SEBASTIEN LIFSHITZ ON DOCUMENTARY
By Crash redaction
MEN AND WOMEN, BORN BETWEEN THE WARS. THEY HAVE NOTHING IN COMMON EXCEPT THEIR HOMOSEXUALITY, AND THEIR DECISION TO LIVE OPENLY AT A TIME WHEN SOCIETY REJECTED THEM. THEY’VE LOVED, STRUGGLED, DESIRED, MADE LOVE. SEBASTIEN LIFSHITZ TELLS THE STORY OF THEIR PIONEERING LIVES IN HIS CESAR NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY, LES INVISIBLES.
Interview by Armelle Leturcq
Was this your first documentary?
I shot my very first film in 1995, which was a portrait of French filmmaker Claire Denis. I was completely new to film, so it was entirely uncharted territory for me. I didn’t know anyone in the film world, and so I think my first film on Claire helped me find a voice which opened the path to directing. It was an extremely educational experience, and even though I didn’t take Claire’s approach to film, she was still a kind of guiding light that helped me start making movies in my own way. Then I shot a documentary about my best friend who traveled to the US to find his father whom he had never met and who was a GI in the 1960s on an American base near Orléans, France. He found out his father was American very late in life, when we were teens. And his story really fascinated me because he made no effort to find this guy. I asked him if it was fear that was holding him back or if he really had no desire to connect with his father. Actually I don’t think he had given it any thought, so in a way it was a kind of avoidance. When I started asking him all these things, I think it woke something up in him. And since we were writing screenplays together, I suggested he go to the US to find his father and try to make a movie out of the experience. I thought the idea of making a movie would work as a kind of crutch to help him deal with the anxiety of looking for his father. He thought about it for two years or so and then finally said OK. It was a really powerful experience because it grew out of our friendship, and I had the chance to discover an American landscape that turned out to be fairly familiar, considering all the literature and film I was into. Then there was the whole aspect of tracking down this man who could have been dead or alive for all we knew. In the end, we turned it into La Traversée, which was selected for Cannes, released in theaters, and screened at a few other festivals. The film’s story involves my friend’s search for his father and his interior monologue as he constantly thinks about and questions everything that’s happening. I worked a lot with non-actors and mixed the footage with professional actors, so in the end it had a pretty raw feel. I’ve always tried to create this impression of “reality.”
And now your second documentary, Les Invisibles, is nominated for a César award?
Right, it’s nominated for best documentary. The nomination was a big surprise and I really didn’t expect it, considering what the film is about. I just thought I was making another small film for a small audience.
But you have to admit, your film is about a pretty relevant issue…
That’s true, but when I started shooting about two and a half years ago, we really had no idea that François Hollande would be elected President of France. All the debates and advances we’ve made over the past few months kind of took everyone by surprise.
How many people have seen it so far?
So far we’ve sold almost 100,000 tickets, which is huge for a documentary. I’ve always done small films and that’s what I thought I was doing with this one, too. So everything that’s happened has been a huge surprise and it’s just great.
How did Les Invisibles first take shape?
I collect a lot of amateur photography and happened to find some private shots of gay couples. I realized that people loved cross-dressing before the war. That kind of role-playing was really popular, a lot of people did it, and even played at homosexuality. Then, after the war, it kind of disappeared, or at least became a lot less common. As if the war, since it decimated a lot of countries, pushed everyone to repopulate and rebuild society around traditional values, so all these more playful or decadent things like libertinism and cross-dressing just weren’t in line with the reigning moral order. It wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that cross-dressing and an interest in reinventing codes of appearance finally resurfaced. So the film really began by chance. One day I was at the Vanves flea market in Paris and happened upon a photo album from the 1950s of these two ladies and their family. There was something really intriguing about the images, so I asked the guy if he had any other albums. He pulled out ten other albums and I bought them all. I couldn’t tell if I was looking at two friends, two sisters, or two lovers. I went home, kept looking at the photos, and I realized that this was a couple. What I found really strange was that in the 50s, you had to bring your film to a photo lab, get it developed, and pick up your prints. That meant the album was a kind of affirmation of personal freedom with respect to the mores of the time, and a willingness to live openly. The two ladies were wrapped in each other’s arms, holding hands… I thought it was amazing because the kind of official history of homosexuality that we hear is mostly a tragic story about victims facing extreme hardship. But then I discovered all these other personal stories of homosexuality in these photos, stories full of happiness and freedom. The photos didn’t really fit with the official history of homosexuality, so I developed this hypothesis that a certain number of gay and lesbian people at the time managed to negotiate something with themselves, their families, and their professional lives so they could still live relatively well, though with a certain measure of discretion. I wasn’t sure about the accuracy of any of this, though, so I met with people from these two generations, between 60 and 90 years old, and we talked about how they lived their sexuality. And that’s how the film started. For me personally, I didn’t have any conception of older gay and lesbian couples because the media only talks about young people and homosexuality. As a society, we need to know where we’re heading, we need to know what it means to grow old, we need to know if we’re going to fall into these kinds of terrible clichés. At first I felt this need to know what it means to grow old in general, then to know what it means to grow old as a homosexual, to know if there is anything specific to the homosexual experience or not. I needed to find images and words that corresponded to this reality of life.
Do you think older generations lived with a lot more secrecy?
I spent a year and a half meeting with people for the film. I met a lot of people between 70 and 80 years old, and all their stories made me realize that there is no such thing as a single homosexual fate. Instead, gays and lesbians from every generation have had to face different systems of thought, morals, and values, and how they have respond to this is mostly personal: each person, depending on their personal experience, where they were born, their social background, and their personality, found (or didn’t find) a way to negotiate something with their desires and this question of sexual identity.
So there is nothing constant about homosexuality?
Not at all, and we’re a lot more than just our sexuality. You can be straight and become gay. The drive for a single sexuality may be something that changes in the future, and maybe it will be a lot easier for society to accept this idea of a more fluid sexuality. It’s not sexuality or gender that counts, but individuals.
So sexuality may be a lot more open when we’re children, and then we choose to be homosexual or heterosexual?
It has a lot to do with your parents and social background. For example, there are a certain number of children around the world who are born as hermaphrodites. And you can’t tell which gender will be the most dominant until adolescence. So you have to wait until ten or twelve to determine the child’s sex. Parents often panic at the idea that their child might be psychologically scarred by this period of uncertainty. So they send their children to specialists and have tests done, but they’re still not 100% sure which sexual identity will be the most dominant. And a lot of times, parents end up deciding to remove one set of genitalia at a very early phase in their child’s development. So there is the physiological reality of the body, but also a psychological reality, and no one knows how that will develop. When you observe how some parents act, you see how the fear of bisexuality or any other sexuality creates a kind of ambiguous 3rd body, and that terrifies them.
Do parents sexualize their children at a young age?
I have a friend whose little boy has been completely obsessed with princess dresses and magic wands since he was two. His parents have allowed him to live out that desire, just waiting to see where it will lead. Deep down, we don’t want to direct our children’s identities, we want them to express themselves. But for some parents, a boy has to be a boy and like cars and Playmobils, and a girl has to be a girl with her Barbie dolls. Our lives are programmed for us from a very young age. What’s interesting about homosexuality is that when we feel this kind of desire at a young age, we keep it a secret, since we’re just children. We know it’s something that can hurt people and be taken the wrong way. Then there is a whole process of self-affirmation where we forge our personalities. For example, some of the gay and lesbian people in the film had to assert themselves twice as hard because society was twice as repressive and intolerant of them. While making the film, I realized I was dealing with people who possessed an impressive inner strength and a level of energy that’s still phenomenal, even today. They’re very strong, confident people.
Have you noticed any differences between gays and lesbians in the ways they assert themselves?
A huge difference, actually. It seems like gay women from this generation are even more outspoken, since they had to assert themselves even more, both as women and as lesbians. It’s obvious that this situation helped forge their personalities. They’re strong and committed.
Do you think lesbians face more taboos than gay men?
In my opinion, lesbians are generally more tolerated in society than gay men. Straight men fantasize about lesbians, it excites them, while I don’t think any straight women fantasize about gay men. So I get the feeling there is more tolerance for lesbians, since people see it as somehow more endearing on a sexual level. At the same time, it’s true that lesbians generally do not like to be the center of attention.
And with your film, you tried to give as much time to lesbians as to gay men?
Yes. I think we often forget where we come from. After all, we are the heirs of these people who fought for us to guarantee rights that are fundamental today. But when you think of people around 20 years old today, whether they’re gay or straight, I don’t think they’re aware of this at all. What makes it even more difficult is that when we think of May 1968, we only think of these kinds of iconic figures. One thing that’s interesting about this film is that we see how May ’68 had a real and huge impact on how individual people lived their lives. History also belongs to the anonymous. For women, I think this was a decisive moment that led to a full-on revolution in their lives.
Interview from Crash #63