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Masterclass Series Highlights: <i>Of Men and War</i> Case Study with Laurent Bécue-Renard

Masterclass Series Highlights: Of Men and War Case Study with Laurent Bécue-Renard

July, 14 - 2022

Laurent Bécue-Renard is a Storytelling Lab mentor for Docs by the Sea 2022. He is the director of Of Men and War, a psychological exploration of US young war veterans returning home after tours of duty. It premiered in Cannes (Official Selection), received a European Film Academy Best Documentary nomination, and won prizes at IDFA (Best Feature-Length Film).

This Masterclass is an in-depth study about his journey making the film.

It seems like your camera was very smooth, it felt like each shot was very well-planned. How did you do that?

Finding a meaningful story is a way for us human beings to survive traumatic events. I never wanted to document stuff, I never came to filmmaking wanting to document a certain aspect of trauma or war or representation. I came to filmmaking by the will of being part of the creation of the telling of the story. The camera should be part of what was going on, not there to document. It should be embedded, to some extent. 

In the case Of Men and War, I was building, progressively, my root in that place with the young men and their families. Once I’ve turned on this small camera after five months, I just showed them that there was no difference between me without camera and me with the camera. After a few weeks of that, I’ve set the real shooting, with more professional cameras. We brought microphones, the sounds are coming from the ceiling, there are up to six microphones in the room, plus the one on the camera and the one on the therapist. It was the setting.

For them, it was not like they were in a situation where they were in therapy then all of a sudden this guy came from abroad and started this project, started filming. I was almost part of the institution; this is the way I built my work. Physically and psychologically, for the characters and the film, I was part of what they were doing. I would never consider arriving in something which is ongoing, and say, “Now we’re doing things differently, it happens that I’m making a film, and bla bla,” no. This isn’t it. That’s why I’m saying I’m not documenting in my film. I’m part of a journey with the characters, and it’s also my journey.

The family’s life mainly revolves around attempts to avoid provoking the veteran, the children react more intensively to the parental emotional state and behaviour than to real danger. What’s your take on this?

The question of generation is very important. Whatever the culture we come from, the continent we come from, the legacy of violent events that took place individually or collectively in the past is something we cannot avoid to address. Otherwise, they will become our destiny, without us not even knowing it. I’ve lived with violent events in the 21 century, there were quite many violent collective events. They’ve shaped the psyche of the community we belong to, be it the nation, the continent, or the family. 

For me it has become so important that I became that filmmaker, that storyteller, this is what I’m dealing with. How we inherit the violence that took place with the generation prior to us. A kid is inheriting from the psyche of the parents, and their grandparents, and the overall parents and grandparents of the society they belong to. The kids are always present in my films. What we see, and I hope you saw it, is that they’re on the frontline, the kids. They grab everything. It’s almost imprinting. The father, he imprints something, and it goes on, for the next imprinting of the grandkids later down the road. Unconsciously everything becomes natural for them. Being on the frontline is not something that they see from a prior situation, where there was no frontline, and then all of a sudden there was a frontline, no. They grew up on the frontline, so they don’t even know that. 

If you take for instance the last shot, this little girl, she’s four years old, and she’s on the shoulder of her father. Now, yes, it’s peaceful. Yes, there’s some kind of reconciliation. Yet, she knows, she’s on the shoulder of the werewolf. The werewolf is this psyche of her father that could in one instance can become so violent and a danger for her. 

So definitely that was the idea, in having kids (in the scene) when it was possible, because we didn’t stage anything.

How’s the process of filming? How’s the storytelling and editing process? How did the story become as we saw it in the finished film?

At the beginning, like everyone else, you don’t really know how long the journey’s gonna be. What kind of film you’ll be reaching in the end, in terms of duration perhaps, even though unconsciously there are things you know. 

I pile a lot of materials when I make my films. The characters are in situations where they are in a meaningful process. For the film in Bosnia, it was 350 hours’ worth of materials, and for the film you saw it was 450 hours. I started editing in my head quite early. By watching the materials, and in the case of Bosnia by selecting moments I want to be translated. Those are steps into editing, even though you’re not in the editing room. I would also edit on paper, re-reading the notes, before going into the editing room.

In the case Of Men and War, I was in the editing room for 5 years, although it was not full-time. I exhausted 3 editors, and at one stage I felt overwhelmed by the amount of materials and the pain we were dealing with. How to find something meaningful, not only for the characters, or the viewers, but also for myself. For me everything is always a triangle, there’s always the person who films, the person who’s filmed, and the person who watches. This implies moral contract with everybody. This contract is very important in our work. Are we clear enough with ourselves, with the people we are filming, and with the viewers, especially when we’re editing.

When you have 450 hours of materials, and everything is almost meaningful, it means that you’re watching the reels as a full time work for 6 months, and I did it twice. Then I needed to know what’s at stake for the characters in terms of finding a meaning. I would do session by session reducing to a meaningful core, which could be anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes, but I would keep doing that, over and over. In the end I had 200 or so small sessions, including the ones in families, even though at times I stopped editing to go on shooting for some scenes, because some guy was getting married, or there was something important in life, so I would go back and forth. In the end I started juggling with those 200 pieces of stories. Freeing myself completely from the time of events, the chronology.

The process in the editing room is really more of an analytical process, what is making sense. Playing around with each of these mini sessions. After 2.5–3 years of editing, I had a 12-hour film, which was quite interesting actually, but definitely difficult to sell to a viewer. I kept editing until the moment I felt the film was there, so there’s no plan on the length of the film. 

What was the origin of your interest on the topic of war trauma? How did it come about?

I never planned to be a filmmaker. I never thought about it. I was always curious with the turmoil, with the violent events that were taking place in the world around me. I was 23 years old when I went to Beijing in 1989, I was finishing my political studies, just after the last exam I took the first plane to Beijing. I wanted to see by myself, I didn’t know why exactly, I had a feeling that there was something going on there that was meaningful not only for the humanity but for myself in particular. I also went to East Germany at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then to the Czech Republic. I went on to South Africa, spent quite a while, just at the moment of the transition of the apartheid. Then I ended up in Bosnia during the war.

Each time I was in a different capacity. Sometimes I was an academic, sometimes I was somewhat linked to an NGO works. Basically, it was an excuse. I wanted to be there.

When I was in Bosnia during the war, I was in charge of organising a medium online. This was 1994, there were only 30,000 internet access points in the world, so this is really the dinosaur of an internet. Maybe it was called a journalistic work but for me I was watching the war by myself. Being a witness, and finding a meaning. What was I really looking for?

By accident I met this therapist. Though by accident is bullshit because things don’t happen really by accident. I was curious and I said if I could join; if I could watch one of your collective sessions. I was fascinated by the fact that the war was finishing, and she had been working on healing trauma already for several years since during the war. She said come over, and I went, I witnessed a collective session with women. I was sitting there with my translator. 

Immediately I thought, I should make a film. Again, I had no background for filmmaking, I didn’t go to school for filmmaking. I was writing, I was not into filmmaking. But seeing the bodies of these women, it was not only their mind which was building up story of surviving war. It is what they say, but it’s also the body they have when they say what they say. Building up meaningful stories for all of them goes also through their bodies. I felt that the story should be said with a camera. It was coming from the gods. I didn’t intellectualise that. I knew I wanted it to be a film. 

So I went back home. Then I started making the film. I felt it was really the language that suited me the best to express what I had been seeking for quite a while. I felt at home. 

This article has been edited for length and clarity.