Did video kill the radio? Nicolas Philibert uncovers the mystery of the medium in his warmly human documentary La Maison de la Radio.
Distant Voices, Still Livesby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After the rural schooling of Etre Et Avoir and the lonely orangutan of Nénette, Nicolas Philibert is turning his attention to the institution of radio. And while his latest documentary footage is harvested from inside the offices of public service broadcaster Radio France in the 16th arrondissement, it could be anywhere – any broadcasting institution or any institution really – as Philibert peeks behind the scenes at the presenters, news gatherers, interviewers, traffic reporters, programme makers, actors, musicians and guests that bring radio to life. Filmed over six months, La Maison De La Radio gives the impression of taking place in just 24 hours – from a sleepy sunrise and the day-to-day business conducted during the hours of daylight, through the wee small ones and back again – a day in the life of one of Paris’ grandest dames.
A purely aural medium, radio makes for a cheekily good subject for a film. For La Maison De La Radio is more than just an illustration of radio – putting faces to those voices or uncovering the secrets of knobs twiddled and audio levels adjusted. And for a medium all geared up for noise – including all those cheerful jingles and honeyed tones – radio makes for an unexpectedly visual delight – whether it’s the classical music presenter drowning under a mountain of CDs or the newscasters joking over a news story. And just like Philibert’s breakthrough hit Etre Et Avoir there’s a delicious humanism that runs through the film – breathing life into the quietly observed sequences of radio life – a producer directing a radio play or a polemic about the Arab Spring.
With no interviews, talking heads or reenactments, Philibert’s La Maison De La Radio is documentary in its purest form – filming the actions, reactions and emotions at play in daily life. And editing the film himself, it’s very much Philibert’s own personal vision of radio – each scene chosen for a smile, a glance, a look, a laugh. Embedded for hours on end in offices, studios and hallways, Philibert and his three-man team are attempting to distil the essence of radio – with its litany of news, politics, music and drama but without disempowering it of its mystery. And so some of the stars of Radio France are ignored, its best programmes and stellar cast of Umberto Eco, Jean-Claude Carrière and Arno relegated to the sidelines, as Philibert pans the radiophonic river for nuggets of humanist gold. It’s a documentary about faces and voices, yes – but it’s more than just pulling the curtain away from the Wizard of Oz. Rather a portrait of radio itself – informative, light and quietly daring.
With a haunting power, La Maison De La Radio sees Philibert back on top form. And while other documentarians take on other great institutions, such as Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery or Johannes Holzhausen’s The Great Museum, no-one else gets it quite like Philibert. Perhaps because he’s not entering into its backstage politics or trying to defend its decision-making with a litany of ideas and interviews, but rather to shine a light on the individuals at work. Revealing the human touch behind the invisible medium with a smile and a wink.
La Maison De La Radio is released on 23rd January 2015 in the UK