Nicolas Philibert and Nénette

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Nicolas Philibert tells Susan Robinson how he was inspired to film the forty year-old orang-utan of Jardins des Plantes after observing the fascinating effect she had on its visitors.


Not your average nature documentary, Nénette is remarkable for its silence. The aged orang-utan remains mysterious, allowing the viewer to imagine what she is thinking: ‘The voiceovers you see on nature documentaries on TV tell you a lot about the way animals reproduce or feed themselves but you are not allowed to interpret with your own imagination.’

Philibert cites The Long Silence as an influence on his technique which combines silence, music and readings; ‘the silence lets the viewers think for themselves, to think about what they have just heard and to make it theirs.’ This ownership is crucial as it aids imagination, ‘I don’t like to dictate to the viewers what to think every minute. I try to make open films as we always see things from our own experience.’

Is it hard to find a subject that allows you to do this? ‘It is something you can do with any subject matter. It is a question of a way of seeing more than theme. It’s a way of letting the viewer invest themselves in the subject matter. I’m happy when viewers are active.’

Philibert takes his responsibility as a documentary-maker seriously, ‘when you have a camera in your hands you have a sudden power. I try not to take advantage of that power. I don’t want to film people who don’t want to be filmed.’ So where does this leave Nénette? ‘I didn’t feel guilty about filming her. Nénette has been behind glass for thirty years, she’s photographed and filmed by hundreds of people and in a way she’s a star. She doesn’t pay attention.’

Nénette is a film about the nature of film and the human gaze ‘when you stand in front of Nénette it’s like standing in front of a mirror.’ This makes Nénette different in the risky business of documentary-making: ‘In a way you have their life in your hands. When you put non-actors in a film you push people in the light and when the film is finished, you leave. They have to go back to their ordinary lives. When you film actors it is very different because when the film is finished, they will play in another film. They don’t feel abandoned.’

For his last film, Retour en Normandie, he returned to the rural community where he had cast locals for a René Allio film thirty years previously and asked them to star in his own documentary: ‘Most of them told me that it had been much more difficult to be in my film because they didn’t have to play a character, they had to play themselves.’

As the visitors confess to Nénette, comment on her appearance or make crude jokes there is a suggestion that it is very hard to be yourself and to see outside your own desires. Philibert, ever open to interpretation, is reluctant to confirm one theory or another, watch Nénette and judge for yourself.


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