Master Storyteller • Sébastien Lifshitz
Sébastien Lifshitz’s films explore a rich and unexpected side of gay life. Michael Langan talks to him about his recent documentary works, Les Invisibles and Bambi.
Photo © Olivier Roller (Click images to enlarge)
Sébastien Lifshitz makes highly accomplished films that combine complex storytelling, nuanced performances, and luminous cinematography. In his documentaries and his feature films relationships are at the heart, as they are in so many of our lives. Certain elements recur; sick mothers cared for by their children, absent fathers, the restorative sanctuary of a rural landscape and the curative power of our relationships with animals. Often, the films end with a quiet sense of hope that is affecting and unsentimental.
Lifshitz has won two Teddy Awards at the Berlin Film Festival, one for his documentary Bambi (2013), which tells the story of a famous Parisian transsexual cabaret artiste, and one for his feature film Wild Side (2004), a delicately rendered story of a transgender woman sex-worker who, having made a family for herself with two men, is brought back to her childhood, and her boyhood, when she goes home to look after her dying mother. His breakthrough movie, Presque Rien (2000), combines the well-established trope of teenage holiday romance, with much darker emotional substance, creating a depth and subtlety that so much LGBT film making lacks.
His latest documentary, Les Invisibles, documents queer lives from an older generation and was accompanied by a the publication of a book of photographs taken from the archive Lifshitz has been collecting since he was himself a boy. The photos show people playing with gender identity and sexuality in a way that bucks our received ideas of what gay lives were like in the past. I spoke to him at the Fringe! Film Festival, where he presented Bambi, about his recent documentaries.
You seem to have made a conscious decision to tell the stories of older generations, those who were on the front line of the fight to generate a queer visibility.
For a long time I thought everyone knew all these stories of gay history and what people went through. Then I realised, by speaking with younger people, that they didn’t really know how it was before and I was amazed to discover that they didn’t really care. They live in the present – digital technology and the internet mean that they’re very focused on the now – but memory and history are so important because you need to understand that the way you live today comes from another story. People went through a lot of battles – intimate, private battles too – and these stories need to be told. Nothing is forever. In France we say that we need to be the ‘watchmen’ – les veilleurs – to keep an eye on everything because it can all change, and not for the better.
I wondered how your documentaries fitted into the context of recent debates in France around the gay marriage issue. Lots of people were quite surprised at the extent of the opposition to it.
The process of making Bambi and Les Invisibles began a long time before those debates. When the protests happened I must admit I was not so surprised because when I was doing my research for Les Invisibles I realised that a lot of these people have what I would call a very ‘classical’ education, that’s to say a very Catholic education. Even if they are no longer religious their background comes from something very religious – school, the family, everything around them. It was very difficult to talk about sex, or private things, even within families, and it was certainly impolite to talk about identity. At the same time we are meant to be very liberated, but there’s still a fight between the conservatives and the progressives. In France the protests against gay marriage seemed huge but were not so big in terms of the general population. For me it was interesting because France is a mature, free country and they could say what they think, so it became a kind of Republican debate, which is important – you need to listen to everybody in a democracy. Society is not a simple division between good and bad. Some gay people are very conservative, and homophobic. It’s very complex.
In Les Invisibles there’s a lovely moment where, in a newsreel showing a demonstration about abortion rights, a journalists asks some older, very conservative looking women in the crowd what they think and they all voice support for the demonstrators. They say the opposite of what you think they’re going to say. In Bambi, you have the generation before that, in the forties and fifties, where in another archive newsreel they’re talked about as monstrosities. It’s shocking and brings home to you the complexity of…
…of the context…
…of the context, yes, but also how people felt in terms of themselves. You can believe yourself to be a monster if you’re told it often enough. You have to fight it, internally, in order to reveal yourself to yourself as something that is not monstrous.
But in the case of Bambi there’s something very important, which is her character – she has such a strong mind and is very free. It is curious and surprising to me because she had a very traditional education in a small village in Algeria, in a poor environment, and still she’s this amazing, free-spirited woman. It’s easy to look back now and say, oh you were so cool, so free, but it was not a cool period at all. Her life was cocooned by the cabaret world, which afforded a kind of protection, though there was not a lot of money and the police would really harass them. But Bambi was always very beautiful and ‘credible’ as woman. When she was in the street she never had a problem from the police because no one imagined she was a man, but that was not the case for all of the transsexuals. For me, the transsexual aspect of her life is not the only thing I love, I love also the freedom she afforded herself to fall in love with a woman. She thought she was going to be a woman living with a man and she ended up with a life that was very different from that.
Both Bambi and Les Invisibles are very ‘classically’ made and beautifully edited. The subjects talk directly to camera, for quite a while at times, and we don’t hear the questions asked but you’re obviously able to draw wonderful stories out of them.
I was looking for what I would call a very pure form, something very minimalist, because I feel simplicity is one of the hardest things to achieve. I watched a lot of documentaries before making these two. I don’t like documentaries where the aesthetic is very fragmented, and with fast edits where you use different subjects to say the same thing. That’s a manipulation because it creates the idea that there is only one story, that these people all had the same destiny, the same life – and it’s not true. Each life is unique and you have to show the complexity of history, not just as told by the big figures. If you want to be more precise and accurate you have to go into people’s lives to show that it was more complex, that there was not only one way of thinking. In Les Invisibles, you have a group of people who are telling their stories and each is different, so you can’t talk about a gay destiny, or history, as if they all went through the same thing. This means that, to be yourself, to feel that you’re free, to have a deep relationship with your desires and an understanding of who you are, is different for everyone. It can take a whole life to achieve this.
It still seems to be the case that, with gay narratives, stories are representative, symbolic. We’re still not individuals with individual stories, but have to represent a gay community and a gay history.
Yes, and the gay community used these dramatic testimonies for political purposes, to protest and say we come suffering and injustice, and it was always built on pain. I’m a collector of old photographs and I found a lot of pictures of gay people in intimate situations and they often look quite happy. Of course people want to look happy in photos but you could suppose from the pictures that it was not such a struggle to be who they were. I started to believe that maybe gay history is much more complex than we had previously thought.
Les Invisibles seems to really work towards this complexity, even within that pure, minimalist formalism, because the subjects are really quite different, with different opinions, different experiences and identities.
The basis of my aesthetic is making one long shot with no cuts, which gives a sense that the people talking, and their words, are not manipulated by the editing. You feel that the words are true and the relationship built with the audience is strong because the words are really respected in a way, by not being cut.
I was very struck by another aspect of your work, which is the relationship to nature and animals in all of your films. Do you think of nature as a potential sanctuary, where people can live how they want? A lot of the people in Les Invisibles find a place in rural communities, and you shoot the pastoral landscape beautifully.
I wanted to avoid the cliché that gay people all live in big cities, places that are supposed to be more tolerant, and the reality is not like that. I love people telling stories but I didn’t want only people talking into the camera. I wanted to use other things to express who these people are, to find a cinematic way to tell their stories – using their homes, interiors, the animals they live with – and nature was something very obvious in their lives. I love the dialogue between people and nature. Nature is essential and fascinating and I feel you have to learn how to look at it. The way you are connected to it, or not, can say a lot about you because it’s about your capacity to look all around you. I lot of gay people live in the countryside, in very isolated places, which surprises many of us, and I was looking also for this kind of person because, in terms of class and location, I wanted diversity.
I know you have a background in art history and that also seems to feed into your work, with your the use of landscape, light and colour.
Yes, I studied history of art and the history of photography and my head is full of images, that’s for sure. I’m not trying to be influenced by, or copy, anyone, but I do like to be fed. Both paintings and photography have helped me to create emotions while trying to find my aesthetic. Cinema has its own language and I’m finding my way of speaking.
Both Bambi, and the subjects in Les Invisibles, have spent their lives either campaigning, or struggling personally, but are all, ultimately, human beings who simply want to love and want to give love.
It really brings home to me that there is not such thing as fate – that you have your destiny in your hands. Even if you come from the worst environment you can save yourself. It’s not easy, it can take a lifetime, but you’re not always suffering, or in pain. A life can be transformed by your own energy, your own desire and volition. Even if everything is against you, you can find the means.