Those who have met Yves Jeanneau know that he was a man of many talents with a strong work ethic, highly committed and an extraordinary talent for listening. Both he and the Sunny Side of the Doc that he created were closely linked. It is impossible to imagine one without the other… to the extent that many people forgot that Yves had lead many lives before it.
I would like to pay tribute to the ‘Yves’ that I knew and with whom I worked for more than 17 years. That Yves Jeanneau was at the time producer and managing director of Films d’Ici, before becoming head of documentaries for France 2. Without that field experience, I doubt that Sunny Side would have become what it is today. Yves was a theoretician who believed that real life experience was essential for being able to anticipate the major changes that he saw happening in today’s audiovisual production landscape.
He and I met in New York in 1983. I had just started my career in independent cinema as a production assistant, film editor and recently unit production manager on underground fictional films. Yves was looking for somebody to look after the production side of things in America for Robert Kramer’s film Route One USA. This six-month road trip from Maine to Florida examined the post-Reagan America of Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition. The four-and-a-half-hour documentary was for Sept, which hadn’t yet become ARTE. I had never worked on a documentary before, in fact, I hadn’t even seen a documentary before!
But Yves didn’t seem to think that would be a problem… I think he saw me as intrepid and determined…. This strange 23-year-old woman who had voluntary exiled in America and had forgotten all her French. As for me, I discovered a funny, friendly man who was far from the rather stiff image I had of a producer. And so this is how two decades of working together started out – and my education too.
Yves trained my eye and my perceptiveness. He taught me how to enjoy the documentary genre, to the extent that I ended up abandoning fictional film definitively.
To each their own ‘Yves’. Mine was a boss, a friend, a production partner and a sort of spiritual father who largely shaped the person I have become. Seventeen years is a very long time. Especially as we continued to work together on and off over the next 20 years that followed. You end up ‘killing’ the father figure, but the friend, the mentor was forever there.
I spent 15 of those years with him at Films d’Ici on rue Clavel. A hotspot for creation, this wonderful hub saw many a talent pass through its doors. I only realised much later how lucky I was to have fallen in amongst that melting pot of documentary creation.
Yves and I have produced many films together of which I am immensely proud. Each was more or less a picaresque adventure, some flirted with disaster, but we always came out the other side – just don’t ask me how. Yves had a hidden strategic side to him, he was a little bit rogue but it was always for a good cause – that being documentary film as a chronicle of real life. I remember an innumerable number of work dinners where we would discuss films in development, editing plans and production problems. Whatever the crisis we were facing, he always found a way to resolve it. He had a little black book filled with numbers. I don’t know who he called, but I can’t tell you the amount of times I have heard him say “Problem solved”. So much so, I ended up never doubting that we would always find a way.
Times have changed over the past 20 years. You no longer sign a deal with just three or four lines scrawled out on the back of an envelope and with the promise of a contract in the bag. Those bygone days resulted in many films that all represent a side of Yves’ personality. Whether they are films on cinema, history or society, they were all engaging films. They were all intellectually stimulating and ambitious. Some even cost a pretty penny. Yves was afraid of nothing or nobody. In 1987 in New York, I saw him pitching Jean-Louis Etienne and Will Steiger’s TRANSANTARTICA expedition in terrible English to twenty-or-so executives from the American network ABC SPORTS in a conference room. He wasn’t even scared… and the best part is, is that he managed to scoop up a contract with a channel that had never even worked with a foreign producer before!
During all those years together, we collaborated on around 30 different films for which I will name a few. But to begin, Yves gave me the bug for international co-productions. He always believed in it – not just for investment reasons, but for the idea of hearing different voices. Even if it was sometimes difficult, he believed in the wealth and diversity of intelligences. His faithful partners were Arnie Gelbart from Galafilm in Canada, Christine Pireaux from Films de la Passerelle in Belgium, and Margie Smilow from Alternate Current in the USA.
The first international co-production that I did with Yves was not one but six documentaries with Alternate Current for Sept/Arte, Bravo in the USA and NHK in Japan. The Music for the Movies collection was first filmed in Super 16mm, and then in high definition – a format that had just burst onto on the scene. And so this is how I discovered versioning, conversions, pull-ups, pull-downs, progressive, HD cars with cables that are impossible to pull, but also Tokyo – where I stayed for weeks while working on post-production with technicians who didn’t speak a word of English! We have come within inches of a catastrophe several times, but as always with Yves, he wasn’t even afraid! Music for the Movies received an Oscar nomination, won Emmy awards and was distributed all around the world.
For Yves, a documentary had to be political and engaging – be that in style or in the substance. Classified X was another wonderful adventure which enabled us to meet the fascinating Melvin van Peebles. As one of the founders of the Blaxploitation genre, he told us about his violent experience as a black actor and director and the racism he faced in Hollywood. He recounts the other history of cinema, one which called into question our convictions as white cinephiles, without detractors or experts, filmed on a blue screen in a studio in Clichy, France. This militant film delivered an uncompromising punch which, 20 years later, remains astonishingly topical to this day. But also, it’s a film that should never have been made. As soon as we mentioned Melvin Van Peebles’ name, all the American studios firmly shut their doors. It was impossible to retrieve the rights to use the slightest film extract.
Classified X is one of the first documentaries to extensively use the right to quote. There were more than 170 extracts lasting a couple of seconds long, sometimes even just a few images in a fleeting edit. It was a risky bet and we didn’t even know if we could ever distribute it. We were wrong. The film had a remarkable future and was selected for competition at Sundance, won awards and was distributed all around the world. Classified X remains a reference for kids from the projects, is still available on video in the USA and is now more relevant than ever.
Yves had a nose for things. He felt – what am I saying – even sniffed out stories. Especially those which would make extraordinary films. I remember the evening in which Chile, Obstinate Memory first came to life. It was 1996 during Sunny Side. We were having a drink with Patricio Guzmán who was telling an old friend about the imperative personal journey he planned to make after 24 years of exile in Europe. He wanted to return to Chile and show the people his film “The Battle of Chile”, which had never been shown there before. Yves listened, and then said: So are you taking a camera? Patricio taken aback replied: No…. and then after a long silence…. Let’s talk about the idea. I didn’t work on Chile, Obstinate Memory but I saw what I would consider as one of the most beautiful films produced by Yves, be created from this complex relationship between Yves, Patricio and Thierry Garrel at ARTE. Chile, Obstinate Memory is a great director’s return to cinema.
There have been numerous other films and other encounters too. Despite being made in 2004, Norman Mailer – American Stories today more than ever. With directing duties from the talented Richard Copans and Stan Neumann, it is a three-hour series with this ridiculously intelligent and premonitory mind who sharply explains the roots of the collapse of America. Again, Yves was thinking outside the box: let a writer, one the last great American giants, tell his story of America. It is a political, philosophical and subjective story. It is a film which seemed unlikely to get broadcast – but it was, on France 2. How did Yves pull this off? I still don’t know to this day. However, I can say that the channel experienced one of its worst audience ratings!
How can I finish without mentioning Jean-Xavier Lestrade’s A Murder on a Sunday Morning? We had only been at Pathé Télévision for a few months before it was co-produced with Maha Productions and the late Denis Poncet. It won the 2002 Oscar for the Best Documentary Feature of course, plus a co-production with HBO and Channel 4, but also it was the moment that Yves went over to the other side, from production to distribution. How many men can boast about having distributed the film that they had started to produce? I remember the day when Yves told me: I’m leaving, you can take the reins, finish what we started and continue. I remember the shock, realising that 17 years had just come to an end just as abruptly as it had started. But of course, it wasn’t the end as such. There were other films, a brief return to producing and the moment when, finally, Yves became a fully-fledged, tireless defender of the documentary genre at Sunny Side of the Doc.
And then, there was that damned day in November when Yves truly bowed out. The day I understood that this time, I wouldn’t see him ever again.
All that is left are the films – those he produced, loved and championed.
For a few days only, they will be available to watch via the Sunny Side of the Doc’s online screening library. So go on, watch them.
You won’t regret it.
Christine Le Goff, June 2020