by Edward Frumkin
When I read Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Reverse Shot interview for De Humani Corporis Fabrica (2022), my jaw dropped at the mention of François Crémieux, the chief executive of the northern Paris’ university hospitals where the Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) professors shot the film. As mentioned by Castaing-Taylor and Paravel, he had worked with the filmmakers before greenlighting the duo on their adrenaline-inducing film. And, remarkably, he was previously the sole interviewee in Chris Marker’s Blue Helmet (1995), a short documentary wherein he shares his life as a then-UN peacekeeper during the Bosnian War.
Considering how rare it is to learn about a behind-the-scenes figure like Crémieux, my curiosity drove me to learn more about this extraordinary person. With the help of Cinetic’s Isaac Davidson, I was able to chat with Crémieux on Zoom about his involvement in De Humani and his life prior to and after Blue Helmet.
De Humani Corporis Fabrica
Castaing-Taylor and Paravel exert a haunting tone in the film by needling through daily interactions between medical staff and patients, the details of life-altering surgeries, and the interior of the human body. Their external shots of people and the building are paired with a scientific, vomit-inducing interiority when they deploy such shots to transition to a new scene in the hospital. The initial jarring, harrowing footage of bodily fluids and internal skin accretes to a riveting inquiry into what makes us human.
Following a rejection from hospitals in Boston, they decided to shoot De Humani at the northern Paris’ university hospital system and so needed Crémieux’s permission. He noted that approving requests from “TV news crews” is a common part of his job, but that he never offers limitless access to such crews for legal reasons:
“We rarely have 100% confidence that they would be loyal in what they want to see.” Crémieux acknowledges that the telecast’s audiences and employers have different expectations of the final product. Because of Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s academic and anthropological backgrounds, they are the only ones Cremieux gave complete freedom to in making De Humani.
Crémieux was familiar with Castiang-Taylor and Paravel’s work before the SEL professors contacted him, having seen the “great” Sweetgrass (2009) and Leviathan (2012). He also liked Paravel’s Foreign Parts (2010). Soon, a mutual friend, the critic Jean-Michel Frodon, connected the three and they held their first meeting. As one of the hospital’s leading administrators, he gave them a contract on their jurisdiction and rights within the hospital and required them to get consent from every patient and medical team featured in the film. He explains how the duo traveled to one unit at a time, a la De Humani’s episodic structure, and how people accepted their making the film.
Throughout the five-year making of the film, Crémieux reviewed their contracts every six months. He only saw the dailies once, a year and a half into the process, at Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s place in France to see the film’s progression. Crémieux was impressed with the images’ originality, “not the images coming from the machines, but the images filmed with the endoscopic camera they’ve built for it.”
The endoscopic cinematography is just as groundbreaking, similar to the directors’ use of GoPro cameras on Leviathan. There’s an unexpected sense of anticipation when they advance to a different body or ward. “It’s a game,” a doctor proclaims when using tweezers to remove a membrane from the pituitary gland. He perceives this operation as a life-or-death claw machine. The film’s immediacy avoids the reductiveness of anatomical readings and facilitates an ambiguous discourse on the human body and its senses. When the camera digests through the neck, guts, and intestines, it doesn’t know where it goes; nor does the audience as they witness this fluid, heart-pounding discovery.
Despite being the only onscreen participant on Blue Helmet, it was never intended to be a standalone film or have Marker’s involvement. The film originated with Crémieux, and Marker took the reins after a different interviewer had to drop out at the last minute. Despite the switch, Crémieux was still interested, and he recalled how Marker was not “talkative,” partly because they had only just met. However, after the shoot, they kept in touch every year to discuss new developments in the Balkans, which would eventually lead to a second collaboration—in a behind-the-scenes capacity—through A Mayor in Kosovo (2000), Marker’s third film in the region after Blue Helmet and Prime Time in the Camps (1993).
An archival newsreel containing a French-language map of the Balkans opens Blue Helmet, where an offscreen reporter announces that the town of Srebrenica is still under siege, at the peak of the Bosnian War. Then, it cuts to a close-up of Crémieux’s face with a light hitting the left side of his face, implying to audiences that he has escaped and will carry traumatic moments with him for the rest of his life. The production setup, and the fact that the recording of the interview was intended purely for archival purposes at first, put Crémieux at ease. He was intimate and vulnerable with Marker. “The intention to make a movie afterward is probably the best way of shooting anyone,” Crémieux said. “You just tell that person that you are not going to do anything, he believes you, and then you make the movie so it looks natural.”
Title cards and photographs of Crémieux’s tour of duty, Bosnian civilians, and warfare fill up the rest of the film. Crémieux speaks with a hurried cadence. The intertitles inform the audience of the many aspects of Crémieux’s time with the UN, where he stated he was “fairly in favor” of the UN’s intervention because he believed any action, instead of doing nothing, would improve the situation in Bosnia as well as the racism and Islamophobia embedded in the war and historical context, such as the legacy of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
The stills and title cards interspersed throughout the interview manufacture a poignant, albeit pedagogical, viewpoint of the conflict. But Marker’s attention to detail in presenting Crémieux breathes a nuanced incisiveness into Crémieux’s account. Though the video was intended initially for archival purposes, preserving the history of the Bosnian War, Marker called Crémieux the day after the shoot saying, “I have something [that could work] as a film,” and Crémieux gave consent to its public release. He then recalled how fast a few weeks had gone between the shoot and its broadcast on the French channel Arte.
In the years since its public release, Crémieux initially questioned the continued interest in the short: “There’s nothing important or specific in what I’m saying [as a 25-year-old soldier returning from Bosnia], and I sometimes wonder why the movie keeps on existing… What I said isn’t exactly what I remember wanting to say at that time.” However, after reading about the UN’s intervention in Bosnia and doing more research, he stands firm in his remarks: “It made sense at that time and still makes sense today.” He has also come to understand its relevance due the profound empathy found within how Marker “captures such personal testimonies” and humanizes a controversial individual.
This exchange inspired Crémieux to take up a camera and interview doctors during his time in Kosovo and Kabul. Crémieux then sent his footage to Marker, and Marker pushed him to continue filmmaking. He told Crémieux never to use zooms and to lighten half of a face for dramatic effect. However, Crémieux claims to have been “the most idiotic” filmmaker, as he imitated Marker’s works and never found his own artistic voice. Soon thereafter, following a year and a half of Army service, he left to pursue a career in medicine, having many friends in the sector. Crémieux later enrolled at the National School of Public Health in Paris and became a hospital manager prior his current role in the Marseilles Hospital system.
After working with Marker, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel, Crémieux noticed how Frederick Wiseman could be tied to the trio through their integrity and independence as artists. “Wiseman is from the same generation as Chris,” he noted. “There’s a certain [shared] ethic when they have a camera and [in how they] think about the consequences of filming,” He connects this to Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s independent filmmaking philosophy as well.
As I spoke with Crémieux, I noticed how his replies reveal charisma and an open mind. Despite Marker’s last-minute connection to Blue Helmet and the coincidence that Castaing-Taylor and Paravel contacted a hospital administrator who just happened to be a past Chris Marker collaborator, I speculate that Crémieux’s cooperative and engaging personality attracted the three filmmakers. He never flinched when I asked him provocative questions (such as the reason behind his reluctance to give filming permission to video journalists, as mentioned in the Reverse Shot interview). Crémieux, with his eyes looking at the center of his camera, declares, “it’s difficult to give them general agreements” due to the multiple parties involved and the financial implications in visual journalism. Crémieux looks ahead at a panorama of outcomes before settling on a decision. He’s committed to following orders and policies at his places of employment/volunteering. Yet, he critiques the functions of systems and discovered a way for Castaing-Taylor and Paravel to film under the hospital’s legislation. Crémieux’s raw, intellectual subjectivity, his ability to unravel a scenario’s (dis)advantages, and his earnestness are what glues this peculiar lineage of documentarians together.
When I asked him about his relations with these documentarians, he observed that “it’s a connection with weird people. Weird in the best possible way,” in reference to their contributions and how they utilize film to expand their outlook. “What can we say about it? How can we represent how the world is?” he contemplates. The connection isn’t about who worked on each film, but the people who populate different periods of Crémieux’s life.
While he doesn’t have much time to watch films due to his work, and his filmmaking days may be over, he says, “I might again interview doctors in the future. [But] I don’t think I’ll ever be a filmmaker. Too late,” he chuckles. He is still an active cinephile, as he uses the medium to connect with others and “raise philosophical issues.” He has formed a movie club with Jean-Michel Frodon, Ciné-club Médecine et soin au cinéma, centering on health care and using film to discuss the topic. One of the films they’ve previously shown is Titicut Follies (1967), with a discussion featuring Wiseman. Additionally, he serves on a jury at the National Centre for Cinema (CNC), where he supports film funding.
Edward Frumkin is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and critic who hosts the film podcast reelprint. He’s written for The Film Stage, The Brooklyn Rail, and BOMB, and his work played at Sidewalk, SCAD Savannah, and Big Sky Documentary Film Festivals, among others. [Twitter]
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