Approaching (J)JA (Gaëlle Boucand)

11 Nov, 22

AT: Watching these three films in a row, the remarkable coherence of the whole has struck me.I remember that in the time of the first film, you kept the nature of your link with this man rather secret, whereas in the last one, you fully assume the parentage. There’s even a scene where you tell him in some detail when the idea of making a film was born for you. Could you retrace the path that led you to this first film, JJA, and to persist with him beyond what he himself was willing to give, since he abandoned the last film along the way?

GB: […] When I first went to film him, I actually hardly knew him. I was particularly interested in the relationship he had with his house, which he himself had named Rosebud, and I had kept a very vivid memory of it since I went there for the first time at the age of 14. At that time, I imagined a setup located in the villa, which left a great deal to his self-mise-en-scene. What is most striking in this film is the figure of the tax exile, partly because that is what he willingly puts forward when he talks about his villa. I felt distant from this persona. I grew up in an environment that had little to do with his world, so it was not the place where I felt a possible link of attachment. As our relationship was not part of a “classic” genealogy of granddaughter/grandfather relationships, evoking this filiation in the context of this first film seemed irrelevant to me.
Afterwards, I wanted to develop this first portrait for different reasons. First of all, I think that I was motivated by concerns of form. I was interested in the question of filmic devices. JJA can also be seen as the perfect opposite, in terms of subject and filmic device, of my first film Gone to Croatan. The question of point of view was intrinsically related to this interest, and through it I wanted to experiment with different forms of cinema. Pierre Huygues’ The Third Memory and Kiarostami’s three films about the village of Koker (Where is the Friend’s Home?, Life and Nothing More a.k.a. And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees) were among the works that had made the greatest impression on me. Jean-Jacques and I already knew each other better, our relationship had evolved thanks to the first film. However, it took me a while before I knew how to approach the character differently – from what angle, in fact. Until I learned that he had just completely redecorated his house, and he had also changed his name in the same period. For me, this house (and the name) has always been the focal point. So this event, this decision to completely redesign it, triggered something. I had enough material to continue; I tested a filmic device that was very different from that of the first film and he immediately understood how to use it.
The second film, Change of scenery, is anchored in the present, where the tangible world, the things around us, are being moved. This movement leads to another: the acquisition of a new name and two new passports. This enables me to delve deeper, to go beyond appearances and to access the past for the third film. The questions I’m trying to address concern me, they have to do with Jewish identity, and so our filiation link is part of the film’s subject. But it was at this very moment that he decided to leave the project, and I understood that this last film could only be made once he had left. I needed him to disappear so that the mise en scène of the first film could be completely overturned and the story could be finished.

A.T. Indeed, this mise-en-scène in the first film has everything to do with control. You say that it was him who called you back, ten years after you had first suggested making a film. In a way, this trilogy evokes a lineage of deliberately ambiguous self-portraits or self-directions, such as Barbet Schroeder’s Idi Amin Dada. Since all documentaries are based on a more or less accepted contract with a subject, and JA. obviously does not take contracts lightly, I was wondering about the contract you were agreeing on. Was he involved in the production? Was the framing negotiated in advance? Did he want to be involved in the editing? I imagine that the existence of each new film has something to do with his appreciation of the previous one…

G. B. Yes, each film proposes a form of auto-mise-en-scène, but they occur within filmic devices that circumscribe them, like rules of the game with each time different constraints. Barbet Schroeder uses a more classic direct cinema device, which in my opinion gives Amin Dada more freedom during the shooting – not to mention the fact that the situation of a European going to film in Uganda induces a very different relationship to the subject being filmed, not to say an opposite one, but that’s another question. In JJA, I imagined a series of sequences based on the surveillance camera system that he himself had installed in his villa. For each of these shots, a precise frame defined a perimeter within which he could move. If he went out of the frame, he was off camera, but I didn’t move the camera, it was up to him to come back into the frame, as he sometimes does in the garden. It’s a kind of power struggle between the two of us. Moreover, the framing of this predefined perimeter allowed me to keep him at a particular distance from my camera, or alternatively I would frame him from behind, when he was lying down. Within this device, he had the freedom to say what he wanted, with the indication from me to start from the elements of the villa that surrounded him. So he had a lot of space, especially because his speech was totally free, but this space for auto-mise-en-scène was very controlled by me. It is true that this first film has everything to do with control; I think that we are both, during the shooting, in a very strong situation of control.
In Change of Scenery, it seems to me that we have loosened this control a little on both sides. However, it is still a form of self-staging within a device that restricts the possible actions. We follow him on camera in activities that I had suggested to him: he finishes his work and shows his house to different people from his entourage. This idea amused him, because it corresponded to his obsession at the time. So we staged these tours, organised for the film, together.
Finally, in JA, the initial idea was to do some research together, side by side, in Rosebud, which could feed into the writing of a fiction film. This time, the contract you mention is negotiated in front of the camera. We clashed very quickly, and I chose to keep it in the film. In the end, out of the three films, the only moments of disagreement between us or verbalized negotiations are the ones I kept in the edit in JA. He never argued about any of the frames, sequences, or set-ups in any of the films. Rather, he was always very enthusiastic.
You mention production: these are questions that particularly interest me, especially because I have set up a production company in which I think about the singular relations that are created between the forms of the films and their conditions of production for each project. To give you a more precise answer about his participation, I have to retrace the history of each film, because the three production models are very different.
In the case of JJA, you point out that he called me back because he finally agreed to make the film… in a way, he had to agree to let me film, but the time it took to think about it was a bit unusual! This first film was made on a very small budget. I went to Rosebud alone to shoot for three days, with a camera, a stand and a wireless microphone. I edited the film with Lila Pinell, a long-time friend, then we did a home-made mix and a producer friend from Berlin arranged an afternoon of colour grading in a studio. JJA paid some fees, it was never contractually agreed, but if it had been, he would have had a minimal percentage of rights to the film, compared to my investment as a director and producer.
I then met Olga Rozenblum who handled the distribution of this first film and set up a donation agreement with him to produce Change of scenery, which did not grant him any rights to the film to come, but allowed us to shoot with a small crew. Then the post-production of this second film was made possible by a departmental grant.
The production of JA took much longer. In the meantime, I had set up a production company with other women directors, in which the idea was to work horizontally. So I co-produced the film with Léa Todorov. I learned a lot from this. It was a long journey, because it is a film that required a certain amount of funding, partly because it required more research. For example, I spent a year filming people who had stories of changing names in their families, as well as young businessmen and tax exiles; I was looking for stories that resonated with the biography written by Jean-Jacques/Jacob. In the end, after having discarded all this material, I only kept the meeting with the Jewish teenagers. Then the shooting in the mountains took place under the conditions of a fiction film, with a larger crew, a fox… In this third film, he did not participate financially at all. He never saw JA because, after the phone call we see in the film, he asked me to stop talking to him about cinema, which allowed me to take the liberty of having Selim in the film. It is also in this sense that things are completely reversed from JJA to JA.
In all three cases, he never asked for anything during the editing. I wouldn’t have wanted to let him take decisions there, but he never tried anyway, so the problem didn’t arise. He made a suggestion to put music on JJA; I said we’d try it, and then the film was selected in a festival and we didn’t talk about it anymore. In the case of JJA and Change of scenery, I showed him the films once the edits were complete. I remember Lila and I saying to each other during the editing of JJA: if we get it right, he will like the film as much as we do. In the end, he liked the film a lot. Which brings us to the question of his appreciation; yes, it certainly played a part in his motivation to continue. He talked about JJA to everyone and was very keen to continue; no doubt the energy we see him display in Change of Scenery also emanates from there, in addition to the energy of renewal…
For Change of Scenery, the situation was different, because I finished the film while we were still shooting footage that would later become part of JA. Change of scenery and JA were originally one film, there was supposed to be a shift from visiting the house when I arrived and the writing of a fiction. I was in the process of derush the first few shoots, and I thought that this part in which Rosebud was getting a makeover could become a separate film. The editing was very quick: in three weeks the film was completed. Once it was finished, we watched it together, but he almost made no comments, he was waiting for the following film.
And it turns out that in JA, he gets demotivated and leaves. So I can put forward several hypotheses about the reason for his departure: perhaps the one that the film points out the most is that he leaves the project because we are approaching the war period, but you can also sense that he leaves because we disagree on how to continue the film, and you can also think that if he is no longer at the centre or in the picture, he is no longer interested in the adventure. But maybe it is also this viewing of Change of scenery, while we were shooting, that contributed to demotivate him, that the image of himself reflected in the film played a role in this; I can’t really know, he never spoke to me about it.

A. T. There is a dimension that appears particularly in the reconsideration of the three films, which is its scenic dimension. The frames are scenes that an actor takes possession of, in order to play for an audience, yet isolated between four walls, those of Rosebud, which you emphasise by your device. The film is almost entirely devoid of any human presence other than his own. The montage connects different scenes in the house between which the actor passes, his repetition producing continuity, across the seams, like a ubiquitous montage of surveillance cameras performed from a security post, in a kind of logorrhea which is both comic and disturbing. Obviously, there is a comedy in the king’s solitude in his castle, especially since it is apparently as a recluse that he praises money for “the freedom it gives”.
In JJA, the audience is the spectator of the film. In Change of scenery, he invites himself an audience: his driver, his gardeners, his workers, his suppliers, his doctors, his various contractors. This second film seems as populated as the first was deserted, but it’s the same thing: he invites onto his stage people to whom he is not actually listening and who remain his auditors. The relationship with his wife, isolated in her private wing, deaf to his stories at the risk of being mute as well, is particularly troubling.
Some of JA replicates this empire, but this time with you, and in a way that puts him in a stalemate. The power he tries to take over the making of the film forces him to step out of his role as an actor. He loses interest in those who could play him, and only finds a “little man” to replace him. The fourth wall of the stage appears completely, but in a somewhat derisory way, as a simple cartoon surface. So you and the casting director take the stage and tell the story, in the particularly bare four-sided box of a workroom, but in a way that makes room for the listener and new actors. Then the fourth wall can theoretically disappear. We move from Rosebud’s garden to the Swiss mountains and to a collective history; the documentary work stops at the threshold of a fiction, or even a legend, which I think this ruin of a castle represents.
This lengthy diversions is perhaps to ask you where the desire for this fiction, which is constantly emerging in the whole of this trilogy, stands for you today.

G. B. Thank you for this view on the films and this question which is indeed an essential interrogation for me at this moment, at the end of this trilogy.
Yes, this castle ruin is somehow the other face of Rosebud, the inverted image of the villa that we discover in JJA. It is the decor that remains after the deconstruction. In JA, I try to scratch the surface, to see what this new name and this new Israeli-Swiss nationality cover. It reveals a more complex, more intimate Jewish identity, linked to the trauma of the Second World War, while simultaneously discovering the snippets of a fiction that grows and opens up to an elsewhere. This double movement is linked to the questions raised by the post-memory generation, which relays and revisits the trauma of the Shoah in fiction, through the idea that if imagination does not take over the territory of the documentary, real memory will run out.
It is a film in which I ask myself what it is to be Jewish today, what it means for him, for me, for others. Finally, this search leads me in a totally unexpected way to Selim’s story. Joanna (the casting director) suggested three young people who had very different relationships to their Jewish identity. I was seeking to be surprised by these encounters, to find unexpected echoes between their stories and Jacob’s, but neither Joanna nor I had imagined that the echoes would be created in this place, through a dual history that is both Jewish and Muslim.
The desire for this fiction gives breath to the film, both literally and figuratively: not only does it allow us to breathe beyond the limits of Rosebud, but it also allows us to join stories, to form a collective history, as you rightly say. It’s no small thing that the space opened up by fiction provides this. I think that in this trilogy, fiction ended up emerging as a necessity. Today, thanks to this experience, it is at the origin of new projects. […]

Extract from an interview to be published in JJA – Change of scenery – JA, Rosebud, Naïma