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Lens view of life

A retrospective of Nicolas Philibert, the French docu-story teller, at the Alliance Francaise, will showcase some of his best works


WATCH A Nicolas Philibert film and you will not think of the documentary in the same way again. Nothing obvious or didactic, no message drumming. You are not even sure of the maker's point of view except that it is completely humane, maintaining a moral balance without judgment. No raw slice of life, but his reality pierces.

A retrospective of this French docu-story teller at the Alliance Francaise (April 26-30) starts with "Louvre City" where you wander behind visitors' range, into winding underground passages, spooky storehouses stacked with thousands of art works, sculptures looming under diaphanous sheets. The viewing eye turns camera lens as the working staff hang paintings and eerie echoes tap out footsteps. The fascination for silence is again obvious in "Animals," recording the renovation of the zoology section of the national museum. In both, Philibert sees the covert in the overt, and life in the inert.

The perceptions are more intriguing in "Every Little Thing" from the border realms of the mentally disabled. A play is staged in a psychiatric clinic. With music for subtext the film blurs margins between `sane' caretakers and `insane' patients. The maker explores strangeness in others only to find things unlooked for, discoveries unexpected — not outside the self, but within.

"In the Land of the Deaf'' extends our minds to grasp the magic of communication, in the silence of deaf culture. Starting with a fictional screenplay, the filmmaker switched to documentary as his best means of telling true stories with real characters. As with his other films, Philibert avoids purveying information. He gives the experience whole, believing that cinema can create metaphors like every art form, to `reinterpret and rewrite the world.'

Philibert likes "the element of risk in working without knowing how it will turn out." As in "To Be and To Have" (2002), an unforgettable camera adventure in a single classroom, one among 7,000 such village schools in France, where the same master teaches a dozen pupils of various age groups. This film frames the interactions of teacher, parent and pupil with wit, tenderness and imagination. Nothing saccharine, but the children steal your heart. The teacher reminds you of the best moments in your school life. Of a serenity gone with the wind.

How did he capture their vulnerabilities? "I want to be accepted by my subjects, not forgotten. Be discreet, not invisible. No hidden cameras, no sly recordings. I tried to win their trust and acceptance. They knew I was not judging or prying into private moments." How did the village overcome camera consciousness? "The camera does affect behaviour. I try to keep it minimal. The biggest part of my work is to know when it's right to shoot and when it's not."

That instinct guides Philibert's treatment of human and non-human subjects, in `live' shots, under natural lighting. Watch a Nicolas Philibert's film and you will not see life in the same way again.

To have more

EVER HEARD of a person in a documentary film suing the maker for a share in the profits? Georges Lopez, the village schoolmaster in Nicolas Philibert's "To Be and To Have" (2002), has done just that, demanding 250,000 Euros for the "violation of his ownership rights to the film's images." This case has grabbed media attention in France for its unique claim. It shocked the general public to see Lopez in colours drastically opposed to the gentle, noble and unworldly schoolmaster in the documentary.

Lopez refused payment for promoting the film. "He wants to be paid like Catherine Deneuve or Gerard Depardieu," Philibert exclaims. "Documentaries are based on the principle of freedom. When you pay, the subject becomes your employee and is treated accordingly. This question came up earlier in France — does the landscape photographer have to pay the man who owns the land that he photographs?"

Acclaimed by two million viewers in France, and more in European countries, "To Be and To Have" is getting a different sort of publicity with the court wrangle that has raised new legal questions.

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

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