ND/NF: "Voyages" with France's Best First Film Director, Emmanuel Finkiel
by Andy Bailey
Emmanuel Finkiel‘s debut film “Voyages” elegantly and wistfully courses through three countries, over two continents, and in several languages, exploring the emotional landscape of the last generation of Holocaust survivors as they struggle to make peace with their uprooted pasts before it’s too late. Divided into discrete portions, “Voyages” serves up a trilogy of seemingly unrelated female characters whose destinies don’t so much collide (for that would be too easy) as they do casually intermingle — as if they were somehow cosmically joined by fate.
The film opens on a bus trip from Warsaw to Auschwitz as a 65-year-old French Holocaust survivor, now a resident of Israel, argues with her husband during a breakdown in the middle of nowhere. Then the film shifts to Paris, where a woman receives a phone call from a Lithuanian man claiming to be her long-lost father — he isn’t, but she lets him stay while they trace his real daughter’s whereabouts, who’s presumably living in Israel. The third portion unravels in Tel Aviv as an 85-year-old Russian woman, a recent arrival whose Yiddish language is hopelessly out of place, searches its busy streets for a distant cousin.
“Voyages,” which won the Prix de la Jeunesse at last year’s Cannes festival as well as the César for best first film, explores the fragile, tenuous, often somber connections between displaced persons in their twilight years with a sensitivity that sets it far apart from the trivial nature of recent Holocaust-themed fare. Life isn’t so much beautiful in “Voyages” as it is enigmatic and unpredictable. New Yorker Films will release the movie Stateside in the fall. Director Finkiel and producer Yaël Fogiel spoke to indieWIRE on the eve of “Voyages”‘ American debut at New Directors/New Films, which screens again tonight.
indieWIRE: Explain how “Voyages” was received at Cannes and by the European public after a succession of films about the Holocaust that treated the subject in an almost whimsical manner. “Life is Beautiful” and “Jacob the Liar” to name the two most egregious examples.
Emmanuel Finkiel: “Voyages” was welcomed at Cannes and when it opened in France last September. We were absolutely thrilled and astonished with its reception but we thought it would vanish from theaters quickly. It’s still playing in Paris six months later. We thought the audience would be considerably small — people in the European Jewish community mostly. But when it was released, the audience kept expanding. I never expected so many young people to come see it. Journalists tried to classify the film either in the tradition of “Night and Fog” or “Shoah,” which are documentaries, or in the vein of “Schindler’s List” or “Life is Beautiful.” Certain critics at Cannes insisted that Spielberg and Benigni be tied to a chair and forced to watch “Voyages!”
iW: The film never succumbs to cheap nostalgia or crass sentimentality. . . even when Vera reunites with her cousin in Tel Aviv, it’s not “The Joy Luck Club.” Was there a temptation during the writing of the script to resort to such tactics?
Finkiel: There was a risk more than a temptation. But I think there’s a noble sort of nostalgia that everyone can relate to, one that’s linked to this definitive thing we’ve all lost, whether it’s our childhood — our past. The characters are nostalgic, yes, but I did everything in my power to make sure they weren’t overly sentimental or melodramatic.
iW: You’ve worked as an assistant to three maverick directors: Kieslowski, Godard and Tavernier. What did you take away from each?
Finkiel: I was impressed with Kieslowski‘s hyper-subjectivity of narrative — especially in “The Decalogue.” He had a way of touching the intimate as well as the metaphysical and he did so it in a manner similar to the way Hitchcock made his thrillers. In his way of cutting, in his direction of actors, etc… He tried to film impalpable subjects. Godard was a great master. There are films that directors make and there’s the manner in which they make them and Godard has mastered the latter perfectly. He has a distinct way of making films, and I’m not talking about his style of direction so much as the production strategy of his films, which is unique. He puts in place this strategic system of fabrication for each film. Tavernier is a very cunning, clever director. From the outside looking in one could say he’s something of a tourist. If Kieslowski was a director who worked 18 hours a day, if Godard can be considered the “absolute creator,” then Tavernier is a master of his craft in an entirely different way — he samples so many different things. He’ll direct three films in succession, but you’ll go to the cinema and it’s difficult to distinguish each film as a Tavernier.
iW: In terms of the production of the film, it’s rare for a young director to shoot his first feature film on two continents, in three different countries. Was it difficult to persuade the producers to permit such a voyage?
Yaël Fogiel: No, it wasn’t difficult at all — that isn’t to say it wasn’t a difficult shoot. We’d already worked together on Emmanuel’s short film (“Madame Jacques sur la Croisette“) so I wanted to continue our relationship. I knew right away that “Voyages” would be a beautifully written script. I knew I’d succeed in raising the necessary funds. It’s truth, there’s no name actors involved, it’s got elderly people in it, it’s in French, etc. We didn’t have a lot of money to shoot it (around 16 million francs) but we managed to raise enough.
iW: Your film ends on a somber note: we move around, we lose each other, we struggle to find our roots, to reunite before it’s too late. At least we make the effort to. But in fact we almost always return to our origins. We go home again. Why do you suppose this is?
Finkiel: I think it’s fundamental in everyone’s life, our origins, and I think it has a lot to do with death. More so with death than a need to discover one’s identity. In Europe there are these crises of nationalism that come and go and I wonder if, outside of a political context, a part of it doesn’t stem from this collective need to go back and rediscover what we’ve all lost.
[Andy Bailey is a freelance writer living in New York City.]