French filmmaker Olivier Assayas talks about projecting real life onto the silver screen
“Some filmmakers make movies that look like movies. I try to make movies that look like real life,” says Olivier Assayas, French filmmaker and screenplay writer, on the sidelines of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in the city, where a few of his films are being shown in the retrospective section. And true to his word, all his works from the short documentaries, with which he began his career, to his later feature films like Disorder, Irma Vep, Cold Water, Sentimental Destinies, HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and so on are fascinatingly experimental, intensely personal yet unobtrusive glimpses into lives, sometimes fictitious and sometimes real. His latest film Carlos, a biopic on the Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Time magazine has selected the film as one of the top 10 films of the year.
Like Carlos, Assayas has always pushed the boundaries of filmmaking, experimenting with rock music, narrative and languages creating what is essentially unconventional visual language.
“I have no technical training in filmmaking. I learnt the hard way, on the job, experimenting with genres, techniques and forms. It helped that my father, Jacques Remy, was a scriptwriter. So I grew up in an environment that was filled with films and filmmakers and I was fortunate to get the opportunity to watch these people in action. I believe in giving my actors the maximum possible freedom, a sense of their own. It's all about creating a sense of reality,” says the soft-spoken, boyish-faced 55-year-old filmmaker.
Interestingly, most of Assayas' works, from Irma Vep to Demonlover to Clean reflect his “deep-rooted” love for Asian cinema, especially Taiwanese cinema. It was a love affair that began in 1984, when Assayas, who was then a film critic and contributor for influential film magazine Cahiers du cinema, went to Hong Kong to write a special issue on films from the region.
“Asian cinema was completely unknown on the international stage in the early 1980s. It was an eye-opener, to say the least. And then Hong Kong-based film critic (and now filmmaker) Chen Kuo Fu told me: ‘What are you doing here? Go watch Taiwanese films!' I took his advice and headed to Taipei and got familiar with the works of filmmakers Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, Sylvia Chang, cinematographer Christopher Doyle…Suddenly filmmaking the Asian way made more sense than what was going on in France – for at that time, French cinema was still largely under the influence of the New Wave courtesy of auteurs Claude Chabrol, Alain Renais, Eric Rohmer and so on. I realised that this is the kind of cinema that I wanted to make.
“I realised that cinema is truly international and that I could make a French film that would make sense to somebody half way across the world. I am not comfortable with going into the specifics of it but I love the way Asian filmmakers trust the art of filmmaking. So much has Taiwanese cinema influenced me that you can say that I now have deeper Taiwanese roots than French roots!” says Assayas, with a laugh, agreeing that he is perhaps one of the first-generation of European filmmakers, who find Asian cinema “meaningful.”
So what about Indian cinema? “Indian cinema is very personal. Perhaps that is because Indian culture is so intrinsically linked to Nature, spirituality, life…It is just that Indian cinema still doesn't have that kind of international exposure that Chinese films or Japanese films enjoy. Of course, Indian cinema had/has such unbelievable masters. I enjoyed the movies of Guru Dutt, especially Pyaasa and Khagaz Ke Phool. I loved watching Anurag Kashyap's Black Friday and the works of Sudhir Mishra. Of films from Kerala, in particular, I have watched a few by Adoor Gopalakrishnan. In fact, I was part of the jury at the Three Continents Film Festival in Nantes in France that awarded him for one of his films.”