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The Artist and The Craftsman: An interview with filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot

As soon as I began culling work for my October 14 Cinema Reset screening, 西遊記 “Monkey”: A Journey West, I knew I wanted to include the work of Jean-Gabriel Périot.

My program was originally created for a Korean film organization to introduce an Asian audience to “The West.” For me, The West’s identity is indeterminate -- confused by a desire to achieve perfection and a fear that perfection will never be achieved.

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With thousands of images, 'Ninjuman No Borei' depicts the rebirth of a central Hiroshima building.

Jean-Gabriel’s work confronts the sorry outcomes of Western fear and indeterminacy; bigotry, racism, and militarism are common themes in his work. However, any violent themes Gabriel expresses are rendered with the delicacy of a careful cinematic craftsman.

In his piece "Nijuman no borei – 200000 Phantoms," we see thousands of successive images that gently depict the rebuilding of a Hiroshima structure that was destroyed by the Bomb. The images, placed one by one, linger long enough to convey the feelings of each photographer at different times in the Hiroshima’s development.

In anticipation for the screening of “Nijuman no borei – 200000 Phantoms," and the entire 西遊記 “Monkey” program, I had a chance to chat with the French artist and filmmaker about the role of the cinematic craftsmen in constructing such a delicate piece of cinema-work.

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Blake Bertuccelli: I find great meaning in the struggle you must've gone through to assemble the thousands of images that make your film "200000 Phantoms.” It seems like quite a labor to depict the life, death, and rebirth of that Hiroshima building.

Jean-Gabriel Périot: I always believed that any time spent on working, the process, is important in filmmaking. It's quite new in our history that artists are not craftsmen!

What do you mean? When did artists stop being craftsmen?

I don't really know. But until the modern time, end of the 19th century, painters and sculptors were working as craftsmen, even if they were also considered to be “artists”. One role was not against the other. But at the end of the 1900s, a lot of artists started to consider themselves to be an “artist” first or uniquely.

An exception to this rule is Warhol. Warhol is considered to be one of the most important artists of the last century. Much of his work was produced in a kind of painting factory -- like artists had during the Quattrocento. Even Michelangelo used pre-existing models so they could easily copy or re-use techniques. For instance, his assistants used paper models -- sort of like stencils -- to replicate figures in their painting several times. Warhol used stencils as well, and then signed the work as his own. We want to see Warhol as some sort of “pure artist,” but he was really just the head of a factory machine!

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"To be artist means you will express yourself, you state something," says Jean-Gabriel Périot.

Would you want to head your own art-making factory?

For some artists, the reality of work is something vulgar. For them, art is in pure ideas, so they pay people to carry out the concrete parts of their work.

For me, the process of work is very important. My family is a middle class one, without particular interest for culture, and they are all very modest. Becoming a filmmaker was a bold step because being an artist was immodest in the way I was raised.

To be artist means you will express yourself, you state something. Even if you practice abstract art, you share something with others. Artists must pretend that what they feel and want to say is important. To be artist is to occupy a certain place in the society, a place different from "regular" people. It's a particular role in our society. The role of “the Artist” is uncomfortable for me!

It seems like so many artists have a ridiculous hope to become a ‘working class hero’, but they could never stop expressing their artistic whims.

If I took film away from you, would you find another tool of expression?

I will never express myself in any art other than film!

Artists have different goals from regular workers. An artist's work is a process of expressing himself in a piece of art. Work for a regular worker is just endlessly participating to the concrete production of something they don’t really care about, something they don’t personally identify with. Moreover, regular workers work as a means to get paid. Artists have to work; it’s a necessary expression.

What about artists who create work as a means of making money?

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The border between art-making and craft-making is not so clear. If we look at the great artists of the Renaissance, their work is done to fulfill commercial orders; Da Vinci and Uccelo might be exceptions. Most of the “great artists” are just decorating rich people’s houses or extravagant churches. That changes nothing to the fact that they all are unique artists and did masterpieces, but they are also workers obeying to orders rather than pure-artists, fulfilling personal necessities.

Anyway, my English is too blurry to express myself clearly. But as I said, a concrete process of a craftsman's work is important to me -- not only because it fulfills a desire of "normality," but also because it helps me understand what I’m looking for in a project. If I know what I’m looking for, I have a better ability to share the "something-I'm-looking-for" with the audience.

What was the “something-I’m-looking-for” with “Nijuman no bore”?

“Nijuman no borei” brought me closer to expressing my feelings about history and the city [Hiroshima]. While researching, I read many testimonies and I heard so horrible stories, but I never found an answer to why the U.S. decided to drop the bomb…  I was so full of sadness and so obsessed by the faces of the people who died there. I have come to realize that my goal is to make a film for the victims. To build my own private memorial for them. And I hope my work will bring an audience to ask this very simple question: “Why?”

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"Nijuman no borei – 200000 Phantoms" will play at Press Street’s Antenna Gallery on Monday, October 14, 7PM, as part of 西遊記 “Monkey”: A Journey West. For more information, visit cinemareset.com/monkey.

Jean-Gabriel Périot lives in France. His works – including "Dies Irae", "Even if she had been a criminal…" and "Nijuman no borei" – were shown worldwide in numerous festivals and have been honored with numerous accolades.

Blake Bertuccelli is a founding member of Cinema Reset, an experimental film program in partnership with the New Orleans Film Festival. He is also a filmmaker, and a regular contributor to NolaVie.