After your film Retour à Forbach (2017), your hometown in Lorraine, you’ve made this new film, J’ai aimé vivre là, in Cergy, north-west Paris. What were the reasons for this choice?

I went to present Retour à Forbach at the Utopia cinema in Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône, not far from Cergy, and it was there I met Annie Ernaux, who liked the film and invited me to visit the “new town” where she’s been living for a long time. The film dramatises this encounter, this trip in May 2017, and it’s enriched by the correspondence it led to.

Cergy’s individual and collective memory are examined through its inhabitants and their accounts using the writer’s literary approach. How did her work guide you in this film?

I already knew her work well before I met her; her “auto-socio-biography” had permeated my previous movie. For this film, it was more “the photographic writing of reality” that inspired me because our work is also very similar in this respect. I wanted to make it possible for others to formulate an account of their lives, their own narrative. After our first meeting, I went to Cergy regularly to meet people and explore the town properly. During each visit, we talked about what I’d seen and heard. I discovered the town through the eyes of others, their joy at living there, and I wanted to express this feeling. The film describes this place through the stories of the inhabitants whose paths cross there and who are shaping its history.

How did the meeting go with the inhabitants and Annie Ernaux’s books Le Journal du dehors (1996) and La Vie extérieure (2000), and how were the extracts chosen?

At the same time as these regular visits, I worked with a group of high-school students for a year. They very quickly became my partners-in-fiction, and by following them, I was able to roam the town. It was with them that I began passing the texts round. And very soon they told me they identified with the characters, they felt the writing expressed their experience. Since Nous, Princesses de Clèves in 2010, literature has enriched my work. It’s an amazing testimony that we can pass on, like a relay race baton, from one person to another. Before long, I’d constructed the film with the idea that I wouldn’t interview Annie Ernaux, but that she’d be present via fragments of her text read aloud by herself and others. The choice of extracts was guided by the places and people.

How did you imagine their role and sequencing in the editing with Agnès Bruckert?

With Agnès Bruckert, the editor, we decided that each place should lead us to a character who would cross paths with another character, and so on. I wanted to suggest a “walkabout” experience where Annie Ernaux’s words were in dialogue with the film’s narrative based on the stories of the people I met there.

How did you choose these inhabitants and did you stage and direct them?

They were chance encounters during my trips to the new town. The younger ones also took me to meet their families and I had a special relationship with them. And then I had to integrate all the people from elsewhere – there’s a lot of recent migration here because of the reception centre right in the middle of town. It’s like a ballet – the staging of all the various people takes into account their movements in the town and the crossing of their paths.

What visual decisions did you make with Tom Harari?

Tom, thanks to his camera operating and photography skills, enabled me to define the perfect viewpoint and the right visual distance. I wanted to integrate each body into the town’s space. I wanted to record its scales, its substances. I wanted a warm, sunny film to express the characters’ happiness living in this town. I wanted to make a feel-good movie to mirror what I felt when I discovered the place.

Their wanderings, the RER journeys, and the sequence of the “journey through the area’s memory” from Annie Ernaux all sketch a kind of mapping of the town. Did you have this in mind when you wrote the film?

It’s a subjective mapping that retraces the writing process with the strolls and meetings with Annie Ernaux. I wanted to give an account of this first visit when she took me to the Axe Majeur monument, an extraordinary place. But above all, it’s a sensitive mapping produced from what I heard and saw.

The writer also appears physically in some of the scenes. Was it because you wanted her voice to be embodied?

She’s an inhabitant like all the others so it seemed natural to come across her. She offered to make a few appearances and we soon decided that it would be the film’s syntax – not to talk directly to the camera (she didn’t want to do that), but to be on the narrative path like everyone else.

In the church and class sequences, the diversity of the inhabitants’ origins, all living together in Cergy is unmistakeable. The town’s architectural project was an urban utopia – in what ways does this utopia live on today?

The utopia is in the people who make up this town and give it this incredible energy. Shared practices have left their mark on the town’s associative fabric, which is very much alive here, and this idea of a shared horizon beyond the twelve columns of the Axe Majeur, a symbolic horizon that a young woman from Ivory Coast summed up beautifully, saying simply “Little by little, I made friends here in Cergy”.



Interviewed by Olivier Pierre