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IFFR 2022 Harbour

Claire Doyon • Director of Penelope My Love

“The camera felt like a weapon as well as a shield”


- The French director’s documentary offers a very intimate insight into the story of her family and her daughter's illness

Claire Doyon • Director of Penelope My Love

In her feature documentary, French director Claire Doyon deals with the illness of her autistic daughter. Penelope My Love [+see also:
film review
interview: Claire Doyon
film profile
is a love letter to the girl but also a means for the director to find a new perspective on life. The film is shown in the Harbour section of this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam. We talked with Claire Doyon about the concept of the film and its production.

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Cineuropa: When did you decide to make a film about you and your daughter? What was the trigger?
Claire Doyon: For years I collected videos of Pénélope on Super 8 and DV. I didn't watch them, but kept piling them up and the volume they took became bigger and bigger. At some point, I thought either I throw everything away or I do something out of it. The physical volume of the material in itself was a mirror for the different phases and years we went through. It was in 2015-2016 when my look on my daughter changed, when I gave up the idea that I could achieve a complete healing of Pénélope, that I could start with the project. I realised, watching the material, that I always had thought of a film unconsciously, since while filming I often address an audience and introduce the persons that appear in the videos. 

Did you film your daughter on a regular basis or were there periods you couldn't?
There were years when I filmed more than others. Often, when it was the hardest, I shot images of landscapes and recorded my voice on them. This was the case when I needed some distance from reality. I filmed a lot during the pedagogic sessions, since I was told to do so and because all the educators had to do the same. I used these images less often in the film however, because I feel differently about them now. I also realised that the videos changed their character from the moment we visited Mongolia with Pénélope. She becomes a heroine from then on. 

This is probably a question you hear a lot. Do you think the film is some sort of therapy for you?
At the beginning, this wasn't my idea at all. The first versions were much less intimate. I wanted to include other autistic persons beside my daughter and to make mainly a very political film. A film that deals with the institutional system. But then, while working, I realised the most political aspect might come from the most intimate. I wanted to reach the audience with my personal experience. It was very challenging to feel these dark moments again. 

Did you write a diary from which you took the text you read in the film?
Yes, I wrote a diary. In the first versions of the film, the hardest parts and periods were missing. In order to recreate the emotions of them for the film, I used the diary. I guess I instinctively forgot or suppressed them.

Did it feel like, with the text, you wrote a letter to your daughter?
Yes, it did. There is, for example, the moment when I tell Pénélope I would like to kill her. Of course I didn't really want to, but it was a feeling that arose from the exasperation. This is something I could only tell to her and not someone else. I address her directly when it concerns her. 

Did you have the impression, by watching your daughter through the camera, that you saw her differently than without it?
Yes, absolutely. Sometimes I took the camera, especially in the moments when I couldn't cope anymore otherwise. There is one specific episode I recall when the camera helped me deal with a difficult situation. Pénélope and I were travelling in first class on the train. I was giving her rice, when she made a movement and spilled the rice on everyone nearby. I was feeling very bad about it. I then took the camera and began to film her. It calmed me down and it also changed something for the others and about their perception. The camera felt like a weapon as well as a shield. I guess the camera saved my life. 

What were the biggest difficulties during the production?
During the production, the greatest difficulty was the editing period. When I discovered the footage, I didn't know what I was going to find. The hardest thing was to see myself blind to what was going to happen, blind to the fate that awaited me. At the time, I thought that healing was a matter of patience. I felt invincible. It was difficult to discover this obstinacy. The film was written in the editing process. I tried to find images that could tell of turning points, moments of transformation, a bit like a fictional character. It's research that was done by trial and error. 

Do you intend to make other film projects about your daughter, your family history or your daughter's illness?
I have a strong desire for fiction and comedy. No doubt my life experience will infuse my next projects, but right now, the goal is to have fun writing. I don't know yet where it will take me. 

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