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Interview: Agnès Varda and JR on Finding the Art in Life with Faces Places

We discussed depicting the past and politics, as well as the crossover between JR and Varda’s art forms.

Interview: Agnès Varda and JR on Finding the Art in Life with Faces Places
Photo: Cohen Media Group

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?

That’s interesting.

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.

Right.

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.

JR: Thanks.

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?

JR: 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.

Exactly.

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?

JR: No.

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.

I brought my parents to come see this movie with me.

AV: Where? It’s not playing yet.

I got a screener to see it, I watched it on a TV.

AV: What did your parents say?

They loved it. They thought it was a wonderful movie. I think they felt happy in the right places, sad in a lot of places.

AV: What interests me sometimes is the young people. On the festival circuit, there are not so many young people. But I see rooms in France, a lot of young people, and they catch me in the street and they say, “Oh my God! I love what you do!” And I say, “What? How old are you?” And they say, “Twenty-three, and I’ve seen five of your films!” The hope is that we have the new generation swallowing these films so that we keep remembering them. I love Buster Keaton. I only say this because we’re surrounded by these posters. He’s unforgettable. Especially Steamboat Bill Jr., my God.

I didn’t even realize this is a whole room for him.

AV: The film that I love, Steamboat Bill Jr., the first half is okay. The second half is just genius. At the beginning, you know with his father, it’s a bit slow, but then it becomes—the storm is incredible.

Because the film focuses on your past, you visit Cartier-Bresson’s grave.

AV: This is not my past, it belongs to you also, Cartier-Bresson!

Yeah, but you also post up a photo of Guy Bourdin. JR, what was it like exploring this with Agnès? It’s not your personal history.

JR: What we realized was that some places that were my history, like that Normandy place and that bunker where we posted the Guy Bourdin photo, were also parts of Agnès’s history at a different period. And the cross of that was amazing because, of course I knew Bourdin, but I never thought of the fact that he came from there, that I could give him an homage one day, and I was talking to Agnès about that bunker for a while and she was, like, “Hmmm, whatever, it’s just a bunker.” And when she heard on which beach it was, she realized that we had a lot of common places, so I think that had helped my journey into her own past. You know, Cartier-Bresson, who is a photographer I love and Martine Franck, who I had the chance to meet, so you know to give them a little homage, but that was really improvised. That was like the end of the day after the shoot: “Do you mind? I know the grave is not far. Why don’t we go? Okay! Let’s go!” And then, you know, we filmed a little something while we were there and it became this scene. I was curious to dig into so many of her archive and she was often not really keen about that, and the ones you see are the ones where it kind of made sense and we were, like, “Okay, that there, there is a real crossroad.” I almost wanted to leave France and go together to Cuba and China and all those places, but I’m glad we didn’t.

Why didn’t you want to leave France?

AV: It was interesting to work in places separated by years. And that beach story is incredible because I really was there in 1954 and I took a lot of pictures. And it ended up that we could do a work together with his idea on the rock and my image. In the same way, you know, I was so impressed by the goat. I had done that picture of the goat once, and then I said, “Look, we have to meet the people,” and then we start to go into the subject of why goats no longer have horns, which is a sad subject.

JR: Which I didn’t get, even during the filming. I mean, I get it, but I didn’t see the power of having that as a small metaphor to talk about bigger things and now I’m pasting goats all over. We’re gonna paste one in L.A. hopefully next week. You know, I think that’s a great way of talking metaphorically of bigger things that a human does to nature, just to make it more productive.

It was sad to see an iconic part of a goat shorn off and turned into nothing.

AV: So, it’s clear that we filmed people who have no power. We didn’t ask them what they thought about politics—never spoke about that. And so, we made it clear that from person to person, including with side subjects that, for instance, why the mailman gets so much food in his basket is because of people to whom he brings the mail give him tomatoes and watermelon. I mean, this is a very smart Italian life, but we made it become important because this is the sort of texture of real life.

One thing that I found very beautiful about the film was that, despite not asking people about their political beliefs, you showed working-class people who had some pride in what they do. And I fear that that sort of image is disappearing from the world. Do you think that there are images or memories that will not be saved by cinema or photography, art?

AV: There are many documentaries being made all over the world. This is very important. This makes archives, you know? Now, art makes something different. I did a documentary on the gleaners, but there was an artist who started to glean stuff and with this made art, so he was gleaning windshield wipers, and he started to collect that and made art. So, all kinds of gleaning are important and we do our work with things we glean or something we find that people have forgotten or we felt we were right to meet these people. But maybe there is another documentary about goats, but at that time we felt “we are the ones who discovered this, we have to share it!”

JR: Art lets us share something. It’s like when you’re a reporter, you go take a photo and never come back. In our case, we go there, do something with the people that we document. It changes the whole dynamic of it because we all shared something that we built together. The people, they say if and how they want to be portrayed, help even paste the photo. So that whole circle is just being documented, but we all share something together and the image in the factory of all the people holding their hands like that, that was made for them, you know, so it’s actually something that’ll they’ll even remember and reconnect some people in the factory. But more than us, we just documented that, but for them that had a real impact in the factory because a lot of people don’t speak to each other. There’s different groups, there’s different sides of politics inside there, so that’s what art can do a little bit more maybe than documentaries, but when it all combines, it’s amazing.

AV: And we tried to show everyone the film. The people of the factory were invited to see the film near the factory. There was a theater here, and in Le Havre the dock workers came and we met them. We had a party with them. The old lady in the north, she had to be kicked from her house, but she has good memories of the film. She goes to the screenings and she’s the star of the screenings when she goes. Life, it’s still around before the film and after the film—real life. It’s just something in the middle.

So, in a sense, it’s more important that you two intervened in life rather than simply recorded it?

JR: That’s what got us together, our excitement to do something and that we would intervene in the image. For Agnès, she knew the mailman, but to blow him up big like that created, you know, already a disruption into our own film because we couldn’t know what would happen, how people would react.

AV: But you knew the dock workers.

JR: Yeah.

AV: And when I suggested to put their wives, who had never come to the harbor for some reason, in the light, to make them important, even the husbands were impressed. They helped us to do the thing. You know, they helped us to build the Lego thing by stacking the shipping crates on top of each other, so it became a little adventure, a little life, a way of filming and we felt good that different kind of people had been in the film. Now you say it’s sort of sad, that’s the feeling you had?

Not sad. I was afraid that images like this might be disappearing that there are too few people making images like this.

AV: But what we felt is that both our energy of doing it met their energy and I think the film is not hopeful, but is energetic because it says life is interesting, people are interesting, and it’s worth creating a link between them and us, between the people and the audience, the feeling we have about the link is very important. What it’s all about. We need links, we need them all the time. Some people desperately need them. And we made it an easy link that could be shared, that could be a good feeling. We tried that. The world is so chaotically bad and the news is so horrible. So, let’s get out of that, you know, for a while, and meet people, be together.

Murals and public art have been a part of your interests since Murs Murs.

AV: I made a film about that, this is true. So, no wonder that I got interested in what JR is doing, even though there are thousands of them now and they are even in museums. It has become something very official, but still, the subject of showing things in streets still is very important and interesting.

I was wondering what muralism means to you personally?

JR: To me, that’s all I have known. I started with graffiti when I was 13, 14, just writing my name on walls, having no idea that there was a world of muralists or, you know, a world of art. So, I did the reverse journey. I started expressing myself and then realized it would fit in a world of what they would call public art and then they later called street art. I just didn’t even know I was doing art! And then, slowly, I catch up on that world and started to be very interested in everything that was going on. But then, when I discovered films like what Agnès has done, when I discovered what artists were also doing here in the ‘80s in New York, I was fascinated, like they must have felt the same need but with the different way of expression than I did when I was 13, 14, just like the same way maybe the first hand of the man in the cave wanted to leave a mark, you know? I think it’s something very profound and very human, to want to leave a mark in society and graffiti is the reflection of what advertising and, like, putting your name up there and having a logo created. But, at the base of that there was a political message or just, you know, people leaving a mark so that you’ll be remembered, or carpenters engraving a pole to say, “We built that building.” That has been the case for centuries.

Is that what muralism is to you, Agnès?

AV: No, it’s interesting because it started wide in a way without thinking it meant art. And I always loved the word art. I’ve been going to museums a lot. I love painting, I remember being attracted by museums, really modern anything. I didn’t see film when I was young, but I would go to museums, have books of art and try to understand what artists had made, the word artist was something magical for me. And, I thought, if one day I could reach that state, but meanwhile I worked as a filmmaker, decent filmmaker—

I’d say you’re more than decent.

AV: I tried to respect the people I was filming, to respect the idea that my films should build something that could just touch the people in some way. In their mind, in their heart, but make them think. The idea was that I should make them think about themselves or think about what cinema is or maybe think about what is their relationship with others. I think that is what cinema does, does to me, so I was hoping to do what I got from other films. Voila!

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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