Witnesses: Andre Techine’s Tale of Love and Friendship in AIDS Era

Set in Paris, in 1984, Witnesses, the latest Andre Techine’s film, captures the end of an era through the tale of a group of friends and lovers.

Boasting an all-star cast, including Michel Blanc, Emmanuelle Beart, Sami Bouajila, Julie Depardieu, the film premiered at the 2007 Venice Film Fest and is now being distributed theatrically by the courageous Strand Releasing, a company that has released several of his former pictures.

Arguably the most prominent Gallic director of his generation, Andr Tchin was born in 1943 and grew up in southwest France. He first developed a passion for cinema in elementary school and, at nineteen, moved to Paris to pursue a career in filmmaking. From 1964 to 1967 he wrote film criticism for the prestigious Cahiers du cinma. After working as an assistant director on Jacques Rivette’s “L’Amour Fou,” Tchin directed his first feature “French Provincial” (1974).

His subsequent films, including Sceneof the Crime (1986), My Favorite Season (1993), Wild Reeds (1994), Thieves (1996), Alice and Martin (1998), Strayed (2003) and Changing Times (2004). Though he has worked with major French stars, such as Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Jeanne Moreau, Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Huppert, Elodie Bouchez, Sandrine Bonnaire, Grard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Philippe Noiret, Techine is little known in the U.S.

Did you begin with the idea of a film about AIDS or was it a particular person in your life that inspired you

Obviously, it’s a mix of both, but I wanted to make a historical film.

Why another film about the history of AIDS

First, because there haven’t been very many films about AIDS, in France at least. And even in the U.S., it’s not exactly become a separate genre like the ‘Vietnam movie’. And then because there are times in history, when an event shines a light on a society’s collective imagination. By paying very careful attention to what people say, we’re able to hear what affects not only the individual, but also the whole culture.

You return to the 1980s with people dying of AIDS

Yes, because I have a sense of having escaped my destiny and that’s what gave me the urge to make this movie. Otherwise, it would have been a slightly abstract historical ambition.

It’s a movie defined by its period, but not a documentary

I deliberately turned my back on the documentary aesthetic. I made it like an action movie. But it’s an action movie based on considerable research and documentation.

The hero is a young man from Southwest France coming to Paris, just like you

I find it strange, this constant preoccupation with linking a filmmaker to a character. Finding a connection between somebody’s private life and fiction is a vision of the process that is tainted by the current obsession with celebrities. When I create characters, I actually want to become someone else or picture myself in someone else’s shoes.

Your male protagonists offer different takes on homosexuality

That interpretation strikes me as very arbitrary, because I wouldn’t describe the characters at all like that. I can never accept that a character be reduced to his or her sexual orientation. Withdrawing behind an identity is very dangerous in this particular instance. Everyone is a person in his own right and is no more a variant of homosexuality than heterosexuality. What interests me is that a character stands up and casts a shadow, and also that he should be in motion, elusive, just like life.

You subvert taboos that have returned with a vengeance in present-day France

Mehdi is a police officer of North African origin, the father of a small child, a wage-earner who lives with a wealthy novelist. But the aberrant situations and unlikely characters sketched by Fassbinder or Pasolini are infinitely more subversive.

Mehdi is Arab and Bisexual

In a dialogue about the baby, there is a brief allusion to circumcision. That’s all. Other than that, for me, the character is that of a police lieutenant. I chose Sami Bouajilah for the part because he’s a great actor. There’s no reason to confine actors of North African origin to characters that reflect those origins, and I don’t think the film plays the card of the sociological survey. Especially as North African police officers back then were not at all representative. There were not very many of them.

As for his bisexuality, I have no idea. Above all, I think it’s important to consider these issues beyond the framework of the heterosexual vs. homosexual dynamic. I don’t know if for Mehdi his affair with Manu is the first time or the last time. I don’t know if he’s been with other guys or might do so in the future. Even I don’t know that. I don’t believe in the transparency of human relationships, nor do I believe in the transparency of the filmmaker in relation to the characters he portrays. I show them at a certain moment in their lives and that reveals certain aspects but it’s the tip of the iceberg. The rest, even if we get glimpses of it, is left to the imagination of each person in the audience.

Your vision of the couple, Mehdi and Sarah, is disturbing

I had a model for them. I thought of a couple that gave each other a lot of space, who had a kind of non-possessive, non-exclusive pact. But things aren’t always so rational within a couple. After what happens between Mehdi and Manu, the lines are blurred. They shift. The way in which Sarah imagines and recreates Mehdi’s affair, which excluded her, could be interpreted as way of appropriating it and taking revenge. Mehdi thinks so and says as much, but I refuse to get psychological. In the later part of the film, I feel that the affair with Manu makes the bond between them unshakeable. I think it goes beyond whether they are driven apart or brought closer together. It’s both at different moments. It would be wrong to think that the pact of infidelity that the couple agrees upon at the beginning of the film is impregnable. Their pact is only human and, therefore, relative. It could be a way of protecting themselves.

The film examines freedom that prevailed from the 1970s to the early 1980s, before AIDS

Yes, those are what I call the “happy days,” which is the title of the first part of the film. Sexual freedom enabled people to experiment with relationships in a harmonious way without shame and without constant discussion. Sex and friendships could be experimented with, free of feelings of guilt. We’re light years from Puritanism and pornography, which are two sides of the same coin.

The film highlights the fact that modern society has lost its nerve and fallen back on traditional values

I don’t know. I’m not a theoretician. I make movies about what I feel is important. What is true of this film, and every film, is that it questions right and wrong. And who decides what’s right and what’s wrong today Doctors and lawyers. I think that from the onset of the AIDS crisis, the medical establishment capitulated on questions of morality, so that leaves only the law courts, and their executive arm is the police. That’s perhaps why it seemed so obvious to have a doctor and a police officer in this story.

Both of the female characters are artists

It’s true that both women are involved in creative pursuits, but they have a radically different approach. Emmanuelle Bart’s character, Sarah, writes children’s books and has started work on her first novel, but she has writer’s block and isn’t sure she’ll ever finish it. She is at odds with her artistic discipline and that confrontation takes up a lot of room in her life. Unlike her husband, she is deeply perturbed by the arrival of their first child. She doesn’t know how to handle the baby and that impacts on her sexuality and literary ambitions. When she sees how attentive Mehdi is with the child, she draws him to her and invites him to make love.

Julie Depardieu’s character is an opera singer who doesn’t see her profession as an art form. For her, the voice is a muscle and she has a sportswoman’s approach to her work. She also clearly states that she isn’t cut out for relationships and starting a family. At the end, Julie says that there is nothing to keep her in Paris. Her approach after Manu’s death is to try to live life for two. Maybe, when she arrives in Munich, she’ll get lucky and meet someone. But I don’t know that. Being able to be alone is a great adventure these days, a form of resistance to social pressure. It’s just as audacious and important as forming a couple and I regret the negative connotations of the word solitude. In this story, I think that characters like Julie and Adrien know how to be alone and that it’s a strength, an opening, and not sad at all.

Are you wary of too much pathos

I never make a conscious effort to reject the emotional dimension of a film, if that’s your question. At the same time, I have no problem with shifting the emotion. For example, I prefer people to be moved by Manu when he runs, climbs a tree or bursts out laughing, than when he’s sick. In my eyes, that wouldn’t be emotion, it would be akin to taking the audience hostage and I reject that. It’s an ethical position that’s fundamental to my work. But I don’t reject emotion. On the contrary. I simply content myself with moving it around rather than placing it where it almost becomes predictable. On the other hand, I hope that audiences find Manu moving in the upbeat scenes in the opening half of the film. It’s good times shared, not compassion in bad times, that makes good friends. I also think that, after Manu’s death, the aria his sister sings at the opera is a moment of grieving. But singing has an innate vitality even if it is overshadowed by Manu’s ghost.

Spoiler Alert

Why didn’t you end the film with Manu’s death

To quote Fritz Lang, ‘Death is not an ending.’ As Sarah’s mother says, ‘It’s a miracle being alive.’ It’s this sense of a miracle that I wanted to conclude, and open, the film, and broaden the horizon by revisiting spaces that Manu had inhabited and rediscovering them without him, with another character travelling through. Perhaps loving Manu and bearing witness to his life makes the other protagonists stronger.

ANDRE TCHINE FILMOGRAPHY

2004 LES TEMPS QUI CHANGENT
Changing Times

2003 LES GARS
Strayed

2001 LOIN
Far Away

1998 ALICE ET MARTIN
Alice and Martin

1996 LES VOLEURS
Thieves

1994 LES ROSEAUX SAUVAGES
The Wild Reeds

1993 MA SAISON PRFRE
My Favorite Season

1991 JEMBRASSE PAS
I dont kiss

1987 LES INNOCENTS
The Innocents

1986 LE LIEU DU CRIME
Scene of the Crime

1985 RENDEZ-VOUS
Andr Tchins Rendez-vous

1983 LA MATIOUETTE

1981 HOTEL DES AMRIQUES
Hotel of the Americas

1979 LES SURS BRONT
The Bronte Sisters

1976 BAROCCO

1975 SOUVENIRS DEN France
French Provincial