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Guillaume de Fontenay • Director of Sympathy for the Devil

"Paul Marchand was a powerful film character"


- We met up with Franco-Canadian director Guillaume de Fontenay whose feature film debut Sympathy for the Devil is presented this week at the Galway Film Fleadh

Guillaume de Fontenay  • Director of Sympathy for the Devil
(© Shayne Laverdière)

Since its world premiere in October 2019, the Canadian-French-Belgian co-production Sympathy for the Devil [+see also:
film review
interview: Ella Rumpf
interview: Guillaume de Fontenay
film profile
has won many prizes, including the Grand Prix at the Saint-Jean-de-Luz International Film Festival (France) and three Iris awards (Quebec). This war biopic, set in the heart of a Sarajevo under siege, is continuing on its world tour and is now being presented as part of the Peripheral Visions section of the Galway Film Fleadh. We met up with Guillaume de Fontenay, the director of this gripping drama adapted from the eponymous novel written by French war reporter Paul Marchand, who took his own life in 2009.

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Cineuropa: When did you first encounter the figure of Paul Marchand? When and how did you discover his story?
Guillaume de Fontenay:
I first knew Paul through Radio-Canada’s Téléjournal where he worked as a freelance war correspondent in Sarajevo from June 1992 to November 1993, the date of his emergency evacuation. In 1997, I rediscovered him through his stories in his book Sympathy for the Devil. A provoker who took maximum risks, he had written on his car “Morituri te salutant” and “Don’t waste your bullet, I’m immortal” for the snipers to read.  Paul Marchand was a man who was profoundly hurt, one of the most vivid minds I’d ever met, and because of his extreme personality, he was also a powerful film character. We met in France for the first time in June 2006.

Would you describe Sympathy for the Devil as a historical film? How essential did it seem to you to return to the siege of Sarajevo, this troubled moment from our contemporary history?
Sympathy for the Devil is first of all a film about the failure of a man, of a journalist who wanted to succeed in warning the world, in making it better, in making a difference. Should one stay neutral or take a side, should one help the victims? From a historical point of view, I was profoundly shocked by our collective apathy regarding this war, this medieval siege at the doors of Europe which we tolerated for almost four years. It seemed important to me to return to this conflict that is too quickly forgotten.

Tell us about the way Paul Marchand talked about the war. How did you transcribe this into the film?
Paul was rather a columnist with a clearly stated opinion. He is the only correspondent I know who would end his reports by concluding with his famous: "(…) and all this under the impassive eyes of the International Community.” In the 4/3 format, the image is the size of television screens and of the TV reports of the time. It is more brutal, more claustrophobic. I consciously wanted to follow Paul. It is through him that we discover the siege of Sarajevo, its inhabitants, and the job of war correspondent. He is the one who shows us the path, who leads the way most of the time. I’m not interested in his past or in his future, but rather in his relationship to the present in this world that is in survival mode.

The film was almost entirely shot in Sarajevo. Can you tell us about that experience?
It was very important for me to shoot the entirety of the film in Sarajevo, I wanted to give something back to Sarajevans and make this film with them. Thankfully, Boba Lizdek, who’s a central character in the film, has been supporting me ever since Paul took his own life, she helped me during all the preparation and the filming. The filming was very challenging, in the middle of winter, in the cold, in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions. Nearly the entire crew was Bosnian, and all of those who were over 30 years old had been profoundly marked by this war. It forces humility, total engagement and the desire to make a film that would be powerful and just. It was an extraordinary experience with an exceptional team.

You’ve talked several times about your desire to put in place a “sensorial narration” to tell this story, one that is simultaneously raw, violent and humanistic. Can you tell us more about your intentions when it comes to the mise en scene? 
It is difficult to say a lot of things in just 1h40 and I favoured a more sensorial approach to try to make viewers somehow feel this siege and this job of war correspondent. This urgency to denounce which animated Paul, I wanted to find it again through an unadorned and straightforward narration, a handheld camera, long and immersive takes, avoiding the usual shot-reverse shot, being as close to possible to things, making the viewer feel the war, this dull pressure, trying to avoid complacency, staying with the facts, showing the violence in a raw way but with decency and restraint. Saying what Paul was saying. Trying to be as just as possible about an extremely important topic.

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(Translated from French)

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