French photojournalist Camille Lepage was just 26 when she was killed covering the armed conflict in the Central African Republic, a country riven by violence between largely Muslim rebel groups and Christian militias. A fearless and sympathetic photographer on the verge of a promising career, Lepage had spent eight months in a country where she’d found an unlikely home, hoping to better understand the violence long after the rest of the international community had shifted its gaze to other conflicts.
It was only after Lepage’s death that her story caught the attention of French filmmaker Boris Lojkine, whose sophomore narrative feature, “Camille,” will have its world premiere on the Piazza Grande during the Locarno Film Festival. Starring Nina Meurisse and based on extensive research with Lepage’s family, friends and colleagues, the film is both a moving coming-of-age story about a young photographer finding her artistic voice and a thoughtful exploration of the ethical challenges faced by war photographers in foreign lands.
Lojkine is an accomplished documentary filmmaker who shot his first two films in Vietnam. His narrative feature debut, “Hope,” is a love story about African migrants that world premiered in Cannes Critics’ Week in 2014. Lojkine spoke to Variety ahead of the Locarno premiere of “Camille” about the personal bond he felt with Lepage, the challenge of shooting in a country with no film industry, the value of living like a local in foreign lands, and what drives him to make movies far from home.
Like many people, you’ve said that you only came to know Camille Lepage after her death. What drew you to her story?
I had the idea before to make a film about reporters—war reporters, war photographers. I also had the idea to make a film about African wars. I traveled a lot in Congo. I was very interested in all these African war stories, but I didn’t find my path. I didn’t find a story I could tell. And then I read about Camille when she died, and I thought, “That’s the story for me.”
Of course, there is something more personal for me in that film and that story. The answer is very simple: I feel close to Camille. I think that what inspired me to make this film is that I read an interview that Camille gave to an American magazine called PetaPixel, a photography magazine. And in that interview, she was explaining how she worked in South Sudan, how she lived in a small house in a very local neighborhood, far from all the expat villas, the expat compounds, the expat fancy restaurants. I felt very close to that, even if I’m of course very different from Camille. I used to live in other countries, when I was younger. When I was 25 I lived in Vietnam. I was also living among Vietnamese, having a motorbike. I think that’s what inspired me. She was so eager to live among locals and to have true relationships with them.
Throughout the film, Camille grapples with ambivalence about what she’s doing; toward the end of the movie, she questions why she finds herself “alone in the middle of this war that’s not mine.” Did you struggle with a similar ambivalence while making “Camille”? Did you think that this was an important story to tell, while perhaps also questioning if you were the right person to tell it?
Not really, because I’m not making a film about the Central African Republic crisis. I’m making a film about Camille, and Camille is very close to me. But of course this question has many echoes in me, in my life, and in my previous experiences. I made several films in Vietnam, and I made my previous film with African migrants. When I was in Vietnam making my first film, “Wandering Souls,” which tells the story of Vietnamese people who are searching for the dead bodies of their relatives who died during the American war: this was a very Vietnamese story, and I tried to tell it from the point of view of Vietnamese people. When I made “Hope,” my first fiction film, it’s the same: I tell the story of two migrants, Leonard and Hope—a guy from Cameroon and a young woman from Nigeria. It’s an African story, and I try to tell it from the African perspective. This is something which is very important in my work.
“Camille” is a bit different. Of course, I shot the film in the Central African Republic, with a lot of African characters in the film, but it’s a film about somebody like me. So yes, I understand Camille’s question, and it’s my question, too. “What am I doing? Why me, Boris Lojkine, who is French with a Russian name: why am I talking Vietnamese? Why am I making a film in Vietnam or Africa and not in France?” Well, that’s my life. I cannot explain it, but that’s how it is. Probably that’s why I made this film about this young woman Camille: because it’s the story of someone who has to go far away from her country to find her place, to find her goal, her mission. That’s exactly what I do, and I guess that’s exactly what she wanted to do.
You’ve described making a film that complies with a “triple truth”: the truth about the real-life photojournalist Camille Lepage, the truth about the work done by photojournalists, and the truth about events in the Central African Republic. Did you face resistance from any of the participants while researching this film: from Camille’s family or colleagues who were entrusting you with her life story, or from citizens in Central African Republic who might have been skeptical about a French filmmaker depicting their experiences?
Not so much. First, I met the family, and for me it was very difficult. I was very afraid. I was shy of asking them to make this film. I knew for them it was terrible, it was such a tragedy to lose a child. And so I was really very shy and very afraid of asking them. But I think I was sincere, and that’s what convinced them. After that, it made things very easy for me, because all the people I met, all the colleagues of Camille, all the friends of Camille, I met them with the recommendation of the family. I had to face a little resistance from journalists and photographers, but not so much. I took time, and they saw that I was very dedicated to the film, very dedicated to the story, trying to understand how it works for them—how they work, how they sell their pictures, how they edit their pictures. Everything. I really wanted to understand. And I think they saw that and they wanted to help me.
In the Central African Republic, I don’t remember any kind of resistance. I think people there don’t have much experience of cinema, and so they were mostly excited to participate in a movie. I don’t remember any person telling me that I was not the right person to do this film, that I was a stranger.
You decided to shoot this film in the Central African Republic at a time when fighting between Séléka rebel groups and anti-Balaka militias was still ongoing in certain parts of the country. What were the biggest practical challenges of filming there? How did you navigate the difficulty of shooting in a country with very little film infrastructure?
It seems very risky to do that, but in fact, it was not so difficult. I was afraid of the process of getting the official authorization to make the film; in fact, I had to meet very high-ranking officials. I even met the president of the Central African Republic. I met him, and then I met five or six ministers. But after I did that, they were all very supportive, and they all gave their help to make the film. They were understanding that it’s good for the country to have something that shows that it’s possible to do something in the Central African Republic. Yes, it’s a conflict zone, but you can make something. You can shoot a film. You can bring a foreign crew, and you can shoot a film. I think it was important for them to show that, and that’s why they helped.
What was probably the main challenge is that, as you said, there is no cinema industry at all. There was no film shot there for many years—only one Central African Republic film in the history of cinema, which is called “Le silence de la forêt” (“The Silence of the Forest”). So no film industry. That makes things much more difficult. When there is no film industry, you have to bring everything from outside. All the crew, the technicians have to be from outside. I went with a European crew, but I didn’t want to have an all-European crew shooting in the Central African Republic. I didn’t want to be like colonists, with a white crew in a black country. So what I did is that, two years before, I organized some workshops—not for technicians, but for documentary filmmakers. Then I trained ten young people, and each one of them made one documentary short film with us. And then, one year later, when I made the film, they were all mixed in my crew. What gives me the greatest happiness in this film is the relationship I had with these 10 young filmmakers from the Central African Republic, who I’m still working with. They’re now making new films, and we’re trying to organize some kind of film industry in Bangui.
There’s a powerful scene where Camille and the other journalists are debating the ethics of how and why they photograph the violence. This is, I think, the central dilemma faced by war correspondents and photographers: how does one report on this sort of violence with clarity, with nuance, with sensitivity to the victims—perhaps most of all, without being gratuitous? How did you approach the task of finding the right balance with your own depictions of violence in this film?
Yes, you’re right, when you say the scene where the journalists debate the ethics of how and why you can photograph the violence is a very central scene in the film. I’m not sure it’s a dilemma that I had to face, but of course, I had to find the right balance in my depiction of violence. I found it in the shooting, but also in the editing. In fact, some images of my film are violent. There is one scene of the crowd lynching a Muslim—that scene is a very violent scene. But in fact, what you see in the images I shot is far less violent than what you see in the photographs that the photographers took in 2013, 2014. Even Camille Lepage. Some of her photographs are terrible. Some of her photographs are much, much, much more terrible than the ones we show in the film.
That was part of my thinking. I think it’s important to show the violence, because it’s a film about violence. It’s a film about how do you look at violence, and I think, at least for me, it was important to show some of the violence to ask the question. I wanted to show something, because I think it’s important that the audience not only understands, but also feel that it’s terrible, it’s something that moves you. But at the same time, I really didn’t want to be gratuitous. Not something that wouldn’t respect the integrity of human beings.
Like “Camille,” your first narrative feature, “Hope,” portrays the lives of African characters with particular sympathy and nuance; your previous documentary work was set in Vietnam, where you lived for several years. How do you navigate the challenge of making movies as a European filmmaker without employing (for lack of a better way to put it) a “European gaze”?
This drives us back to the first question. Yes, indeed, all my films are shot outside France, and on very far-away subjects for me, a European. I think there is some kind of ethnographic dimension in my process. I don’t make ethnographic films; I don’t want to make ethnographic films, but I think there is something of ethnography in the way I look at things. This is the way I work, but also the way I am, the way I travel. When I was in Vietnam, I was very eager to learn Vietnamese. It was very important to me, and I really learned a lot of this language. Now, when I am in Central African Republic, I really try to learn a little bit of Sango, the national language, because it makes a big difference—it makes your relationship to people very different when you can understand some of the language. When you can joke in the local language, it makes things so different.
I always try, when I’m somewhere for a lot of time, when I work somewhere, I really try to understand a lot of things. I try to learn the language. I try to understand the customs, the history, the social relations between people, the structure of power. I like to learn. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to be with local people—for example, in Central African Republic, when I sit on the street, eating in a local restaurant, local food, with local people, eating with the hands and joking in Sango, that’s what gives me the biggest pleasure. Then I have the feeling that I’m in the right place, doing what I have to do. And I think that is what gives me the ability afterward to make the films that I try to make.