A meeting with Nicolas Philibert to coincide with Documentary Film Month

Today we know that the boundary between documentary and fiction is malleable and porous, and that it evolves over time.

Nicolas Philibert is a French documentary filmmaker who brings together a wide range of encounters, themes and observations of the world in films that are both sensitive and accurate. Winner of the 2023 Golden Bear in Berlin for "On the Adamant", he discusses his career, his working methods and the evolution of documentary film over the years. 

Regularly screened in the French cultural network abroad, three of his films are featured on IFcinémathis November as part of Documentary Film Month. They will remain available on the platform for public and non-commercial screenings worldwide. 

Updated on 16/11/2023

2 min

Nicolas Philibert
Nicolas Philibert avec l'Ours d'or de la Berlinale 2023
By Martin Kraft - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Over the course of your career, you have become one of the leading documentary filmmakers in French cinema. What led you to choose the path of documentary filmmaking?

There was no deliberate choice on my part - I didn't decide from the outset to dedicate my professional life to documentary filmmaking. Things happened much more unexpectedly while I was working as assistant director on René Allio's "Moi, Pierre Rivière, ayant égorgé ma mère, ma sœur et mon frère ...". I met Gérard Mordillat, who was also an assistant director, and after a great deal of discussion, the idea of making a feature-length documentary together came up. We worked on our first film, "His Master's Voice", which looks at management discourse and language. The funny thing is that at the time I knew very little about documentaries. It was through this film that I really became interested in this type of narrative, this type of project, and I began to discover the thousand and one ways of making documentary films. 


Your films are punctuated by encounters and sensitive observations of different environments and personalities. How do you choose the subjects for your feature films? 

It's not always the same. Some films mature slowly while other ideas leap into action. One thing is certain is that it's more the themes that come to me and the project really has to impose itself. Committing to a film is such a huge investment, such hard work, that if it doesn't feel like a necessity, I know it's not for me. I can sometimes go for months or even a year without a project and just let things happen. It's as if I need to clear my head between films, to let things lie fallow for a while. 


In 2002, your film Être et avoir was a huge success with critics and audiences, winning numerous awards and being widely seen in cinemas. What did this recognition of your work mean to you? Do you feel that this documentary marked a turning point in your career? 

I'd say that yes, this film was an important milestone, but it's not a seminal film for me. The one that is perhaps more significant, in my opinion, is "Louvre City", which has rather unusual origins. In 1988, I was invited to spend a day filming in the Louvre Museum, during a period when it was undergoing major renovation. At the time, I had to film the removal of huge paintings from storage, a very delicate operation, and that day I discovered the behind-the-scenes work of a great museum. I came back the next day, and the day after that, this time with a small team, but without permission. We ended up shooting a real film while the museum was in full swing around us, and this led to the question of funding. With my producers, I made a selection of images that I presented to Antenne 2, La Sept and the director of the Louvre, who knew nothing about it. He was reluctant to view the rushes, but after seeing them he urged me to carry on and gave me permission to film. For me, it was a kind of springboard and it gave me confidence after some difficult years. With this film, I had the feeling of being fully myself and that's why I find it seminal in my career. 

Le Pays des sourds
Le Pays des sourds - Nicolas Philibert
© DR

In In the Land of the Deaf, Each and Every Moment and On the Adamant, you film the medical world and its patients with great finesse. What approach did you take on these films in particular? 

First of all, "In the Land of the Deaf" is in no way a medical film. I filmed people who have been deaf from birth or who became deaf in the first few months of their lives, who express themselves in sign language and who are proud of this language. My desire is to reverse the eternal view of the deaf: I'm not showing people with disabilities, but personalities who have found a system of communication. In "Each and Every Moment", I pay tribute to the world of nursing in a film in three movements. I don't believe that filming in a medical environment requires you to put on special gloves. I always try to capture only what I am offered, and this applies to all my films. I don't want to force doors or things. I try to film only people who are sufficiently aware to be fully consenting. 

De chaque instant
De chaque instant - Nicolas Philibert
© DR

You won the Golden Bear in Berlin this year with On the Adamant. How did it feel to receive this award? What impact did it have on the film's trajectory? 

I was obviously pleasantly surprised and very happy with the award. To begin with, it was a joy to have the film selected in competition at a major festival. When I was explicitly told to remain in Berlin on the night of the awards, I realised the film would be included, but I didn't know what the prize would be. I didn't think it could win the Golden Bear at that point, but then it did. I was very touched by the reactions of documentary film-maker friends, who felt moved, almost as if they themselves had been rewarded. It was very kind of them. I was also happy for psychiatry, which is really suffering. In any case, the Golden Bear certainly helped the film's visibility in France and abroad. It was distributed in forty countries: it's wonderful to see a documentary on psychiatry with this kind of reach. 

Sur l'Adamant
Sur l'Adamant - Nicolas Philibert
© DR

Documentary film is being increasingly recognised and promoted, particularly in cinemas. What do you think of the way its distribution has evolved over the years? Have you been impressed with the work of any young documentary filmmakers? 

I'm pleased to see that things are moving in the right direction, even if it's still an uphill struggle for many young documentary filmmakers. There are still a lot of things to correct and catch up on. But it's true that documentary is far more prominent than when I started. I believe that there were over 140 documentaries released in cinemas in 2022. That's three documentaries a week, which is a lot. However, it seems to me that people still think that documentaries aren't really films. But making a fiction film is just as difficult. I'm not hung up on the documentary question: what interests me, what pleases me, is cinema. Today we know that the boundary between documentary and fiction is malleable and porous, and that it evolves over time. What's important is the cinematographic dimension of films, not how they are categorised. 


On the Adamant is the first film in a trilogy about the inpatient units of the Paris Centre division. Can you tell us about your two forthcoming projects, Averroès and Rosa Parks? 

"On the Adamant" is indeed the first part of a trilogy. I'm currently finishing two other films that will complete the cycle. The second part will be called "Averroès and Rosa Parks" and the title of the third is yet to be decided. What they have in common is that they were filmed at the Paris Centre psychiatric unit, which serves patients from the first four arrondissements of Paris. I shot the second part at the Esquirol hospital in Charenton, where the two inpatient units are called Averroès and Rosa Parks. The third part will look at home visits made by Adamant carers. 


Your films have been shown extensively in the cultural network (Instituts Français, Alliances Françaises). Do you have any specific memories of screenings or encounters when you travelled abroad? 

I've often travelled with my films abroad, because I love meeting people and travelling, and it's always a good idea to go and show your work at the other end of the world. When I started out, I made a few sports adventure films, particularly mountaineering films. Towards the end of the 1980s, I was invited by the Institut français in Bucharest to travel to Romania for a few days to show these films. The auditorium was full at every screening. This was before the fall of Ceausescu, an atrociously oppressive dictatorship where people had nothing to eat and weren't allowed to heat their homes above fourteen degrees. After the screenings, the audience would come up to me and ask for one-on-one interviews, and I would agree to meet them. They would only meet in parks and not at the Institut because they were afraid of microphones. In the parks, people would ask me to help them escape. I was only able to help one young mountaineer by inviting him to a festival in France and I think he took the opportunity to flee his country. I was left very shaken, distraught and a little powerless by the situation in the country at the time. 


The Month of Documentary Film

Le mois du doc
The Month of Documentary Film is organised by Images en bibliothèques.
L'Institut français

Le Pays des sourdsDe chaque instant et Sur l'Adamant sont disponibles sur IFcinéma, la plateforme cinéma de l'Institut français, pour des projections publiques et non-commerciales partout dans le monde, dans le réseau culturel français à l'étranger. En savoir + 

L'institut français, LAB