Sometimes, in my subway rides, when I forgot to bring a book or download a short story for me to read, I observe my surroundings. Around me are faces of New Yorkers; people that I might never know, or—who knows—people that I might get to know in the future. I try to imagine their life stories and what series of events got them to this point. Sometimes I overhear their discussions and catch a little glimpse of their stories. And sometimes I see myself in the conversations: this one time a group of young men who just got back from the Global Citizen Festival debated a series of compelling arguments on whether Logic is a good musician or not. Some of their points reflected what I would say if I am ever faced with that conversation—which prompted me to whisper “I agree” to my friend who’s sitting next to me and might/might not overhear the conversation— then I am struck by the realization that even though I will never know the stories behind the faces I see in my subway rides, there must be something I share in common with them.
Today, I watched a documentary that summarizes how I feel. The people in the film are not from a city like New York but from the rural areas of France. They are viewed through the lens of two different, idiosyncratic artists: filmmaker Agnès Varda and muralist/photographer JR, who come from different generations and dabble in different forms of art. They trek the rural areas of France, finding interesting places and talking to the faces associated with them, before memorializing these people in an artwork attached to each place.
Varda and JR are interested in places. In the film, they scour through the nooks and crannies of France, admiring ruins, abandoned houses, scenic spots, and water tanks, and immortalized the stories behind these places. One example of this is when they arrived at a factory; they took pictures of the whole crew in two batches and printed them onto the factory walls. The factory workers were impressed by the results. Some of them were also saddened due to the fact that there are some people missing from the picture, but at the same time, this project was timed perfectly for one of them, whose last day of work is on the day he is photographed. The mural tells the story behind the walls of the factory, highlighting the people who keep the factory alive. This—and the rest of Varda and JR’s projects in the film—drains whatever solipsism is left from the viewers; the documentary strengthens the notion that everyone has a life as intricate as ours and everyone has a story to tell. Varda and JR are the ones who are telling the story.
The film doesn’t shy away from the repercussions of this notion—that these stories are temporary. In fact, impermanence is the heart of this film. Varda’s blurring vision is addressed fully—notably, in JR’s artistic reconstruction of an eye test chart—and is even an integral part in the film’s beginning and ending. These places, faces, and stories—like the human body—are also temporary. The murals JR built do not last forever; the buildings will turn to ruins; communities will be gone. In this short, fleeting world, Varda and JR did all they can to preserve what exists now in their unique way. When the tide brushes up one of JR’s murals, the duo acknowledges that there are forces greater than them out there, and they’ve done their part.
What is as important as the mission is the friendship that Varda and JR found along the way. The beginning of the film showed a sequence of almost-encounters between the two: instances where they are in the same place at the same time, but didn’t have the chance to talk to each other. After they got to know each other, they mentioned their association; Varda compared JR to fellow French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard due to his physical appearance, and JR told Varda about his grandmother, whom Varda met in the time of their collaboration. As the film progresses, they find more things that they have in common with each other, and with that, they also try to savor each moment in this project. This is shown in a lovely scene where Varda and JR try to beat the record of running across the Louvre set by Godard’s characters in Bande a Part, with JR running while pushing Varda in a wheelchair, stopping occasionally to admire the art on display.
With the notion of impermanence and their effort to tell other people’s stories, Varda and JR become aware of their own stories as well. This made me reflect on my own story too. After watching Faces Places, I realize that my own story is worth telling and I have something to offer to the world, and you do, too.
p.s. godard is a douchebag, pass it on