Régis Wargnier speaks about tunnel vision, exerting pressure and Ukraine at the crossroads
The Régis Wargnier film East/West tells the story of a Russian repatriate and his French wife in the inferno of Stalin’s repressions. It is one of the first Ukrainian-Western co-productions. Loyalty, love and a striving for freedom are the key topics of this and other films directed by Wargnier.
U.W.: Is your last film, La Ligne droite (The Straight Line), a metaphor alluding to the fact that we all can be blind at times in our lives?
Exactly. The story in the film is centered around a boy who lost his eyesight. The situation is very cruel and seemingly quite personal, but it can be perceived as a certain metaphor. People often come across various difficult tests in life, both physical and psychological. There is a danger of breaking down or falling apart. The main question is: Where do you get the energy and strength to begin from scratch and fight for your life, defying all odds? I believe that when someone finds himself in a void, he can be saved only by relying on another person.
U.W.: So you believe that love can revive life?
Yes. Love, tenderness to one another and the attention someone pays to you can revive you. It’s the birth of a union based on trust. It is like being rescued if you are lucky enough to find this kind of person. When I first saw how visually impaired track-and-field athletes trained, I was overwhelmed. Then I grasped the incredible connection between the runner and the person accompanying him on the track. On one hand, the blind person unreservedly trusts his guide who in turn shares care, time and vital strength with him.
FINDING YOUR IDENTITY
U.W.: Do you have a general message that you send to your viewers through all your films?
I start a project when I have something to say. I have always dreamt about cinema and it was natural for me to become a director. My films are based on my own feelings, internal impulses and very often on something subconscious, but in the end, all the stories I tell are about overcoming obstacles and defending whatever is the main thing in your life. Pardon me for perhaps coming across as somewhat prosaic, but the question I am trying to answer with all my films is similar to a school task in philosophy: “Is freedom of society possible without individual liberation?”
U.W.: Do you have an answer?
I think personal liberation is a path every person has to take. Some do it as teenagers, while others may get the impulse from a chance encounter in life, marriage, birth of children, job, travel and so on. Even if a person does not have an internal need for personal liberation, it may suddenly come from the outside and outweigh all hesitation. I believe that liberation as such lies in raising questions and doubting everything that surrounds you. The world is varied; it is filled with different kinds of people and they uphold different values.
These values are often instilled in us when we are very small. It may happen in the family or in school. I would like to stress here that the most important thing is — I think — to not be afraid to ask yourself questions, learn to investigate and analyse the surrounding world. For example, we sometimes see that there is a certain political persuasion in the family, but the younger generation can suddenly realize they have different views. Such things very often lead to serious questions and significant shifts in people's views. I am sure this is a very good thing and I am sad when I come across many people who have tunnel vision and harbour the views that were instilled in them back in their childhood years. I'm not saying that you should necessarily ruin all the views that you accepted in your early years. The most important thing is that you need to analyse and accept them consciously. The main thing is to become your own self despite everything and determine for yourself who you are. It is self-identification regardless of the surroundings.
U.W.: Your film East/West shows an abyss between two worlds. Has it narrowed after the fall of the Iron Curtain?
It's hard for me to say, because I don't live here. I only come here from time to time. But there is already an opportunity for people to freely travel, freely interact, exchange opinions and learn each other's culture. But it seems to me that the problem now is in something else. I'm talking about the dictatorship of finance which is rapidly growing all over the world. This is a fairly serious form of pressure when a person has come to be measured in terms of assets and bank account balance. In the past, communism seemed to proclaim noble ideas but quickly revealed its dark side and eventually collapsed. In my opinion, a similar thing is now happening to capitalism.
As far as the situation in Ukraine is concerned, the problem of self-identification and the search for an identity is evident. It seems to me that the state is still at the crossroads. You sense some duplicity in the perception of the history of this territory. Significant transformations and upheavals took place in Ukrainian society during the Orange Revolution which brought much hope. But now we see a certain reaction to it. So I think it is very important for us to defend Ukrainian identity at all levels.
A CRISIS OF THE SENSE OF LIFE
U.W.: Do you think contemporary world cinema has ceased to be a tool for influencing society?
I am very concerned by that. Contemporary films are largely entertaining. They are like soap bubbles that do not move the viewer deeply. They don’t have a frank conversation with the audience. Screens are flooded with brainless action films and idiotic comedies, i.e., forms without meaning. And this is not the directors’ fault. Unfortunately, the audience wants to have fun and escape from reality, and producers fully cater to those tastes. So directors have to make films that film companies are ready to produce.
U.W.: Is there a way out of this dead end?
I believe this is a question of upbringing and education. It is very important to acquaint children with world culture. I find it sad to see what is happening in the world right now. Speed has replaced quality. People are communicating via cell phones and the internet and using abbreviations, almost signs rather than words. When I contemplate the direction contemporary society is moving, I feel like I am starting to understand what the end of the world means. I think people are losing the sense of life now. This sense is evaporating from politics and the economy. If the world does not have some existential sense, it is ruining itself.
U.W.: France has always supported co-production. In one of your interviews you said that you have read many foreign film scripts in the past two years. Have you found anything for yourself? Were there any proposals from Ukraine?
Francehas the Southern Foundation, which is a government structure linked to the Foreign Ministry and the Culture Ministry. Its status has changed somewhat, but it has continued to work along the same line. I chaired a project-selecting commission there. I was also on the Île-de-France commission. Île-de-France finances films that tell about this region and encourages filmmakers to shoot their films there. Work on these two commissions was a great joy and responsibility for me. A pile of film scripts from all around the world were collected from time to time. Sometimes they were poorly translated, poorly printed and poorly designed. I had a hard time with them, but I understood that my decision would influence the lives of people from extremely faraway countries: Chinese dissidents, youth from African countries, Chile, Peru, Bosnia, Vietnam, Malaysia and so on. When we decided to support a film, that meant that France would finance one-fourth of the project’s budget. And we were all very proud that five of the films we gave a lease on life represented their countries (Bosnia, Chile, Vietnam and others) in the competition for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. I don’t remember whether we read any Ukrainian screenplays. If we do, I will be very-very attentive, because Ukraine is a part of my life and creative pursuits.
Régis Wargnier (born 1948 in Paris) is a French film director, film producer and screenwriter. He debuted in cinema in the early 1970s as an assistant to Michel Deville, Francis Girod, Margarethe von Trotta and others. His first feature-length film La Femme de ma vie (starring Jane Birkin and Christophe Malavoy) won him a César Award in 1986 for "best debut". In 1992, his Indochine collected five Césars and an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film. The film Est-Ouest (co-produced by France, Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria and Spain) was nominated for an Oscar in the same category in 1999.