INTERVIEW – Northern Range

iNTERVIEW with Olivier Derousseau

1/ Northern Range is the fruit of a long period of fieldwork, spread over several years within a vast area around Calais and Dunkerque. What made you interested in this region?
In the beginning, the idea was to focus on a café in Dunkirk, the Seamen’s Club, which is popular with transiting sailors working for the international merchant navy. But circumstances favoured a drift between Dunkirk and Calais. In this area, a whole set of emotional, political and industrial issues are at play, and in the film too, they form a kind of hinterland, or a documentary back-ground. This territory is simultaneously a wetland reclaimed from the sea since the Middle Ages, several times destroyed and disfigured by war; a piece of Europe separated from the mainland by a strip of sea – the Pas-de-Calais strait which 700 to 800 boats cross every day; an industrial zone with 14 high-risk ‘Seveso’ sites and a nuclear reactor which produces 6% of the country’s energy; a border which stops exiles as they try to cross into the British Isles, but also many beaches perfect for meditating, having a drink with friends or eating chips.

2/ Among the locations filmed, there are few homes, many natural spaces, but also wasteland, construction sites, factories, power stations, fences that block the access to different boarding zones, as well as recording sessions in a studio. How did you go about editing the film?
I wasn’t sure that it was possible to move on to the editing until I met the film’s editor, Léo Richard. This process now seems to me a mystery, and one that stems from the belief in the possibility of working together. There were directions, patterns, rhymes to identify and some essential components: excerpts translated into English from Bernard Aspe’s most recent book, Les Fibres du temps; the music; the devastation recorded several days after the evacuation of the Calais “Jungle”; the memory of a deceased comrade; images that spoke of “climate change”. What quickly became clear was that the making of the film had to be shown, without it becoming the subject. There is a logic of thresholds which we rapidly agreed on. I cannot say where exactly it comes from, other than it being a sum of agreements and intuitions.

3/The music, down to the title itself, which can also be read as a reference to music scores and scales, is present throughout the film. How did the collaboration with Olivier Brisson and Julien Bancilhon come about?
As well as being musicians and colleagues, Olivier and Julien also work with autistic people. One works in Tourcoing with young children, and the other within the association L’Élan Retrouvé with young adults, some of whom make experimental music. I invited them to record an improvised piece, for a future film. With a prior promise: I’d input all the recorded tracks like blocks, and the editing of the film would adapt. They had never played together, and I’d stuck on the wall photocopies of drawings, published by L’Arachnéen, by Janmari, a person with autism who had lived at Monoblet along with Jacques Lin, Gisèle Durand and Fernand Deligny, as well as a quote, Time is out of joint, taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As a score it’s quite sparse, but for people used to living in an environment of relative silence, it seemed appropriate. The recording took one afternoon, after which we had to synchronise the six tracks with the images and see how to begin.

4/ In addition to music, a kind of continuous bass, many voices are heard and orchestrated like a hum. Anne Sabatelli, the sound engineer, can also be heard on several occasions. How did this sound material come together?
During the editing, we had twelve tracks to organise. This “material” summons the images. It is indeed a kind of murmur. A situated murmur. The sound plays a very important role in evoking the setting, as the images are fairly poor and lost in the middle of a leafing through history. The film needed to be geographically anchored and the sound work helped us in this. There is something of the “solitude of the sound engineer” that appears and helps to grasp the solitude of the shots. The voice of Anne Sabatelli denotes a presence at work and gives the film a deep affect mixed with indifference, which appealed to us during the editing.

5/ You include a man who worked alongside you on many different tasks. How did this presence and this tribute come about?
The film was supposed to include an industrial disaster, a political disaster– by that I am referring to the evacuation of the Camp de la Lande, known as the “Jungle” in Calais, Dunkirk and its festive character, and all of that clouded by the sudden death of a good friend. We had to combine the sequences whilst avoiding a situation where one becomes a metaphor for another. The editor showed great lucidity in this task. The film is indeed a tribute that imposed itself, an event which was added to the work of filmmaking, which we had to accept. I belong to a generation that saw emancipation through money and ransacking impose themselves as the norm. In Belgium, we were dancing to disco and cold wave among squatters who had thrown their money down the drain. Politics caught up with us, in some way. And even if those winter years were in fact terrible, many didn’t give up. They shone with a kind of stubborn and almost pointless honesty. This presence in question is that of an artist without artworks who has made the gift of self. It’s priceless. A few minutes are devoted to this man of whom I am very proud.

6/ Many still shots structure the film, as well as strong overexposures and abrupt movements, like a series of openings. What made you choose these stylistic devices?
We needed to find an almost organic way of moving, in a kind of daze. We went looking for shots that usually wouldn’t be seen. Prompts, missed or badly framed movements, cloudy or high contrast atmospheres, which probably show some kind of disarray. The film searches, then finds, then searches again. “Who is filming?” is perhaps the only metaphorical question in the film.

7/ From the Burghers of Calais by Rodin to today’s fences, you also address the time of History at work, our common time. What made you interested in this dimension?
Rodin was commissioned to produce the Burghers of Calais to commemorate the city’s defeat by the English. The historical vocation of Calais is to be a British border, the “lock and key of the kingdom”, as said Edward III of England. Since 2004, the Le Touquet Treaty has reactivated this reality and Rodin thus seemed to us very contemporary. It seemed possible to us to relate the masterful affliction depicted in the form of these scruffy bourgeois with the construction of an anti-intruder green wall paid for by the United Kingdom, simply, and without commentary. This montage allowed us to show the winter desolation of the wrecked “Jungle” as well as the immemorial nature of the millstones a few kilometres away. This heterogeneous combination, supported by the music, cries out. Bernard Aspe’s most recent book, which I mentioned earlier, discusses how shared time is inappropriable but essential for envisaging political action. Some translated passages are taken from it and punctuate the film three times. Reading this book was a defining moment for me.

Interview by Nicolas Feodoroff