Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Posts Tagged ‘Documentaries’

Claus Drexel’s On The Edge of the World (2013)

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Claus Drexel’s documentary about the homeless of Paris is a shattering experience.

In 1995, I directed a feature film outside of Paris called Squatters, for which Claus Drexel was the cinematographer, and did an excellent job. Over the years, be became a director in his own right, with such successful films as Affaire de famille (2008). We lost touch, but then a few weeks ago, he sent me an e-mail about his newest project, On the Edge of the World (Au Bord Du Monde), in which Drexel and a small camera crew followed a group of homeless Parisians through the streets of the city as they struggled to survive in an increasingly hostile, mercantile world.

On The Edge of The World has been screened at Cannes, won the Best Feature Film Award at Tuebingen, the FIPRESCI Critic’s award at Thessaloniki, and was a nominee for the prestigious Prix Louis-Delluc. Claus offered to send me a DVD, with excellent English subtitles. It arrived, I popped it in the player, and was blown away. Here’s yet another gorgeous film which has been festival hit which isn’t getting the attention it deserves, but I came across an excellent interview with Claus conducted by Vanessa McMahon on the genesis of the film, and here are some extracts:

“Vanessa McMahon: When did you decide to make a film about the homeless of Paris? How long did it take?

Claus Drexel: I wanted to make this film for a long time, but never really decided to move on it. My idea was to give these people, that we see everywhere but never hear, the possibility to talk to us. Then one day, I pitched the idea to my producer friend Florent Lacaze. He loved the project and urged me to do the film as soon as possible. So we set up our team (1 cinematographer, 1 sound engineer and myself), made a few camera, lens and microphone tests and started right away. The shoot lasted more or less one year.

Vanessa McMahon: How did you find your characters? Was it hard to get your cast to decide to be filmed?

Claus Drexel: The first two months we walked through Paris and talked with many homeless people. Maybe one hundred. Then I decided to focus on the dozen that are in the film, as I was deeply moved by their incredible loneliness. I first expected that most of them would not accept to appear in a film. But I was totally surprised by how warmly we were welcomed. I then understood that our society always thinks about material solutions for these people, but what they need most, his human relationships and consideration.

Vanessa McMahon: Would you say that Paris is one of the worst places in the world to be homeless? Why?

Claus Drexel: It certainly is the most striking, because of the incredible splendor of the city. On the other hand, as it is a big city, there are many humanitarian associations out there. You don’t starve in a city like Paris.

Vanessa McMahon: The film is shot beautifully. Can you talk about the aesthetics of the shoot?

Claus Drexel: I wanted to emphasize the incredible contrast between the situation of these people and the splendor of Paris. As in a painting, I also believe that there is a deep resonance between the inner beauty of these people and the magnificent backdrop.

Vanessa McMahon: Most people think that France has a good social system (compared to poorer countries), so why are there so many homeless people?

Claus Drexel: Maybe the French social system has reached its limits too, regarding the ongoing crisis. On the other hand, it is important to understand that many of these people have much deeper problems than just economical ones. Even if you’d provide them with a home, they’d come back on the streets sooner or later. It’s hard to understand, but we must accept that and have consideration for them, even if they remain a total mystery to us.

Vanessa McMahon: Do you think that being homeless is it at times a conscious decision for people or a matter of poverty? Or both?

Claus Drexel: Living on the streets is so tough, that no one would go for it conscientiously. Even if some people say so, I believe it’s one last expression of pride: if you say that you chose this situation, it sounds as if you still have a control over your life. But I think that they just can’t do otherwise. When people tell me that they can’t understand why the homeless just don’t make the effort to find a job and move on, I answer them asking why – if themselves, they’d like to have more money – they just don’t make the effort to run as fast as Usain Bolt, who is obviously very rich. We all have our limitations and deserve equal recognition as human beings, regardless of what we are able to do and what not.

Vanessa McMahon: What do you think about the rise of poverty happening in the world today, and with that the rise in homelessness?

Claus Drexel: I sincerely believe that money is the worst invention of mankind. Its main purpose is to enable some to have much more than they need, inevitably taking it away from others, who consequently have less than they need. And it gets worse and worse. If money didn’t exist, no one would pile up tons and tons of potatoes in his garden that he wouldn’t be able to eat, leaving the others starving. And we should not forget that some of the greatest works of art, like the incredible cave-paintings in Lascaux and elsewhere, prove us that homo sapiens were able to achieve extraordinary tasks before money existed.

Vanessa McMahon: Do you think this material digital age has created a greater divide between those who have and those have not? And do you think that those having a hard time making money are those who are having a difficult time changing as rapidly with modern times?

Claus Drexel: I personally don’t think that what the digital age offers is a great enrichment. I have much more consideration for a little drawing made by the hand of Man, than for a telephone with a fruit printed on the backside. But what frightens me, is the ability of the industry to impose this change onto us: if you don’t follow, you drown. In India, for example, welfare money is now wired on people’s cell phones. If you don’t own one, you get no money. So, yes, it definitely creates a greater divide.

Vanessa McMahon: Will you continue to make documentaries? If so, what will you work on next?

Claus Drexel: Coming more from the fiction world, I loved making a documentary. In fact, what I loved most, was meeting different people. I certainly want to make another documentary one day, but I’ll have to find the right subject first. In the foreseeable future, I only work on fiction projects.

Vanessa McMahon: How did it feel to be an award winner at TIFF? How was the reaction to your film?

Claus Drexel: Receiving the international critics award was a fantastic surprise. I’m very grateful to the jury members, who told me very nice things about the film in private, after the ceremony. On the other hand, a competition is always like a lottery. You’re lucky, if most of the jury members are responsive to the kind of films you make. It doesn’t mean that the awarded film is ‘better’ than the others.”

Here’s hoping this will come out on DVD in the States; it’s an unforgettable film.

Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring (Que ta joie demeure)

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring is an absolutely brilliant film about the modern day workplace.

I am indebted to the writer and critic Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for bringing Côté’s work to my attention; in our digital age, films such as these don’t get the distribution they deserve, almost never play in theaters, and are in general confined to the festival circuit throughout the world. But thankfully, Joy of Man’s Desiring has just become available in the United States as a digital download on Vimeo, and this absolutely superb film, running just 79 minutes, is one of the most impressive achievements of the cinema in 2014.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above, and then either view or download the entire film for a modest fee after that – a price that is an absolute bargain for such a mesmerizing, transcendent piece of work. This is the sort of filmmaking that needs to supported on an everyday basis, as an antidote to the non-stop explosions and commercial blandness of mainstream cinema; Côté’s films, part fiction, part documentary, create an unsettling vision of the world that his uniquely his own.

This is what Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin were shooting for with films like British Sounds, in which their Dziga Vertov collective hoped to find common ground with workers, including a memorable tracking shot in an auto assembly plant with a soundtrack of unceasing noise, generated by the manufacturing equipment itself. But Côté’s film goes far beyond Godard and Gorin’s work – and is certainly far less didactic – to give a sort of infernal life to the machines that control women and men on the factory floor, adeptly blending staged vignettes of industrial impersonalization with documentary sequences that chronicle the repetitive tedium of jobs that require labor, and no thought whatsoever – jobs that most people work at for their entire lives, jobs which eventually destroy them and use them up, much like the machines they are forced to operate.

Côté is an extremely prolific filmmaker working out of Quebec, whose many films, including Vic + Flo Saw A Bear, Bestiaire, and Curling offer a disquieting, almost trance-like meditative vision of the modern world, and the alienation and distance that accompanies it. As the presskit for the film notes, “Joy of Man’s Desiring is an open-ended exploration of the energies and rituals of various workplaces. From one worker to another and one machine to the next; hands, faces, breaks, toil: what kind of absurdist, abstract dialogue can be started between human beings and their need to work? What is the value of the time we spend multiplying and repeating the same motions that ultimately lead to a rest – a state of repose whose quality defies definition?”

As Côté himself says of Joy of Man’s Desiring, “there’s no doubt this is the kind of film-essay in the same lineage as my smaller-scale films, which look for the unfindable (Carcasses, Bestiaire) and question language. I take a great deal of pleasure in making films that don’t easily reveal themselves either to me or the viewer. They need to be out there for a long time, they need to get around. We have to put words to these sound-and-image experiments. I hope viewers won’t go crazy; I hope they’ll watch work in action, thought in action, research in action. There’s a little humor, a hypnotic element, some distancing moments, but there is no real issue or end to the film either. I enjoy watching a film get to a moment when I know I am in the process of watching a film. Maybe I don’t understand it, but I turn it over and look at every side to see how we did it; I think about it, let it exist.”

As Stephen Dalton noted in The Hollywood Reporter when the film premiered at The Berlin Film Festival on February 7, 2014, “Quebecois director Denis Côté won a Silver Bear in last year’s Berlinale for his offbeat comic thriller Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, but the formal rigor on display here feels more akin to the director’s unorthodox animal-watching documentary Bestiaire, a left-field Sundance and Berlin favourite in 2012 . . . The film’s non-fiction segments are lightly peppered with dramatic vignettes and poetic touches, including a stern opening monologue delivered straight to camera by an unnamed woman (Emilie Sigouin). ‘Be polite, respectful, honest,’ she warns the viewer, ‘or I’ll destroy you.’ . . .

Moving between different industrial spaces, Côté’s method mostly consists of artfully composed static shots and slow zooms into heavy machinery. These scenes have a stark, vaguely menacing beauty. They are intercut with still-life studies of machinists and carpenters, laundry workers and food packagers. Some are caught in fragmentary conversation, others in sullen and wordless poses. Joy of Man’s Desiring constantly hints at interesting themes – like the psychology of manual labor in a mechanized age, or the broad cultural mix of Francophone immigrants among Quebecois factory workers” but, as Dalton notes, leaves these issues largely unresolved, as they are in real life.

This is thoughtful, crisp filmmaking, which takes genuine risks and at the same time is easily accessible to the average viewer – the film’s running time flies by in what seems to be an instant. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is preparing a major piece on Côté’s work as a whole, and I look forward to it with great anticipation – there hasn’t been nearly enough written about him, and most critics really don’t understand what he’s trying to do, though it seems clear to me. Côté’s cinema is as strong, as compassionate, and as effortlessly masterful as the films of Robert Bresson, and as meditative and humanistic as the films of the great Yasujirō Ozu, who viewed the world, and the human condition, with an equally clear and direct gaze.

Joy of Man’s Desiring, is, in short, one of the most impressive and effective cinematic essays I’ve recently seen on the connection between humans and machines, labor and capital, and the gap between our dreams and what we actually accomplish. See it as soon as you can. It is a stunning piece of work.

View the trailer for this film by clicking here, and then, by all means, see the film itself.

Spies of Mississippi: Filmmaker Dawn Porter

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Last night, I saw Spies of Mississippi, an amazing documentary on the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.

Spies of Mississippi covers ground that’s been mined before, but Porter has done something new here, uncovering the amazing story of  “the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission’s [MSSC] efforts to preserve segregation during the 1950s and ‘60s — when its network of informants spied on over 87,000 Americans — as it covered up violence and murder in order to preserve the status quo.” Clocking in at just an hour, Porter’s documentary is much more than a succession of talking heads; it’s a gripping, compact, and absolutely riveting mix of raw footage from the period, much of it never before seen, recently declassified documents from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission showing just how rampant racism was in the state, and interviews with the people who lived through the period, and know better than anyone else the reality of the situation. In an interview you can read by clicking here, or on the image above, Porter opens up about the making of Spies of Mississippi. As she told Craig Phillips,

“before I heard this story I thought I knew a lot about the era. That’s what is so wonderful about history — if we look, there are more things to find. Many people know about the FBI’s efforts to undermine the civil rights leaders, but very few people knew of the network established by Mississippi state government. And that’s what really attracted me to this story; this is not a story of a few rogue racist individuals, it’s state government, using taxpayer dollars to deny rights to a group of people based on race. I think it’s a remarkable story about abuse of power and how secrecy is not always a friend to democracy.

I was surprised by so many things, but clearly one of the most shocking was the information about the black informants.  The idea that African Americans would spy for white supremacists probably should not shock me, but it did. Second, I feel like this fills in a piece of the puzzle regarding the tragic deaths of the young civil rights workers [James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael 'Mickey' Schwerner].  They didn’t have an accidental run in with the racist police or the Klan, they were tracked using information from spies.

I was shocked to learn that the State of Mississippi, not just the FBI, used spies to try and intimidate and stop integration. When I learned that some of them were black I wanted to know what would motivate people. Digging into the story, it makes sense that there were complicated feelings in the African American community about the marchers and civil rights activity. There was a lot of fear.”

This is the kind of work we need much more of on television, and the sort of hard-edged and innovative reporting that only PBS seems to offer. In addition, it’s also superbly confident filmmaking, thrilling in its mastery of the medium, and the work of a master filmmaker.

Just minutes after I saw this documentary, I ordered the DVD. This is brilliant, important work.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • Frame by Frame: Science Fiction Futurism
    UNL Film Studies Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses the 2015 Ridley Scott film "The Martian," and the accuracy (and often inaccuracy) of science-fiction films at predicting real advancements in science and technology. […]
  • Frame by Frame: Batman v Superman
    UNL Film Studies Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses the genre of comic book movies in the context of "Batman v Superman."  […]

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website