I needed to understand how, in certain situations, film can save lives


The director’s latest documentary speaks of those who were brave enough to use their cameras to document the horrors of war.

We seized the chance to chat with French documentary-maker Jean-Gabriel Périot about his latest feature film Facing Darkness, which was presented in a Special Screening at the Karlovy Vary Festival, and which takes us to the heart of the siege of Sarajevo.


How did you come across the films about the siege of Sarajevo which you use in your documentary?

I was carrying out extensive research into the history of the city of Sarajevo, and when I got to the point of the Siege there was obviously quite a lot of material. Amongst these films were several short films which really struck me, especially I Burt Legs by Srdan Vuletić and The Runway Of Life by Dino Mustafić. These films had such an effect on me that I started to take an interest in their directors’ lives. I realized that the films which had surprised me the most had been made by incredibly young people who’d been between 20 and 23 years old at the time. Their films really moved me, the images were very different from what we’re used to seeing in films set in war contexts; they weren’t TV news reports or films by people situated outside of these events. Often, these films were very cobbled together, but at the same time they allowed me to access the feelings of those people living in a city which was then under siege. Some people were surprised I’d found their films and that I’d been able to track them down, that I was interested in them. We were united by common characteristics: the fact we were all men of the same age, and we were all directors. For many of them, that period had been incredibly traumatizing, and reconnecting with those images was sometimes very challenging for them on a personal level.


What led you to work with archive footage? Does film still wield revolutionary and political power?

I’ve been working with archive footage for a long time. When I was really young and still in training, I was asked to screen pre-existing films for an exhibition, and what I thought would be a painful or at least not particularly interesting task turned out to be pleasant and fascinating. It’s really instructive working with these pre-existing films and turning them into something else. It allows me to dive into history and to try to understand it. I really like archive footage because it can also speak volumes about the present. I seek out these images because they speak to me, and they resonate with the current day. I like seeking out archive material, films, excerpts from TV reports or documentaries, things which haven’t been seen very much or which haven’t been considered that important. Often, official history is written by great stories, by the television, by big films, but there are other images which also form part of it, and it’s these images we have to look for, in order to show that it’s not always about "manufacturing". If we say that film is political, it means that it has an effect on the world, on viewers. I’ve made a film like that because I needed to know why these young people, who were soldiers at the time, decided to film things. Each of them gave me a different answer but, for all of them, film was a necessary thing: it helped them to survive, to forget, to avoid the front lines. I needed to understand how, in certain situations, film can save lives.


What is your editing approach? How do you bring the past and the present into dialogue?

The archive images I used for my film were often very hard to understand or grasp. Sometimes, they were nothing more than rushes. The interesting and exciting thing was that the directors were alive, so I could ask them how and why they’d filmed certain things. This fact resulted in a two-part structure for my film: one relating to the archive and another where I interviewed the directors. What I didn’t want was for the audience to see these images accompanied by the directors’ commentaries. I needed that first part to be composed purely of archive images, which would do all the talking about a war which we often don’t really understand at all. As a viewer, I think it’s important that we ask ourselves what we’re watching. When we see these images for the first time, most of the time we’re lost if we don’t have explanations or some kind of key, or someone to explain it to us. We shouldn’t forget that these are young directors who didn’t need to explain their choices; they were quite simply living through war, they filmed what was going on in front of them. What might have been natural for them isn’t the case for us because we’re not in the same context. I also wanted to show that time goes by, and to look at how memory is reactivated.


Muriel Del Don
July 3rd, 2023