As he became one of the great writers of France and maximum exponent of that literary genre known as autofiction thanks to titles like 'The adversary' Y 'Limonov', Emmanuel Carrere He has maintained an intermittent relationship with the cinema.
After working first as a critic and later as a screenwriter, he directed the documentary 'Retour a Kotèlnitch' (2003) and the fictional feature film 'La mustache' (2005), and later seemed to turn his back on the big screen. Fifteen years later he went back behind the camera to shoot 'On a dock in Normandy', portrait of a journalist who infiltrates the professional cleaning sector to report on their working conditions. Based on 'The Dock at Ouistreham', the acclaimed non-fiction book by Florence Aubenas, the film hits theaters next Friday.
Why did you decide to use precisely Florence Aubenas's book as a vehicle for your return to the cinema?
I read it when it was published a decade ago, and found it to be as magnificent as all Aubenas reporting. In my opinion, she is one of the best journalists and columnists in France. For a long time she refused to have her book adapted to the cinema but, displaying the tenacity that characterizes her, Juliette Binoche managed to change her mind. When I found out that Aubenas had suggested that I direct the film, I was frankly surprised. The fact is that the book describes a reality that not only continues to exist, but has worsened. In my country there are about two million cleaning professionals, who have very low wages and terrible working hours, and are poorly unionized.
"In France there are about two million cleaning professionals, who have very low wages and terrible working hours, and are poorly unionized"
And as the film makes clear, their situation is virtually invisible to the rest of society.
Undoubtedly. In work environments such as offices, shopping centers and factories, for example, cleaners carry out their work alone, before the rest of the employees have started their day or after they have finished. And that undoubtedly contributes to the contempt they suffer. At the beginning of the pandemic, during the confinement, that very subjective differentiation between 'essential occupations' and 'inessential occupations' was established, and then it became clear that often the essential ones are the least valued. I am a famous and acclaimed writer, but if my books did not exist, nothing would happen, society would continue to function; no one really needs them. Without the work of cleaners, sweepers, drivers... the world stops.
"In my country, as in all of Europe, the middle class is disappearing and the poor are getting poorer"
Does it surprise you that, in many cases, these workers align themselves with anti-establishment movements such as the 'yellow vests'?
No, obviously. The system has expelled them. In my country, as in all of Europe, the middle class is disappearing and the poor are getting poorer; and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, seems to have abandoned them. He is a very intelligent man, but he has very little patience with those who are not as intelligent as he is.
Would you say that your film is pessimistic about the class struggle?
Inevitably. Good speeches and hollow phrases like "all barriers can be broken if we respect each other" annoy me. The film portrays warm human relationships between people with good will, but it would have been tricky and illusory to endow it with a happy ending.
It is often said that the writing profession is very lonely. How did it feel to be part of a collective effort like a movie?
It was soothing to me, and it gave me great pleasure. And I also surrounded myself with a group of very experienced professionals who more than made up for my obvious shortcomings as a director. I gave them a lot of decision-making power, and I decided that I would say "I don't know" as many times as necessary.
Do you feel there are connections between Aubenas's book and the ones you have published? Both write about their objects of study in the first person.
The difference is that, in 'El Quai de Ouistreham', she never puts the focus on herself; he doesn't find his own moods interesting. I, on the other hand, tend to include reflections on myself in everything I write. In that sense, the character that Binoche plays in the film is designed as a cross between Aubenas and me. For the rest, we both come from the intellectual world, what is known in France as the 'bohemian bourgeoisie', and therefore we both have a fairly abstract knowledge of the world that both your book and my film portray.
"An undercover journalist can obtain extraordinary results, but that method involves a certain imposture, a certain betrayal"
There is an open ethical debate about the type of infiltrative journalism practiced by Aubenas. What do you think about it?
An undercover journalist can achieve extraordinary results, but that method involves a certain imposture, a certain betrayal. After all, the informer pretends to be someone he is not, deceives his sources. And, furthermore, what happens when the journalist already has the necessary material for his report and abandons the infiltration? What happens to all the emotional bonds created throughout it? It's troublesome.
Have you, who include yourself in your books, ever experienced the same kind of moral dilemma?
I question myself very often about my own method but, to tell the truth, almost never from a moral point of view. A writer has the legitimacy to write what he wants and in the way he wants about himself, he does not feel that there are limits or that there should be. Sometimes, it is true, I would like to distance myself from what I write. But I can not!