A Conversation with Faces Places Documentary Filmmakers Agnès Varda and JR at the New York Film Festival

Director Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist JR travel through rural France, forming a powerful friendship in their first film collaboration, Faces Places.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

FACES PLACES (VISAGES VILLAGES)

Director Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist JR journey through rural France, forming a powerful friendship in their first film collaboration, Faces Places (Visages Villages).  Winner of The Grolsch People’s Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto Film Festival and Golden Eye at the Cannes Film Festival Faces Places played at the 2017 New York Film Festival where the filmmakers spoke about their work.

When I interviewed Varda at her installation at the Blum and Poe gallery in New York City in April 2017 for this publication, she talked about the upcoming release of Faces Places at festivals.

Varda: JR and I got along very well; we have a 55-year age difference. We met people in the villages, listened to them. I took pictures of them, and JR enlarged them.

Documentary feeds my mind, it feeds my soul.  Filming is also learning to live with other people, learning to share something with people you may not have met before. And so it is for me especially over the last years. I like taking the time to listen to people.  The film asks: How do you perceive what’s happening to us and what’s happening to the people we meet?”

We have to share words, share time. If our film reflects that, then it’s a drop of friendship and compassion in the world. That’s what we know how to do and I tried to do it well.

Faces Places can been described as a film memoir. A road trip of two artists. The film is about their journey, not necessarily the destination.

“Making documentaries is a school of life,” Varda told me at the 2014 Locarno International Film Festival where I asked her about her writing process, describing her style as cinécriture – writing on film. “In The Beaches of Agnès I am turning the mirror to the people who surround me. It shows how you build the life with others.”

Varda is the sole female director associated with the French New Wave, even labeled the grandmother of the New Wave, a title she disputed for several reasons, one being she was the same age as her male directors of this category.

Consider this label instead: A storyteller not bound by convention.

(L-R) JR, Varda, Taubin

Varda’s visual memory is reflected in this film as it captures her shared artistic sensibilities with JR: two photographers, two artists, two friends, sharing this journey together with the intention to also share it with others. The idea of community is one of the themes that the filmmakers discussed at their talk at the New York Film Festival with film critic Amy Taubin.

Listening to Varda and JR talk on stage, we witness two friends teasing the other and joking, but their respect and love for each other is undeniable.

Taubin asked how they decided to work together.

Varda:  It came in a strange way. We met once because someone said we should meet. And JR came to my place. And then we decided to do something together, we didn’t know that it would be a film.

JR: I didn’t know if Agnès was a nice lady or would beat me with a stick of wood. (They laugh then he looks at Varda): “It was friendship at first sight.

Varda then remarks on JR’s photography murals: “I love that he is making people bigger than life.”

Together Varda and JR embarked on their road trip in JR’s camera-van (a photo booth that prints out large-scale black and white portraits of its subjects), which they then paste onto walls and buildings along with their subjects in their communities.  We watch the before and after process as the filmmakers interview people reacting to their murals, giving the viewer insight into how they see themselves, how they are seen by others and the world in which they live.

Seeing, more specifically whether it’s the eye of the camera lens, JR’s eyes hidden behind his dark glasses or Varda’s failing vision, is a thematic thread that runs throughout the film.

Varda: We see enough for what we wanted to do. You need the mind to look, the heart. Looking at people is not just an eye problem.

JR: The photos are made to be part of the community.  When I take photos anywhere I let the people do their own projects and I send them back their prints. So they really decide if they want to become empowered by the art and the message they have behind it.  That question comes up when you are a filmmaker, creating projects with people in each place.

Walking with Agnès and going into small villages, I wanted to know what she was seeing in her eyes, and she wanted to know what I was seeing behind my glasses so we got to know each other.

(Residents of Pirou in Faces Places. Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

Varda: “JR is facing my greatest desire. To meet new faces so they don’t fall down the holes in my memory.”

Varda then discussed that they didn’t want to do just sketches of people, and their intention was not to do a travelogue.  JR added that there was no screenplay and no special effects in the film.

Taubin commented on the working class pride that their subjects demonstrated.

JR: That’s who we met. We didn’t scout for that.  We made sure we didn’t interview the mayor, for example. We interviewed the mailman; this was important because of the relationship he had with everyone in the community. Everyone knew him already. He explains that his work is disappearing. In the past he would go home with fruit from the people, and about the communication he had with the people, and how people are now disconnecting.

Varda: We never asked who they were voting for or their politics. We were interested in person-to-person.

JR talked about how using paste and water the people put up the photographs and how they reconnected this way; they had to speak to their neighbor and reconnect.

JR: The process of people gathering, making the artwork, the community around it and their reactions to it are an important part of the artmaking process to me.

Varda: We met these workers in a chemical factory. It’s a tough life for these workers. We asked, if we can make a collective portrait of them. Link with us. Link with the audience. Can we share their life and we are the go-between so their life comes to you. Can we get something of them that’s unique and important, and JR makes it big with images.  We learned what it means to work at the last day at a factory, we learn about the lady, who is the last one living on the street. After the film she had to leave, she’s gone. We had the feeling it was precious to film that at that moment.

We try to capture time because time is always going away, so is my life.

Agnès Varda (left) and JR (right) in Faces Places directed by Agnès Varda and JR. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Faces Places is now playing in Manhattan and will open in Los Angeles October 13, and more cities to follow.

Learn more about the Faces Places.

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