Since his debut in 2007, Éric Baudelaire has become known in cinephilic circles for his formally experimental, aesthetically spare works of essayistic nonfiction. His films are of worldly erudition and deeply concerned with casually artistic artifacts: the titular letters to his dear friend Maxim Gvinjia, former Foreign Minister of the breakaway Caucasian state of Abkhazia, in 2014’s Letters to Max; the advertising billboard on display in a Paris metro platform at the center of 2007’s Sugar Water; the landscapes from France to Syria and back that serve as a looking glass in lieu of character in 2017’s Also Known as Jihadi.
With Un Film Dramatique, the Salt Lake City-born, Paris-raised artist and filmmaker has loosened the reins of rigorous materially focused auteurism to explore the potential of collaboration with students from the Dora Maar Junior High School in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. The film initially began in the fall of 2015 as a documentary about the school itself but soon shifted into something much more amorphous. The students were given access to cameras and equipment, a bit of technical instruction, and a whole lot of freedom to create whatever they felt personally invested in over the four years that followed.
Un Film Dramatique unfolds in a series of seemingly unrelated clips created by and starring the students themselves. Frequently there is evidence of assigned tasks or guided topics of discussion — create a folly soundtrack for the footage you are about to shoot; film your daily routine with a focus on the personal; talk about what you think is the difference between documentary and fiction — though we are never privy to any proper instructional component. Instead, each scene is relatively disconnected from one another, with only the occasional reappearance of a familiar student from previous scenes being the loose connective tissue that holds it all together.
But as time passes and the students visually begin to age, what at first appears to be a random selection of handheld lo-fi clips starts to reveal an incredible richness of feeling and theme. Working with Chantel Akerman’s regular editor, Claire Atherton, Baudelaire is able to weave these scenes of childhood discovery into a deeply textured work that is not only a moving self portrait of a group of students coming of age together in a world saturated by media and countless cultural quagmires but an investigation into the mechanics of filmmaking itself: the technical means; the ethical quandaries involved; the personal investment necessary; and the learning process that results from going through it all with your collaborators and colleagues by your side.
Thanks to the project’s socialistic structure, Un Film Dramatique is a work of refreshing spontaneity and continuous revelation. A deep discussion on the idea of tracing one’s nationality beyond one’s birthplace might sharply transition into a personal tour of one’s home and the objects in it that have special meaning. In one such scene, a young girl films a portrait of her grandpa, who has since passed away. She tells us that he is still a big part of her life and this picture is something she makes sure to give attention to on a daily basis. The act is simple, unadorned and shot handheld with the girl speaking while holding the camera, but the feeling of heartfelt sincerity is undeniable.
It’s moments like these that reveal that kids might not be as distracted as we might guess. By giving them cameras and asking them to participate in this cinematic experiment, Baudelaire has effectively asked them to give their environment their full attention, if only in fleeting, surprising, thoughtful flourishes that have made Un Film Dramatique a miraculous little gem.