In this rare collaboration with NeueJournal, Brigitte creates a series of portraits investigating the most nuanced and directional voices in contemporary art, film, music, and science. An ongoing personal series captured in her Lower East Side daylight studio, these images are underscored by a quiet intimacy unique to the space itself.
My first film, Sin Nombre, had its genesis in an image I saw of 700 Central Americans sitting on top of a freight train migrating across Mexico. I’d never seen anything like that before. I had written a short film that was successful on the subject of immigration on the U.S. border, but I felt compelled to investigate this form of freight train immigration further. Why was this happening, and how did it affect the people embarking on these incredibly dangerous journeys? Beasts of No Nation, my latest film, is based on the Nigerian novel of the same name, and tells the story of a child whose life is overturned in the tumult of a civil war in a nameless West African country and forced to become a soldier.
Films of this nature have the potential to affect not only the lives of the viewers, but also the lives of the participants of the production. As a filmmaker, I am aware that I am not in the public service; my first job is to be a storyteller. However, the subjects of some of my films have blurred the lines between this tenet and the intrinsic responsibility to protect the people I have worked with and come to care for, a responsibility born from the inherently exploitative nature of filmmaking. Both Sin Nombre and Beasts of No Nation tread on real and current sociopolitical subject matters. In order to tell the stories authentically, I had to cast real people, street kids, often without parental support or guidance, as well as former combatants and a whole cadre of non-professionals.
The result is far more impactful, but the participants have very little concept about how their lives are about to be changed by the production and the attention that comes following a film’s release. A film can be an incredible opportunity for a young actor, but it can also be a once in a lifetime anomaly. The concentrated focus of attention and, sometimes, modest monetary gain are short-lived and often leave the subjects awash in confusion and depressed once it’s over. I don’t think any filmmaker is responsible for every person who took part in their stories—no more than journalists are—but they should be as giving as possible and paternal and accessible once everything is over. There is an ethical obligation to give back, sometimes in time, sometimes in money, but more than anything, in preparation.
For Sin Nombre, the lead, Casper, was a non-actor, plucked from nationwide castings in Honduras. He had neither acted nor ever left his country before we made the film. In six weeks of production, he made more money than the average Honduran would make in a dozen years. He traveled to multiple countries to promote the film, and his face became identifiable across Latin America. But ultimately he had to go back to Honduras to live his life. We remain to this day in contact, and where possible, I try to get him work on other films. I did my best before production to have him create a financial plan to use his money towards education and helping out his family, as well as to prime him on the cyclical nature of attention and the possibility of feeling emptiness once the attention is over. I repeated this advice throughout production; but he was an adult, and the decisions he made would ultimately have to be his own. For Beasts of No Nation, however, we cast mainly children. As the subject is children and war, we had dozens of young boys take part in the production alongside former combatants from wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Most of the children were found in street castings that went into incredibly impoverished neighborhoods in Ghana looking for the most charismatic young boys to interpret the story. Here we had the opportunity not only to bring them into a production that would be a once in a lifetime adventure, but also to continue that work by putting them into schools after production was over. Three of the children lived on the street. There was no way we could, in good conscience, make this film and then just drop them off back on the street once the production was over. Daniel Crown, whose company produced the film, has been financing their education and boarding since the day we left Ghana. This isn’t his responsibility; it’s a choice, and a choice driven by this same ethical pursuit.
Between failure and success, success might not really exist. You cannot tie these subjects and their productions into tight little bows and say, Look, we solved a problem facing humanity. But we make our humble offerings, both in terms of a work of fiction that transcends political borders and in more direct human connections that will hopefully last as long as we can endure them. It never feels like enough, but in perspective, had the film never existed, no lives would have been changed and no one would know the better for it, and what would be the point of that?
Photography: Brigitte Lacombe for NeueJournal
Guest Photo Editor: Janet Johnson