“Taking photographs with a view camera is a world apart,” explains celebrated Gallic photographer and filmmaker Raymond Depardon as he clicks his shutter. It’s through this deliberate medium that he has chosen to capture a later-life nationwide trek to experience the homeland that he has long neglected in favour of adventure overseas. This road trip constitutes the more tranquil half of Journal de France (2012), serving as both a reflection and a career highlights reel. Whilst the doc makes for appealing viewing, it does more to spark intrigue in the filmmaker’s far-reaching travels than an understanding of the man and his work.
The set-up sees Depardon jump into a camper van and set off to discover France via his bulky camera. It’s a curious and compelling contraption that subtly chastises the modern compunction to shoot from the hip and erase what doesn’t work. The ritual actually feels far less anachronistic that might be expected when occurring outside the tabac in a small town, or capturing an ailing coiffure than might otherwise be expected. This makes for sedate rather than riveting material, but luckily Depardon’s sound recordist and collaborator, Claudine Nougaret, is on hand. Fingering through the old boxes in the self-taught cameraman’s cellar, Nougaret stitches Depardon’s tour together with a wealth of footage from his photojournalistic life.
Sequences are shown from an early foray in the bullet-strewn streets of Caracas, in which his colleagues left the intrepid Depardon to complete his film alone. These are followed up by numerous fascinating snippets: including Jean-Bédel Bokassa before he declared himself Emperor of the Central African Republic; French mercenaries training militias in Biafra; films shot inside Italian asylums; and, most notably, from his two years embedded in a rebel group in the Tibesti Mountains, who were holding captive the French archaeologist, Françoise Claustre. Depardon’s footage provides arresting intimacy in the most unlikely of scenarios and has seen him in trouble with various authorities. His tear-jerking interview with Claustre led to his own government charging him for his failure to aid in her escape, whilst the secret police picked him up as he reported on the aftermath of the Prague Spring.
Depardon’s unprecedented access to a political campaign showed his preference for framing his subjects up close and it becomes easy to understand how he has never come to know his country very well. Unlike last year’s McCullin (2012), however, Depardon’s own involvement in this doc never really provides the sort of insight into art or artist that one might hope. Distracting from the work rather than enriching it, it also serves to dissipate the thrall under which the filmmaker’s own footage has you. Ultimately, it’s the archive material that is the real meat of Journal de France and whilst it is enjoyable enough, its real victory may be in inspiring people to seek out the original films.