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CANNES 2020

Aurel • Director of Josep

"I wanted to pay homage to the profession and to the means of expression that links Josep and me: drawing”

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- CANNES 2020: We met with French cartoonist and director Aurel to discuss his first feature-length animated film, Josep, recipient of an Official Selection label

Aurel  • Director of Josep

Josep [+see also:
film review
interview: Aurel
film profile
]
is a recipient of the prestigious Cannes 73 Official Selection label of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, which aims to "replace" the event that could not take place physically. While waiting for the film’s French release (via Sophie Dulac Distribution) in late September, international sales are handled by The Party Film Sales. We talked to its director, the French cartoonist and filmmaker Aurel.

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Cineuropa: What are you expecting from the Cannes label, a recognition even more exceptional in your case considering that this is your first feature?
Aurel:
I do not know precisely what I am expecting from this distinction, but I know how much I’m relishing it. Being selected has been a great joy and a wonderful surprise. I had the privilege to work with a producer who gave me total artistic freedom in directing and it is therefore a kind of validation (and what validation!) of a long teamwork and of sometimes “radical” choices. The label will, I’m sure, help better attract the attention of international distributors and shine a strong spotlight on the film when it comes out in cinemas.

When did you first encounter the work of politically engaged artist Josep Bartolí ?
I first came across his drawings in 2010 at a festival where I was a guest. One of the exhibitors was selling the book by Georges Bartolí, his nephew, which was about the exile of the Spanish people. The book was illustrated with Josep’s drawings. His drawing of a one-legged Republican with crutches on the cover, the power of his lines and of the topic immediately caught my attention.

What fascinated you about this man’s story?
This "encounter" brought together a ton of topics which were dear to me or which I’d been passionate about for a long time: drawing, of course (and what drawings!), the war in Spain which I was vividly interested in ever since I discovered, as a teen, Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom, and Spain in general, a country I have very strong feelings for. When I began to dig a little, when I met with Georges to talk about his uncle, I discovered an epic and dramatic life that spanned a century, from the underbelly of 1910s Barcelona to New York between the 1960s and the 1990s, via the war of course, the French concentration camps, Mexico, Frida Kahlo. In short, I was flooded with and drowning in just how many things there were to talk about. It was thanks to discussions with producers and with other people I was discussing this idea of a film with, that I re-centred the story on drawings. Then screenwriter Jean-Louis Milesi decided on the angle of the narration as soon as he boarded the project (near 2013) by focusing the story on the French concentration camps where Spanish political refugees were locked up. So I decided to talk most of all about the drawings via the character of Josep and thanks to his story. On a historical level, these camps in the South of France, which date from before WWII, represent a part of our history that isn’t well known, even in the places where they were built.

You are a newspaper cartoonist, like Bartolí was. Can you tell us about the aesthetic of the film? The lines and silhouettes in the film seem to echo the style and certain "codes" of newspaper cartoons...
I like to say that Josep is a "drawn film". I wanted to pay homage to the profession and to the means of expression that links Josep and me: drawing. And newspaper drawings in particular which, in their form, have to be hyper expressive, quickly executed (due to the time constraints imposed by the press), quickly read and most of all dedicated to summing up an action in a single drawing. Even the graphic novel, which is a sequential art, can rely on a sequence of cases to tell a single action. But for newspaper cartoons, we have to sum up a movement in a single drawing. It gives it a unique force which I wanted to bring to the screen. That is why, in the entire “memory” part of the film (in the camps), the mise en scène is based on a drawing without movement. I removed all the “superfluous” gestures, making use of animation only in the magical moments, when the memory indeed becomes animated and comes alive.

Josep features violent sequences, when you describe the violence done to the political detainees. How does the use of animation allow you to be more faithful, or at least more precise and subtly, to this kind of sad reality?
Drawing (whether it is animated or not) implies a certain distance from reality, because it isn’t the “real” image. Inherently, there is a filter. In the film, certain images of violence are shown, but not the act itself (there is the before and the after, but not the movement in its entirety). Sometimes, I do not show the violent act even in a drawing, because it would be improper. In those cases, I used the sound, the voice, the music to take over the narrative and create a discomfort which it would have been useless or crude to put into images. A few years ago, I had been impressed by an exhibition at the Rencontres d'Arles about the genocide in Rwanda. The photographer was interrogating our thirst for the spectacular and the bloody by only showing black images with the caption as communicated by the agency that was selling the picture. Those captions were very precise and factual, and they were enough on their own. What was the use of the image in those cases? It is quite destabilising about what we are expecting or hoping from an image when it concerns violence.

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(Translated from French)

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