The changed face of the 65th Edinburgh International Film Festival has meant that a lot of documentaries and other foreign independent films which may never have been introduced to British audiences have been given the chance to shine. If the shift in focus from red carpet events to a less mainstream approach has meant the A-list celebrities are conspicuous by their absence, it certainly has not lead to a dearth in interesting talent. Falling squarely into that category are the two men now sitting with me in the Cameo bar following a screening of a film called CALVET, directed by one, about the other.
You couldn’t imagine meeting two more different people than Dominic Allan and Jean Marc Calvet. The former a self-confessed “director for hire” best known for his work on television documentaries such as Football Stories: Seven Days That Shook United, the latter an artist with a dark and sordid past, who had never picked up a brush until he was 38 and now sells his work for $20,000 a piece. Yet seeing them together it is clear that, over the course of the years it took to make Calvet, a story of a man’s redemption, of facing up to one’s past, the two have become the best of friends. “He’s a friend, he’s family. I needed to talk, and one day an Angel came and I felt yes, with this man, it’s OK, he’s cool.” This is how Jean Marc Calvet describes their relationship, the poetic phrasing not something you would initially expect upon seeing his hulking, tattooed frame.
Yet little about the life of this French soldier turned bodyguard turned artist is predictable, and his confident air and jovial tone betray nothing of the darkness which consumed such a huge portion of his life. But what first made Dominic Allan decide that he had to commit this incredible story to film? ” I was living in South America and met him (Jean Marc) while travelling in Central America and I just hadn’t heard a story like it.” He says. “It lit a fire inside which had kind of died in commissioned TV, which is privileged and fantastic but wasn’t really feeding my soul anymore. I just thought his story was so inspiring, it comes from a very dark violent place but it has such a message of hope and of light in a sense and I just really felt that.” Like the most inspirational narrative cinema, Calvet resonates so deeply with audiences because it journeys through the worst aspects of humanity and shows that there is always cause for hope. Dominic Allan sums up this feeling of empathy, saying ” I suspect that for most of us, and albeit irrationally, we all go through our lives with this strange and uncomfortable notion that we need to atone for something, that we’ve done something wrong, certainly the idea of a second chance is very attractive.”
Jean Marc Calvet’s second chance came after he spent nine months locked in a room in Costa Rica, racked with guilt over the abandonment of his wife and son years previously he consumed an inhuman quantity of drugs and alcohol, preparing himself for death. But in death’s place came inspiration in the form of a few cans of industrial paint. One of the most haunting scenes from the film describes a manic Jean Marc Calvet covering himself in paint and attacking the walls of his home, feeling all the rage and hatred escape his body in the process. With the turnaround that his life has experienced since this time, it is little wonder that more positive emotions now seep into his work. “Much more positive.” He says, but admits: “I have anger, you have anger when you make a mistake, I still feel the same but now I am responsible. There is love and hate, but now it’s not extreme highs and lows, it’s a balance and now it’s construction, before it was destruction.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the compulsive need that Jean Marc feels to paint, pure instinct giving him what years of study could never have achieved. ” I just go in front of the white canvas and draw a shape, every time it’s different, maybe it’s me, maybe it’s you, I don’t know, I don’t think.” He continues ” I never paint and think “I want to talk about war, about sex” every day we have a story, our lives are pure detail, if I take all the detail away you are invisible. It’s the same when I paint. It’s detail, you just do it, you paint.”
Telling the story of the emergence of a world renowned artist was always going to be important, but equally crucial to the emotional impact of the film was the story of Jean Marc’s search for the son who he abandoned, the reason for his need to atone. So how did the director go about combining these two separate but intrinsically linked stories? “The structure of the film was quite a tricky one to master, I had a very talented editor called Paul Carling and we tried lots of different things, but the son story was always going to be the emotional structure, everything’s relevant to that.” Dominic says. ” The fact that the story’s split in that way, when we eventually found it, it happened towards the end of the edit.” Even in documentary cinema, there is still a need to provide entertainment for the viewer and Allan concedes “you have to be very careful with that in terms of not irritating the viewer and also everything coming in the right order.” He continues “Before Jean Marc goes into the house you need to understand what went before, otherwise it’s just a junkie on a bender.”
This blunt, honest way of speaking characterises not only Dominic Allan and Jean Marc Calvet’s relationship but the film itself. Not only does it act as a confessional for the artist, but there is an honesty to the way the film is made, which doesn’t disguise moments of frustration, when things didn’t go to plan. This honesty was something that, from the outset, Dominic Allan felt had to flow through every part of his film: “There was only one way to do it, I just had to be there with a camera and do it for real.” Says the director “Even in the retracing of the past it’s very real even though I set that up in terms of the places we would go in Jean Marc’s past” he admits, continuing “but he hadn’t been back to them before, it was the first time he’d been back to them. I’d leave him in the car and then I’d go with the DP, we’d look at it say “OK we’ll do it this way” and then Jean Marc would come and we’d try and do it first time because I wanted honesty, his reaction.”
Jean Marc’s reaction is one thing, but how did the man himself feel about the response he has received from others to his life story? “When I made this movie, I made it for me, it was therapy.” he confesses “But when I saw the movie for the first time people come and say “thank you so much, you’ve given me something” and now I understand why Dominic made this movie, to give some hope. Before I needed to talk, it’s not that I didn’t care I just didn’t realise the vision, it is for me, and for you.”
Whether a wider audience is able to see this film in Britain remains to be seen, CALVET being one of a high number of films from this year’s festival struggling for distribution. That it should be seen by a wide audience is unquestionable, but for now Dominic Allan and Jean Marc Calvet will continue to take their film around the festival circuit where a stop in France will include Jean-Marc’s son Kevin seeing the film for the first time. It is bound to be another memorable moment in an emotional and turbulent life. But don’t hold your breath for a sequel.