Long hailed as France’s most famous – and controversial – public intellectual, Bernard-Henri Lévy has been making waves through his writing and speaking (and outsized personality) since his early days in the “Nouveaux Philosophes” movement over four decades ago. In recent years, though, BHL (like RBG he’s a media darling with a hip acronym) has been lauded for turning his penetrating gaze to filmmaking. Just this past November Lévy received the American Media Abroad Award for Peshmerga and The Battle of Mosul, a pair of companion docs he directed that eloquently focus on the Kurdistan region, specifically its people’s importance in the fight against ISIS.
Awhile back I had the good fortune to meet with BHL – who’s currently on a US media blitz hawking his latest book “The Empire and the Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World” – during the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival (also known by its hip acronym CPH:DOX) where both films were screening. Over early morning coffee at the elegant French embassy in the center of town he enthusiastically answered a wide range of questions, beginning with the obvious: Why on earth, after decades of being a Parisian man about town, return to the dangers of covering combat that he dove into during his youth?
“Probably because the world is not better than it was forty years ago,” Lévy theorized with a slight chuckle. “Maybe because it’s even worse. And probably because the reasons that pushed me in the first place are still existing in the same way. Why should I stop? Of course, it doesn’t have to be me,” he conceded. “On the other hand, I did Peshmerga and I did The Battle of Mosul – and the war is still going on. I wish that somebody else would continue (to document it).”
We then turned to the defining scene of Peshmerga – a landmine hits the doc’s cameraman during production – which upended the film’s entire narrative trajectory. Instead of replacing his DP and coldly forging on, BHL surprisingly decided to accompany his wounded colleague out of the war zone. “We changed up everything for two weeks – in the time when he was really in danger of death,” Lévy solemnly explained. “After that, when the time came for the long recovery, we started again the normal course of the film. But during these critical two weeks – what can I say? I’m probably not a normal director. My producer is probably not a normal producer. The two cameramen were not normal cameramen. We were a band of friends, a band – though I don’t like the word – of “brothers” in a way.”
“We were so shocked by this. We could not just continue as if nothing had happened. We were frozen by what had happened – there was no question of stopping,” he emphasized. “We started again once we knew he was out of danger. It was a very special group – very small and close, only six or seven of us doing everything – so the human element was there. When he got wounded it was one of the worst days of my life. I reported wars all my life, but to have someone who had become a close friend being blown up like this… You just cannot continue. The show cannot go on.”
“But my producer also took on the weight,” he then clarified. “He was on the field with us the whole time. Speaking with you I now think it was a heavy decision, because in a way he stopped the film. For a producer I suppose this can have heavy consequences. He had the elegance not to tell me, but it was a fact.”
But why ultimately incorporate such a personal event into a film exploring the larger conflict in the Middle East? Wasn’t this also an editing choice? “It changed the rhythm of the narrative, the breathing of the film,” BHL conceded. “It changed my relationship to the film in a way. But it would have been dishonest for me not to integrate this episode, this tragedy, into the movie. If I had not done that I think I would have lacked probity.”
Lévy then addressed the subject of his cinematic touchstones, some of which were equally unexpected. “I was certainly influenced by early Chris Marker, for sure,” he offered. “Also the cinema of war, the fiction movies. As far as documentary, not so much. Maybe the films about the Spanish war, and also the text of Hemingway. But I’m a writer more than a filmmaker so there were probably more literary examples in my head.”
Broaching the similarity between his technique and that of another nonfiction philosopher, Werner Herzog – who likewise follows a line of questioning in lieu of a search for answers – BHL provided an unusually pragmatic response. “The fact is, when I do movies there are just more questions than answers. And I don’t do so many interviews compared with most documentaries. It’s true that it is my questions, my subjectivity, and what I see. That is my approach.” Yet he also noted that for him – like a vast swath of European filmmakers – the line between narrative and doc “is not so big.”
As we finished our cups of coffee (in fine china) and the interview came to a close, the subject of the global elephant in the room inevitably came up. “Like the rest of the world, like every decent believer in democracy, I’m absolutely flabbergasted by the vulgarity, by the stupidity, by the lack of preparation, the amateurism – by the violence of this guy and of a big part of his team, unfortunately,” Lévy fumed about our current American president. “What strikes me was there was once this idea that his team would somehow balance the craziness of the guy. And also that he wouldn’t implement his program. That he did not believe himself in what he said. But he believes in what he said, and he will try to do it.”
“For me it is very sad because America is my second homeland,” he lamented. “The greatest journalists and war reporters are often Americans. To see the country headed by this man – it’s frightening for someone like me, a lover of America. With this ongoing war against terror you need cold blood – and a mix of strength and wisdom. And now this mix is missing.”