Following his strong foray into fiction with “Hope,” director Boris Lojkine goes even further in weaving his documentary origins onto a fictional structure with “Camille,” a powerful biopic of French photojournalist Camille Lepage, who was killed in the Central African Republic in 2014 at the age of 26. While adopting a standard biopic structure that occasionally stumbles into the formulaic, Lojkine foregrounds his strengths by presenting a nuanced picture of the usual white European do-gooder in Africa, opening the film up to ambiguity and complexity. The use of Lepage’s own photographs ensures the audience sees what she saw, significantly deepening our feel for the woman while making sense of her shift from enthusiastic naïf to tough yet still empathetic professional. “Camille” won the public prize at Locarno, giving a good indication of its potential on the Euro art house circuit and beyond.
While functioning as an homage to Lepage, the film is also a critique of the white-savior-in-Africa cliché: Camille (Nina Meurisse) quickly learns that her photos won’t effect change, but they will humanize a conflict. Shooting in the Central African Republic with a mixed cast and crew that included many locals, Lojkine works hard at depicting Lepage as a woman interested in people more than issues, striving to overcome an “us versus them” mentality even while acknowledging that as a white woman in Africa, she will always be seen as the “other.” The director also doesn’t try to “whitesplain” the insurgency; while there’s a brief necessary history included at the start, the film makes clear there’s more to the killings than a clear-cut story of Muslim against Christian and vice versa. Refreshingly, “Camille” refuses to be an issue film, nor is it designed to milk Lepage’s death for tragedy. Instead, it’s a tribute to a woman who tried her best to honor the subjects of her lens.
Following a brief scene when her body is found, the film jumps back to 2013, when Camille, just back to France from South Sudan with a portfolio of images, corners a photo editor to get his opinion on her work. The verdict: She’s talented but doesn’t know what she wants to say. Determined to develop both her craft and her sense of purpose, she goes to Bangui, the CAR capital, without a commission or contacts, just sensing that this is where she should be, given reports of violence between the Séléka, largely formed of Muslim rebels, and the mostly Christian counterforce, the anti-Balaka. Camille starts befriending students at the university, specifically Cyril (Fiacre Bindala), Leïla (Ousnabee Zounoua) and Abdou (Abdouraouf Diallo), who give her insight into the conflict.
At this stage Camille is still idealistic, believing she can make a difference, which is why she’s almost offended when she’s told by a group of seasoned male photojournalists that she needs to erect a psychological barrier between herself and her subjects, since she can’t really imagine what they’re going through. While this isn’t a message she’s willing to hear, she pushes herself into their midst, which includes François (Grégoire Colin) and Michaël Zumstein (playing himself), hoping to learn the ropes and get an assignment. That comes once France sends in troop support and “Libération” gives her a commission.
By then, Camille has already seen morgues overflowing with bodies, but that’s just the start. She’s witness to a lynching, a castration, a man having his head crushed by a rock, all of which she photographs, knowing that she mustn’t flinch while recording the truth. Scenes like the jaded photojournalists debating ethics, or the editor critiquing her work, have the over-familiarity of a well-worn script, but the images of Camille as active observer, intercut with Lepage’s photographs as well as videos (of unknown origin), have a disturbing immediacy that transcends standardized narrative. Towards the end, as she heads into ever more dangerous territory with a newfound tough exterior, she’s clearly shed her ingenuousness while holding firm to an abiding principle, to humanize those she photographs.
In what must have been a punishing shoot, Meurisse embodies Lepage exactly as we imagine her: Friendly, naïve, committed and certain of the fundamental value of her outlook even as she strives to realize it in her work. Her vulnerability dovetails with the energy she imbibes from being in Africa, and the actress works easily with the mix of professionals and nonprofessionals. Lojkine again pairs with cinematographer Elin Kirschfink but this time uses a 1.5 aspect ratio to create a more seamless montage between Lepage’s photos and their fictionalization; the gambit pays off handsomely, also thanks to Xavier Sirven’s superb edit that maintains a rhythm and flow.