Interview: Andrew Shemin – 1
Life and filming in Paris
Andrew is an American filmmaker who has lived in Paris for ten years. He is currently finishing a documentary about the city that explores his ‘turbulent’ feelings about living there. To find out more about
He has set up a Kickstarter page to support the final stages of the documentary’s post-production.
What bought you to Paris? What keeps you in Paris?
I discovered Paris on a family vacation when I was 10 years old. I was attracted to the beauty of the architecture and parks, as well as the lively street life and human scale of the community. I grew up in Arizona, where you can go all year and count the people you see on the street on one hand. Phoenix is built for cars, and half the year it’s too hot to go outside anyway. Everything about Paris was new and interesting to me and I decided that I would live there when I grew up. And it just so happens that the idea never left me and as soon as I could, I moved here.
What keeps me in Paris now is that I have so many friends here, and in other cities in Europe, and Paris is so convenient for a weekend trip to Den Haag or Switzerland. And when Paris is at its dreariest in midwinter, I think it is the fact that you can always find a quality baguette every day in any boulangerie that still makes it hard to live anywhere else.
How did you get started making films?
Years ago, I was walking around Paris one cold, December day and had an idea for a short film. I’d always wanted to make a film, and I thought, with this idea, I’m really going to do it. So I wrote the script, borrowed a camera, and found some friends to act in it. I was happy with the first one, but I learned so much in my first experience of shooting and editing that I thought another film would be even better. And so I made more and more short films until I felt confident that I knew what I was doing. And even now I find that each film is a mixture of using what you already know and discovering new possibilities in technique and style to communicate.
How would you describe your films?
Each project feels very different and comes from very different influences. I have made short, silent films on tragic subjects; a music video with a life-size bear costume; a silly parody video.
My new documentary project, Postcards from Paris, takes influences from the very earliest cinema, the Lumière Brothers, who made fascinating one-shot documentary reels of French life in 1895; as well as from the work of Frederick Wiseman, who makes unobtrusive documentaries that try to capture reality for the audience, to bring them into the subject, often in one defined space, without conforming the subject into the frame of an author’s larger, pre-conceived argument. I began this documentary about Paris with some ideas about what I wanted to show, but by the end of the second day of shooting, I decided I would let Paris do the showing. I would figure out what it meant as I went along, and as I edited the footage, find threads of meaning that I could weave together.
I am seeking the funds for the last steps of post-production sound design, I think that this finishing touch will bring the wide range of life I captured in Paris to a coherent whole that hopefully touches on an enigmatic total spirit that goes beyond what any mere words or isolated image can capture.
You are finishing a documentary about Paris, the city in which you have lived for ten years. You describe your recent feelings about the French lifestyle and living in Paris as ‘a bit turbulent’. Can you elaborate on these mixed and changing feelings and what they might be in response to?
Paris often has a powerful effect on those who come to visit it for the first time. There is no city like it on Earth. But such a mesmerizing effect cannot last indefinitely. Furthermore, the mystique of Paris can be as powerful and more so than the city itself. There is a documented transient, psychological disorder called ‘Paris Syndrome’ which, for some reason, is most endemic to Japanese visitors, whereby the idealized vision of Paris comes into conflict with the reality of Paris. In addition to the language barrier and other forms of culture shock, this confrontation with Paris as a real city, and not a ‘dream’, leads to real symptoms of anxiety, depersonalization, even cases of dizziness and hallucinations.
Over the course of ten years of living here, I slowly experienced something akin to that. Nothing along the lines of a real disorder, but a sort of questioning of the mystique in conflict with the reality. I’d been living for a while in the neighborhood of Montmartre, which is a tourist haven, so my daily experience was a concrete representation of that conflict. I was going to buy groceries and heading out for work and visiting friends, while my street was streaming, day in day out, with dreamers, drinking wine, listening to the accordions on the street, and taking photographs of the classic streetlamps I rushed by every day. We were in two different worlds in the exact same spot.
While these visitors sought out the ‘eternal’ Paris, the Paris I had come to know over ten years had changed quite a bit. After the arrival of the Euro, prices made a huge leap and just kept increasing from there. I felt like the rising cost of living changed the city in some ways. More stress and less joie de vivre. There was the restaurant smoking ban and all kinds of political shifts that subtly and not so subtly changed life in Paris. Then again, I wondered if it was just me, being ten years older, the kind of life I felt like living in Paris had perhaps changed. Or maybe it was just too long of a time in a very condensed city.
All these questions swirled about and I wanted to discover Paris in a new way, aiming to be objective without being clinical, and share that vision in a film. Maybe that could open up a discussion about this question that was haunting me.
What have you found in the process of making this documentary?
On the surface, I cannot deny and my film does not greatly contradict the idea that the clichés of Paris appear to be true. It is a beautiful city that conserves its patrimoine. It tends more towards the romantic than the utilitarian, but still functions with modern efficiency. It presents the wide array of living situations that any city does, from the glamorous to the downtrodden, passing through the edgy, the humdrum, the buzzing and the mundane. It can be dirty. It can be exclusive. It can be crowded or solitary, disheveled or uptight.
As such, I think and I hope that the film can speak about something larger than merely Paris, but about the carnivalesque dualities and paradoxes in human life the world over.
Beneath the surface, I think I found something that courses through humankind, and is especially condensed in Paris, and what perhaps maintains its mystique, and that is the quest for glory; something that is profound, beautiful, and transcendent, but fleeting in an imperfect world. I think human beings innately strive for glory and I think that glory is something that Paris aims at and values more than any other urban convention of souls. When people can’t see it in Paris, they feel disillusioned, but like a case of beginner’s luck, I think that tourists find some kind of baptism of glory in Paris in some early experience. Where does it come from? It’s different for each individual.
For me, I think it was the first time I spoke a phrase of French out of a phrasebook when I was 10 years old and made myself understood in syllables that were, until then, foreign and strange to me, and I realized that with a new language, I could communicate with a whole civilization and its millions of people, who, until then, were inaccessible behind the wall of a language barrier. With my film, I am hoping again to find a new host of people to communicate with, in the language of cinema, Paris, and glory.
I have set up a Kickstarter page to support the final stages of the documentary’s post-production (Kickstarter is a website where anyone can support an artistic project’s creation and in return receive customized rewards).
Thank you Andrew for this interview with My French Life™. We’ve enjoyed getting to more about you and your documentary.