While legendary French cameraman Raymond Depardon discovers his home country, collaborator Claudine Nougaret sifts through his backlog of footage from around the world in their joint docu “Journal de France.” The title is something of a misnomer, since “Journal of the Second Half of the 20th Century” would be more accurate, considering Depardon’s knack for capturing history in the making since 1960. A tribute to a masterful eye, a humanistic heart and a wondrous life, “Journal” is a natural for docu fests and Euro satcasts.
For four years Depardon traveled on and off around France, shooting photographs with a large-format plate camera in the lead-up to an exhibition, “La France,” which opened in 2010. His subjects tended to be places likely to disappear in the next decade, the kinds of slightly down-at-the-heels mom-and-pop tobacconists, cafes, barbershops and the like, where little seems to have changed for 40 years. It was an opportunity for the man to discover his native land in the same way he looked at the world, with an eye for the quintessence of a locale at a particular moment.
Depardon’s first foreign footage was lensed during riots in Venezuela when he was 21; subsequent trips from the mid-1960s honed his “listening and looking” method, which synthesizes his philosophy of reportage. In the coming decades he crisscrossed the planet, shooting French mercenaries in Biafra (chilling), the Soviet invasion of Prague (tragic) and rebels in Chad (stunning and disturbing). His camera recorded people and events with a seemingly passive eye that conveys in its directness a sympathy for the downtrodden, the unprotected and anyone awakening from those states to a new sense of determination.
There’s also the opposite, such as footage of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, years before crowning himself emperor of the Central African Republic. Perhaps it’s all in the eye of the viewer, however: Those unaware of the horrors wrought by that most extravagant of African dictators may watch these scenes with nothing but the illusionary sense of promise so many images of 1960s Africa convey.
By the mid-’70s, Depardon became equally interested in political animals at home, shooting a documentary on the French presidential race of Valerie Giscard d’Estaing (who successfully barred its release, unhappy with the p.o.v.). In subsequent years the subjects became more varied, encompassing civil wars, broken-down mental health services, the French judicial system: anything that spoke of the disenfranchised and the institutions that controlled their lives.
Intercut with the found footage are scenes of Depardon’s French excursions and the story of his collaboration with Nougaret, his longtime sound engineer. Both remain fascinated by the world around them (recent images from Chad’s Djourab desert are breathtaking), leaving auds to ruminate on the good fortune — for him and the viewer — of artistic lives actively engaging with the world. Music is beautifully chosen.