This is a very difficult film to write about because of its formal qualities, poised between documentary re-enactment and fiction feature, and because of its generic qualities as part biopic, part ‘journalist in war zone’ feel. It is true story about a young woman who pursued her dream and paid with her life. Finally its appearance in 2021 as part of My French Film Festival, after release in France in October 2019, coincides with news stories suggesting French unease about the calls for re-assessing imperialism and colonialism.
Camille Lepage was a young French freelance photographer aged 25 when she travelled to the Central African Republic in October 2013. Her first major African reportage had been carried out in South Sudan and she had already had her images used by major newspapers and other agencies. She spent her time in CAR meeting students, and young people generally, in the capital Bangui and when the civil war in the country started to get close to the capital she teamed up with a group of seasoned European journalists working for major outlets and photographed some of the action and its aftermath. At this point it was the Séléka, a Muslim rebel force that was attacking the capital. Intervention by French forces was expected and duly arrived. Camille went home to France for Christmas but was determined to return to Bangui, by which time the Christians had formed a new militia known as the ‘Anti-balaka’ and they were killing Muslims. Camille learned that the Anti-balaka were moving North from the capital towards the border with Cameroon. She joined their convoy and was killed instantly during an ambush. (This isn’t a spoiler, we learn of her death in the opening sequence.)
CAR is one of the poorest countries on earth. It has a low population density as a relatively large country with less than 5 million people but much of it is savannah and potentially productive and it also has some valuable mineral deposits with diamonds as the major export. Why is the country so poor and how does a civil war seemingly break out on religious difference lines when the Christian population is nearly 90%? I don’t know the answers to these questions but the country has had a difficult history since its ‘independence’, especially during the ‘Empire’ of Jean-Bédel Bokassa from 1966-79. Like several other countries in Central Africa that were created after the land grab by European powers in the late 19th century, CAR has little infrastructure and little contact with the outside world – except with France. Even the Chinese seem to be ignoring the country. The only evidence of an outside world comes via the trucks and motorbikes and the ubiquitous European football shirts.
Camille is the second fiction feature by director Boris Lojkine after his initial documentaries made in Vietnam. His first fiction film, Hope (2014) followed a young Nigerian woman and a young Cameroon man attempting to reach the Mediterranean after crossing the Sahara. Lojkine’s documentary experience seems to still be central to his work. Hope was shot by Elin Kirschfink and she also shot Camille. The new film is presented in a boxy 1:1.50 ratio caught between Academy (1.37:1) and the traditional French widescreen 1.66:1. The ratio derives from Lojkine’s decision to use ‘real’ photographs by Camille Lepage which are inserted at various points, freezing the action. Camille is played by Nina Meurisse, who does indeed convincingly represent the Camille we see in photographs shown at the end of the film. There are a couple of well-known French actors among the journalists (Bruno Todeschini and Grégoire Colin) and the photojournalist Michael Zumstein plays himself in the film – and was able to advise Lojkine and the rest of the crew. The African cast was all local and non-professional. Lojkine in the Press Notes tells us that he set up documentary workshops in Bangui and mentored ten young filmmakers who then became crew members on the shoot.
Camille’s story was ‘narrativised’ by Lojkine who created three individual characters among the students that she meets. This enables aspects of Camille’s story to be outlined more clearly through her relationships, i.e. in smuggling a character past a militia group or joining a family in mourning. The film certainly develops a convincing realist aesthetic, so ‘real’ in fact that I found it difficult to watch at times.
How to respond?
I’m not sure what I can say about the film. On one level it is a significant achievement in filmmaking with high quality photography and editing and strong performances. The ‘realism’ effects of the re-construction of events is very strong. The genre narrative of ‘journalist in a war zone’ is developed in two ways, firstly when Camille joins the experienced journalists in Bangui and travels with them to photograph the raids close to the city and secondly when she is back in France, trying to get a commission from a newspaper or discussing/defending her actions when quizzed by family and friends. Much of the time, however, Camille is on her own (i.e. not with other journalists) when she visits the militias or the families who have lost relatives in the civil war. In these circumstances we try to understand what she hopes to achieve. Reflecting on this later, I’m reminded of Michael Winterbottom’s film Welcome to Sarajevo (UK-US 1997) and that element of several other journalism films which responds to the need for the individual to ‘do something’ like smuggle a refugee out of a war zone. Often Camille shows her genuine concern and her ability to find a means of both communicating and connecting with the people she meets. But this only goes so far and some of them eventually repel her. She believes in her journalistic purpose and that someone must record these shocking events, but many of her photos will not be seen. She lacks any kind of institutional support or indeed any one to ‘watch her back’. Her death in the circumstances seems inevitable.
The Civil War which started in 2012 is still not over eight years later despite the French military presence at various times. CAR seems similar to Chad and some of the other countries in the region – Sudan/South Sudan and the DRC. The European colonial boundaries established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries don’t reflect the many ways in which local communities have identities. French policies in the region are difficult to understand but they don’t seem to be working in terms of military interventions and trade relations. Stories like this definitely need to be told and young, compassionate journalists like Camille Lepage could be among those opening up the debates, but perhaps alongside African journalists? This film, as a biopic, places Camille centre stage in almost every shot. An African film might tell different stories. I do wonder if countries like CAR would benefit more by opening up to neighbours rather than remaining attached to the ex-colonial power. It would be good to see the (post)-colonial situation explored by African filmmakers.
This was the weakest of the films I saw on my first day, but it was the one that got the most audience applause. I’ve never properly watched The Daily Show which made the name of début writer/director John Stewart, so I was primarily attracted to the appearance of Gael García Marquez and Kim Bodnia (from The Bridge) as the two main characters.
There is nothing wrong with the film as such and it is clearly a project with its heart in the right place. Bernal plays the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, whose book of his experiences covering the 2009 election in Iran, rigged by the authorities, was the original property adapted by Stewart. He is arrested and imprisoned and Bodnia is the ‘specialist’ assigned to extract a confession that will be broadcast as part of the regime’s propaganda. All of this is well done, shot in Jordan as far as I can make out. Apart from a spoof interview that could be part of a comedy show, Stewart plays it all straight – although I did like the appearance of the journalist’s dead father in his cell offering advice on how to survive based on his own incarceration under previous regimes. Bahari’s dead sister also appears.
The only real problem is that we’ve seen this before and Iranian stories told from the US, even when they use a couple of strong Iranian actors (the mother and sister here), find it difficult to compete with the real thing. Films by Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf cover similar territory in much more oblique and powerful ways. Stewart’s film is primarily delivered in English so it will reach a wider public and that is good if it heightens awareness. It’s also good that a film about the real bravery of journalists worldwide should find an audience. Perhaps it can act as an introduction to the complexities and, despite the horrors, the ‘pleasures’ of the terrific Iranian cinema of the last twenty years, which is able to use subtle forms of humour to undermine the regime?