Agnes Varda, Street-Artist JR on Cannes Documentary ‘Visages Villages’

Agnes Varda, one of the leading figures of the French New Wave, and street-artist JR are in Cannes to present their documentary “Visages Villages” (Faces Places), which received a warm reception when it played Out of Competition. Despite the demands of promoting the movie, Varda expresses the wish to take time out to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. “I’d like to sit on the beach and make a sandcastle, and wait for the tide to wash it away,” she says.

Varda sees the movie, which was partially funded through crowd-sourcing, as a collective endeavor that includes the film’s subjects and viewers as participants. “I hope you came with us, and were engaged,” she says. “We try to connect with the audience. We don’t want to seduce them. We want them to come with us, and meet people. The film is ours, but now it is yours too.”

The crowdsourcing was not without its difficulties as some in France expressed their surprise that Varda wasn’t raising the funds by traditional means. JR says: “We raised more money [through crowdsourcing] than we needed [albeit a small amount], but it was an interesting debate that happened because in France most people are not really ready for the idea that you pay for what you want to see. It’s a completely different system here.”

More than 600 people contributed funds for the film’s production through crowdsourcing and although their combined contribution — Euros 55,000 ($61,600) — was only a small part of the total budget, they helped get “the energy going,” says JR. The money paid for the first four days of shooting. All the people who contributed received a mention in the opening credits of the movie. “They gave us faith. People think I can raise money by clicking my fingers but [it has always been difficult to raise money] for my films,” Varda says.

The documentary follows the two artists as they travel through rural France in JR’s van, which doubles as a photographic studio and laboratory that can produce giant-sized prints. On their journey they photograph some of the people they meet, mostly working-class folks, and then paste the billboard-sized images on the walls of houses and workplaces.

An important part of this street-art is the participation of the subjects – who include a waitress, a goat farmer, a postman and the wives of dock workers – in the composition and presentation of the artwork. Varda sees it as a collective process. The filmmakers’ intention was to “share the idea of art, so [the people being photographed] can be part of it.”

The starting point was the collaborative spirit of two artists. They were “two minds” but with a common purpose. “The editing was a collage but a sensible collage taking the viewer by the hand,” Varda says. Their intention was to follow certain themes in the film “like a river,” such as the running joke where Varda tries to get JR to get rid of his trademark dark-glasses.

JR, who saw the exercise as “an adventure,” says that the idea of a “collage” ran through all stages of the film’s production, from decisions about the composition of the photographs through to the editing. The filmmakers’ editorial decision-making was led by their “intuition,” Varda adds.

The monumental nature of the images gives a heroic scale to these blue-collar folks. They are “heroes of where they are, heroes of the village, heroes of the street,” Varda says. JR adds that this has been a theme in their previous work as individual artists. “We’ve always seen heroes in anonymous people,” he says. “You can stop anyone in the street and you will find an amazing story.”

Varda interjects, saying: “I’m not so sure about ‘amazing’. Sometimes it is less than amazing; it’s just simple and impressive… I’ve never made films about establishment people. I’ve made films about the people of the street. It is the people who have no official place in society who are the ones who need to be listened to.”

Many of the people they photographed wanted to take their own photographs – quite often these were selfies with the filmmakers and the giant images they had created in the background. Even those people who said they were shy were happy to be photographed, which could be seen as an existential act. “The image can be used as a way of existing,” Varda says.

One theme of the film is the transient nature of life, and art too. “What we made clear was that when we [pasted an image] on a wall it is ephemeral, although by filming it we create some kind of memory of that moment. So it is an interplay between long-lasting feelings and images, and [the acknowledgement] that nothing lasts forever.”

She adds, “The world is in chaos and we try to express how we can survive in that world with friendship, love and work.”

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