Journal de France looks back at the career of photojournalist and filmmaker Raymond Depardon, interwoven with his latest project: a portrait of rural France.
Snapshot by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
A household name in France, Raymond Depardon’s career as an acclaimed photographer, photojournalist and documentary filmmaker stretches back fifty years. Co-directed with his long-time sound engineer and companion Claudine Nougaret, Journal de France blends Depardon’s own documentary films with an intimate portrait of his journey “orbiting” France for his most recent project to photograph the furthest flung corners of l’Hexagone.
Raymond Depardon’s credentials in both still and moving pictures are exceptional: a Pulitzer Prize-winner in 1977 with a handful of Césars to his name; a Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes in 1990; and more recently, he was the official portrait photographer to French president, François Hollande in 2012 (no motorcycle helmets or long lenses in sight, of course!). In 1966, Depardon set up the ground-breaking Gamma photojournalism agency before joining Magnum Photos, founded by greats Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, in 1979. What is certain is that this unassuming man had a front row seat at the unfolding of some of the twentieth century’s most significant moments.
Innately curious, Depardon was clearly born to record the world around him: the gritty realities of the Biafran War and the twists and turns of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s presidential campaign (1974, une partie de campagne), but also sleepy village squares and pâtisseries du coin that could be anywhere in his beloved, timeless France. As he meanders along in his small camper van waiting for inspiration to strike or for a scene to intrigue him, he freely admits to being better acquainted with Djibouti than the Meuse département in Eastern France. Claudine is sitting this one out at home, insistent that she doesn’t have the patience for such a trip. Late in his career, it is clear that Raymond is now keen to reacquaint himself with the country of his birth in all its everyday guises.
For this four-year return to his roots, he has shunned modern digital imagery for a seemingly antiquated “watch the birdie” large format film camera. A consummate technician in the immediacy of the Instagram age, this is Depardon in his element. He spends hours waiting for the right light or for a break in the constant trickle of curious passersby or squawking seagulls to get his shot. Whatever the visual medium, Depardon’s skill seems to lie in his ability to wait patiently for things to unravel right before his lens. Betraying his influences in direct cinema, this is never clearer than in his fly-on-the-wall footage of a van full of early 1980s Parisian police offers casually discussing the suicide they encountered on a recent call out.
In addition to a nostalgic soundtrack, Journal de France’s images are accompanied by a voiceover provided by Claudine Nougaret with playful, childlike tones that belie the dramatic nature of some of the events depicted. The beauty of the film lies in its juxtaposition of world-changing events as recorded by the cameras of Raymond’s career in its prime and the gentle, unremarkable scenes that he captures as he travels around France. These cuts are often made very abruptly as the chronology touches on world events as geographically diverse as the Venezuelan Civil War in 1963, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1969 and the two years Depardon spent living with Chadian rebels in the desert during the so-called “Claustre affair”, the kidnapping of French archaeologist Françoise Claustre. It was La Captive du Désert, based partly on Claustre’s experiences that saw Depardon receive his Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes in 1990.
In short, Journal de France is not merely a record of a single country, but a global account. What could otherwise have been dry in terms of format is wonderfully brought to life by Claudine Nougaret’s touching commentary, Raymond Depardon’s self-deprecating likeability and the skilful way in which these far-reaching moments in history have been knitted together with depictions of his favourite and most enduring subject.
Journal de France is released on 31st January 2013 in the UK