It shouldn't come as a surprise that Faces Places is driven by a curiosity and concern for the dignity of its subjects. After all, the documentary is the work of two endlessly curious artists. One, 89-year-old Agnès Varda, has spent more than 60 years ruminating on the nature of time, the interior and exterior lives of women, and the socially marginalized. The other, JR, is a semi-anonymous French street artist known for public art—larger-than-life photographic portraits posted on streets, buildings, and border walls—that gives a voice to the voiceless at the intersection between the personal and the political.
Faces Places is a road movie that traverses two Frances. One is contemporary, the other is made of memories and friendships from Varda's life. As they travel to villages, factories, farms, and beaches in JR's “Inside Out” photo booth on wheels, the filmmakers elicit humane, lively, portraits of France and its working-class denizens. The film is a many-sided and meditative work that's at turns delightful, saddening, yet always deeply personal, filled with uniquely Vardian chance encounters with people and places from Varda's past while also focused on JR's ability to use his art to engage people.
During the New York Film Festival, I spoke with Varda and JR at the offices of Cohen Media Group. The room was lined with posters from old Buster Keaton films, a fact that delighted Varda. We discussed depicting the past, politics, loving the festival circuit, and the crossover between JR and Varda's art forms.
What do you see as the difference between “nonfiction” and “documentary”? Why don't you like one title over the other?
Agnès Varda: In a fiction film that I write, I want it to resemble what I have in mind. So, to touch the people—to pass the project and message. In a documentary, I am at the service of the people I film. They are the main thing. So, it is not that I want to hide, because in this film we showed ourselves. But we made the film to make light and give value to the people we filmed. So, we are supposed to be behind the camera, but because our adventure became something interesting, we're not hidden like in most documentaries.
JR: I love the surprises in life and in art. I start a project when there's more chance of failure than of success. And that is how I now approach films. I had amazing surprises because I didn't expect much. Because I allowed whatever to come to come, and I also lowered my expectations. That is what I did with my project with Agnès the whole time. We just went around and met people and knocked at doors and saw if they opened. And sometimes they would open and sometimes not. And in both cases, it was amazing because it created these incredible moments. Of course, it had to have a link with us and with the vision we had of the film, and that's why the door that stayed closed had so much more impact on the viewers and to us also.
You mention trying to be open to the world when you're making these documentaries, you mention wanting to open yourself up to failure. And I noticed that both of your artistic practices involve traveling a lot, you have to go from place to place in order to be JR or Agnès Varda—
AV: We want to go from place to place because France is not a big, big country. But we want to go to the north, the south, and the middle somehow, because it's another kind of documentary if you go to just one village. And we wanted to have the feeling that it is a trip. We had that magical truck and we could use it and we could propose to people to go to the truck to get their picture. They could take it home, or they could paste it with other pictures. We did all those proposals all the time. And for free and for no reason. No advertising. We were not selling a trademark or something. You know there are these tours sometimes. Television organizes tours to promote something. We were not even promoting ourselves. “Would you like to come?” Or “Would you like to enjoy this, do it with us?” Or not. And nobody said no. One woman regretted vaguely to have been filmed, the woman with the umbrella, even though she said, “I got compliments, I'm shy.” She was…troubled. But most of the people are delighted to have their image, especially the mailman on three floors.
He was so excited!
AV: He felt very happy.
JR: But also, not everybody wants to be a star, even in their own village. Not everybody wants that kind of attention. Especially in a big city, people try to get out of anonymity, but in a small village where everybody knows each other, they try to actually to find some anonymity.
I'm curious about that. You're fairly popular on social media and I've always felt that your work drives a wedge between the notion of celebrity, a very consumer-capitalist idea, and publicity, just bringing attention to something, putting it before a public audience. Could elaborate on your approach?
JR: I try to never collaborate with any brands or sponsors. Because playing in the streets with giant images could look like advertising, except mine do not sell anything, and they don't have any quotes on them, and I'm not even signing them. I'm playing with certain codes that make people think: “Oh, wow, if that person is up there, maybe it's someone famous.” Well, if you know my work, you know I never post anybody famous! And that's why it's interesting. Also, often because people are being made so big, people think: “Oh, they should have something interesting because they are that big.” I've always played that line where, for example, when I do something at the border and I put the little kid looking over the wall, and there's no press release. I give the location point, so people can go there and see it for themselves. People want to go there and take a selfie of themselves in front of it, but by going through that journey they're actually gonna meet someone at the other side, they're gonna be at the wall, they're gonna go see sights, they're gonna go see with their own eyes a situation that they only hear through the media normally. And that's what my work is really about, creating—
AV: But you see, you didn't sign it, but everybody knows that you did it!
JR: I mean, you read about it, or see it on social media. But most people, the guy who's gonna drive his bike by it has no idea who did it. You know?
AV: It's a mixture of anonymous and very famous! What about that?
JR: But it's not about me. My work might be famous, but I'm anonymous. That's what's interesting. Because it's not signed and because you cannot recognize me if I take off my hat and glasses, so why this concept of famous?
AV: But, you know, you did in La Habana portraits of very old people and you put them on very old walls, I remember seeing images of that.
Right, you mentioned the old couple in the film.
AV: Right, an old couple that I love so much. He has glasses and you see that. And nobody knows why he photographed them. It's because everybody is worth being on the wall. Including these old people. I thought that because he did so many old people that he would like me! [Everyone laughs]
JR: You had enough wrinkles that I would like you!
AV: Absolutely, so it became a reason for him to get on that project with ease.
Could you elaborate a little on how you ended up deciding to create a documentary together?
JR: Agnès's daughter connected us because she thought “how have these two never met?” That's really how it started. I came to her studio, she came to mine, and the next day—that's all in the course of three days and we'd never met in our entire lives—we started working for two years.
AV: I knew his work.
JR: I knew her work!
AV: But I don't meet all the artists I like.
JR: And I don't meet all the old people I like.
Well, I think it's a beautiful story and it sums up your artistic practices nicely.
AV: Thank you.
But I notice an opposite tendency in your work. Agnès, you film things that are going to disappear and have a way of making them permanent by putting them in movies. And JR, for you, disappearance is part of the game.
JR: Yeah, exactly.
AV: Do you mean you are silent in your work?
JR: No! It's ephemeral. It doesn't stay up long. And you film situations that have disappeared over time, like on your street in Daguerreotypes, all those shops don't exist anymore. So we have that in common.
Was that difficult for you guys?
JR: No! It made it easier! We had that fascination for time passing and also watching time passing. Leave it, take the time to watch the time.
AV: I feel that we like the texture of documentary because we feel the texture of time passing by. When the farmer says that he's alone and he cultivates his huge hectares, we understand how long his day is, and how alone he is.
In Faces Places, there's a lot of meditation on time that's passed for you. At the same time, you're a very youthful woman and enjoy the present very much. Yet, there's little optimism about the future in Faces Places.
AV: We did look for optimism. We looked for energy, we looked for the energy of expressing that everybody could express his or herself. Because that's important—that it doesn't stay totally quiet. Every moment can be agreeable to people we meet. But there is no way to say that life is beautiful, let's go on. But at the same time, I think you have to be fairly honest about not having a ridiculous hope, but let's meet, let's share, let's use the empathy we have for people, let's create moments in which people understand each other. I mean, that's already a big deal, you know?
You've already made it quite far if you can accomplish that! A lot of your recent work has involved looking back on your past—
AV: My own work?
Yes, the documentaries you've made in the last few years.
JR: The Beaches of Agnès.
Precisely, and your work has always involved some experiment with understanding time and what time is like and I was wondering if looking back on the past is a new experiment for you.
AV: When I did Cléo from 5 to 7, I was investigating time in different ways. And I was investigating the very slow time of some shopkeepers in my street in which I had the feeling that time had not even passed them. They were like nowhere in the time. And then I made Vagabond, in which a revolt girl does lots of traveling and I was trying to study the noise of her feet on different materials. And now this is my first dual directing. My first dual thinking, not even directing. We thought of a film and we did it together. So that's a new experience. [Turns to JR] Comme on dit experience? Experiment?
AV: And it made me feel good, because I thought I would not make a film for theaters after The Beaches of Agnès. But then the way it started and it became a real film, and Rosalie, my daughter, said let's not do a documentary for TV because we want a lot of people to see the film. But we could also go around the world and go to festivals and say, “Hey festivals!” [everyone laughs], and we love festivals because only people who love films go there.
AV: I used to go a lot to films. Now less. [To JR] Do you go to the theater a lot?
JR: Yeah! But you know, of course, less than we used to. You know, because of the fact that we have other platforms to watch films, and also when I want to watch one of your films, Agnès, often I have to watch it at home.
AV: Do you watch it on your computer?
AV: I would cry!
JR: On my phone, I watch it.
AV: Oh my god!
On his watch!
JR: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly.
AV: This is disgusting!
JR: [Laughs] Disgusting.
AV: I mean, can you believe I gave two years, one year, to each of my film and here's a guy who takes his telephone—
JR: Yeah, but—
AV: And clock, and look at the film.
JR: And it looks good on it!
AV: It is a pleasure when you finish the work to get feedback. So far, the feedback is good. Now, we're not sure we'll do numbers on the box office. But already we have good feedback. It makes my week and my day and my year! I never expected to have incredible box office numbers.