Culture, Europe, Globe, Screen, United Kingdom

Vladimir de Fontenay (2): A film has two lives: in the making and in the showing

What attracts him to places that are different from the world he grew up in is that the connection can only be universal, not personal. It harms art to think that stories only belong to those who were involved. Empathy means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.


Graham Douglas


My reference to a reviewer who thought foreigner artists should not poke their noses into North American life left him speechless for a moment, but reached the voice of the film-maker whose work is engaged in the world we live in.

Vladimir de Fontenay, director of “Mobile homes”,  acknowledges the distance that exists between himself and the subjects he chooses, while standing up for the artist as activist, in a world which seems like a runaway machine. A world where the industrial machines are actually rusting, while Trump tries to tug on emotions that he hopes will serve to make himself great, maybe for 15 minutes.

It is clear that de Fontenay believes humility is a cardina l quality for artists, who necessarily have not personally experienced everything they see happening, the range of which has grown enormously since the arrival of digital media and the internet. Humility and empathy.

Photography is a passion which influences his film-making and his choice of subjects, and he cites the work of a number of contemporary US photographers whose work is marked by their humanity, including one whose photo became a reference point for the character Bone.

Reflecting on the effect the film has had on audiences, he was touched by how they responded in Greece, where losing home and future has become an everyday reality. Vladimir spoke to The Prisma.

You did very well at Cannes, but one US reviewer said you are just an outsider who thinks he understands lower-class US life from a superior position.

I am so intellectually opposed to that limiting attitude. I wish I could have met that reviewer and asked “Can I take you through the history of cinema, people like Herzog, Wenders. Was Antonioni being condescending when he talked about the Berkeley riots? An attitude like that in 2018 is so depressing. When Herzog makes a documentary about the death penalty in the US, is that illegitimate?

It’s harming the art world so much to think that stories belong to those who’ve suffered from or benefitted from what happened. Empathy is about trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Somebody asked my Canadian producer how people reacted when he was looking around trailer parks, and he said: “They took me to places I’d overlooked”.  It’s also so disconnected from your own environment to talk like that.

Disconnected – to what extent is what you depicted also happening for many more people – seeing multinational corporations exploiting their country?

It’s absolutely that. Fiction has its rules, but it can say things about the world we live in, and when you’re an outsider you notice it more.

After Cannes, there were articles saying the film denounced Trump, but a lot of us were making those films before, you touch on something that exists.

Bone, after this experience, will have learned a lot – he can see the bullshit in society much more clearly than if he’d been sent to a nice conventional school.

I agree, we showed the film to social workers who work with abused mothers and families, and they all said: “this is a strong kid, he will do well”.

Education – the kid was able to swim out of the mobile home at the end, probably thanks to the time his father threw him in the water.

How much of you is in the film?

There is so much of our whole team in it, and the people I came across. I’m obsessed with contemporary photography, people like Jim Goldberg, Mary Ellen Mark, Mary Ann Kenneally. One of her photographs of a kid who looked after stray dogs and trained them to fight was a reference for the film. What attracts me to places that are different from the world I grew up in is that the connection can only be universal, not personal, so hopefully I’m tapping into something I can communicate.

I’ve not been in an abusive relationship, but I know the feeling of not being able to let go of someone that you love but has been constantly putting you down. I’m curious about what I can find in my own life that I can relate to.

I guess making a film transforms your own interior being, how do you feel changed by these four years?

What’s very odd is that it made me go home, and at the same time be mobile. The idea of confusing mobility with freedom. I was able to see that the things I thought were tying me down as a young person, actually made me freer, because once you know where your home is, you’re better able to run away from it! A film has two lives, making it and showing it – and that 2nd part is something I was less aware of. It was different in a rich bubble, like Palm Springs, from Greece, where because of the financial crisis people, especially young people are extremely aware of the fear of having your home taken away from you, not having a pension.

What next?

I’m adapting a book by David Van, called Sukkwan Island, which is south of Alaska, and the story is a father who tries to re-build his relationship with his son, by taking him to live there for a year in the wilderness, and things go wrong.

Again, the idea of a search for new territory to save your family. It’s the first time I’m adapting someone else’s vision, and is it legitimate to do that?

Is he anxious about what you might do to the book?

No, he’s pleased, and when he saw Mobile Homes he felt confident that I could stage the relationship of an adult to a child in a convincing way. The story is very dark, and he felt I could somehow lift that.

(Photos authorized by the interviewee)

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