French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 42nd IFFI, believes cinema can be a powerful weapon in the ‘good fight'.
It was quite a paradox. French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the recent 42nd International Film Festival of India. India makes the largest number of movies in the world but has never released a film by Tavernier.
“Filmmakers are selfish, we want everyone to see our films,” said Tavernier, whose costume drama “The Princess of Montpensier” was the closing film at the 41st IFFI, shortly after receiving the award. Tavernier underlined his “privilege to be honoured in a country that has so rich a cinematic culture and such wonderful food which I just love! Back home in France, I sometimes eat out in Indian restaurants but the food there is nothing compared to the original here.” He smiled before proceeding to the main point on the agenda: Film.
“French movie goers are aware only of Indian filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, whom I have tremendous respect for, as well as Shyam Benegal. Indian film-makers need to know what is happening in the rest of the world. I believe that Indian and French directors can learn from one another. Films can be a great means to discover and understand the varied cultures of the world; to tell stories in different ways. It's sad to see only American films in India,” he said, expressing regret about “the colonisation of the television industry by Hollywood.”
Interestingly, Tavernier, also the president of the Institute Lumière, was unaware that till recently NFDC's Lumiere used to telecast award-winning films from France and other European countries. Used to. The past tense would have injected melancholy in his plea for Indian television to screen films from around the world.
Paradox sits lightly on the shoulders of the award-winning director, screenwriter, producer, actor and author who obviously enjoys interacting with the press (and public) but also deeply values his privacy. His father Rene Tavernier was a poet and writer and president of French PEN (the international organisation of poets, essayists and novelists). “My father edited a literary magazine and fought against fascism. I learnt the meaning of the word ‘resistance' early in life.”
Tavernier enrolled as a law student in Sorbonne but soon incurred his parents' displeasure by haunting theatres and concert halls instead of the classroom. “They were very angry when I dropped out after a year” to write film criticism. Soon, he joined the film industry. “But I never wanted to be a film critic, I wanted to make films. I became a journalist by accident; it was the only way I could earn a little money to eat and watch movies,” he laughed.
He helmed his debut feature, a thriller titled “L' Horloger de St. Paul” (The Clockmaker) in 1974. The film garnered a number of French and international awards. Subsequently, he made “Life and Nothing But”, which won a BAFTA in 1990, and “The Princess of Montpensier”.
Tavernier has also made features and documentaries. on themes as diverse as familial relationships, French history (which he describes as “history linked with fact, flesh, blood, passion”) war, music, sci-fi, the dark realms of the human psyche and social problems like poverty, racism, drug abuse and HIV. Most notable are “Philippe Soupault et le Surrealisme” (1982), “The Undeclared War” (1991), and “The Other Side of the Tracks” (1997). Explaining the transition from fiction to documentary films, he said, “I like to experiment with change. I like doing documentaries as they deal with the hard realities of life. Speaking for myself, I believe in emotion...cinema is a place where you can be emotional and passionate. When I see films like the remake of ‘King Kong', I feel there are more monsters than screenwriters.”
A pacifist who is firmly opposed to anti-immigrant racism, Tavernier was one of 66 film-makers to protest against the Debré immigration law. “My father was dead against Fascism, the Vichy Government and Adolf Hitler, but still published German poets because he could tell the difference between Hitler's Nazism and German poetry and literature.”
He is proud of the effect of his films on young fans. “If a filmmaker can touch four or five people then that can be counted as great success. “I know around 18 people who became teachers after watching my films and four who became cops; very good cops.”
He considers the classification of films (into art and commercial) an exercise in “stupidity. Commercial films can sometimes be artistic and some of the most artistic films can be quite boring. Billy Wilder used to say that there are only two types of films: one good and another which you start at 8.00 a.m. and it goes on till midnight but then you realise that it is just 8.15 a.m.”
He passionately believes that “knowledge and education can be weapons in the good fight” and confesses to being “frightened by youth who want to be successful without studying. They don't want to take the time to learn...they see on television, rich stars and footballers and want to make money NOW. Ignorance and stupidity can be dangerous. In 1840, Victor Hugo gave an incredible speech, which stopped the then French government from proceeding with a cut in the arts and education budget. As responsible filmmakers we can do our best to ensure that education budgets are not cut, that school teachers are not fired, that aid to the poor is not stopped...”