Jean-Gabriel Périot: Telling stories through archives

JP/Prodita Sabarini
JP/Prodita Sabarini

French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot can turn a seemingly boring collection of archives into a moving story that will be forever etched in your memory.

After watching Périot’s short movies, one will find it difficult not to feel a chilling sensation that lingers on.

Using contemporary and historical still photo and videos, Périot tells stories by creating a collage of archives. With precise and tight editing, he creates sequences of pictures that become social critiques on labor conditions, war atrocities, persecution, revenge and violence against women. His works always touch upon the issue of violence, which stems from his ever-questioning of it.

The Jakarta Post met with the artist recently after a screening and discussion of his works at the Jakarta Art Institute. The award-winning filmmaker is in Indonesia for art space Ruangrupa’s 10th anniversary’s art festival “Decompression #10”.

Sipping a black coffee, Périot talked about his filmmaking, political leanings, works, and what he would do if he ran out of things to say through movies.

Périot’s works are mostly political, be it a critique on the plight of laborers in capitalist systems as seen in his 2003 film We Are Winning, Don’t Forget; violence against women through his reinterpretation of historical footage of Parisians shaving women bald for allegedly working as prostitutes for German soldiers during World War II in Even if She Had Been a Criminal…; and the gradual change of the city of Hiroshima before and after the bombing in 200,000 Phantoms.

“My films broach different topics, but there is always a question of violence, be it violence in war or contemporary violence in work and poverty,” Périot said.

“Because there is something I can’t understand about violence,” he said, adding that he could never fathom why civilians had to die in war.

His 2005 film Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), a poetic movie of a journey through roads and railways is a metaphor on life and death. He first came up with the idea for the film as he was preparing a movie on civilians who died at war. He started by looking at archives of concentration camps, but the visuals were too disturbing and violent.

“It was impossible to edit,” he said. In the end, he looked at memorials and eventually decided to make a film that would recount the journey of life.

“It’s a metaphor of life. We’re here traveling and at a certain point we will die without knowing.”

His film Even if She Had Been a Criminal… highlights the humiliation and violence women faced in France after country’s liberation from the German occupation during the World War II.

This complex film starts off with scenes of war unraveling at high speed and then slows down as Périot focuses on footage of people smiling and holding up victory signs. Later, the audience understands the bigger picture as they realize that the people smiling are in fact laughing at women being humiliated in public, shaved bald and paraded on the streets of Paris.

The women were accused of being prostitutes for Nazi soldiers during the German occupation.

He places the emphasis not so much on the reasons behind the women being shaved bold, but on the public’s trial of the women. There is an element of revenge targeted at the powerless and also discrimination against women.

“For me, as soon as you are liberated, and then you commit some kind of act against the law, you just repeat what you were liberated from,” he said. The shaving also reflected violence against women’s sexuality as men were not punished for having sexual relations with the “enemy”.

A self-proclaimed lefty, Périot said it was natural for him to be a feminist.

“When you are from the left, you are closer to the oppressed; women are part of the group of oppressed,” he said.

He thinks his artistic endeavor in short films might be fueled by feelings of guilt for not being a “real” activist.

Born in 1974, Périot started making films when he was 24. “Quite late,” he said. He started out as an editor and worked with archives.

Besides enjoying working with archives, Périot had a practical reason for using them.

“It allowed me to work alone and without money,” he said, adding he did not want to spend time searching for funds to finance a film project.

Every time he is in the middle of a producing a film, he thinks it might be the last film he will make.

“Because one day I might have said all that I wanted to say,” he said.

At the moment though, he is working on two ongoing projects, a fiction short film with real actors and a feature-length film about the Red Army Fraktion (RAF), a guerrilla group active for 30 years in Germany.

He has been working on this project for the last three years. Périot thinks it might take him another three years to finish the movie.

He will quit making films if he one day run out of ideas. “If I don’t have a reason to make movie, then I would not make movie,” he said.

“Because there are better things to do in life; Perhaps [I’ll] be an activist.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Tue, January 11 2011

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