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The making of Camille Claudel, A Special Woman

At UNICA 2002 in Luxembourg a coveted Silver Medal went to “Camille Claudel, A Special Woman”.

Camille ClaudelAuguste Rodin

Camille Claudel (1864-1943) was a talented sculptor. She became a pupil, then a lover of Auguste Rodin. Their relationship was stormy and there is suspicion that her talents were hidden to ensure his success. Her brother, the writer Paul Claudel, seemed unsympathetic. Her work is now recognised and her life has become a case-study for feminist historians. The film explores Claudel’s story through an exhibition of her work and a dramatised biography. For one of the co-directors, Franka Stas, it was her first real movie. I caught up with Franka and her fellow director, Harry Meter, in Warsaw and started with the obvious question:

DAVE: Franka, how did you begin moviemaking?

FRANKA: When we started a family my husband bought an old film camera. I didn’t specially like what he was doing. The images moved too much and everything was fragmented. So I thought I would try and see if I could do it differently. It turned out that I did better. From that moment on, I was the one handling the camera.

DAVE: How did you get involved with the club?

FRANKA: I’m a teacher and I had been recording all sorts of plays and activities at school. But that was just reporting and I wanted to do more. I was looking for courses to take but they were always too far away. My kids were small so I didn’t feel like going out at night. Finally we had a market in Hilversum where all the clubs put on a display: bridge, football, environmental groups – everything. The video club was there and that is where I ran into Harry and the other members. I was overwhelmed with joy at finding people who could teach me, because I wanted to learn how to make movies. Until then all I did was push the button, let the camera do its job, then switch it off.

DAVE: Harry, how long have you been part of the Hilversum club (Videofilmers GSA)?

HARRY: After my wife died I went looking for things to do. I found the club which had only 8 or 9 members where previously there had been 40. I kept coming back and after six months I was president! Now we have 40 members and are a successful club.

DAVE: Had you been making movies before?

HARRY: Yes, in about ’59 or ’60 I started with 8mm and super-8mm. I made all sorts of films, just as a hobby. I was fairly successful in competitions. My job was with Philips and I made several instructional films for them. Later on I became a member of the local film club and with the club we visited several other groups. We are members of NOVA (the Dutch federation).

DAVE: One day this schoolteacher with a camera turned up ... was that common?

HARRY: It was unusual. We might get two or three newcomers each year. Franka was very eager to learn.

FRANKA: I was like a sponge. The club met on Friday nights and I couldn’t sleep on Fridays for more than a year because I had sucked in so much information. My mind was buzzing. That’s how it started.

HARRY: That’s still a problem! In a short time we were working together on several projects.

FRANKA: We realised quite quickly that we should hook-up, because we are both ambitious. We want to learn and we want to find out how we can do things differently. We want to go to festivals and learn how other people do things. Harry has a lot of ideas and then we start working on them. We try to work things out.

HARRY: We both have computer equipment.

FRANKA: I got to Harry’s to edit because he has a better equipped studio, whereas I work in my living room which is a bit different. Besides, he is a very good host. There’s always a great lunch! Later I call home to my husband and tell him I’ll be home in 15 minutes, so he starts making dinner. I’m a very privileged woman!!

DAVE: Where did the idea for ‘Camille’ come from?

FRANKA: We have a summer-house in France and in the village is the castle of Paul Claudel, the brother of Camille. One day they had an open-house and we went on a tour of the castle. There was a lovely sculpture of a little girl 'La Petite Chatelaine’ which thrilled me. Then in our local newspaper I read that they were going to have an exhibition on Claudine in a village nearby. So I said to Harry this is something we have to do a film about.

I called the museum and they sent me the information. We talked with them to discuss the possibilities. From then on they gave us full freedom to do whatever we wanted in there. We had an advantage in that we also make items for local television so they knew that our work would be of a certain quality. Our TV work is simple local news items.

DAVE: Were you aware the Camille Claudel had become a feminist icon?

FRANKA: I knew there had been a feature film about her (made in 1988 starring Isabelle Adjani) but not much else. The wonderful thing was they told us at the museum that one of her relatives, a granddaughter of Paul Claudel, was going to be there because she wrote the enormous catalogue for the exhibition. So I asked if we could have an interview. I pointed out that I spoke French and knew the village ... it was arranged.

HARRY: We talked for about three-quarters of an hour and kept a crew from national TV waiting! I was there when the exhibition was unpacked, because Franka was at work. So I shot what I could. There was no special staging of events – the team were in a hurry.

FRANKA: We can tell you a secret. Everyone thinks we did magnificent work with lights, but it is the museum which is constructed in a perfect way for filming. It’s as simple as that. The museum technicians made it look really, really good.

By coincidence, the day before the exhibition was due to open we learned there was going to be a play. It was by sheer chance that someone mentioned it. So we got permission to see the play once through in the morning.

HARRY: I was able to plug into the stage microphone system and record it on mini-disc.

FRANKA: We were on opposite corners of the theatre trying to get the whole thing.

HARRY: We could not talk to one another during the shoot ...

FRANKA: ... we were also constrained by fire regulations about where we could put the cameras. We had to stand way, way back in the corner. We agreed that one would shoot wide and the other do the close-ups. That’s all we could do.

HARRY: We used hand-signals too.

FRANKA: You have to, otherwise you have the same shot and you can’t edit them. You have to use your exposure meter and not the auto-exposure feature of the camera.

DAVE: How much material did you record?

HARRY: About 45 minutes of stage show, the same of interview, the unpacking and then all the shots of the sculptures.

FRANKA: We went in about five or six times before opening time.

HARRY: We had about two hours from 8 to 10.

FRANKA: We had never done this before so we knew we had to do it properly and in a compelling way. So when I saw the statue called ‘The Waltz’, I said to Harry: “Start counting” He counted out waltz rhythm while I moved round with the camera. You had to move with the statues because they are three-dimensional. You have to get round them. You can’t just set up a tripod ... you have to work with it.

FRANKA: As for editing: we always start way too long. Then we show it to other members at the club and they say you can drop this or that. We find that very helpful because we are too involved in our own images to see clearly. After a few weeks you can be more objective and say we can do without that but we are missing this. Of course if we don’t agree with the club comments we don’t have to follow their ideas.

HARRY: We finally got it down to 13 minutes. It took more than two months to edit it down that far.

FRANKA: The golden opportunity we were given was the Debussy music on CD.

HARRY: The museum gave it to us as part of the press package.

FRANKA: I know nothing about classical music ... but when we saw the play they used the music too. So we listened again and again and we had these images. It just came together – it was a gift.

DAVE: How did you get permissions from actors etc?

HARRY: We asked.

FRANKA: The director of the museum was a very nice lady. In our discussions she realised it was an opportunity for them as well. So anything was possible.

HARRY: No problem at all.

FRANKA: Of course we tried to be prepared. We did a lot of research. We had good equipment. We had lots of plans in our heads. We asked when were they going to unpack, when do the lights and so on. We had full co-operation.

DAVE: Was the plan formulated over a lunch?

FRANKA: Yes! The structure was roughly there ... the preparation, the exhibition, without the audience, with the audience, the play … with all those elements we had our chapter headings.

DAVE: How did the film make its way to UNICA?

FRANKA: It went into regional and national competitions and they chose it for UNICA. I had only vaguely heard of UNICA and I thought there was no chance ...

DAVE: What equipment did you use?

HARRY: Two Sony cameras: VX9000 shoulder cam and a TRV900. We had a tripod on wheels.

FRANKA: That took a lot of practice to use. All the statues were on plinths and each time either the wheel twisted or you bumped your foot or you bumped the plinth. We only used about 2% of everything we shot. The rest was not good enough.

HARRY: We also had a home-made crane

FRANKA: But it was so large and with heavy weights ... we almost knocked over a statue! So we stopped at that moment. There were no attendants or guards there – we had total access, they said: take your time.

DAVE: Was any of your stuff used to promote the show?

FRANKA: No. We gave a copy to the museum for their archives. But there is no commercial aspect to the movie. We also gave a tape to the granddaughter of Paul Claudel. A few months after I sent it she said she hated looking at herself and only did so because I reminded her. She was very pleased.

Since then we have done another film with the museum. Its founder was an American painter named William Singer. The Singers lived in Holland and in Norway. The museum had an exhibition of the original collection which the Singers had made of their contemporary artist friends. His widow founded the museum and they put on a show of the original collection plus the material obtained since then. To make it more lively they hired actors for a living history project. The actors played Singer’s widow and a close friend who had promised to take care of her. They brought the characters to life and talked to the audience during the exhibition. You could ask them questions and they would talk about their own lives, the lives of their friends, explain the paintings and so on. So that was our next project.

The two of them also made a one-minute movie which went to represent the Netherlands at UNICA. Unfortunately technical problems with the tape meant it could not be shown properly.

The stills from Camille Claudel were courtesy of Harry Meter.

- Dave Watterson    Oct 2003

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Page updated on 08 October 2011
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