DVD
INTERVIEW OF DOMINIQUE OTHENIN GIRARD
   

What role do you play in the genesis of a project like this one?

I had the idea of making a film about Henry Dunant's life fourteen years ago, but it didn't lead to anything. Philippe Berthet at the TSR knew this, and when the project materialized in 2004, he contacted me. He wanted a Swiss director - I'm French Swiss - and he knew what kind of messages I like to convey in my films.

What type of messages, indeed?

Mainly humanitarian. I have made several films about people who live in a state of suffering, including people with Down's Syndrome.

Dunant isn't a man who is suffering, though; he's a man who struggles...

That's true, yet... When I first got involved in the screenplay that Claude-Michel Rome had already written, I wondered about the goal of this film - I didn't want it to be simply anecdotal, or narrative. It wasn't just the story of the path taken by the man, but rather that of the events that led to the foundation of the Red Cross; we wanted to show how the idea originated. Upon meeting the soldiers, Dunant discovers true suffering and realizes that the same blood runs in everyone's veins, that others suffer exactly like we do. That is where he draws his sense of compassion. That is the fundamental point of the film, and I sincerely hope that the message it carries with it will arouse in all of us that long-forgotten, neglected feeling: compassion. In any case, war is not the focus of the film, neither was it Dunant's. When he wrote A memory of Solferino, he was not passing judgment on war, but proposing humanitarian action.

This gives the film a timeless, universal quality...

I was anxious to make a modern film. The question, in making a costume film about the foundation of the Red Cross in the 19th century, was how to make it attractive, especially to a young audience. By playing on the modernity of the characters and their emotions. As regards Henry, I chose to portray him as a brilliant character who never acted in an academic, conventional way. At his side, these two women, who were active and dynamic, both in speech and behavior. By working on this visual allegory and giving new meaning to the historical facts, through the language of filmmaking and modern characters, I attempted to make a topical film set in a historical context.

A historical context with sets, costumes and extras that ended up inflating the budget and requiring the participation of foreign coproducers...

Imagine! Just for the Castiglione court, we had to build a 200-metre long wall and a massive gate, transform a church, paint over entire facades... In the studio, we created the tent of Napoleon III and the Geneva hospital. We brought to life the streets of Geneva - including a period market, and recreated the newspaper offices. I must give credit to the hard work of Giuseppe Ponturo, the head set designer! Three hundred military costumes were designed and hand-sewn before being soiled, soaked in blood and torn, non only to make the scenes look more authentic, but also as a metaphor for war and suffering. I would like to salute Uli Fessler, the Austrian head costume designer - what a pro! As for the extras in Castiglione - Slovenians that I directed with the three  words of their language that I picked up on the set, there were some 200 to 300 around, depending on the day! That is where most of the budget went. For Castiglione, I had Delacroix as my visual reference, and I fought like a lion to have everything done as I imagined it with the resources we had available. Armed with nothing but my strong conviction, I finally managed to carry everyone along, actors and crew alike. I would like to thank the producers for honoring my artistic decisions and giving me everything they could within the budget I had agreed to.

You worked in the States for many years - are your working methods American?

I spent 18 years in Los Angeles - that's where I learned the job. It's a craft, actually. There, the philosophy is one of rigor: the work is done while preparing for shooting; nothing is invented in front of the cameras - everythingis rehearsed ahead of time. I met with all the actors at length during rehearsals, and attended all the costume fittings. As in the States, I had a storyboard of the film drawn up to help me communicate with the crew and anticipate every eventuality. It was during the preparations that the film came into itself, that the lighting - Vincent Jeannot, the first cameraman, did a wonderful job - and the accuracy of the dialogues really gelled. We wanted to offer the viewer a simple, obvious story to follow even though in fact, it was a very complicated story to tell and to shoot.

To what point did the screenplay fictionalize Dunant's story?

There's always an element of interpretation when you adapt someone's life story, especially when your film speaks the language of emotions. I prefer to aim for a probable truth than to stick to historical facts if I can't be sure of interpreting them correctly. The goal of the film is to help people understand the mental and emotional mechanisms of a man who achieved something historic. I assume full responsibility for that interpretation, and I believe I have come close to the man that Dunant was.

Why Thomas Jouannet in the title role?

Because he is a brilliant, generous being. A wonderful human being. We had approached other actors, but as soon as I saw Thomas I knew it was him. We worked together in confidence and communicated as such a deep level that we were able to reveal some very intimate things that he had never expressed before.

How do you work with the actors?

When I meet and rehearse with the actors, I give them a sense of responsibility about their roles; I know they know them better than I do, even if I wrote them. I delegate the knowledge and the intuition of the characters; from then on, I can only guide the actors. I remember my first working session with Thomas and Emilie Dequenne, that wonderful actress. They were expecting a reading of the screenplay, but I asked them to tell me about their own character and their partner's. Emilie described Henry to Thomas as he had never seen him himself: handsome, positive, a fighter, brilliant. It was a gift she treated to the film.

In France, few know who Dunant was. Is he a national hero in Switzerland?

It's a hero known of all the Swiss ones. Regardless, we had to make a modern film, one that would touch the millions of people who will see it, whether in Europe or elsewhere. A film that speaks not only of compassion, but also of hope. We know that Dunant was a man of Christian faith, but that doesn't appear in the film. Why? Because linking that sentiment of compassion to the Christian faith would have lessened the universal impact of the film. It wasn't because he was Christian that he thought of founding the Red Cross - any man of his caliber, regardless of his confession, could have fought for the same idea. The essential theme of the film is love. The greatest love, that which requires sacrifices, the love of one's fellowman.