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Q&A with Antoine Bargain, dir. Disciplinaires - ClermontFF 2020
Tuesday 4 February 2020, by
On the edge of the forest of Saint-Jean, near the village of Corte, nature has taken over the abandoned military base. Today, it is a place where families and sportsmen spend their time in relaxation, though in the 1970s it was the worst fear of the soldiers of the French Foreign Legion.
More on the film...
Where did you get the idea of making a film about this particular military prison that punishes disobedience and desertion?
Sometimes, a chance meeting upsets your plans. That’s what happened to me when I found out about the history of this camp which before had been nothing more to me than a pleasant place where I took walks. I was working on my vocational degree in film in Corte when my sister and one of her friends came for a visit. They liked to urbex (exploring abandoned structures). That day, when we came out of one of the buildings, a man was waiting for us. He asked me if I knew the place’s history. When I said no, he spent the next two hours detailing to us everything he knew about the camp. The longer we listened to him, the more I felt the need to make a film, a need that every filmmaker must feel with a special subject. I also knew that there was a film program offered at the same IUT where I was working on my degree. So I decided to stay in Corsica another year to devote myself to the secret history of the Section d’Épreuve. I had never imagined making a film before meeting the man. But the subject seemed much too important to neglect. It became a film duty, a score to be settled with history. At the time I knew almost nothing about the Foreign Legion. I learned an enormous amount, sharing my discoveries as the film progressed, which for me is the cornerstone of documentary filmmaking. Leaving traces of life and history and offering the world your particular vision of a topic.
Why did the prison deal only with soldiers in the Foreign Legion? Did soldiers from other units have similar prisons?
I don’t know whether non-Legionnaires had similar prisons to the Section d’Épreuve. I do however know that the Section only dealt with Legionnaires. I wanted to concentrate on the Section d’Épreuve in Corte for this film, since the subject was already very difficult and vast for a first film.
Who is the man we see at the end of the film?
The man at the end of the film is Daniel Pottier, one of the first soldiers of the Disciplinary Company of the Section d’Épreuve in 1969. He was the only soldier known to have succeeded in escaping the Section who was not sent back there once he was recaptured. He enlisted in the Foreign Legion at seventeen and was sent to Africa where he deserted after a few months of service. He was captured during his escape and was sent to Corte. A few months later, he managed to escape from the camp in the dead of night, was picked up hitchhiking by a Corsican who brought him to Ajaccio, then illegally boarded a boat and returned to the French continent. Then he crossed the country and hid out at his future wife’s house in Normandy before he was caught and sent to prison in Aubagne where he finished his two-year sentence. For him, avoiding being sent back to the Section d’Épreuve was already a success. After he got out, thanks to his strong will and the unwavering support from his wife, he found work as a railroad worker. Today he’s seventy and has a lovely family. He wants to share his past at all costs despite the pain those memories cause him.
How did you decide on what to use in the voice-over? Did you record real accounts? How many? How much did you keep?
There were no plans for a voice-over for the film. In reality, I was in contact with three former soldiers of the Disciplinary Company (including Daniel) who were meant to come to Corsica to give first-hand accounts of the abandoned site. I got into an argument with one of them who wanted to be paid to give his account. And my refusal occasioned his withdrawal. I didn’t think that the others would back out as well in solidarity. I was a few days from beginning shooting and the project was crumbling. At the same moment, potential threats arrived on the doorstep of my apartment. First a river stone weighing about twenty pounds was placed at the foot of my door, then a rusty shopping cart. Two innocuous objects that referenced my film: the stone was one of those used to build the walls of the camp. At the center of the camp, on the parade ground, you can see an abandoned shopping cart. Those objects didn’t leave me indifferent. I didn’t want to contact the gendarmes in Corte since they’re part of the army. And army means Foreign Legion.
One night I was seriously debating whether to abandon the film, which was potentially putting me in danger and which no longer had any witnesses to talk about the camp’s past, and I came up with a new format. The voice-over became central, based on the accounts I was able to record or get a hold of through telephone conversations, Skype or face to face with former soldiers of the Disciplinary Company. I decided to focus on the camp’s ordeals. Given that they were now quite old, I couldn’t take at face value everything these men said, after the horrors they’d experienced. But they described the ordeals themselves clearly and precisely. So I recorded real accounts, from the three men who’d been disciplined, from the brother of the writer Henri Allainmat who’d written L’Épreuve in 1978 (a book that was censored for a long time by the French government), from Louis Robin, the writer of a second book that came out just before my film. I collected numerous reminiscences by residents of Corte who remember this dark period of the Legion. But with this new form of writing, I wanted to focus my angle of action. Daniel eventually went back on his decision when he remembered the promise he’d made not to leave me under any circumstances. I’d filmed him with a little camcorder as practice one day when he’d invited me over for a meal. The interview was charged with emotions. When I was considering finishing the film without his assistance, he signed the image rights to use the video a few days before the final editing. After a long argument between my editor, who refused to add a video of such low quality, and myself, who wanted to bring as much truthfulness to what would have remained too fictionalized without any genuine elements, I took the decisive step.
Were you interested in the prison’s personnel, the directors, guards, and so on? And in knowing the principle behind the punishments administered by the Army Minister?
I did not learn about the principle behind the punishments administered by the Army Minister. I know that desertion is one of the most shameful acts imaginable within the military. The prison personnel, i.e. the so-called “managers”, were Legionnaires themselves. It was impossible to get any information from them. The writers I mentioned above also tried to contact some of them, and none of us was able to get them to talk. Personally, I didn’t meet any of them, since I was unable to reach the only one I’d been given contact information for. Some of the managers were even reputed to be former Nazis. But that’s difficult to confirm since I myself was unable to find anything else out.
With regard to the prisoners who died during their punishments, did their families request their bodies be returned for burial, or request explanations about the circumstances of their death?
Joining the Foreign Legion meant that your criminal record could be expunged. A new life, a new name, a new start. That was the greatest motivating factor for recruits to sign up. Most of them were running from their past. It’s hard to follow the traces of people who are starting over. In the Section d’Épreuve, the reports were falsified. They lied about the prisoners’ health, about the reasons they were sent to hospital when the managers were too far away and of course about the causes of death. Since access was strictly forbidden to anyone extraneous to the camp, whatever happened there really stayed there.
Do you consider this a duty to memory? Do you think you’re doing something of the sort with your film?
When I learned about the existence of the camp where I so often walked, I felt I needed to share the story. I would certainly have felt guilty if I didn’t take up a subject that had become so important to me. So it did become my duty to make this film. A duty to memory, to the past, to discovery and to opening up. To everything that documentaries can bring to the person who films, to those filmed, to the viewer.
Have you discovered any advantages that the short film form offers?
The real freedom for my film was the total shift in script a few days before shooting began. That was when I realized that a topic can be handled in a thousand ways. Finally, I believe now that my protagonists abandoning the project was a blessing in disguise. I was utterly free to tell the story how I wanted, mixing their words, going straight to the point. Since the short form was a condition imposed by my training, I was obliged to conceive of my film as such, but I could tell that a form like mine was only sustainable for a short period so as not to overburden the viewer with information.
Which films did you draw from?
I drew from many sources, but Raymond Depardon, Claire Denis, Claire Simon, Nicolas Philibert and all the filmmakers I’ve discovered over the course of my film studies have opened my eyes to documentaries. I have to thank the platform Tënk especially for making so many more shorts available than has been possible up to now.