With his debut feature, Spartacus and Cassandra, Ioanis Nuguet crafts a unique portrait of two Roma street children, their relationships to each other, their temporary caretaker and circus performer Camille and their struggling parents and the state.
We sat down with Nuguet to discuss his tender documentary that filters its social commentary through an empathetic intimacy and playful formal experimentation.
How did you first come to know the children?
I first got to know them because my previous film was a short film that I also shot in that camp. It was an urban slums area with Roma. I spent like four years over there living with them. I met them a couple of times without having any idea of a subject or project with them at first. And then actually Camille, one of the protagonists of this film decided to set up a big tent in the slums as a way to protect them from eviction. So at that time she was doing with the circus cabaret every night and the children would attend the cabaret and stay there for the weekend. And during winter after they’d been evicted, violently evicted with a family from another area they ended up in the circus with her asking for a home. So I met Spartacus that night and it was kind of his idea to make this film. He wanted so much to make it you know, ‘you have to make a film about our life, you have to make a film about me’.
With this film were you looking to make a wider statement about the marginalization of Roma people in France?
Well not really, maybe at the beginning like four years ago when we started doing this film – and you know because you’ve got so many different views about Romas and journalist’s comments. I think I was quite confused when I got there, I was not expecting what I saw actually. I found that they were very well organized, they were helping each other. It was like a micro-society, a well functional micro-society. So I was quite impressed by this at first. So my first short film was about self-organization even in poverty. If you’re self-organized, it works in a way.
The first time I heard their story was I thought about a fairy-tale. Like Cassandra and Spartacus, it’s like Hansel and Gretel. And running away with the circus!
Exactly. So I thought I should probably write a screenplay, a fiction out of this, and then a producer came and said ‘oh come on there’s too many things in it already, you don’t need to write it, you don’t need to fictionalize the situation there is enough material in the real life just to make the film in the way you want to make it’. So maybe three months after having this discussion with Spartacus we started shooting.
You’ve said you were with them for four years, how long were you just shooting this film?
A year and a half.
…So lots of material to draw from.
Well not that much because I wasn’t shooting all the way through I was like shooting…if you calculate maybe I’d shoot twenty minutes a day. Of course some days you shoot for a two hours and sometimes you don’t shoot for a week. But I was living there with them so I was sleeping there, I had my own caravan so I was quite ready to shoot anything. But I was not ready to shoot anything in a way, I was like expecting and thinking about the way I would put the film because I had five different cameras. I had a 16 mm, and 8 mm, HD, DV…and I was thinking I wanted to create pictures like paintings you know you have the material, like you have pixels or you have grain when it comes to film and I really wanted to think about the way I wanted to make it. In the beginning of the film you can see I start with a lot of close ups and then step by step I started to take more frame.
The film is highly textured. You maintain an interesting mix between grounded realism and a more abstract visual style that evokes the gaze of a child. How did you develop this aesthetic approach? Naturally there are several different films that could exist within this premise, particularly down the line of investigative documentaries.
Well, I’m not a journalist so my starting point is already really far from documenting something. It’s truly something I don’t belong to. I really thought about this film like I was doing a fiction but with only one take. So I was like thinking about the gramma in the same way you would expect a fiction to be, cinematically I mean. I mean I am a texturist, I really like it, I like to grow, I like to paint. It is really important. With high resolution cameras now you’re getting more resolution and it’s all clean so you don’t have the medium there like with film. With film grains you’ve got some messy things with the chemicals of the print or even with old DV cameras they’d do some nice weird things with lights. It’s like looking at the pictures is iconic in a way, it’s a way in film of catching the aura. You get my point?
So you’re interested in the surface potentials of the medium?
Yeah and I think the subject comes out of the aesthetic. Like I was not asking myself [What] I am going to make a film about…it’s not a parents and child story, I was not interested in that. I wanted really to make an impressionistic movie even deeper than that but the producers said hey we have to understand something at least. So I said ‘okay’, we put it in a way that we can understand the base line but not that much, you don’t have so much of the context, you don’t have so much of the environment.
Based on major scenes we have you can follow the story with them in terms of narrative, and the voice over helps a lot to let the narrative background go. I was really interested in making the film from the children’s point of view. Like trying to rebuild their own perception of the events. I was quite interested in their dreams so I was asking them all the time ‘what are you dreaming about? Can you tell me?’ They were really not used to this in the beginning and were unable to remember their dreams, but step by step they started reporting their dreams. And so one day Cassandra came to us with this dream about her father being shot by a police officer and I said ‘oh my god I have to put this in the film’. Jean Cocteau, the French poet and writer, he said the day the cops come down in our dreams, breaking into our dreams, means we will have failed with democracy. This was something powerful like that. And I said my goodness this girl, she’s afraid of who is supposed to protect her. So I wanted to document actually the subconscious of the kids.
The children display an astounding emotional maturity, feeling the injustice of gaining access to better services while their parents continue to live on the street. What was it like working with them?
It was pretty well, I mean because it was their film we were doing. It was not a documentary to them. So that was funny because I brought them to them cinema and they were asking me ‘how can this guy jump from the third floor without having anything? ’And I was saying ‘okay come on now this is cinema’ but they would say ‘are we not doing cinema as well?’ ‘Yeah we are doing cinema but….So it was quiet interesting, I could see the power, the magic power of cinema in flesh in some way because they could experience their own life and at the same time experience the fact of living in a film in some ways. We were organizing their life with the idea of shooting it, of making a film out of it. So the line and boarder between life, what is real and what is not, what is shooting…. it blurs. Everything was blurred. So sometimes they were even coming to me and saying ‘you should probably shoot what is going on here now with my father. For example in the scene with the caravan where Spartacus has an argument with his father, he brought me into that. He started this discussion and then said ‘wait’ and then he came to my caravan and said ‘oh you probably better come, I think this is something that you should shoot’.
You also shot the film yourself, which is largely hand held. Having the dual roles of director and cinematographer seems to have really added to the non-invasive feel of the film.
It was really easy because I speak the language and I was there for quite some time so every knew me, I was quite at home so I could roam around and do whatever I wanted. Nobody would ask me anything. For the children…well it changed my life also because we are still all living together now, we met during the filming of it, and I got quite involved emotionally. I just left my apartment and I started living with them there, I got my own caravan and you know we stayed together. So even with Camille, I didn’t know Camille before that and so. And also for me the boarders were not clear, there were not clear lines between what I was experiencing, what I was living, and what I was shooting. And so we were living intimately.
Was there any crew or just yourself?
It was me and I had two sound recorders, but most of the time I was only with one sound recorder and probably for a lot of the time I was alone with two mics. Have the children and Camille seen the film and what are their thoughts?
Yeah sure. I mean they’ve seen it many times, and have seen all of the process of the film so many times….. different sequences and scenes because I was actually editing the film in the house you can see in the film, it was the only room we had because everything was under construction. So they would watch behind me and say ‘oh what are you doing with that?’ So they really did already know the film before it was already done. I would say it was like a therapy, because for the kids to see these scenes and sequences over and over they started to think a lot about it and have some reflections of what they had actually been through over those two years. And they started to understand better what was going on so they were feeling less guilty about letting their parents be on their own. It all works for everybody. I also showed the film to the father and soon after…I don’t know if it comes from the film or what, but he found a good situation, he found a job , he stopped with the drinking. So we were all looking at this like it was our therapy in some way.
Was there much experimentation in the editing process?
I really knew what kind of film I wanted to make. But still the editing process took a year. I am quite slow. There was all those different levels like with the voice over, which was also a very long process too because I was asking the kids to write about the scenes and think about what they’d been through, what they were thinking at that time and what they thought now about those situations. So that was a really long process. And also the music composition was a very long process because she actually used all the sounds from the film to record it, remixing it, resampling to make like the mirror of the film.
Also a texturist then! I did actually want to ask you about working with composer Aurélie Ménétrieux.
How she works, I mean she’s great, really great, she’s crazy but she’s really great. It was sometimes hard to work with her because it’s just hard to catch her, like she’s living in Auckland, but at that time she was also living in Brussels , and also living in the south of France. She was doing a lot of stuff but not at all organized. So when she reached my home I like put her in jail and said ‘okay now you don’t move and we work for like a week or two weeks’ and she was like ‘come on you have to let me go! I promise, I swear I’ll send you sounds’ and I said ‘no no I know you, I will not hear from you after two months’. And so I had no news from her, because she took all the sounds and then she didn’t answer any emails for two months and then suddenly I got my mailbox filled up with sixty tracks. And I was like my goodness! And all beautiful and great. So basically what she did, she made some loops that I could put in my editing line and play with them and try to connect the film in my own way. And then I would export it and send it to her and she’d reconstruct it and rethink about it and then put it together. So that was really interesting.
What has your experience at Hot Docs been like?
Great, really great so far. It’s been nice to actually see films from other directors and meeting them. I mean that’s the main point for me. We’ve been through many festivals before here and this is probably one of the last festivals I’ll be with this film. I’m really glad to meet other directors, like the Ross brothers that made Western, they are great people. Also Morgan Knibbe who made this amazing film Those Who Feel the Fire Burning…. it’s a great film. Because most of the time you work alone, so you’re own ideas and techniques and you face technical difficulties or are challenged and you are just alone to solve it, I mean you have just the producer you can ask for advice.
Thank you so much for sitting down with us today.