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September / 2000

Les Chefs Opératrices: French Women Cinematographers Speak Up
“The passion of cinema is so big that you have to find a serenity or you will live a nightmare” — Agnès Godard

by Zoe Dirse

CSC Associate Zoe Dirse of Toronto, whose cinematography for the National Film Board and her own films has helped interpret Canadian historical and social issues on theatre and TV screens, attended the Festival International de Films de Femmes at Créteil, France, last spring. She came back with an armful of videotaped interviews with several women cinematographers, whom the festival was honouring for their work in the world of French film. Here is her account of the festival and excerpts from an interview with French DOP, or “chef opératrice,” Agnès Godard.

LES CHEFS OPÉRATRICES: (back row, from left) Dominique le Rigoleur, Claire Childeric, Tessa Racine; (front row, from left) Caroline Champetier, Nurit Aviv, and Agnès Godard. Photo: Brigitte Pougeoise
The Festival International de Films de Femmes is the largest women’s film festival in the world. This year, the 22nd festival paid special homage to several French women cinematographers, among them Agnès Godard, Nurit Aviv, Dominique le Rigoleur, Caroline Champetier and Claire Childeric. During the festival, March 24-April 2, their films were screened and discussions were held with the audience. Two-hour workshops were held with each of the cinematographers in a studio setting.

Festival director Jackie Buet fielded questions to the cinematographers that pertained to their personal history, work experience, relationships to various directors and their approaches to composition, framing and lighting. The audience was varied, but consisted mostly of younger women and students.

On March 29, a forum was held for all the cinematographers in attendance. Jackie Buet launched the discussion by giving each cinematographer an opportunity to speak about her work. Later, in a much larger forum before an audience of several hundred, they again answered questions concerning their particular relationships to directors, personal style, views on camera movement — such as today’s “Nouveau Vague” of constant movement — and issues dealing with the question of whether or not a women’s camera perspective affects an audience’s response.

This last question provoked some differing opinions. Dominque le Rigoleur, one of France’s first women cinematographers, responded that in fact a difference could exist. But Caroline Champetier, a younger generation DOP, disagreed. She claimed that her work responded to the director’s vision and artistic expression, to which an audience would respond accordingly.

During the course of the festival, I interviewed the five cinematographers mentioned above. Here is part of my interview with Agnès Godard, DOP or “chef opératrice” on the 1998 French feature La Vie rêvée des anges (The Dreamlife of Angels). The film has won acclaim at Cannes and other festivals and earned a Best Cinematography nomination for Godard and a Best Director nomination for Erick Zonca at the 1999 César Awards, the main national film awards in France.

“I think that if we see differently, then the “regard” (look) is different because of the person, not because one is a man and one is a woman”

Q: When did your interest in cinema start?
A: As a teenager I had an interest to work on movies, but at that time it was difficult so I started my studies in journalism. Six years later I went to study cinema at the Institut d’Etude Cinématographique in Paris. I started to work as a camera assistant one year after I finished my studies. I worked four years as a focus puller and four years as a camera operator and have been a DOP for the past 10 years.

Q: Why did you decide to go into cinematography as opposed to the more traditionally held jobs for women in cinema?
A: My father was an avid photographer and I was always fascinated by the images in the cinema. It felt like a mysterious thing and I had the feeling that you could tell a story through pictures. When I was at school I was very shy and knew that I could not write a script, but when we had to shoot short films I became very excited and decided to listen to my inner voice. It is very simple.

Q: Was it difficult for you to enter cinematography as a woman?
A: For me, the situation was not so difficult because there had been a generation of women cinematographers before. I was not a pioneer; there had been Dominque le Rigoleur and Nurit Aviv. In France, we were lucky because it was not so surprising to have a woman around the camera. Although, when I was working as a focus puller and operator in other European countries, I sometimes felt that I had to prove myself more because I was a woman. I was very aware of this problem, so I chose to focus only on the work and talk only about the work. I did not want this to be a monkey on my back, but I was lucky because those before me had to open the road.

Today in France we have at least 50/50 camera assistants, men and women, but of course there are less women operators and DOPs. I have also noticed that there are a lot of productions who never hire women, but on the other hand there are many more who have no problem with that. Sometimes women are given an “etiquette,” offered certain films like women’s stories, but I have no plan. What is important to me is to chose a good project and to see if I can get along with the director, male or female.

Q: Would you say that you work more with male or female directors?
A: As a matter of fact, I work with more women than men. I don’t know why but maybe it is because I did my first film with Claire Denis and this set a standard. We have been working together for the past 10 years. Also in France, for the last 10 years there are more and more women directors.

Q: Do you think that women see things differently?
A: I am not sure. I have noticed that when a film is directed by a woman it is designated as a woman’s film. It’s funny that we do not do it for men; why do we not say that it is a man’s film? It is strange. I think that if we see differently, then the “regard” (look) is different because of the person, not because one is a man and one is a woman. But maybe I am wrong. I still have to investigate that. I am curious about the answer; maybe it will take my whole life, maybe not, but it is not the answer that interests me but how everybody is looking at things.

Q: How do you go about setting a frame?
A: When I set a frame, it is a way for me to try to understand, to translate what is the sequence, what the director is looking for — and in that case I have the feeling that I engage myself as a person and not only as a woman. I am there to do a job and to help the director to go further in what they are looking for.

It is difficult to explain in English, but in any case everything is a different combination. I have been working with men and some homosexuals. With women there may be more of a complicity, but what we have to do is work for the film and find the right thing for the film. When I was very shy, I was afraid of the technical side, and maybe that was because I was a woman. Then I decided that everyone has to find their own way to work and to find their inner rhythm.

Q: Describe what it is like to work with director Claire Denis (Beau travail, 1999).
A: It is a very rich adventure because she is always looking for something. She tries to tell a story — with a camera, with a script, with actors — that totally belongs to cinematography, and with this her research is very complete. I learn a lot and we are very compatible, that kind of a relationship drives you very far. It is an honour to work with her and to share her vision of cinema. She helped me establish my own relationship with cinema and the camera and the lights.

Q: What directors have you worked with?
A: Agnès Varda, Claire Denis, Catherine Corsini, Erick Zonca, Jacques Nolot, Peter Handke and Wim Wenders.

Q: What was it like working on The Dreamlife of Angels with Erick Zonca?
A: It was different than I usually work. We met after the locations had been chosen and many decisions had been made. I was quite alone on the film. I worked with the script and found it a challenge to work with someone that I did not know. All he asked of me was to make a rough image and to use strong colours and all the rest was my input.

Q: Is there a film that best represents your best work?
A: There are parts of J’ai pas sommeil (1994 with director Claire Denis) that I am very proud of. The shooting was difficult because of the subject, criminality and homosexuality, and everyone was very anxious. This kind of male world was strange to me. I realized that after I saw the film I found things that I liked and thought that after such a rough shoot perhaps I really am a DP.

Also I am very happy with the last film that I shot with Claire Denis in Djibouti, called Beau Travail (Good Work). I am very happy with the texture of the film. It is difficult to totally love any film and maybe I am never totally satisfied.

Q: Do you have a family?
A: I have a daughter and a companion of 25 years. I think that in the past, I felt that I did not have time for another kind of life, but when I had my daughter it was different. Now I am stronger to make time for myself and to make time for my job — not that I give less time to my work but now the border between what is life and what is cinema is clearer.

The line between cinema and life can be foggy and cinema can go into your life like the devil. The passion of cinema is so big that you have to find a serenity or you will live a nightmare. I now feel stronger to manage. For the future, I look for an enjoyable life and for my daughter to wake up happy every day.

(More of Zoe Dirse’s interviews will appear in future issues of CSC News.)

About Zoe Dirse

Zoe Dirse, a graduate of the University of Toronto and currently working on her MFA in Cinema Studies at York University, has compiled a long list of credits as a cinematographer and director. She was a film and video cinematographer with the National Film Board of Canada from 1982 to 1997, also shooting, directing and producing documentaries and docudramas for the CBC, TVOntario, and private production companies.

Her camera work includes Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, an NFB docudrama directed by Aerlynn Weissman and Lynne Fernie which won the Genie for best long documentary in 1993; and Jane Rule: Fiction and Other Truths, an NFB documentary, also directed by Weissman and Fernie, which won the Genie for best short documentary in 1995 and earned Dirse a best cinematography nomination at Hot Docs! 1996.

She also shot Balkan Journey for Gerda Films, a documentary directed by Brenda Longfellow which was a 1996 Genie nominee and was presented with a Certificate of Merit at the 1997 Golden Gate Awards in San Francisco; Erotica, a Sienna Films documentary directed by Maya Gallus, which earned a Genie nomination in 1997 and Hot Docs! nominations for best arts documentary and best cinematography in 1998; and Shadow Maker, a Gerda Films documentary directed by Brenda Longfellow, which was a Hot Docs! nominee in 1997 for best biography and a 1998 Genie winner.

This year, she produced, directed and was DOP for the documentary Madame President (Prismalight, Zoe Dirse Productions).

Zoe has travelled across Canada and around the world with her camera, and she is a keen student and fan of cinema from many lands.


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