Valérie Massadian’s charismatic and raw interviews match her work. In this conversation she discusses her background, her approach to reality, and how both inform her filmmaking practice.
The interview was conducted over Skype in November 2018, and then edited and condensed for clarity.
Considering the importance of parenthood, we were wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling us about your upbringing, your parents? Your father is noted for his work with political, cultural publications, and your mother is quite prominent in some of your works.
I remember a very lonely childhood. My parents worked in Paris and my brother and I lived in the middle of the countryside. So my memory is having them on weekends, but being alone most of the time. I probably romanticised this but feel like we brought ourselves up or at least didn’t feel protected.
My mother is from a generation that loves one man and she loved my father, period. And as he drifted away, we were in the middle of this no parents-land, like a lot of other children. When you go into family bullshit, there’s guilt. And I don’t need anybody’s guilt. Guilt is sterile. I can’t do anything with it, and it doesn’t create anything. I just need consciousness and recognition. From there one can move on.
So yeah, I killed the mother in Nana, killed the father in Milla and it’s all the basic Freudian bullshit, I guess (laughs).
My father was working as a printer when he met Jean-François Bizot, who was the founder of Actuel, and Bizot took him to print the magazine. It was a small team, super left-wing freaks. So suddenly my father had to go to these meetings to talk about political and social issues of Actuel and what they were going to work on. My father had a sharp street knowledge, so he adapted, and started reading books, as his animal knowledge wasn’t enough.
He came from the street and suddenly was electrified by knowledge, and wanted to learn about himself. My father was someone who didn’t have words, and then he had to have words. And this person, my father, is someone who completely changed. I’ve never met anybody who went from being a real violent asshole – I can say that because it was his own words – to the man he was in the last twenty years of his life. And I was saved by that.
To what extend do you feel comfortable with people reading your films autobiographically? Or how autobiographical to they feel to you?
I don’t think of them as biographical. If they are then all films are, as they come from someone. I try to be honest with the people I make films with. It’s circular between them and me, and I think it’s like that for anybody who’s honest when making a film.
Séverine and I are very different: in our age, and in what we went through in life. I had the chance to meet another social class when I was young that opened my mind to thoughts; things I didn’t even know existed. Séverine and I met and connected in our fragility and strength, in how we deal with adversity…from there one can build. The point is not to find a mirror, but to have a few connections, deep, away from words, and then to build on these differences. So it’s not autobiographical, it’s mix of us all. Our secrets, our fears, ours loves… I hope making the film opened other doors in her head, a sharper sense of curiosity. I know it did, and that makes the whole difference for me. To give back. When we were in Lisbon, Séverine went to see Le Livre d’image (2018) with all these Cinemateca people, and it was wonderful, how, without any shyness, when it was the first Godard she ever saw, she was talking about the film and just pinned it. Everything with her own words. I wish Godard could have heard her.
It’s almost impossible for me to fantasise about something I have no clue about, that doesn’t have any trace in my body. I would feel dishonest, like an impostor. I’m not working with actors but people, and so I have to have some legitimacy to ask and they have to recognise it somewhere. Séverine fought me, and was a pain the ass, because attachment meant the danger of betrayal to her. I know that, as much as she knew I knew what it was to be a very sq – what solitude is like in this place and moment of life. She realised when she saw that Mel the DP, was my son, and then she was like “Oh! So that’s him.” You can have a completely different life, background, but in the complexity of what we are, the differences, the mysteries that inhabits us, there must be some connection.
What was your own experience of being a young mother like?
The most beautiful and the hardest thing on earth. When Mel was born, he was too big or I was too small. I had wanted it natural, because I wanted to feel everything. So I screamed for a really long time, insulting the nurses that wanted me to lie down when it was less painful in a squat position. And then we found out he was too big, so they gave me a C-section. The obstetrician asked, “Why are you crying? I said, “Because I’m not gonna be there. I want to know and feel and see everything.” And he was like, “No, don’t worry. We won’t put too much in and you’ll be there. You’ll be a little high, but you’ll be there.” I was super-high. My mother was there, and the anaesthetists were talking to each other and it was like a film because there was a screen below my breast and I could see their hands as shadows.
Then I met Mel and I was super-impressed. I’ve never been impressed by anybody. Period. I can be shy, but impressed … he’s the only person who impressed me. They took him away and put things in his eyes to clean them, and then they brought him back and I took his hand and all I could say was, “Hi, my name is Valérie. I’m your mother.” I was very ashamed of this for a long time, because in films and everything, you’re supposed to be crying, and instead I was presenting myself, I was like wow. Somebody! A human being!
So that’s how it was. It was the most wonderful, the hardest. The solitude is unbearable. Because nobody understands that solitude. You don’t belong to the kids your age and you don’t belong to the adults and you don’t fucking belong anywhere. Your friends don’t understand it. If you want to go to the movie, you have to know a week before, because you have to find the money and organise it, and maybe you can do it. And adults, even though they might be the nicest people, they still judge. Because you’re the mother, the responsible adult, but when you’re 19 and you play with your child, I mean you roll on the fucking floor. Together. It’s a powerful animal thing. When you’re older, of course you play on the floor, but it’s completely different. And nobody gets it. It’s challenging to them, a loss, I don’t know.
I decided in the last part (of Milla) to show Séverine what a wonderful mother she is. People around her judge her because she’s young, she’s loud, she’s…you know. I wanted them to see that, no, this girl is doing an incredible job with her child. And I wanted her to see that part of herself. So many times she’s crying or sad because somebody said she was a bad mother and blah blah blah all this bullshit. So I wanted to give her this. So it’s completely fictional, and also not fictional, but demonstrated. So, you know, a little revenge, a “Fuck You I’m standing up when you might not.”
One thing that stood with Milla was that you didn’t show the birth – normally these climactic, screaming stereotypical labour scenes.
Because I wanted the feeding, not the screaming.
There’s much more feeding than there is screaming.
Yes. It’s much more interesting to feed than to scream. Maybe we should tell that to a few of our politicians in the world.
I was wondering how or when you decided to put yourself into Milla as a fellow cleaner and friend to Séverine. Was it part of the original conception of Milla that you’d appear as a kind of tender force?
No, first I wanted to cast Jeanne Cordelier. She’s a little before 80 and she wrote an incredible book called La Dérobade in 1976. She was a prostitute – from the street to the brothel….she went through everything. At that time prostitutes could go the police station and declare “I’m not a prostitute anymore” and it will erase the criminal record. She did that then wrote this book, which was the first “inside” book about prostitution. I wrote her a letter, not thinking she would ever get it, but we met and it was incredible. We saw each other a few times, and I wanted her to be the woman. But her health was complicated, she was too fragile, so it didn’t happen.
Originally it was going to be Jeanne. Then because Séverine was shutting down, or being really a pain, I figured the only way to break the cycle was to really get in there. So it just happened. Joining her became obvious, it broke something and it opened something in her. I was suddenly in the same place she was which helped a lot. And I think I’m a great actress (laughs). No, but seriously, also because I thought it would be interesting to blur the lines of our relationship between behind and in front of the camera.
Your mother and Kelyna/Nana both live near Saint-Jean-de-la-Forêt yes? Is there a geographical thread to your work? Do you see yourself as a Normandy filmmaker?
Yes and no. It’s an hour and a half from Paris and for many years it was a refuge for me. I like the city as long as I can leave it. My mother was looking for a place and I said, “There’s this place I’ve been going to and it’s really close to Paris, so we could come easily.” She went to check it out, loved it and moved there. In the ‘60s there were changes to agricultural laws, demonstrations, and so the locals applied for it to be protected as a national park. So Nana was filmed there. I have a small wood shack I stay in. When I wake up at 6:00 or 7:00 I’m like a child, I run down to the shower because it has a huge window facing the forest, and I know I’m gonna see a rabbit or deer.
More than territory it’s land that I’m attached to, any land really, because territory sounds like nation or flags and I’m not really fond of these notions. I’m French and Armenian, and never felt I belonged anywhere, but belonged everywhere. An identity is not defined by a flag, or where your mother gave birth, but by how you build yourself in relation to the world. All these borders and national crap are inventions: a matter of power, historical, economical… It’s not working, it never has and it never will. All it does is kill and destroy lives.
Are there landscapes and spaces that you are drawn to?
Anything not invaded by man. I love places that put men back where they belong.
I remember reading a scientific study explaining that humans represent 0.01% of all living species. What a great destruction done by such a small number…
I need nature and try to film it in way that shows that nature doesn’t give a shit about us. We will die as a race and nature will be fine. Look at Chernobyl: the mice are super-radioactive, but they’re ok as they have mutated and included plutonium to their DNA; the pine trees are growing almost horizontal but they’re there. Nature will always prevail. So give me a forest, an ocean, a valley…
How do you think this will play in your future films? You’ve talked about working with Kelyna for the middle of your childhood trilogy, but elsewhere you’ve said you next want to make a dystopian film with four or five, 11-12 year-olds, in a castle, in a forest, trying to write a new constitution…
They’re the same film. Kelyna might be in it if she still wants to, but she won’t be alone. There will be four to five other kids. It’s early of course but I want it to be full of animals. This place will hold the last generation of people who are trying to rebuild the world from nothing, and will just have the horse, the rabbit, whatever stays alive. But I believe in witches, so I don’t want to say too much!!
I’m also doing a film in my bedroom. A short film, with only women, and it’s an angry thing. It’s direct, it’s stupidly frontal, it’s great; I need it, and from the reactions so far of the women I’m filming, they agree. As a mean to put our anger somewhere. I’m making it with women of all different ages. Women who fight, whether they are political activists, or fighting as they can on an everyday basis.
Do you think you have a broad philosophy, set of rules or theory that informs your work?
I guess I do. They’re loose, but at the same time really precise. I’m very aware of class, gender and race that cannot be separated for me. I know where I come from; I know where I’m at. I know that I’m white, that I’m a woman, that I don’t fit in the drawer of a certain social class, that even if I live with very little money, I’m still privileged because I do what I like in my work… All this is present. I make films in France where there’s no black filmmakers, no Arabic filmmakers, there’s a whole social class that does not exist. And people deny it here. When I went to some cinemas commissions, around financing, and I would defend something using the phrase “social class” I would face eight or nine people would jump up in their seats and be like “Oh, no, no, no you can’t talk about social class in France.” And I’m not the only one. So, yes, that concerns me.
Most filmmakers here come from the bourgeoisie, it’s a fact, not a disease. But when you say that, people despise you. The ones that don’t have a nice apartment bought by daddy and mommy still have to work because otherwise they don’t live. I work on other things than my films, because otherwise I wouldn’t survive. I love the guys from the Nouvelle Vague, but they were all from the bourgeoisie, and to me they narrowed French cinema to a certain class. With them came the disappearance of certain bodies. With filmmakers like Vigo, Renoir or Grémillon you still had representation of the “working class”, of everyday people. And the ones who still represented these bodies, like Godard or Straub, became marginalised. Jean Gabin, Michel Simon… those guys they had bodies, faces, gestures, a way of talking and moving, that disappeared in French cinema (not only French but I’m sticking to the subject). They were not coddled kids that went to theatre school but from the street. Their bodies were carrying something. They had life inside. They had so many facets and fragility and strength and anger and all this marked their bodies.
So, this I have in mind all the time, those are the people I make films with. Those are the bodies I film. To me it’s another way of bringing politics into films, in maybe not in a so obvious frontal way, but it is there.
And then as rules, I would say, respect and honesty, of the people I film, of the people I make films with. It sounds silly, but it’s not. To me it means that I can still look at the people I filmed in the eyes knowing that they won’t feel betrayed, objectified, used or dirty. I fancy the word filmmaker because there is the idea to make. We make films, we don’t produce objects… Something like that.
You’ve spoken about how Nan Goldin showed the importance of being in front of somebody and being with somebody. Elsewhere you speak of photography as a grave or frozen. Do you have further thoughts about your approach to photography versus film?
They’re very similar. Photography is easier maybe, because it’s that mini-second – there’s a lot before and a lot after – but it’s a butterfly you pin. Cinema has time. It’s the only place in life where you can do whatever you want with time. Stretch it, narrow it, jump years and voilà! The camera is an in-between tool. It almost disappears when you build something strong enough, and also because we work in very small team. I didn’t know cinema could be like this when I made Nana – I hoped it would – and it was. It was easier because I was working with a child, and all the “rules” could not be followed, so I had the perfect excuse not to follow them!!
To Kelyna, Valérie was Valérie with a camera. Same as for me Nan is Nan with a camera. Kelyna was surprised when I didn’t have a camera as it becomes an extension of your hand. That I learned with Nana. So ultimately they’re similar. Photography to me is a way to link with people, likewise with cinema. With cinema it’s just wider and bigger and fuller. I still shoot slides and that’s what photography is for me. It’s physical. I love my slides. I’m lost in the land of the digital files in the computer under “Val’s Pictures”.
It seems discussions of Nana emphasise the relationship between fiction and non-fiction, while discussions of Milla focus on the internal relationships of the characters.
They’re the same. It’s twisted not to see that, but maybe that’s because the relationship of adults to children is fucked. These relationships are more comprehensible in Milla because of the age of the characters. To me Nana is extremely fictional. And so is Milla. This whole fiction-non fiction…It’s all fiction, built on real elements of time, gesture, breathing, bodies, conflicts…
Maybe that’s why they’re responding to Nana as a more non-fictional hybrid. Because of your off-camera presence. You have that intimate camera-Kelyna-Val relationship.
Completely. But it’s not because I’m in Milla that it changes. The best fiction is building from … it’s like you have a rock, and then in this rock you (makes the sound of chipping at rock), and that’s what fiction is. But you have the rock, which is reality. The more real it is the more I can build fiction. In the third movement of Milla, with the child, people were like “Oh it drifts into documentary.” And I was “Sorry, no. Wrong.” Of course it’s the child’s gesture, he’s two and half year’s old and so everything that comes out of his mouth, he owns. But there’s a thing called editing. And that’s when you make decisions. And those decisions built the fiction. Fiction is a matter of decision. It’s a matter of editing. And for me, there’s as much construction or fiction in Nana or the last part of Milla.
Considering this, were the three movements in Milla filmed in an approximate order?
No, apart from the end with Ethan, which we did in one movement, the rest was in very different moments. That was built on the editing table, which is not a table anymore (laughs). But the idea of three movements, love, loss solitude and death, and then life taking over were always there.
Milla opens and closes superbly. The ending. But also that pair of opening shots: the glowing couple, intertwined, soft and smeared as if a ‘70s romantic film; then cut to the interior, letting you realise you were seeing from the exterior of their car, through a frosty window, and now it’s cold and hard-edged. It comes across as a statement of intent.
I meant it! There was this Russian film critic who told Luc (Chessel) something beautiful: “The first two shots are the film.” First it’s beautiful and soft and romantic, and then when you cut to the inside of the car, it’s the brutality of it all. And I agree.
An impudent cat jumps onto Valérie. My cat is attacking me! (laughs)
Was this found in the edit?
Yes. When I edit, I usually find the first and last shot and begin from there. And actually this opening was originally three shots. The first first was from the outside, you could see the car parked the middle of nowhere, a Virgin statue, a very old bridge, and up in the back, a wet smoky fire. Then, “fuck, I don’t wanna know where they are, let’s get straight to the point.” So I got rid of the large shot with the bridge and all. But it took a while because the shot of them through the window was so beautiful it scared me a little. As for the ending shot, it was actually, when we filmed it, the ellipse after the breastfeeding to introduce Ethan. But then… it became the last shot, very early on.
Are you collaborative when editing, like shooting? Or is this a private process?
It’s personal. Almost nobody with Milla. I showed a few shots to friends. Completely randomly for emotional feedback. And Sophie Erbs (my associate in Gaïjin) was brave enough to watch seven cuts with me. With Nana I started editing with the grand Dominique Auvray, but as I had never done anything, to “explain” what I was looking for, I was doing bits of editing every night, to show her. At one point Dominique got tired of it and said “You’re the only one that’s going to find your film, so you should edit it yourself.” And I hated her and it was horrible, and I was angry and like crying for three days. “She took my money! She abandoned me! I don’t know how to edit!” (laughs). But then she actually gave me the most beautiful gift. I love to edit. Maybe one day I’ll find someone to play with, I hope so, maybe not.
It’s very neurotic, lonely and scary, at least the way I do it. I spent three, four months, barely talking to anybody but myself. Next time I’m editing, maybe I’ll put a surveillance camera in and make a film of this. When I shot the scene of Ethan and Luc in Ethan’s bedroom, it wasn’t working so I abandoned filming the idea. “That was your stupid director idea, fuck it. You’ll find another way to bring this.” Then I’m working on this material over and over and I see this moment when Ethan is not talking and takes a toy as he would a camera and acts like he’s taking a photograph of his “ghost” father… I was jumping around like a stupid kid when I found this. You wake up in the morning, you take your shower and make your coffee and stay in your knickers, and you edit in your knickers all day long. It’s wonderful
So you would never imagine bringing in Séverine, or someone like that, and asking their thoughts on how they want to be presented?
No. Then I would need to explain and it’s a destructive process for me to explain things. It’s like writing a script with these shots. Some things are beyond words. And let’s say I trust myself enough to know that I would never ever hurt someone I film. With Nana, I was even more violent. “Fuck this. I’m not writing 90 pages. I don’t know how to do it, and I don’t wanna do it.” So I wrote 25 pages, I got money for a short film, and that was enough to make the film. Voilà.
So Ninouche was technically the first version of Nana, rather than cut down version?
No, Ninouche I edited after. But in the official version we said that I used the leftover “archive” images for Nana. For very administrative boring stupid dogmas!
The funding bodies won’t complain…
They didn’t complain. But the National Centre of Cinematography really didn’t like that I made a short and a long film, with the budget of a short film. Though to me they should be happy…
You’ve known Pedro Costa for a while; you held a Radcliffe fellowship at Harvard in connection with the Sensory Ethnography Lab. In thinking of building fiction out of “rocks” or concrete non-fiction, how do you feel about ethnographic filmmaking or its influence? I think that’s why we wondered about whether you consulted with your actors – how far does this influence go?
I’m quite suspicious of this modern anthropology, ethno-blah-blah, politically.
In the incredible anthropology of Frederick Wiseman and Jean Rouch, there’s a generosity and humility and openness to the other/subject. However, I have a violent reaction to most of others because they’re like vampires – this superior position to your “subject” makes me nervous. Position is important. Pedro’s position is very generous and very welcoming, and even though he brings a lot to his work, and it seems really strong and decisive, it’s still respectful of the other – whatever awkwardness are in their bodies, the way to talk, fragility, whatever – it’s not his projection on “the other”, it’s theirs, him and them with their understanding and their unresolved mysteries. Likewise, Rouch never acts as if he has the knowledge and he’s showing both you and these poor people what they do.
Rouch and Costa and Wiseman, and others are more about letting things appear, building something different – organising a cinematographic place where there is enough space and air to come and breathe. While a lot of the terrible anthropology films are more important than who they’re filming. It’s always an issue to me when the director is more important than who or what he/she films. While I was at Harvard, I saw this American film done in African. I won’t name it, I already have too many enemies… It’s fucking gorgeous. It’s in Africa and it’s complicated not to do gorgeous in Africa. Then suddenly the director is filming this really old beautiful man sitting on the sand doing something with his hands. The camera is on his face while the old man is talking. Then the camera starts to slowly move down to his hands, and as this happens his voice recedes and the narrator is talking in his place, taking his words. And this makes me jump in my seat. It makes me so angry as I find the gesture really disgusting. It’s just one example, but I can give you thousands. People to me cannot be turned into object of your idea, cannot be crushed that way. Your position is to serve more than to dictate. It doesn’t mean that you disappear, but the opposite; to me it has to be a balance of exchange between what you’re looking for and what that person is.
Yes. It’s nowhere to the same degree, but it infuriates me when you watch the news or documentaries, when people are speaking the same language and they’re speaking it fluently, perfectly, but with a thick accent, different class or dialect, and they subtitle it. This act puts quotation marks around the dialogue saying “This person cannot speak proper English.” confining ‘proper’ communication to a very narrow band.
Same. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. It’s a matter of position. Politics is the only place where I’m going to judge a film. It’s where the filmmaker places themselves in relationship to who or what they’re filming. That’s the only place where I allow myself to judge. Drastically. The rest I can have an opinion on: I can think, I can disagree, but I won’t judge. But this? I will be like (hisses) Stalin.