The word that springs to mind in relation to Julie Chaffort’s film The Silent Boat is that of picture(s) subtly following one another, in a sequence. How to maintain these static, boxed and danced poses without the landscaped backdrop, without songs, music, instruments and the crackling of a record, which work together, in order to listen in order to see, and see in order to hear? The morning mist suspends the course of time, and makes things motionless. What more normal, all of a sudden, than an attentive choir addressing an apparently captivated horse? For her film, which was shot in Monflanquin, Julie Chaffort wanted to get this town’s inhabitants to be involved. So she organized encounters in the various sports and cultural clubs. Every person endowed with an atypical physique or a lopsided gait becomes a character of fable whom there would be no question of laughing at.
The Silent Boat is preceded by Pas un bruit/Not a Noise. Unlike The Silent Boat, this film was shot with actors whom Julie Chaffort knows well. The film’s plot and the voice-overs make direct reference to fragments of short stories written by Tarjei Vesaas, and brought together in the book La barque le soir.
Pas un bruit
2014, 22 mn 28
The idea of making this film came in the wake of Hot-Dog. In fact it’s the last shot in that film which made me want to make Pas un bruit: a film shot with a hand-held camera, using close-ups and no props. In a word, going against everything I’d produced up until then. Oddly enough, though, this film was made in a very gentle way, with no doubts and no frustration.
To do that, I decided to work with actors I knew well and who themselves know my artistic world well, and the way I work. There had to be a great deal of trust between us because when we were filming, the actor had to abandon himself completely to the camera. It’s not an easy thing to do. There was a great feeling of closeness between the camera and the actor’s body. It was important to be able to accommodate that. We filmed in the Les Jalles area, at dawn and at sunset throughout the month of May 2013. Four days of shooting. In tandem with those images, I wanted there to be voice-overs conveying the emotional states of the characters, their questions, and their doubts. So I decided to compose a script based on fragments of several short stories written by Tarjei Vesaas in the book La Barque le soir. There are also personal compositions. Tarjei Vesaas has this capacity to be at once in the real and in the imaginary. He manages to say intimate things, and bring out inner conflicts, while also being very poetic. I find that rare. I allowed myself to re-use his words, and re-write sentences with his words and mine to recount the thinking of the three characters in Pas un bruit. JC
La barque silencieuse
2015, 32 mn
I made La Barque silencieuse when I was in residence at Pollen in Monflanquin. I decided only to make a film with the villagers and people living roundabout. I had no prefixed ideas for the script. So to start writing and meeting villagers I went to several meetings held by various associations. I then started to have directing ideas with the boxing club and the “Le Prince Noir” choir of Monflanquin, and the mediaeval music group “Temps Clar”, and I met some really great people like the dentist and the village grocer, a flamenco dancer, an ethologist, a sales rep… who put their trust in me without asking questions, and let me direct them in more than unusual situations. Those meetings gave rise to scenes that I call “tableaux” or “pictures”: sequence shots with a fixed camera where a situation is played out, like a picture in motion, where the landscape is ubiquitous, like a recurrent character in the film. I wanted to make portraits of characters because La Barque silencieuse is indeed a fiction. I started out from a know-how that I transformed via the direction, the costumes, the place and the context. Each scene often stems from performance: I take a few shots, at most, where I ask the character to carry out a technical and/or physical feat, or be in an uncomfortable and/or atypical situation. As the filming progressed, I realized that song and music were taking up quite a lot of room, that the film was becoming a musical film, and that emotions and intentions were passing by way of the sound. So I decided to intercut each scene with a sort of respiration: misty landscape shots where a voice-over makes the connection between each tableau. The silent boat is a sort of fable, a questioning, a breath. JC
Mo Gourmelon : You offer as a clue to the conception of your latest films the author of La Barque le soir, Tarjei Vesaas. So I gave into the game of reading him after you, so as to grasp you between his lines. Your personal writing is aimed at taking fragments of texts in order to appropriate them, by mixing and addenda of your own words and thoughts. How did Tarjei Vesaas’s world tally with your own projects? I also feel like asking you Tarjei Vesaas’s question: “Whom are we talking to when we say nothing?” which features like an emblem in the very first lines of the book’s preface.
Julie Chaffort : Tarjei Vesaas’s book La Barque le soir created much upheaval in me when I read it because in it I saw my own characters in my films. Those short stories echo what I describe about the characters I create. It was very disturbing. In his writings there’s also the notion of time, and time’s length, which is primordial in my work. Time as endurance. He also talks about song. There’s a relation to nature and animals, insects and flowers, which links up with my relation to beings: which is to say that there’s no hierarchy between each species and each being. What I also like is the things that remain unsaid between the characters. What people hide, and what they never dare say. His words were obvious, his sentences very clear for me. So I was very inspired by his writings when I rewrote sentences and thoughts to enrich what I wanted to say about the characters. His writing style helped me to advance in my work: after the image, putting words on my characters. The text brings in an avenue of additional reading and humanizes the character. To answer “Whom are we talking to when we say nothing?”, I think of the last words in La Barque silencieuse: “Have I talked about what I was feeling? Too difficult. Too strange to be unveiled by words”.
MG : I enjoy hearing the words in your film Pas un bruit: “All that is so splendidly astray. It’s extremely interesting”. Ideas used in La Barque le soir. So did you grasp a general atmosphere which tallied with what you wanted to compose?
JC : Not totally understanding what is happening but having an impression of well-being, being in a certain torpor and letting it guide you. That’s how I constructed the film, and how I filmed it. It’s a film to do with quest (yes, again), you don’t know where the characters are, or what they’re doing, or what they’re looking for, but they are seeking something. They question themselves. Being in the inexpressible. Trying to name an emotion, and define what is being felt. I’d say that’s the idea of this film. It could also be a sort of dream. Being inside the private thoughts of the characters. Everything is quite unstable.
The camera is moving all the time. Nothing’s fixed. I think that’s what I like in Tarjei Vesaas’s writing. You’re in the privacy of thought, in that mixture of at times incoherent sentences which nevertheless hold together all the same between themselves. From there, poetry whirrs into motion. There’s an aptness of writing, of composition of both simple and raw sentences. Yes, it’s extremely interesting to go and touch an emotion, and look for what you don’t understand, but accept it, and accommodate it. Being in confusion and staying there. What relations are there between all these beings? Whether they’re humans, animals or insects? Because each one interferes between them. “All that is splendidly astray. It’s extremely interesting.” That what I’m also doing when I film: I’m constantly seeking, I put myself in danger, I’m surprised by what I discover, and I adore that.
MG : At one moment, in Pas un bruit, the male character starts to sing as if singing rather than talking was more to the point at that particular instant. Where does that song come from and, more generally, how do you describe your artistic world and your way of working? Staying with the stories in La Barque le soir, by Tarjei Vesaas, I was fascinated by the short story Dans les marécages et sur la terre. I liked Le Palais des glaces, and I’m about to read Le vent du nord.
JC : Song is everywhere in my work. For example, I’ve just finished an installation called Somnambules/Sleepwalkers where I have seven singers (all from very different worlds) who sing in the landscape. This installation is a musical piece, a kind of opera where each song answers another, complements another, and is connected with the territory that see in the image. The song is a vehicle. It passes through the being and helps him to express himself. The song is live and you understand it right away. For me, words are quite sacred and often superfluous. I think that song gets emotions across more easily. For me it’s a universal manner of expression—like dance.
I work in such a way as to often put myself in danger, being in awkward zones, the opposite of comfort zones. The performative aspect of the work keeps me in suspense, and surprises me. Always. It involves leaving part of the creative process off the cuff, up to what surrounds me and up to the performer. This also introduces a certain fragility into the character and the plot as it unfolds in that instant T. You never know what might really happen, and that’s quite brilliant.
In fact filming outside in the middle of nature brings surprises (the climate, animals, insects, the wind…). Being in the landscape strips the plot bare and makes it possible to sublimate it. It brings power to situations and characters, and offsets the idea behind things. I create a kind of parallel world.
MG : How do you organize the short videos which present the figures of the wolf and animal decoys: recorded wolf’s howls and disturbing fake lambs, and your installations in space in which the presence of an animal, the horse for example, represents a totally unpredictable factor? A song is stoically received.
JC : Whether it’s a horse, a wolf or a kid goat; animals are unpredictable, but each one, through its presence, recounts something different.
I started the series of videos about animals in 2011. I’d bought a balloon inflated with helium in the form of a horse and I said to myself that I’d have to do something with it. So I wandered around for a whole afternoon in the middle of the countryside with my little horse until I came close to an enclosure where there was a mare. So I tied the string of my balloon to a stone and put it in the enclosure when the mare had her back turned. I switched on the camera and filmed to capture the horse’s reaction. When she saw the balloon, she became over-excited and kept on walking to and fro on her own axis. Her behaviour was quite impressive and odd all at once.
That’s how I started that series. I wanted to confront the animal with something artificial, the living with the inanimate (stuffed animals, stuffed toys…). Putting the animal opposite its own representation. For certain videos this also means mocking it. But to what extent will they believe in something fake? What’s incredibly brilliant with animals is that they’re direct. They don’t cheat. The reaction is total. The confusion and emotion felt are totally handed over.
MG : What about the production of your most recent projects?
JC: At the Bullukian Foundation in Lyon (after the 2015 Bullukian Prize), I put on the exhibition Somnambules/Sleepwalkers, a video installation with three screens, devoted to song, in which seven voices answer each other, intermingle and collide in natural landscapes. That video project was conceived in reference to Australian aborigines for whom the song manufactures the territory, the song manufactures the world. And if the song dies, part of the world dies (Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines). That exhibition project was constructed like an opus experiencing something perceptible for every protagonist: “tableaux-scenes”, head-on and live, stemming from physical performance, borrowed from lyricism and dreams. Sleepwalkers is a musical piece.
At the Le Pavillon gallery at Pantin, in Paris, I screened the film The Cowboys. As a starting point for the project, I decided to live totally immersed for a week with nine handicapped people on a ranch, where everybody would be dressed as cowboys. In a word, making a cowboy movie where the horse would be a pony, where there would be no cows, and where every character would express himself through cartoon replies… The Cowboys is a fiction, constructed as the filming gradually progressed, depending on everybody’s possibilities, ideas and desires. That film is an experiment, a risk, a surprise.
MG : Your works are informed by encounters, readings, music and song. How do you get your concerns, your likes and the performances of your actors, professional or otherwise, to overlap?
JC : All that depends on the projects, meetings and possibilities. Because my concerns are diverse and deal with several media, I always manage to bring out what interests me because that is the artist’s challenge. I don’t see myself doing something where I don’t find myself. I choose quite carefully the people I work with and I see very quickly if I can or cannot take them into my world, by way of my way of working. Based on that, a trust builds up between them and me, and everything becomes possible.