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Interview with Jean-Michel Frodon, World New Waves

There seems to be a certain tendency nowadays, or even a rush, to label a group of filmmakers or films as “new wave”. In your opinion, is there a comparable energy emerging in films nowadays to the espritof French films in the 1950’s?

I think, what is labelled as the “French new wave” that which happened in France in the late 50’s and early 60’s is quite specific in terms of its size, its effects and its belonging to a larger movement and changing of society, the behaviour of people, and in general the change in arts and cultural practices. There is something happening at that moment which is unlikely to happen again or at least on such a frequent basis. Nevertheless there are significant collective movements in various parts of the world, which have, to a certain extent, the importance and the meaning of the French new wave of the time. So, it’s really a question of scale and whether this cinema phenomenon is an isolated movement or not, how it relates to the rest of society, because sometimes it occurs only within the “cinema world”. It’s only when it becomes a huge social, mental and imaginational shift simultaneously, that it can truly compare to the French new wave.

Do you have any recent examples in mind?

This is why I was questioning the national reference, because this kind of phenomenon has happened in China, to be precise, in China, in Taiwan, and Hong Kong. They were all changing the rules of filmmaking in the early 80’s, and this was one of the important steps forward, or aside, depending on how you see it. More recently there is a similar phenomenon happening in Argentina in the beginning of the 21stcentury, then in Romania little later, and recently, we are witnessing something different, because it is not national but regional. In Latin America, there is a huge amount of innovative films being made by people from Mexico to Chile who don’t necessarily know each other but who belong to the same trend. These filmmakers are bringing creativity and innovation to screens around the world, well mostly to film festivals. No country and no specific filmmaker could claim to be the centre of this trend. There isn’t anyone like Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut today. But if you pay attention, I am confident, or rather I have expectations that we are on the verge of something quite similar in the Arab world, some countries are especially creative, for instance, Algeria. It is more a regional movement, not at all coordinated, though there is a significant tool which is helping all of them, and which does not exist elsewhere – called the Doha Film Institute, which is very supportive of innovation in Arab cinema. It is not enough to have people with money to make things happen, but obviously, it can help, and it is happening!

You gave a series of lectures on World New Waves at the Kino kub Split over the last few days, in institution which supports the growth and emergence of young and talented filmmakers locally. In which way, do the films of the French new wave speak to the new generation of filmmakers today?

I think there are two different issues: this kind of phenomenon is possible, meaningful and efficient, and it opened doors for people to make films, almost never easily, but nevertheless it allowed them to be true, and to continue working for decades later. This is true for most of the new wave filmmakers, still making films in late 70’s, or early 80’s, such as Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette, Marker, Varda (aside from Jacques Demy who died younger). Young directors who want to make something fresh, and original, not only to be creative, are aware that this pattern of the French new wave is useful and can be activated somehow, but obviously not in the same way. In addition, I would say that many of them can find a very strong ethical, and artistic relation with one of the members of the new wave, precisely because the new wave is not a specific school, nor a specific style, but a spirit which can be activated in many ways, through the cinema of Godard, Rivette, Chabrol etc. The characteristic and the quality of the new wave is its ability to open the doors of cinema where each spectator, or new artist can find different perspectives to suit her or his world views without necessarily embracing the whole movement.

One could say that cinema became the most important form of expression for this youth generation in post-war France, instead of literature, or music, or painting. Do you think that cinema still holds that revolutionary spirit?

Not at the same level, and with the same power of disturbance and acknowledgment of society like then. Nowadays lot of people and artists try to do things with computers and digital cameras, this tends to be more image making than filmmaking…it could be video games, video installation, TV series and animation. Fair amount of young artists or would be artists abandon the profession, but I can see that a huge amount of young people are practising cinema. The film schools are full! There was this danger Godard was talking about – that one day we will have more filmmakers than film lovers. Lots of people want to make films, and actually lots of people watch films as well. Cinema is not as alone as it used to be in satisfying this artistic and societal desire, it has not diminished so much, I would rather say that it did diminish and then it came back. It rose again in a different format, with a different appearance. Today, there is still and always a desire to watch films and to make films, but this exists within a larger context of and relation to the world of images.

Can you elaborate further on considering events and phenomena from a historical perspective, specifically the evolution and the changes of the multiple meanings of the French new wave and whether we could talk about the presence of an additional meaning from today’s point of view?

These meanings are pretty easy to sum up. There is this very large generational shift where two hundred young filmmakers began to make films at the end of the 50’s and in early 60’s. This original meaning has kind of vanished now because nowadays we are not so interested in the way these young filmmakers emerged, but this was not the case then.  On the other hand, when we use the term new wave, it often refers to the five critics who came from Cahiers du Cinéma, also implying the input of others like Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Agnes Varda. So there is this ambiguity. This is how it was defined during those decades and the way it is understood to a certain extent is not questioned any more.

In your lecture, you mentioned that Agnes Varda with her first film made in 1956 could be considered as the starting point of the new wave movement, several years prior to the official beginnings, due to its aesthetic choice and production conditions.

This was always the case for every subject, a before and a pre. Jean Pierre Melville made Silence of the Seain 1945, which is a “new wave” film, it is made without technicians, the tradition of the “cinema frame”, the script, and no studio etc. He is young at the time. You could say that Jean Vigo was also new wave. What makes new wave meaningful, for instance, is someone like Agnes Varda opening the doors to the new wave, and consequently to other films, without knowing that she is doing that. Afterwards the others joined, and they belonged to this movement, and period of time. Andre Bazin who is writing for Cahiers du Cinéma, acknowledges Varda’s film, saying this is the cinema we are expecting. Bazin also anticipates something that hasn’t happened yet, which has no name at that moment but which is part of the spirit of the time, meaning that it will be happening, because it does happen in 1959 with 400 Blowsand Hiroshima My Love. It is pretty easy to connect the dots between Godard who will come directly after, and Varda. Cahiers du Cinéma people wrote about how the film was very promising, and that something is in the air. There is not a clear consciousness but nevertheless, there is a pretty accurate sense among the critics that this movement is in the process of taking shape, but actually, perhaps it is a turning point in this process before big things happen three years later.

This leads me to think about this concept that the future is “what will have happened” (laughter). Final question, thinking about the contemporary cinemascape, we tend to be in this era of the posts, post-modernity, post-digital, perhaps post-cinema? What is the future of cinema?

Since the beginning of cinema, there were some people saying, it is great but is dying, it is vanishing etc. I think it is exactly the opposite for so many decades now. Twelve decades ago, exactly 125 years ago it was the birth of cinema, and cinema has not vanished, but changed. Thankfully it has changed, because if cinema hadn’t changed, it would have died. If there is no major catastrophe in the world, the future of cinematography will be assured. It’s true that our idea of cinema is changing, or maybe dying, but not cinema itself. It’s quite the opposite: cinema is alive because it is dying.

Ana Grgić


Interview with Jean-Michel Frodon, Marko Njegić, Slobodna Dalmacija

What was the concept behind the “Cinema Archive: World New Waves”? And how did the cooperation with Kino klub Split happened?

I met Suncica Fradelic when she was Bela Tarr’s right arm at FilmFactory, the film school he created in Sarajevo, and where I was several times a visiting professor. I was always impressed by her efficiency, kindness and subtle capacity to understand the needs and the hopes of everyone, and to find ways to respond to them. She is also a filmmaker and an energetic promoter of film culture, I admire her work in a not so easy environment. So when she asked me to join on a program of lectures and screenings about a topic I happen to know quite well, since I extensively wrote and taught about it, the French New Wave, I did not even hesitate one second. As it happen, this program was meant to be co-hosted by Ana Grgic, whom I met as a PhD student in the University of St Andrew (Scotland) where I was teaching, and since became a friend. So there were a lot of reasons for me to come.

Kino klub Split has a rich tradition of cinephilia. Any memorable encounters with the local filmmakers and movie buffs? Did you enjoy your stay?

I had extremely interesting discussions with the attendants during the breaks, before and after the three sessions. I met there very open minded, knowledgeable and demanding listeners and it was pleasure to talk with them, though too briefly.

Are you familiar with Croatian cinema and how would you position it among (East) European cinema?

I have to confess I am not. We see very few Croatian films in theatres or in international festivals. This is certainly regrettable.

You have been an advocate for independent, festival or non-mainstream cinema. How would you describe your personal taste?

I do my best to remain open to all kind of films. I have no pre-established boundaries. I watch, like and write about films from all over the world, of various kinds, some of them are mainstream movies, many are not – but nevertheless highly different one from the other. I believe cinema needs all kind of styles, and can produce noticeable works in so many format, with different means, budgets, genres, etc.

Is it an imperative for a film critic to love cinema?

Of course. Otherwise your job is a nightmare if, as I do, you see an average 10-12 films per week.

Can a critic ever be right or wrong?

Not really. A critic is not a judge who delivers a judgment, or a professor who gives marks. He or she is someone who, through is writing, share his or her emotions and thinking as inspired by any specific films, in a way that is meant to be mind opening for the readers – whether they have or have not seen the film. Actually, a critic may very well change his or her opinion about a film, and have more interesting things to say about it.

How would you describe the evolution of “Cahiers du Cinema” from its conception to where it is now?

Like cinema itself, Cahiers are constantly changing to remain themselves. This is the only way to remain alive.

How has the Internet/social networks and the age of hypertext/links changed things for film magazines, critics and criticism?

Almost everybody is film critic today or at least (s)he think (s)he is after writing something on his/her Facebook wall?

Cinema always made people talk, people discuss after watching a film, with friends, colleagues, family. This is great but this is not film criticism. Now, these informal discussion between almost everyone is also, or mainly online. Again, this is great but this is not film criticism. Internet also allows some people, in much smaller number, to practice film criticism online, meaning to dedicate themselves to an effort in writing inspired by watching films. So, there are more critics than before, especially young ones, and this is great. But they are still not that many, which is normal, most people have other things to do in their life.

Since there are more films than ever, does that mean that we need film criticism more than ever?

Yes, absolutely. Not only because there are more new films but also because new and old films are easily available on line. The marker is the driving force that dominates the choices, critics are, together with festivals, teachers, or societies like Kino klub, where alternative proposals to the dominant commercial type of cinema can be made.

These days is popular to say that TV is overcoming cinema, but is it really? Of course, TV is stronger than ever, but so is cinema and many people still enjoy sitting in the dark in the theatre. What is your opinion? Can they cohabit?

Actually, the question is not anymore about TV, which is a decaying media, overcome by online medias. Internet is where new things are happening. They are affecting, for better and worse, the life of cinema, they will change it as television did previously, but cinema as an art, as a language, as audiovisual objects primarily conceived for the theatre and the big screen will remain, and actually develop, world wide. Any careful analysis of the way technology and viewers behaviors are evolving testify for that.

Marko Njegić


(Intervju Marka Njegića prvotno je objavljen u Slobodnoj Dalmaciji.)

Jean Michel-Frodon, photo: Darko Škrobonja