BEIRUT: Film and television have a perplexed sort of fascination with radio. Popular culture has been ruled by image for so long now that the notion of an artistic and entertainment medium that subsists on sound alone seems at once limited and liberated.
Yet people tend to be curious about the way sound looks. Training a camera on a radio studio’s workings can be satisfying because it’s assumed professionals who work with voice and soundscape – being less adept at the cosmetic deceptions of makeup, wardrobe and dental work – have more candor.
One recent example of this is Nicolas Philibert’s 2013 feature-length documentary “La maison de la radio,” a film about Radio France, a public radio institution whose best-known cognate in this language is the BBC.
Its premise is to capture a day in the life of RF, beginning with a panoply of overlapping voices from which emerges one that introduces Thursday’s 7 a.m. news broadcast and ending at an editorial meeting at 4:30 the following morning.
Over the 90-odd intervening minutes, Philibert and his cinematographer Katell Djian stick their noses into a broad swath of RF’s daily programming – from news and weather bulletins to documentaries and interviews with international cultural celebrities, radio plays, contestant-and-studio-audience-driven quiz programming and live music.
The film’s snatches of interviews with literary and philosophical figures like Umberto Eco cannot hope to convey much in the way of thought, of course, while Djian’s camera lingers over the on-air personalities hosting RF’s programs. In this respect, “La maison” is more of a fancy ad for the network than for the figures it’s hosted.
That said, there are amusing and informative moments.
During one spot, a keen young journalist interviews an older gentleman whose hobby is spotting lightning storms, the way another eccentric might “spot” trains or airplanes. The reporter clearly wants to milk the “weirdness” angle but his informant, a medical doctor, would rather maintain as much anonymity as possible – notwithstanding the camera that’s recording their conversation.
In RF’s Paris studio, a talk radio-style anchor sits behind his console, headphones on, arms raised as if conducting a symphony orchestra. As he cajoles his on-air guests in Tunis to speak in detail about some Arab Spring-like matter, his hands and facial gesture to his technicians suggest that he wants to wrap things up as quickly as possible and that most of what’s being said won’t actually end up in his broadcast.
Insofar as Philibert’s doc offers any insight into the biases and eccentricities of RF as a newsgathering institution – and how its editorial decisions oscillate from considerations of veracity to those of entertainment – the meat of this film resides in its candid outtakes from the network’s editorial processes.
Early in the doc, the camera looks in on a conversation between a (one hopes) young journalist and his editor as they discuss an analysis piece he’s done on developments in the Middle East. What begins as a training session in radio journalism technique – “If you invite the audience to imagine, they’ll be too busy imagining to listen to what comes next” – turns into a fact-checking and editing session that reveals the journalist’s embarrassing ignorance of his sources and the politics about which he wants to pontificate.
One of the film’s motifs is the production of a first person-style report that finds the journalist in a studio reading an intimate account of a relative’s funeral.
His producer asks him to read it through again to see if he can improve it. After repeated readings, he’s no longer able to get through a single paragraph without stumbling.
As it proceeds, “La maison” is less interested in how accurate news content is shaped than it is in studying radio’s fetish of unadulterated sound.
This is evident when the grating whrrr of a maintenance worker’s drill provokes looks of distress in technicians’ faces, disrupting the taping of several RF programs. It is further refined in the film’s several musical interludes.
One motif is the rehearsal of a classical music ensemble, the comic highlight of which must be the conductor’s German elocution lessons to his Gallic choir.
Djian’s camera also stumbles upon a flawless studio performance of “The Alphabet of my Phobias,” by Maïa Vidal – the new century’s answer to indie pop pixie Bjork – which ends with the inadvertent comedy of three terrified-looking sound technicians, transfixed, still and silent as statues.
RF’s sound fetish is perfectly distilled in an unexplained scene that finds a headset-clad gentleman (a sound technician, surely) squatting in the middle of the woods, silently listening to the rustle of leaves and the distant buzz of flies.
At the 4:30 a.m. editorial meeting that’s the film’s last stop, the camera finds an earnest discussion of whether the day’s programming should include its “pollen report” – presumably a springtime staple at RF.
“You don’t like the pollen report?” asks one perplexed-looking editor.
“No, the guy’s suffering,” another editor replies. “His nose is blocked. You can’t hear a word he’s saying.”
“La maison de la radio” has been warmly received, being nominated for a César (“the French Oscar”). The film will have its Beirut premiere at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Sunday evening when it opens the 10th edition of Les Ecrans Du Réel, the documentary festival programmed by the city’s French Cultural Centre.
As usual, this event focuses especially, but not exclusively, on recent francophone doc production and this year’s program is rich and varied.
The list of film from, or at least about, the Middle East is quite strong. It includes “Guardians of Time Lost” (Araq), the feature-length doc premiere of Lebanon’s Diala Kashmar, which took the best documentary prize at the Dubai International Film Festival a few months back. The film examines the lives of a group of qabadayyat in the Beirut quarter of Hayy al-Lija.
Also on show is Corine Shawi’s “e muet.” Selected for the FID Marseille Festival’s 2013 program, the film examines personal relationships among young unmarried adults. Silvano Castano’s “Asmahan” is a tribute to the Syrian vocalist who, along with her brother, was among the best-loved Arab vocalists of the early 20th century.
Last but not least is “Al-Midan” (The Square) Jehane Noujaim’s epic effort to find a documentary expression for Cairo’s Tahrir Square revolution, which was nominated for the best documentary prize at this year’s Academy Awards.
Another highlight for lovers of French docs, and art house film, is the restored version of the 1962 classic “Le joli mai” (the merry month of May) by Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme. The filmmaker interrogate Parisians of all walks of life about the weight of things political and social in their daily lives, an intriguing question since the films was shot in the immediate aftermath of France’s cease-fire with Algeria’s FLN rebels.
Les Ecrans Du Réel will be held at the Metropolis Cinema-Sofil between March 23 and 30. For more information, see www.metropoliscinema.net.