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ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
A FILM BY CLAUS DREXELOFFICIAL WEBSITE
Claus Drexel - On The Edge of the World
Claus Drexel

Biography

Claus Drexel, of Bavarian origin, spent most of his life in France. After graduating from high school, with a degree in science, and from the University of Grenoble, in audio-visual technology, he starts to work as a sound engineer. In 1991 he moves to Paris to attend film school. During his studies, he interns at several film companies in the USA, including LucasFilm, where he gets in touch with non-linear editing. He also participates in a project, involved with the technical evolution of the ARRI435 special effects camera in Munich.
After graduating from film school he works as a director of photography for several years.
His career as a director starts in 1996, completing three short-films: C4 (1996), The Operating Theatre (Max au Bloc) (1998) and The Divine Inspiration with lead actor Keir Dullea (star of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 - A Space Odyssey). The films participate in more than one hundred festivals worldwide and win several awards.
In 2008, he directs his first feature, Family Values (Affaire de Famille), with French star actors André Dussollier and Miou-Miou. The film wins the Best Screenplay Prize by the French National Cinema Center and the Best European Film Award at the Avignon Film Festival.
In 2012 he stages Bach's St Matthew Passion at the renowned Cirque d'Hiver in Paris.
In 2013 he directs On the Edge of the World (Au bord du monde) a feature-length documentary about the homeless people of Paris. The film premieres at the Cannes Film Festival in the selection of the ACID, wins the Grand Prize of the International Francophone Film Festival in Germany and is shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Currently, Claus Drexel writes the screenplay of his third feature-film, for which he received a grant from the French cinema center, CNC.
Director's Statement

Giving a voice to the homeless.
For many years I was hounded by the desire to meet Paris' homeless population, those phantoms who haunt the city's sidewalks and metro stations, omnipresent yet invisible to those who walk right by them without ever stopping. I wanted to know what these people had to say about the world, and what they thought about life. Rather than a question of media-type curiosity as to how they ended up on the street, I simply wanted to give them a voice. A quest for a greater truth Driven by the will to go below the surface of things and find a deeper truth, we knew that we needed to become intimately acquainted with the people who accepted to share their stories with us. So we spent a year with the street people, taking the time for us to get to know each other, like the Little Prince and the Fox. The interviews weren't conducted like interviews, but long conversations between friends. And as a result of this intimacy, the words in the film are very precious gifts that I have been entrusted with, and now I feel responsible for them. Before being the director of a film, I'm the ambassador of these words. That is why this film holds such an important place in my life and in my heart.

Face to face
The only way to film so much generosity, sincerity and authenticity, was with a straight-on shot, using a
mounted camera, near to the ground, at the same level as those who agreed to speak with us, their gaze very close to the camera's lens. Placing the viewer face to face with the subject was inspired by the work of two photographers, Walker Evans and August Sander. It gives dignity and strength to the people being filmed, and acts like a mirror for the viewer. In Sander's work, the subject's social origins are always evident, but it's the grace of the human face that is at the center of the image. Using this humanistic approach was fundamental.

A mixture of heaven and hell
We entrusted the cinematography to Sylvain Leser, since the work he conducted over several years with the homeless is deeply instilled with humanism. Moreover, he knows how to give each image the unsettling strangeness of a Giorgio De Chirico, the strength of a Caravaggio or the sublime of a Jérôme Bosch, where heaven and hell mix together. For here lies one of the film's central themes: between the Golden City's impertinent magnificence, and the simplicity of those who live under its bridges, where is heaven and where is hell?

An urban tale
The film begins and ends in music. It starts with the prelude of Parsifal, Richard Wagner's opera-testament, a work with which he wanted to express the regeneration of humanity through compassion. This music, combined with Sylvain Leser's cinematography installs the film in a ghost town, devoid of all life, apart from the homeless who receive us in their homes and who seem to be the sole survivors of a post-apocalyptic Paris. The film closes with Nessun dorma (None shall sleep) from Turandot, Puccini's last opera. The words of this famous aria perfectly accompany the film's final shots and give a higher significance to the moment when the characters are named and we say good-bye to them.

Will the sun rise again?
My initial wish with this film was to discover the people who live on the street. But this year spent among them moved me much more than I could ever have imagined. In a world that has lost its bearings, where philosophy has been silenced by a consumerist obsession, those who are considered society's dregs taught me a veritable lesson in humanism. At the heart of their words, there is the question of the essential things in life: love, friendship, and respect for others. The City of Light's last philosophers may very well be found among the homeless. They speak to us about a return to basics - the only hope that the sun will once again rise on our crepuscular era. In the end, their words are what illuminate the film, more than the magnificent images.
Interview

You've already treated the theme of social exclusion and misery in the broad sense of the term. What inparticular draws you to these difficult social issues?

This is the first time I've tackled this theme in my work, but it was about time! I've been very lucky in life. I grew up in a loving family and we were never in need. I married a fantastic woman and we are the parents of four healthy children. So, in this particularly cruel and ruthless era we live in, it seemed essential for me to dedicate myself to those people who have been less lucky than I have been in life.
Can you talk to us about the genesis of this documentary?

How did the idea of devoting a film to the people at the margins of Parisian society come about?

The number of homeless people in Paris is simply staggering. But the numerous stories and media coverage on the subject are often reduced to an analysis made by an incensed journalist or a disillusioned social worker. Although I often share the feelings of helplessness and distress expressed by these persons, I wanted to get to the heart of things, get to know who really are these street people and discover what they think about the world. In short, I wanted to make a film that gives a voice to those who are never heard.

What preparatory steps did you take before embarking on the project?

I read several books and publications on the subject matter and I met professionals in the social sector. Even though they aren't in the film, we were superbly helped and supported by social welfare institutions such as the SAMU Social (Mobile emergency medical serves for the homeless), La Mie de Pain (social insertion), the Paris metropolitan public transportation's homeless services arm, and in particular Dr. Jacques Hassin, chief of service and liaison for health and social services at Nanterre Hospital, the largest homeless care service center in France. That said, I didn't want to over prepare everything, because this film was above all a sort of quest for me and not something to support a preconceived theory. I didn't want my discovery of this world to be altered by the experience and analysis that others may have had before me. I needed to approach this shoot with the Little Prince's innocence in order to be fully open to what I was going to discover.

How did the shoot go? It must have been very delicate to film a documentary at nighttime. What equipment did you use?

For security and mobility concerns, we needed to use lightweight and compact material as we were working
with a skeleton crew. At the same time, our goal was to make a real feature-length cinematic film, so the sound and photography had to be impeccable. Initially I wanted to shoot with an Arri Alexa camera, but after several tests, we opted for the Canon C-300, as it was better adapted to our streamlined crew, which had no first assistant camera person. However, we used cinematic lenses, such as the Cooke S4, whose soft focus I greatly appreciate. Almost the entire film was shot with the same lens: a 14mm wide-angle.
For the sound, we used a combination of a boom and wireless microphone, just like a feature film with real
actors.

On the screen, the photogenic component is striking. Was this a deliberate approach?

It was never a question of making an esthetically pleasing film. However, the desire to have a very beautiful image, in cinemascope, where each shot is a tableau, that idea was present from the beginning. The obvious idea was to highlight the striking contrast between Paris' incredible beauty and the misery of the people who live on its sidewalks and under its bridges. I also wanted to have the best showcase possible for their stories, which they were so generously sharing with us. Putting this together wasn't an easy thing to do; nothing was evident, especially having a streamlined crew, which excluded all additional lighting. The solution came from my producer, Florent Lacaze, who offered to hire a photographer to direct the photography instead of a DP coming from the film industry. It was a brilliant idea. After a long period of searching for someone, Florent showed me Sylvain Leser's photographs. They were quite a revelation: I saw exactly what I'd had in mind for the film, but it was even more beautiful and poetic. Meeting Sylvain afterwards was a real delight. We immediately understood that we were going to be united in this adventure. And now that the film is completed, it is wonderful to note that images won't overwhelm the
viewer. Instead, they serve the words, the stories, giving them strength and solemnity. It is what I had hoped for and imagined.

The content and the form are intimately related, if only through the characters' mise-en-abyme. How did you manage to strike this perfect chord?

The film shows a series of conversations with people for whom I have enormous sympathy. I wanted to be an intermediary for the viewers, giving them the impression that they are actually sitting in my place, facing the homeless person. During the editing process, respecting the temporality of what they were saying was essential, as well as not resorting to close ups. Long static shots, not cutting people off while they are talking, is the way we see someone we are having a conversation with: what the viewer is seeing is exactly what I saw when speaking with the homeless people. This technique allowed us to shoot for several hours without stopping the camera, giving us as many chances as possible to capture magical moments when they happened. So there is an unquestionably strong connection between content and form.

Despite the difficult images and a tough theme, can we speak about a certain esthetic?

As far as I'm concerned, it was necessary to stylize the film in order to obtain a stronger authenticity, a deeper truth that was hiding beneath the surface. Werner Herzog calls it the ecstatic truth. The most telling example, to my knowledge, comes from the world of music, and not cinema: Joseph Canteloube's Songs of Auvergne. The composer had known these traditional tunes since his childhood, and wanted to introduce them to the Parisian public. So he invited Auvergne women farmers to the Capital, but the public didn't respond to these a capella songs. Canteloube then realized that what was missing in order to feel the power and emotion of what he had felt as a child was the feeling of the wind in your hair and the beautiful Auvergne landscape. To make up for these missing elements, he composed a score for an orchestra to accompany the singers. From that moment on, the magic worked and the Parisian public was won over. In the same vein, the interviews I conducted with the homeless took place outside, sometimes in the cold and snow. Yet the audience will see the film in a warm and comfortable movie theater. So, it became necessary to stylize the film, to give the public the ability to feel the powerful emotions that I felt during these nights spent outside. I'm convinced that the film is much more authentic this way, as opposed to shooting it with a handheld camera. But it is important to stress that despite this stylization, the people themselves were never directed. We filmed them where they really live, without ever moving them for the needs of the picture. Nobody was placed" in front of a bit of scenery to make things look "pretty."

Throughout the film, you go and encounter a number of different people. Was it difficult to convince them to tell their stories? How did you explain your approach to them?

Working in collaboration with Sylvain Leser accelerated the process considerably. The years he spent in the
Parisian streets photographing the homeless were an enormous and fundamental asset for us. Some of the people who appear in the film he had already known for a very long time. And he taught me how to approach people who live in the street. But in the end, he simply opened my eyes to the fact that these people aren't that different from us, and it is much more simple to approach them than we think. In the end, all you need to be is friendly and pleasant and often you are welcomed with open arms. Then, what convinced them to participate in the film was our willingness to take the time that was necessary. From the beginning, we told them that we wanted to see them on a regular basis over the course of a year and that nothing would be hurried or rushed. We also had a tacit agreement in which I promised to only tackle themes they wished to discuss. I have to admit that at the beginning I thought it would be much more difficult, that they would shut us out. But on the contrary, the majority of people we met let us know how much they wanted to express themselves about things they had kept inside for far too long, since for many of them, it had been years since anybody had listened to them.

We can easily imagine the difficulties you encountered. Did you have to face obstacles? Unexpected situations?

Spending the night outside, in the cold, wasn't the most difficult. What was in fact literally unbearable, was, at the break of dawn, to return to our nice warm homes and leave our friends in the street. That reminds me of a particularly moving moment in the film, when I ask Christine if she is cold and she answers me: I was going to ask you the same thing.

What would you like the public to take from this documentary?

One of the most beautiful compliments I received after a screening was from a member of a charity organization who is on the team of people who comb the streets at night, assisting the homeless. He told me that, for the very first time, he saw the homeless on the screen the way he sees them every night. I hope that this authenticity will allow viewers, and the young public in particular who will be shaping tomorrow's world, to discover that there are also wonderful people to be found in the streets. I'd so much like that after watching the film, passers-by look at the homeless with more respect. Because, in my mind, even more unbearable than not having a roof over one's head, is living in a society in which those who are "different" no longer have a right to dignity.
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