San Sebastian 2023 interview: Claire Denis

As the festival draws to a close, it is time to hear from the jury’s president Claire Denis. Cédric Succivalli had the pleasure to participate in a roundtable earlier this week with the eminent French filmmaker, and the conversation led to such diverse topics as festival audiences, her legacy, Beau Travail‘s ability to enrapture new generations, and the female perspective in filmmaking.

Q: We last met in Morelia where you had a retrospective, and I was surprised by the rapturous response your films had, in particular Beau Travail. Now we are in another Hispanic country, where your films are also exceptionally beloved. Is there a special relationship with Hispanic audiences?

A: I am not aware, but I think that Morelia is a bit particular because it’s a city with a lot of students, and they formed a majority of the audience. Whether this was because of the festival or not I don’t know, but they were true cinephiles. Here the audience is fantastic, but you never get that kind of private screening like you have in Morelia. The audience here has a great response to all the films, I could see that from watching the films with them as part of the jury. It almost feels as if the whole city attends this festival; even if you go to the early screening at eight o’clock in the morning, they are already there. So the experience is very different from Morelia.

Q: There was an underground screening of Beau Travail in Poland, shortly after the Sight & Sound list came out. A lot of people came with the kind of expectation of “Oh, this is that film that made the Top 10.” Most of the audience was twenty-somethings discovering the film for the first time, and they had a very strong reaction to it, very physical, like they saw a type of cinema they had never seen before. Do you notice this generational aspect of the film, or did it change for you two decades later?

A: To be honest, when we did Beau Travail it was originally pitched for TV. We had only four weeks of shooting in Djibouti, and we thought the French army on the base over there was supposed to help us. Strangely, or maybe strangely not at all, at the last minute they decided not to because there was a rumour that this was going to be a gay porn. Whatever we were doing, even just walking through the desert, we were always watched through binoculars. Luckily I had a great cast who were trained two months before leaving for Djibouti, and we did the best we could. I had confidence in my actors and in the location, but I did not have the idea that this would become a film that would make so many people feel emotional. I myself was emotional about it, but I was in no way aware that it would touch people today.

Q: Stars at Noon was just released in Brazil, unfortunately directly to streaming. How do you feel about that? Also, the film has an amazing cast of American and British actors, but also a great Latin American cast. What was it like to work with the local actors?

A: As far as the streaming is concerned: nobody told me. I think they sold it to Universal or something, for the money I guess. It was a bit painful for me, and I felt somewhat betrayed. With regards to the cast: I first saw Margaret Qualley in Tarantino’s film (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, ed.), and I fell in love with her. I told myself that she was the one for the film. Taron Egerton was originally supposed to play the Englishman, but there was a scheduling conflict because we had to postpone shooting. So I had to find a perfect Englishman to replace him, and thank God I met Joe (Alwyn, ed.). Benny Safdie I asked because in the novel the CIA agent is very frightening, but also a good guy who wants to help Margaret’s character, and I thought he fit that role. Danny Ramirez I met in LA, the rest in Panama. We were originally supposed to shoot in Nicaragua, and its president (Daniel Ortega, ed.) was supposed to not seek re-election. In July he came back on that, and that sparked a lot of unrest in the country. The insurance company no longer wanted to insure the film if we would shoot in Nicaragua, so we moved to Panama, which left me with very little time for location scouting and casting. Luckily I found the cast very quickly, and I was very happy with the casting process.

Q: How has your jury experience been so far?

A: My experience with juries is that each time it’s different. I’m always afraid that the group doesn’t get along, but with this group, even if we are from different horizons, we get along very well and we enjoy being together. It’s a great experience watching films with this jury; the communication is great, we agree on many things, and we enjoy spending time together. So instead of it being a lonely experience where you are afraid to miss something or you have to fight with other members, this jury brings us together.

Q: In recent years we have seen the rise of female Spanish and Mexican directors like Carla Simón, Tatiana Huezo, Lila Aviles. What is your opinion on these new voices and the female stories they tell?

A: It is true that when I started there were not a lot of female directors. But in my view, if you wanted to make a film you had to fight for it, no matter if you were male or female. Women are used to having to always fight. The process of making a film is to convince yourself and the people you want to work with that it is a good idea. I’ve seen the world change, but the fight remains. Maybe the curiosity for something like the first film I made in Africa (Chocolat, 1988, ed.) was higher than it is now. Nowadays many people think you need a storyline that is akin to a TV movie, but when I started that was not the case. It wasn’t easy, but people were not making all sorts of demands of me. Maybe because we’ve gone to digital it is all changing; people will resort to making the film better in post-production because that is easier now. When I went to Cameroon I just had a small amount of 35mm stock with me, so the pressure was different. That is what you lose with digital, that pressure of the take.

Q: Speaking about gender identities, how do you approach your projects and how has your career evolved when it comes to such topics and the identities that you create? Your view on colonialism for instance does not seem so Euro-centric.

A: When I started making films it was important to me to pay tribute to my childhood. I was not focused on being a woman specifically, it was just clear to me that my desire was strong enough to make the kind of films I wanted to make. Sometimes it is not so easy, but I have enough confidence in the power of cinema, and that helps a lot. Making a film is to trust the emotional effect cinema can have on an audience, just like I myself felt it when I was a teenager. That is a feeling I will never forget. For me, I’m not always obsessed with the idea that my films have to represent a female gaze. They more or less represent my gaze, to the best of my abilities; which I guess is female. I was very lucky to grow up in different cultures in various African countries, I encountered different religions. My father was born in Bangkok, my mother was Brazilian. My nationality is French, but I am more than just French. Not that I have a problem with being French, I love France, but if I was told to move somewhere else I would not have a problem with that.

Q: How do you see the legacy of your career?

A: I never looked at filmmaking as a career. When I finish a film, the only thing I want to know is if there is going to be another one. For me time passes almost as if in a parallel world, I live from one film to another. Sometimes with the same actors, sometimes I discover new ones. My perspective of life is a bit obscure. I don’t see my life as a career. To come back to the question about juries: that is not easy, because I think the demand is very different from filmmaking. I feel a responsibility for the films we watch, for the people that made those films, for my fellow jury members.

Q: When you headed juries in various sections in Cannes and Venice, you gave top prizes to Lav Diaz, Hong Sang-soo, to Ahmad Bahrami’s The Wasteland, so the bar is very high. What is it that you are looking for here in San Sebastian?

A: Somebody told me, “I’m sure you don’t like comedy“… But I am not looking for a certain type of film. When I saw the program I was very happy to see so many countries and so many different directors. Some of them I knew, some I discovered. Being in a jury, each film you encounter changes you a little. My relationship with each film is different. I always hope that getting older doesn’t mean I’m getting senseless or blind, and that I remain open to new experiences.