, allowing for some jokey realisations of the coming of old age and the passing of time. This is a key theme within the documentary, specifically that the fight against the passing of time as one that should be left alone, instead allowing for a quiet contemplation of the past.
For someone whose past has been marked by an incessant need to film and photograph in dangerous places, this makes for compelling watching. In the end though, Journal De France has a sense of cathartic realisation with the impression given that Depardon has rarely visited these past works, perhaps out of fear of dredging up old memories. This quiet reflection is written over his rather mournful look which persists throughout the film, coming to the fore when he ultimately decides to turn back while on the road and return to a more comfortable destination. In this sense, he is an inward reflection of France’s outward modern past; moving forwards and away from history while keeping a watchful eye on the potential repeating cataclysm of post-colonialism’s crumbling.