It only takes five minutes, plus or minus. To contribute to an omnibus film, a collection of shorts unified by some general theme, shown together as a feature, is to nearly insure a loss, something to be forgotten. Let us hope this is not true for actress and filmmaker Isild Le Besco, who directed a contribution to the surprisingly strong portmanteau The Bridges of Sarajevo, which also features stand-out work by Jean-Luc Godard, Cristi Puiu, Ursula Meier, and a few others. Le Besco, when will be her time to shine? Primarily known as an actress, each time she steps behind the camera she makes something special. Little Boy, her petit short in this Cannes Special Screenings selection, is indeed special.
An energy-burst micro diary film, documentary as fiction as city symphony, the titular boy introduces his Sarajevo—a city that "cannot be attacked as before," yet feels like hell, cloudy, where you can't see a thing—and careens through it, bringing the film along with him. He shows us his praying grandmother, tells of his dead parents—one Muslim, one Serb—takes piano lessons from a neighbor who loves him (and hears the music all day in his memories), and gives milk to the dogs found everywhere in the city and hated by authorities. He veritably bounds, with Mickey Mouse-huge boots and gloves, a new vision of Germany Year Zero's Edmund, making a city his own because he has the agility and sensibility to navigate it.
And this boy observes and shares. He is generous, he tells us about his life, he aspires to fight for love and peace, to make the world better, and by that he means his child-level view of Sarajevo, and by that he means his country, and by that indeed the world. He is how the tender specific can resonate outwards, like Rossellini's champion, utterly of the moment becoming beyond the moment. He is an indefatigable spirit in a dexterous, mobile body. Isild Le Besco works again with the young and confirms she is one of cinema's great collaborators with children. Despite this brief film's flurry of images and words, Le Besco is characteristically intimate with her subject. Like the master to whom she dedicates the work, Chris Marker, her work radiates a desire to share, warmly, and variously.
After the film's premiere, I had a chance to talk briefly with the director about her contribution to The Bridges of Sarajevo.
Isild Le Besco. Photo by Quentin Carbonell.
NOTEBOOK: You are both an actor and a director. How do you choose when to do what? Do you like to do both?
ISILD LE BESCO: Yes, I like both. I'm happy that I direct because I worked a lot as an actor when I was young, but now I work less. In this age as an actress you work less because you are not any more the young woman, but you are not yet a woman, really, because I still look very young. But I cannot continue to make the same kind of movies, the young woman, 20-years old, it would not be interesting for me. The problem is that in camera I don't really look 30 or 35; people tell me I still look 25 on camera so I have to wait!
NOTEBOOK: Until you look old enough for the older parts!
LE BESCO: [laughs] Yes, I have to wait about ten years!
NOTEBOOK: Is it difficult to be a female director in France?
LE BESCO: We have a lot of chances in France. With public funds there are a lot of chances. It is of course difficult to find funding, but it's not about being a woman. I hope when people read a script they don't think “oh, she's a woman so we have to help her.” They have to help the best script, the best director, and it doesn't matter. If the best directors are male directors, why not help them more? Their interest is to get films made, and not whether they are made by a man or woman, no? People often ask me this question, if there are enough woman directors, it's strange.
NOTEBOOK: Your films often seem to discover the world through children.
LE BESCO: Yes, but in my second and third movie it was not really children. But I like it very much to go back with this film to young children.
NOTEBOOK: Why is that?
LE BESCO: I would say there is everything with children, but it would not be true because there is also everything in every adult. But what I like in children, there is not the social communication so it's all over on set. This is what I like.
NOTEBOOK: And how did you find the boy for this film in particular?
LE BESCO: I had a great crew in Sarajevo. I met really amazing people and that's how I found all the places, all the people.
NOTEBOOK: The film is constructed very much like a diary, part documentary and part fiction. Were these varied shots and scenes the result of you going out and discovering these things or people telling you about places?
LE BESCO: I stayed a lot of time in Sarajevo. It's a mix of everything, a mix of me walking in the street, a mix of someone who was working with me, she was from Sarajevo, of course, and who showed me all these places. So it's all the feeling of this.
NOTEBOOK: How do you direct a child, how do you ask a kid to do something dramatic for you?
LE BESCO: [laughs] It's very difficult! Because children don't care about being good, being an actor. You just have to give certain motivations...some other reasons than film.
NOTEBOOK: I often feel like in your movies I'm not watching a drama staged for me but that the camera and the filmmakers are coming along with the subjects. That there is a complicity or a companionship between the film and the subjects.
LE BESCO: Yes! My subject and the people I'm filming—it's the most important things. I'm happy you say that because I wouldn't like to film a story or character that is not going in sympathy with them. That's my motivation, to try to understand the life of someone.
NOTEBOOK: Was it difficult to write the narration of the film, to write a child's thoughts?
LE BESCO: No, I like it. I can't say it's difficult, but I think when you are doing something it's not difficult when you like to do something. But I thought about it for many days and after—I worked. It's like the sanitization of what I felt.
NOTEBOOK: I have a hard time imagining the script for this kind of diary film. Was it like: “shot of a tram, shot of a piano lesson, shot of the grandmother playing, shot of the boy in a foggy street...”
LE BESCO: No, no. For three weeks I was in the city and I saw these places and these people. It was after I wanted to film them. The piano teacher I met her and she was so nice and I wanted to film her, so it became like this.
NOTEBOOK: And how do you work with your brother, Jowan Le Besco, who shoots all of your films? What is that collaboration like, is there a lot of communication?
LE BESCO: No, no communication! [laughs] It's brother and sister, we're always unhappy and fight—but in silence!
NOTEBOOK: Was it particularly difficult to edit this film, since there's no necessarily a chronology or narrative connect one scene to another?
LE BESCO: It was not difficult, as it was a little like music for me. After I came back with the film with a professional in France the person said “it's not professional!” And did another edit. And I didn't like it at all! So, editing, it's really music, it's like...like a breath you have to film.
NOTEBOOK: Did you know Sarajevo well before this project?
LE BESCO: I know it very well, but because of the film. I hadn't gone before.
NOTEBOOK: What struck you about the city? Your film is so short but it's a rushing city symphony, and you get so much of its character.
LE BESCO: It's a very special city. I mean, every city is special, but I would say this one is special because I stayed there a long time. It's so important when you want to know a city to stay there a lot of time and to live in the city, not to be a tourist for like four days.
NOTEBOOK: Is the boy's story based on research you did or is it more invented?
LE BESCO: Not especially researched but all stories and information that I heard, so it's based on many truths.
NOTEBOOK: I was very stuck by the contradiction that the boy is such a positive figure, he has so much buoyancy and desires love and peace, and yet the film nearly ends with his description of the city as hell, in which it is impossible to see anything.
LE BESCO: I think there's something like that in the city. People are so strong with a lot of good moods, happiness, but it's also so hard, all the political things, and everyone is kind of depressed, yet so happy and so nice. So it's really both, and it's how I felt.
NOTEBOOK: The boy is so young, is the actor the boy himself connected to the city's history before he was born?
LE BESCO: When you go in Sarajevo you can't not be connected. You are immediately connected, even if you go for two days. I said it's not good to go someplace for a few days, and yet in Sarajevo it's different because you see all the buildings and it cannot leave you.
NOTEBOOK: It's an unusually potent city.
LE BESCO: Strong, sad, and very hard.
NOTEBOOK: But the boy is filled with so much joy.
LE BESCO: Yeah, yeah, but it's like that! You see lots of children and adults happy and laughing in the middle of destroyed ruins. It's same everywhere in the world.
NOTEBOOK: Was it inspiring for you to leave France and make a film in a different place with a different history and different people?
LE BESCO: I liked it. It was also difficult. Because who are you to do that, go to Sarajevo and tell a story...but I try not to give a point of view of the war. You didn't live there ten years ago so you don't know anything, you know? All the people there know. Even if they are not working or never worked in their life or just selling milk or something: they know; you don't know.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of milk, I loved the scene of the boy feeding milk to the street dogs, the puppies. I think any scene with a dog or cat makes a movie better. You never know what they may do.
LE BESCO: I agree! [laughs] I also like animals in movies. In my third film I had a dog, an amazing dog. He was like, I don't know, a baby or something—he was an actor, a great actor.
NOTEBOOK: There's that famous line by W.C. Fields that one shouldn't work in movies with either animals or children—but you do both!
LE BESCO: I like both, they are special.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel working with kids—I mean, in Charly they aren't kids but they are young people—that you have less control as a director with your actors?
LE BESCO: No, it's also because I was young, I'm always kind of the same age as my characters. I realized that the more I'm growing there is always a character my age.
NOTEBOOK: I noticed in the credits you dedicated the film to Chris Marker. What did his work mean to you?
LE BESCO: I think he would have liked the film. I usually was in contact with him every three or four months, and he liked to know when I was somewhere else in the world. And I think he would have been very happy to know I was going there, to Sarajevo.