I first met Oncle Bernard through his writing. I eagerly awaited the publication of the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo every week with anticipation of my delight in reading his columns (in Quebec, it hits the newsstands on Fridays), which I always read first, after scanning the renowned “stories you might have missed”. It was my special weekend treat.
Each time, I found penetrating insights, which shed new light on various aspects of the economy, either buried by the mass media or completely distorted by fraudulent pundits. Oncle B. discussed economic events and theory, enriching his columns with a good measure of philosophy and history, and proposed a radically different analysis. He joyously upended the neoclassical dogma of the sacrosanct science of economics with biting, sagacious humour, mocking those vain parrots, who spout and profess inept platitudes without ever making an effort to examine the ramifications of the economy, of capitalism, of wealth, etc.
The extraordinary erudition that nourished his writings reminded me of the encompassing humanism of Anatole France or even Montaigne. It was the sign of a mind of rare depth and finesse, one able to reveal and denounce the limits of scholastic economics, in particular the limits of micro-economic analysis, with its arrogant methodological individualism that assumes an absence of collective phenomena in society; that all is, instead, based on individual rationality.
And what is there to add about his dry wit, so distinctly flavouring all his texts! As for humoristic talent, he was every bit as good as any of Charlie’s caricaturists. How I doubled up with laughter as I educated myself! For in both his books and his columns, he had the ability to enlighten minds by making certain topics crystal-clear; topics which most would not touch with a ten-foot pole, while bringing smiles to the faces of his readers at the same time. In this regard, he had no equal.
When I met him for the first time in January 2000, I was immediately struck by his eloquence and, especially his amiability. I had an instantaneous feeling of a man of great generosity, a generosity touching on brotherhood. As unbelievable as it may seem, it was as if we had always known each other. I believe as well that we perceive this particularly rare complicity attributable to his exceptional altruism in the interview which I shot with him two months later during the production of my film, Encirclement – Neo-Liberalism Ensnares Democracy.
It was on Wednesday, March 8th, at Charlie’s offices, shortly after the traditional editorial meeting. Overcoming his fatigue, he consented to an interview lasting three hours, of which approximately half was recorded and 78 minutes filmed.
This interview was particularly outstanding. Bernard Maris was full of zest, captivating, funny and completely unaffected. Moreover, every time I present Encirclement, it is inevitable: the participants’ names are listed only in the credit roll at the end of the film; when the photo and the name of Oncle Bernard appears on the screen, the audience laughs and applauds. He is clearly the darling of the film!
When I woke up on that sad day in January 2015 and learned about the on-going tragedy, my heart skipped a beat. And when, what I feared more than anything else was confirmed, I was reduced to a shapeless heap of grief. In spite of my charred soul, I spontaneously thought of paying tribute to these magnificent, irreverent spirits and especially to Oncle B. by screening at my weekly film club the raw rushes of two shoots I had filmed in March 2000: the final editorial meeting of the No. 404 edition of Charlie — filmed in the style of direct cinema — as well as four of the seven reels of the interview with Maris that I had previously digitised for Encirclement.
After the screening, many encouraged me to present this footage to a wider audience. So I decided to finish these films, which was made possible through the assistance of the National Film board’s Filmmakers Assistance Program (FAP). However, out of respect for the next of kin of the victims whose pain was still so raw, I preferred to report sine die the screening of the film on the final editorial meeting of the No. 404 edition.
Formally speaking, Oncle Bernard – A Counter Lesson in Economics, employs essentially the same principles and aesthetic choices as in my earlier films, where I allow the participants to express themselves freely without imposing any time limits. So, if during the filming of Encirclement and Too Much Is Enough, it seemed inconceivable to me to get in the way of the participant’s words or to make the film conform to the conventional television mould by creating an artificial rhythm using quick-cut editing, preferring the same approach, I found it essential to focus on the words of Bernard Maris, as free in his assertions as in his hesitations; sometimes with rigorous volubility, other times with murmurs in the throes of doubt; replete with eloquent denunciations as well as mischievous witticisms: a conversation guided by the joyous exchange in a spirit of camaraderie and intelligent intercourse. Also, if in Encirclement, I chose to limit my use of visual lubricant, i.e. b-roll archival or descriptive footage that would have compromised the film’s cohesiveness and might have coloured the participants’ interventions, I refrained from such use completely in Oncle Bernard. It was primordial to me to let the incisive and captivating words of Bernard Maris occupy alone the screen and thus allow the public to succumb to the fascination of his words, just as I had. Moreover, this choice of treatment is inseparable from the tribute I wanted to offer him.
The Counter-Lesson in Economics also reveals, in a way, everything that is going on outside the frame: the cinematographic process (the clap, camera run-outs, problems with ambient noise, etc.), the exchanges between the production team and Bernard Maris, the presence of other members of the editorial team at Charlie Hebdo, etc.; whereas in Encirclement, even my questions are never heard. Exposing the shooting process is important to me in this tribute because it reveals the beautiful humanity and endless generosity of Bernard Maris, as well as the complicity that grew between him and the production team.
In my opinion, the decision not to touch the footage, not to edit it is just as creative a gesture as John Cage’s 4’33”. One of my mentors, the filmmaker René Bail, had suggested in the early 90s that I not edit Too Much Is Enough, that I present the rushes without touching them. It seems as though this idea has stayed with me through the years and finally came to fruition. The “black screen” sequences (another idea used by René Bail in his film Chantier), which appear between the reels, act as de facto elements structuring the discourse of the film; a function filled by the use of inserts and musical accompaniment in Encirclement. These pauses, during which the conversation wanders and revels in playful digressions, provides a welcome breathing space from the density of this anti-lesson. Furthermore, when the screen goes black, and the voice of Bernard Maris cuts through the obscurity, these sequences become, to paraphrase Gabrielle Maris Victorin, daughter of Bernard Maris, a metaphor of this screen tribute itself, for it is as if the words of Bernard Maris survive his death.
Keep in mind that a 400-foot reel (122 metres) of 16 mm film is 11 minutes 7 seconds long, which is why we had to change reels continually during the shoot. This is also one of the reasons I decided to shoot using film stock. For, if shooting on film has other advantages (image quality, archival shelf life, etc.) the time limitation and the cost of film stock; on the other hand, it constitutes a formidable incentive to deliver precision and quality.
Also, I’ve always liked black and white, especially Kodak’s Double-X and Tri-X stock (the film was shot on Double-X). And, because I longed to create an atmosphere of sobriety in order to emphasise the ideas and the words of the participants in Encirclement, I felt that black and white would be the best choice to achieve what I was aiming for. Moreover, black and white conveys a character of timelessness, which well serves the topic of the film, and the discourse of Maris that, shot over 15 years ago, is still terribly current.
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