Ioanis Nuguet’s Spartacus & Cassandra shows us what it means to portray an emotional truth rather an objective account of events. He doesn’t just roll the camera or opt for a fly-on-the-wall cinema vérité account of events. Instead, he constructs and experiments with form, both technically and in terms of authorship, to deliver a film that truly speaks to the heart of his eponymous protagonists’ experiences. By opting for an expressive, experiential truth, he strays into the territory of narrative films, but the result remains inescapably the work of a skilled documentarian.
Spartacus & Cassandra is the story of two Roma children, brother and sister, whose parents live on-and-off with them at the residence of a young circus performer and third parental figure, Camille, in Seine-Saint-Denis. A complex situation is made evident almost from the documentary’s outset. As the two attend school at Camille’s insistence, the indisputable poverty of their parents and surrounding Roma community members makes attempts at establishing stability and routine more difficult. Their father wants to relocate their family to Spain, in order to find a house and a job. This proves fraught with problems, given a French judge has decreed the children must remain with Camille. If their father opts to take them with him, he will be incarcerated. The entire documentary presents an interwoven mesh of issues, including alcoholism, poverty, the marginalisation and persecution of the Roma people, and domestic violence. Spartacus and Cassandra are caught in a kind of tug-of-war, trapped between the dire circumstances of their present lives, their sense of duty to their impoverished parents, and an imminent future whose opportunities they are compelled to explore.
Formal experimentation marks the film. Uninterested in traditional documentary work, Nuguet has said that he “wanted to document actually the subconscious of the kids”. He appears to eschew the observational, unadulterated nature of observational documentary for the deeper and more authentic truth of Spartacus and Cassandra’s “subconscious”. This approach gifts us with bouts of fluid, handheld cinematography that are then punctuated by moments of stylisation: choppy editing, scenes fading into an overexposed white, remixed diegetic sounds. The story is likewise fragmented, resembling stylised narratives like Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, aiming for the emotional truth of more poetic documentaries.1 Both director and cinematographer, Nuguet delves into the surroundings of his protagonists in each scene, almost swimming in each shot as he shoots mostly from lower angles. In adopting this kind of perspective, Nuguet effectively dismantles the usual dynamic between ‘director’ and ‘subject’. Living in the circus tent with his documentary’s protagonists for several years, not only has he become privy to their most intimate moments, but also he has ensured his role in the film’s creation is not a patronising, critical, or superior one. He remains firmly on the same level as those whose story he is telling, but also knows his boundaries; when Spartacus retreats to his room after an argument, Nuguet follows him until the door to his caravan shuts. Nuguet goes no further, the strip of golden light from inside the caravan growing slimmer until it vanishes. Spartacus lowers the blinds as well, and the scene ends.
There is an immense humanity and empathy in this method of filmmaking. One of the most significant of the film’s achievements is the inclusion of its subjects in the actual construction of the film. In an interview with Catherine Knight for 4:3 earlier this year, Nuguet acknowledged that the children themselves were at the helm in deciding which scenes or moments to film – even as they were taking place in real time. This partial handover of directing to its protagonists is immense.2 By allowing Spartacus and Cassandra greater autonomy in the telling of their own story, Nuguet as a filmmaker is able to dig deeper to capture their experiences, both as tactile, physical moments and emotional ones. In particular, the occasional snippets of contemplative voiceover and two distinct scenes of Cassandra and Spartacus performing, engaged creatively, make the film seem as though it also belongs to them. The latter are especially poignant; Spartacus dances without music on a street, normally a physical space occupied also by police and unmindful passers-by, but for once empty and tranquil. Cassandra performs a poem, accompanied by an acoustic guitarist, in both French and their Romani dialect. In this way, they are also irrefutably positioned as authors of their own experience, as represented in Nuguet’s documentary. By rejecting a simplistic observational style, and sharing authorship with his protagonists, Nuguet has produced a marvelous documentary with an vast impact.