Faces Places @ The Ross

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JR and Agnés Varda

Do you remember that trusty old photo album? You know that book with plastic pockets wherein you placed the photos you waited about a week for them to be developed? Do you remember the anticipation of driving up to the photomat or walking up to the counter in the drugstore and going through every photo all while the cashier waited patiently for you to pay for them? You didn’t care because as you leaned on the counter perusing each photo, certain emotions came over you. Those 3×5 cards bore witness to particular moments in your life. Those photos told a story.

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The Town’s Postman

Street Artist JR and Agnés Varda feature the art of taking photos of faces and places and developing them on gigantic sheets of photo paper for all of their subjects to see in the moment. In their documentary entitled Faces and Places, Varda, a co-founder of French New Wave Cinema of the late 50s, and JR travel around the French countryside together in a van equipped with a camera seeking out the everyday ordinary. Daily life of working class people is the main aspect of this documentary, and Varda and JR invite audiences into the lively conversations each one has with them before the photo is taken. Why? Because these dialogues lay bare the histories of faces and places.

In the film, ordinary places and things such as crates in an industrial yard, fish at the market, feet and eyes and trains and water towers capture the attention of Varda and JR. One of the most amazing scenes are those of an area of abandoned row houses wherein the coal-mining families lived. These row houses are to be demolished but one lone resident on the row, Jeanne, refuses to leave. The retired miners come out to the area and tell of the dangers and hazards they endured as they worked the daily grind in the mines. Pictures are taken, then JR and his crew plaster these larger-than-life visuals of the miners and Jeanne, on the frontice piece of the brick homes. Autobiography along with the visual coalesce to offer testimony to a community once teeming with families, relatives, and friends. People once lived here.

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The Coal Miners on Brick

I enjoyed seeing this young man and octogenarian finding solace in each other’s company and in their art. The strolls on the cold windy beaches, the conversations in the café, and the interactions with ordinary people, the patience, the comfort level JR and Agnés have with each other are refreshing, especially in this pop culture that is saturated with and salivates over youth.

Faces Places reminds us that the everyday ordinary of working-class people—from the postman to the truck driver to the goat farmer to the miner–all have stories to tell us if we take time to listen. But JR and Agnés privilege particular faces their documentary. No people of color are interviewed. The extent of JR’s and Agnés’s curiosity begins and ends, then, with French white citizens. On one excursion, an interracial couple is included in the project but the wife of African descent is silent. She sits without emotion as if to look into space as her husband chatters on and her children play around her. Why? Is there a political statement both filmmakers are trying to push to the viewing audience?

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