Bhutan, China (mainland), France, INTERVIEWS, Japan, Mongolia, NEWS — 12/12/2010 11:03 PM

Thomas Balmes: “after Japan, Mongolia and China, I would like to make a doc about Bhutan”.

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Thomas Balmes, the French director and producer is in China. His latest doc film “babies” has been chosen for the opening of the second Beijing iDocs Forum today, Sunday 12 December, in front of 800 viewers. Back from the screening, Thomas Balmes speaks about the reaction of the Chinese audience, his last shootings in Asia and his new project.

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Can you present yourself ?

I have been working as an independent director and producer of nonfiction films, specializing in international co-productions, since 1992. My initial projects included studies of filmmakers James Ivory and Michelangelo Antonioni.

What was your first doc ?

I directed my first film in 1996; “Bosnia Hotel” was the story of U.N. Kenyan peacekeepers in Bosnia.

Which doc did you directed or produced in Asia ?

Most of my docs, in fact. The first one was “Maharadjah Burger” in 1997, about the mad cow crisis as seen from the Indian perspective. This doc was followed by :

. “The Gospel according to the Papuans” (2000) on the conversion to Christianity of a Papuan Chief. This doc was honored with the Silver Spire Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I directed a sequel in Papua the following year, “Waiting for Jesus“.

. “A decent factory“, the story of a Nokia executive who inspects a mobile phone factory in China.

I also initiated a series for national Japanese television : NHK, “Tokyo Modern” and I produced « A Normal Life – Chronicle of a Young Sumo Wrestler », directed by Jill Coulon, which screened at Amsterdam’s 2009 International Documentary Film Festival.

My last film, “Babies” is universal but partly about Asia as it takes a look at one year in the life of four babies
from around the world, from Mongolia to Namibia to San Francisco to Tokyo.

This doc “Babies” has opened yesterday the 2nd Beijing Doc Forum. Was it the first release of this doc ?

Yes it was very exciting because it was the very first screening in China of “Babies”. I think that one of my other docs, “A decent factory” , had been screened a few years ago in China, but I don’t remember where.

How was the reaction of the audience ?

The reactions were great as the audience (800 people) was laughing during the all film and even clapping sometimes which confirms the very specific universal aspect of this film. The Q&A was also  very interresting with even a journalist from CCTV  telling me that the film gave her the desire to have babies of her own…

. You have filmed the babies in 2 Asian countries (Mongolia and Japan).Wasnt it to difficult to do this kind of story and shooting in Asia ?

The all of the shooting was 400 days, more or less 100 day per country. Apart from the distance from Paris, shooting in both Mongolia and Japan has been not more difficult than any other country except the problems you face when you’re shooting in a tiny apartment in central Tokyo with almost not enough space to do the focus with your camera.

. One special souvenir from this shooting ?

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Yes when Bayarjargal from Mongolia is moving in the fields among the cows.The baby was crawling in a field between cows which for me, being French, was quite stressful. But for the Mongolian parents it was nothing special. And you can see the cows are paying attention. Everything is fine. The baby was safe. But that was a kind of moment where I was thinking, Should I stop filming? I’m happy I didn’t stop because I think it’s one of the best scenes in the film.

. You have directed 3 docs in or about Asia (“Babies”, “Maharadjah Burger” in India, the Papua tryptic, “A decent factory” in China). How do you explain this attraction for Asia ?

All of my films deal with western ethnocentrism, and Asia, having very different paradigm, stands out as a perfect destination for my stories.

. What are your best souvenir from Asian Filming ? what are the worst ?

The best must be Mongolian shooting for “Babies“, which was almost on every trip a fantastic experience.
The worst, having shot all of these scenes of “A decent factory” in Shenzhen and hearing from this factory management that there was no way I could use my material. Even if I finally decided to not respect their will.

. How do you see the evolution of Asian doc production ?

I can see great films coming especially from China, with  both  amazing stories and very creative forms and I think this is just a start.

. Have you done cooperation / coproduction in or with Asia ?

Yes. On a co-production side, I did myself initiate with Ryota Kotani from NHK a series called TOKYO MODERN about Tokyo for NHK, directed by four european Filmmakers (Sean Mc Allister, Pirio Onkasalo, Jill Coulon and Byamba Sakhya).
This was a very successful experience which hopefully will be reproduced. (Article in The Japan Times)

. You could the same about other Asian Cities

Why not. I think this could be quite interesting to develop this concept.

. Do you remember a doc from Asia you have specially appreciated ?

secret-of-my-success

I did not see “Last Train home“, but one of my favourite films is “The secret of my succes” which tells the story of 2 candidates at local elections in a remote North Eastern Chinese village. Its about a mayor and his opponent doing a campaign in the countryside. Its a fantastic comedy. BBC 4 / Storyville webpage. (The doc was shown on BBC 4, in 2002.)

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I also appreciated a lot another doc “Please, vote for me“. One of the 10 docs of the “democraty” collection from BBC Storyville. It tells the story of an elementary school in the city of Wuhan in central China, where eight-year old children compete for the position of Class Monitor. It is also a film about “democracy” in China. (film website, BBC web page and Trailer)

. You have a project about Bhutan. are you looking for Asian partners (coproducers) ?

Yes i have this project but it’s  a bit early to speak about it. I might pitch it soon in an international Forum.

Interview by mail, on Sunday 12 December 2010

About Thomas Balmes

Personal website with bio, filmography and pressreview.

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Asian filmography

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. “Maharadjah Burger” (1997) (presentation)

A film directed by Thomas Balmès (Director, Author, Director of Photography, Producer)

Length 52′

Production: Quark Productions – TBC Productions – CANAL+

Story : This film takes a wry look at the cultural confrontation of East and West, as reflected in attitudes towards the cow. In India, the cow is revered and cared for well beyond its prime. We see a hospice where cows spend their last days in comfort. When the BBC reports on the mass slaughter of cows due to mad cow disease, the Indians are appalled. One suggests that the British send their sick and old cows to India for caretaking. When MacDonalds opened up in New Delhi, featuring the Maharajah Burger, there was outrage at this affront. To many Indians it is a symbol of Western cultural imperialism – Western greed undermining traditional values in India. One elderly maharajah hopefully observes that the Indian culture has survived thousands of years and will not succumb to this latest onslaught.

Awards: Grand prix des indépendants aux rencontres Media Nord-Sud 98 de Genève, Grand prix Brazil International Festival of Environmental Films 2000
Trailer and Clip

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. “Christ comes to the Papuans” (2001)

A film directed by Thomas Balmès (Director, Author, Director of Photography, Producer)
« Christ comes to the Papuans » is a full length documentary made from « Waiting for Jesus » and the « Gospel according to the Papuans ».
Year of Production : 2001
Length : 83′
Production : TBC Productions, Canal +, Les Films d’Ici, Millenium Films
Story : The Huli tribe is one of the largest among 950 tribes of Papua New Guinea. They live in one of the most remote parts of the island and saw the first Whites, Methodist missionaries, arrive in 1955. Since then, these missionaries have had to compete with other hundred churches to convert the most Papuans as possible. If women could see baptism as a way of enjoying a new recognition, the same was not true for men. For them, baptism meant giving up polygamy, tribal warfare and most of heir traditions. We followed the last weeks preceding the baptism of old Huli warriors, led by their chief Ghini, who had just destroyed the ancestorís house to build a church in its place to prepare their baptism.
TrailerClip

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. “Waiting for Jesus” (2001)

A film directed by Thomas Balmès (Director, Author, Director of Photography, Producer)
Year of production :2000
Length : 52’

Broadcasters : Canal + France, Canal + Belgium, RTBF

Story: The Huli tribe is one of the largest among 950 tribes of Papua New Guinea. They live in one of the most remote parts of the island and saw the first Whites, Methodist missionaries, arrive in 1955. Since then, these missionaries have had to compete with other hundred churches to convert the most Papuans as possible. If
women could see baptism as a way of enjoying a new recognition, the same was not true for men. For them, baptism meant giving up polygamy, tribal warfare and most of their traditions.
Clip

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. “The gospel according to the Papuans” (1999)

A film directed by Thomas Balmès (Director, Author, Director of Photography, Co-producer)

In « The Gospel according to the Papuans », we followed the last weeks
preceding the baptism of old Huli warriors, led by their chief Ghini,
who had just destroyed the ancestor’s house to build a church in its place to prepare their baptism. This film records the overlay of Christianity on native beliefs that occurs in the Huli tribe, one of seven hundred tribes living in Papua New Guinea. With gentle irony, this film records the overlay of Christianity on native beliefs that occurs in the Huli tribe, one of seven hundred tribes living in Papua New Guinea. In many areas of the world where Christian missionaries have brought their message, similar confusions and misconceptions abound.
Recently, two rival groups of missionaries appeared in Papua, one Catholic and the other Seventh Day Adventists, creating competition for conversions.

Awards: Best ethnographic film’s Jerusalem Religion Today 2000, Silver Spire Award’s San Francisco Film festival 2000, Prix international de la Francophonie at Genève Rencontres Media Nord-Sud, Mention spéciale at Bilan du film ethnographique 2000 de Paris, Silver Wolf Nomination’s IDFA, Don Quichotte Prize’s Cracow International Documentary film festival 2000, Audience award’s Praha International Human Rights Film Festival 2000,
Grand prix’s ethnographic documentary Telluride Film Festival 2000 (Colorado), Grand prix Religion today Festival 2000 (Ravennes)

Clip

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. “A decent factory” (2004) (presentation)

A film directed by Thomas Balmès (Director, Author, Director of Photography, Producer)
Length : 79′
Production : Margot Films, Making Movies, Artline, France 2 and YLE2 With the support of : CNC, AVEK (Finland) and MEDIA
Story : ”A Decent Factory” follows the Ethical Researcher of Nokia company on her trip to China to examine suppliers of Nokia. Clashes between cultures, between ethics and profits, become obvious in this new documentary film by Thomas Balmès.
This doc was screened at more than 50 film festivals and received many honors, including a Europa Award. The film was released theatrically in the U.S. in 2005.
Trailer & clip

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. “Babies” (2010)

A film directed by Thomas Balmès (Director, Author – Adaptation, Director of Photography, Co-executive-Producer)
From an original idea by producer Alain Chabat.
Production : Chez Wam – Studio Canal
Distribution : Focus Features – Studio Canal
Story : Capturing on film the earliest stages of the journey of humanity that are at once unique and universal to us all, “Babies” simultaneously follows four babies, in Mongolia, Namibia, San Francisco, and Tokyo, respectively, from birth to first steps. Every shot tells a story, as the adventure of a lifetime begins.
Trailer
For more infos : film website

Babies was featured on USA Today and Time

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