I have a strange father. I’m the daughter of a poorly known filmmaker, who is quite of a filmmaker nonetheless. I’m the daughter of a man who, without a camera, is lost inside himself, who all his life has clung to cinema du reel to find meaning. He looked to make sense of an increasingly complex realtiy, one he was less and less able to grasp, a reality that leaked outside the frame of both his personal and professional life. Or maybe it was his way of contesting a religious morality that follows him like a shadow since his teenage years and with which he struggles.
Centre an image in order to escape the centre? What deeply connects him to his films? Was my father the object of obsessions that he continuously tried to capture on film?
From the beginning
My name is Emmanuelle Bonmariage, the daughter of Emmanuel Bonmariage. I am a child from a first relationship. Three days after my birth, my father imposed my name on my mother. I was already named Hélène, but goning alone to declare me at the mayor’s office, he chose another name – his.
Did this “detail” create a special attachment between us? This attachment was reinforced by a father who was mostly on the road, on sometimes dangerous routes, taking all kinds of risks until the day I felt him slipping away. He had taken in a lethal does of arsenic. I was 9 then and any news about him coming out of the coma was unclear. For us children of his first wife, our entire life was turned upside down. He later told me that me gazing intensely, as a child, through the window of the sterile chamber between us brought him back to life.
I’ve seen his films ever since I was little. At that time, my father was at home only when he wasn’t out shooting, which wasn’t often. At any time of the day or night, we would often hear, “Dad’s working!” I decide to question him through his films. To me, he “is” his films. That is what connects me to him since my childhood.
– Who are you when you are not filming? – When I am not filming… I can film in my mind…
What Manu’s films say
With Manu’s images, I am touched by the deep humanity in all its complexity and humour, in everything both absurd and moving.
I grew up with an obstinate father who is passionate about filming society while making his own life a micro-society full of wives, mistresses, children both legitimate and illegitimate, secrets, pain and abandonments? Over time, this gave rise to sequences of an unusual life like those from his direct cinema!
Today, as he hands down a camera to me, how could I not want to film? How could I not be moved by the desire to pay tribute to all these “characters” more real than reality and inevitably biased by his point of view as a filmmaker?
I’m not “turning the tables on the gardener”, rather I am driven by a desire for clarity and for understanding this capturing of reality, this giving of oneself to the camera. I also know that certain protagonists that Manu filmed were not especially comfortable with the end purpose and with what they showed of themselves at a certain point in their lives. It’s only human and understandable. Yet giving of oneself within a documentary film is, in my eyes, important outside of any doctrine or crushing, guilt-ridden morality.
We are all so imperfect, including the emotional, active, unsophisticated Manu as he likes to describe himself, the instinctive Manu who acts without thinking first. He falls under the spell of outsiders and losers. They are the characters mirrored in his direct cinema, a designation that he rigourously upholds.
This cameraman/filmmaker filmed so many people plunged in moments of complex lives. He grasped the fragility, vulnerability and the sometimes tragicomic side of certain situations. It was this same man who always seemed to evade me.
All these people anchored in their own reality have become the “characters” of Bonmariage’s films.
To me, all these people are fragments of a single portrait: that of my father who is, in my eyes, the best subject of Manu Bonmariage’s films! He is the perfect character, right out of his direct cinema. Manu alone is a condensed expression of all his films’ characters.
Manu, a man who won’t let go of his camera
At the time I was shooting my film, Manu was 76. He wanted to make his film, The Whirlwind of My Life… and after that to redo yet another… (Living Our Death, his last film, released in March 2015).
It’s not so much his age that stops him as it is his memory, which plays tricks on him. He had just found our that he has Alzheimer’s disease. Right from the start of my film, his camera becomes an important part of the process on its own. He clings to it and plays with it as if it were an outgrowth… It’s not so easy for him to let it go. In the end, what is its function? Is it a shield? A lifebelt? His trademark? Manu continues to film all throughout the shooting and even beyond filming me and my crew, he films himself alone, as if his camera were a strange confessor…
With a father like Manu, the question of handing down is certainly not ostentatious.
He is too preoccupied with himself… Beyond all time periods and generations, what do we unknowingly hand down to others and what was handed down to us?
What can I still learn from him today? I believe that no matter what we do or say to dismiss our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters in order to define ourselves outside our shared heritage, there is this inevitable bond between us. So we try to sort it all out – I’ll take this, I’ll leave that! Not counting those things that come creeping back…
Throughout the film, I question and dismantle the very fact of filming reality, including our own. I attempt to mirror it and put it at odds with the films of my father.
Manu never had a great memory. He often turned to me or other family members to help him remember things or I’d spontaneously remind him of events, places or music that I knew through him. Like anyone, Manu is a confused being. He incidentally likes to mention that he is plagued by doubt. In the film, I don’t divide the man from his creation. He is his creation. And I find it interesting to remind him of that.
Alzheimer’s disease is extremely destabilising for the person affected by it as well as for those close to him. During the shooting, Manu had a certain awareness of his disease. He knows it’s visible and that the film is witness to it. This awareness weakens him, but he doesn’t try to shy away from it. He even films his own appointement with his neurologist. Manu was never bashful.
Manu says, “I am an Alzheimerian.” Alzheim – airy… My father slips away every time I try to pin him down.
– Are you able to stop filming? – Me? Stop filming? I hope I can at least film my funeral. You’ll have to be there to take the camera at the last minute!