With the documentary “The Last Hillbilly”, Thomas Jenkoe and Diane Sara Bouzgarrou dive into an isolated community in Kentucky. Meeting with French directors caught up in the United States.
AlloCiné: You are French and you have chosen to talk about the United States with The Last Hillbilly. Why this choice ?
Thomas Jenkoe and Diane Sara Bouzgarrou: The film was first and foremost born from the decisive meeting we had in 2013 with Brian in the state of Kentucky, where he lives. We had both gone to the United States with the desire to go to a place that would not be mapped by tourism, to be able to grasp America through another point of view, to be able to experience the America somewhere other than where we foreigners usually go. And so it’s in Kentucky that by chance and by some miracle, we meet Brian. We were both passionate about the American territory, we must admit, and we wanted to make a film there, but it was still a very embryonic idea. However, once we started working on the film, we realized that what we were filming touched us particularly, there was the question of this Earth that we live in and which is deteriorating, the fragmentation and the fractures which are more and more sensitive all over the world, a certain form of despair and feeling of loss in the face of the world, or rather a world, our own, which seems on the edge of the precipice, at the beginning of a profound change . We realized that filming in Kentucky was also about bringing into play what we were also going through in France, and that filming abroad finally allows us to shift our gaze and better see what blinds us when we are with us. Filming elsewhere is also and above all filming in oneself, and questioning one’s own world by devoting oneself to another. Because what happened there, what is still being played out today and which we went to look for on the other side of the Atlantic, resonates strangely with many past or current events in our country and to which no doubt a French spectator can identify himself.
How did you manage to be accepted by this particularly hostile community with what is foreign?
First, we were lucky to be French. If we had been New Yorkers or Californians, it would have been really more complicated because there is indeed a real mistrust between the hillbillies and the rest of the Americans. We were lucky to arrive in an unknown land, to be totally virgin compared to the caricatural representation of hillbillies, a term that we did not really know and that we were keen to understand by living there, with the people from Brian’s clan. Everyone we met was intrigued by our presence and even more so by the fact that we came back to see them regularly! They were touched to see us come back, to see us take an interest in their fate. We immediately made the choice to live with Brian, in his mobile home, in the heart of the hills where his family also lives. It was a real ethical and fundamental documentary approach that allowed us to blend in with the surroundings, to live an experience that was first of all human before being artistic, and this irrigates the film, this proximity, this confidence to which a immense generosity on their part. Because it remains people moreover extremely shy and modest. We were very attentive and concerned by the fact of filming them with respect, while making understand the stakes of the film, of filming, of being filmed. Our great luck was before we met Brian and immediately formed an extremely strong friendship. It was he himself who came to see us and it was he who wanted us to discover his region. He wanted to make this film, the desire was mutual. During all these years of scouting and filming (we went there every year, even several times a year), we lived with him, we dined with his parents, we played with the children, we made the rounds in the farm with Brian’s brother and father, and that’s how we learned to come into their intimacy by making them accept our presence, and our material. Brian was kind of our facilitator, we were so close to him, there was a very strong bond of trust, first with him and then with every member of his community, which made the film possible.
At the heart of your film, there is an extraordinary character. Can you tell us about him?
Brian is a man quite simply fascinating, it is a miracle that we met him by chance, but we were immediately struck by his grace, his charisma, his intelligence and the power of his poetic texts. He is above all a free spirit, a true autodidact curious about everything. He is a lonely person, who lives a lot in his inner world. He is very lucid, very visionary (we had fun calling him “the prophet” on the set!). He is able to articulate a very strong poetic and political thought, even if for all that he remains moved by forces which go beyond him and by a destiny which he does not fully master. The beauty and strength of his poems immediately struck us. His texts are imbued with what haunts him as a man, father, brother, but also profound changes that the region he inhabits and which inhabits him crosses. This is what fascinated us during the editing: we wanted to both dive into his interiority, give substance to these magnificent poems, and devote time to them, while bringing him into play as an active character, in his relationship to other. His journey as a character who ends up immensely alone and desperate in the face of a great void, in a kind of dead end, is all the stronger as we have been able to grasp his great intelligence, his ability to analyze, to formulate a thought. deep and very dense, but that does not save him either. His singularity, his sensitivity, and the fact that he is at the same time in a way withdrawn from the world he inhabits gives him a special position: he is both actor and witness of what is happening. One foot in the world of hillbillies and one foot outside. Sometimes in the movie you would think that, like the voiceover of his poems, some monologues were pre-written and then acted out, like his talk to the children by the fire, or when he speaks to the camera at first to talk about the hillbillies. , but it’s totally improvised! Brian is able like that to spontaneously improvise like prose poems or anthology scenes, it was a real gift for us.
Did you refuse to show certain things that you witnessed?
Not really. We had 130 hours of rushes and it became a 1h20 film, so necessarily choices were made, but never with the idea of hiding things or refusing to say something.
Some film the American Dream. Do you feel like you’ve filmed the nightmare?
It is probably fair enough to say that. The film opens with a prologue that tells of a strange epidemic, deer die in the water relentlessly, it almost looks like a Bible prophecy that befalls this little American. Then after the black, and the fire that rises on the credits, we hear coming like the bowels of the Earth a long, deep and powerful cry from Brian, who like a preacher chants the history of America, crosses all of it. strata, from the original genocide to the current desert of its region, plagued by poverty and the wandering of its inhabitants on a scorched earth which no longer produces anything except ghosts and despair. It was important for us to start the film on two stages because they allow us to open the film in a romantic way and to speak about this violent Earth, which is and has always been America. The film begins with the presence of telluric forces and the violence they carry and which leave their mark on the territory. Most of the people we met in eastern Kentucky told us about it in one way or another. We felt that the locals saw it as a fatality that they could not let go of and that’s why we integrated it into the narration. The American nightmare is therefore there, from the beginnings of the film. This is in connection with the history of the American territory that it seemed fundamental to us to tell underground in our film. The first settlers arrived in America with the idea of founding a “New Jerusalem” there. And, in the name of this ideal, they perpetrated a genocide, that of the Indians. There is a history of violence that accompanies the creation of the United States, and the fantasized Eden only lasted the time of crossing the Atlantic. It is the story of a Fall that still has not ended. This original fault still haunts the minds of new generations and influences behavior. And all the rest of the film shows this gangrene of the territory and tells the story of those who cannot leave however, who chose to live there in spite of everything.
Why the choice of the square screen?
The choice of the 1:33 format was imposed from the writing. It’s a format whose aesthetics have always pleased us, because it allows us to work in a restricted framework and more exciting in its geometry than 16: 9, at least for this film. The 1:33 format also makes it possible to break the stereotypical representations of cinema of the great outdoors and not to give in to the excess that they seem to call for. In this, our film maintains a connection with twilight westerns of the 70s like Jeremiah Johnson, in a minimalist form. The 1:33 format reflects a concentrated point of view that rejects the spectacular in favor of humans and their concrete relationship with nature. We did not want to reproduce the scope format, to display a certain fascination for the great American spaces, on the contrary we wanted to show in this context a mutilated America, exploded into irreconcilable fragments, like the last vestiges of a territory which has always been eaten away by violence. The American myth inscribed in the landscape is then revealed as it appeared to us: in pieces, subsisting in fragments, in shreds. We also wanted to devote ourselves to the bodies, to be close to them, to be able to reframe after the shoot, a little bit like we often do in photography, less in cinema. We were very influenced by photographers like Mark Cohen, who deconstructs his photos, favors a detail rather than the whole and gives a very strong aesthetic feeling. Finally, it allowed us to agree with those we were filming: from the earth to the sky, something very vertical because these people are rooted in the earth that saw them being born and try to look in the heaven something sacred that there would still be to reach.
Have you had the temptation to make a fiction?
Yes, it went through us of course because some characters, especially Brian carry within them a magnetic presence that attracts the camera, and this territory is an incredible reservoir of stories, to the point that we thought that maybe a day we would make a fictional film there, but still with these real people that we have already filmed. We both loved working freely, having a small team, it allowed us to try a lot of things narratively, aesthetically, which would not be the case in a fictional shoot, where necessarily many other people are involved. But to shoot a fictional film in an economy that would allow us to keep this freedom, and this great closeness to the people we are filming, of course there is something that excites us about this possibility.