Calvet - Dominic Allan & Jean Marc Calvet interview
Documentary charting extraordinary life of French artist
This article is from 2011.
CALVET depicts the struggles of Jean Marc Calvet, now an artist with burgeoning international success, to come to terms with his past and, more particularly reconcile with the son he abandoned. So far, so straightforward, but Jean Marc has quite a few skeletons in his closet. Since his adolescence as a drug addict and a rent boy, the path of Calvet’s life has been anything but straight. Following a stint in the French Foreign Legion, he joined the police as a night watch officer (by his own admission becoming something of a racketeer in the process). He then took a job as a bodyguard to a shady character, who took him to America and withheld his wages, inspiring Calvet to empty his boss’s bank accounts and flee the country, opening a club in Nicaragua and becoming a paranoiac recluse with an escalating drug problem. Only then, at his lowest ebb (related in one of the most powerful of the film's sequences), did Calvet begin to truly see himself and discover the redemptive power of art. Allan’s camera follows Calvet as he retraces his steps through the different phases of his life, traversing the globe in the process.
Jean Marc Calvet’s story would be a gift to any filmmaker but Dominic Allan’s CALVET seems to have been a mutually beneficial endeavour for the storyteller and the subject. A fortuitous meeting in 2004 sparked a process that found their lives entwined in mutual endeavour and resulted in one of the most memorable documentaries in this year’s EIFF line-up. Allan’s encouragement spurred Calvet on, cultivating his desire to deal with his past and providing the impetus to reconnect with his son. As Allan says, ‘Jean Marc’s story is very extreme but it’s very inspiring because it comes from a very violent, dark place but it has this huge message of light and hope.’
There’s always going to be a note of apprehension when you meet someone whose brutally eventful life you’ve just seen related in excoriating fashion – by themselves – on screen. With the scheduled interview delayed, rescheduled and relocated, it’s not until Dominic Allan arrives with Jean Marc Calvet that I know for sure the film’s subject will be in attendance. However, it‘s soon clear that he’s the same ebullient and charming character that he appears on screen. (I could have known earlier, as the cheerful “alloalloalloallo” delivered to a momentarily unattended dictaphone later makes clear). Also, the mutual affection between the two men is clear from the start, even though their lives couldn’t have been more different (English-born Allan has had a distinguished career in television documentary). I ask them how they cultivated that relationship to the extent that allowed the film to be made in an atmosphere of mutual trust.
‘We got on very well from the beginning. We had a very good connection,’ says Allan. ‘I think Jean Marc would agree if I said that he’d got to the point in his life where it was more than his life was worth to lie or hide. So he needed to tell. The film was an extension of his paintings in a sense. He needed to tell and he wanted to tell.’ Calvet’s paintings are what first brought the two together in conversation – busy, colourful canvases evoking something between Chris Ofili and Jean-Michel Basquiat. They frequently depict events in his life, in abstract fashion. Calvet explains, ‘Painting is therapy. I’ve had no chemical therapy. I heard noises, I saw people [that weren’t there]. It’s like – it’s not like, it is - schizophrenia. I am a perfect example for art therapy. I was very sick, and look at me now.’
‘I don’t hide nothing.’ Calvet continues, explaining that he opened himself up to potential mistreatment in the documentary but decided, ‘I don’t care, because I need it.’ Allan continues, ‘I was very clear with Jean Marc from the beginning that if I was going to set out on what was going to be a journey, this epic film, it’s a lot of work, so in order to do that, I said, “It’s all or nothing, and we’ve got to really trust each other.” And I said that from the beginning.’
‘I think the movie came in the perfect moment,’ Calvet says. Allan explains, ‘I realised he’d just reached the point where he’d become very lucid and could really start to talk about and needed to.’ The film sees Calvet returning for the first time to the scenes of some of the most harrowing moments in his life (one remarkable moment has him returning to the public toilet block where he was raped as a young man). Calvet says, ‘What you see in the movie, is the first time [I spoke about those events] - you know why.’ Getting in contact with his son was a more desirable process, but no less difficult. ‘He was very frightened,’ Allan suggests. Calvet says, ‘When he asked me [to contact my son] for the movie, he said, “Take your time, two months, three months, because if you say yes, it’s yes. No buts.” I told him, I want to find my son.’ Allan interjects, ‘At which point I said, “OK, we’re coming with you!”’ Calvet continues, ‘He said, “I’m with you, but I won’t help you.”’
With such an intense relationship, and such a focus on one person’s testimony (however brutally Calvet examines himself), the question of objectivity does rear its head. The stories Calvet tells about his life are so extraordinary and so many that, of course, their and his veracity have to be called into question. The film features the other people in Calvet’s life only tangentially, so how did Allan know he was getting the real deal?
‘I talked to Jean Marc at length many times over four and a half years and, in all that time, I also went back over the same stories many times and nothing ever differed … And of all the people I interviewed to corroborate – I talked to a lot of people – it was all in line. And as an experienced documentary filmmaker, you’ve got to be aware of that.’
He continues, ‘I did interview his mother, his father, some other friends, his ex-wife and various other people who could corroborate, and I decided not to use them, purely because I think it’s a much more intense and stronger film for it. There was also quite a large legal process I went through after the film, for insurance and all sorts of things. I had to prepare a document and the document was very long in terms of how I could corroborate everything that happened.’
Allan feels that they have accomplished what they set out to do, and what he personally wanted to achieve. ‘I’d kind of reached the point, and this sounds a bit worthy, but it’s true, where I wanted to make films that inspire people or at least make a difference, even in a tiny way, cos I think films should do that.’ Both seem heartened with the film’s reception so far. Although, as Calvet says, ‘I miss talking,’ he has been humbled by the impression the film has made on audiences. At the first screening he attended, he stood at the door to thank the audience. ‘99% of people said thank you. Some people said, “You gave me balls to talk with my son”’. He concludes, ‘I made this for therapy. Now it’s more than that. This, I didn’t realise when I said yes. It was just for me and to find my son. It’s incredible for me.’ Allan adds, ‘The most rewarding thing so far has been to see the reaction of people and see how it’s inspired people.’
What’s next for the pair? Calvet is returning to Nicaragua, to his pregnant wife. Allan says that, among other projects, ‘I intend to write an English language screenplay of this story. It will be very, very different.’ I ask Jean Marc if he’s going to have any input in casting and he laughs it off. Allan interjects, ‘He’ll certainly consult.’