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17 Girls – An interview with the directors Muriel and Delphine Coulin

What was your path before this film?
Muriel: I started working as camera assistant for Louis Malle, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Aki Kaurismäki. Delphine, who was still in high school, came to visit me on the set during vacations. I then became director of photography in documentaries and worked mainly for Emmanuel Finkiel and Jean-Pierre Limosin.

Delphine: I studied literature and political science, and worked at ARTE, where I became responsible for documentary programs and published four novels. When we moved in together we started making short films.

M: We started making a short film called Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux during the strikes of autumn 1995. We submitted it to festivals and it won the first prize in the Los Angeles festival.

What is the founding film for your film desire?
D: The films our cinephile grandfather filmed on his 9.5mm camera, and what was screened for us in the same format: there were Chaplin films that we ended up knowing by heart, as he had 4 or 5 in his collection; it was a magical ritual of Sunday afternoons.

M: We were taught to be curious, this is what saved us from Lorient! When I was a teenager I went to see many films; I loved Cocteau and the first film of Leos Carax, Boy Meets Girl. For 17 Girls we re-watched many films about growing up.

D: There are founding films and references, some of which are inaccessible, like David Lynch, and others are closer, Lucrecia Martel or Naomi Kawase for example: La Cienaga or Moe No Suzaku are films we can watch 20 times and still draw something from them.

A debut film, is it inevitably autobiographic?
M: No.

D: The plot is based on a true story that took place in 1998 in the USA, in a town in Massachusetts the size of Lorient – our hometown. When we heard about it we identified with it immediately. The American town's character resembles that of Lorient, they are cities in decline, with the same commercial activities going bankrupt: a fishing port, a commercial port and a military port; and there is an aspect of a decadent atmosphere; Lorient lives in the past. It had two big moments: a period of control, of naval expeditions leaving its port in search of spices, a sort of an empire that collapsed; and the period of the Resistance during World War Two, which is still present in the town's tales and the children's games. Other than that, the town's commerce and industry are falling apart. It is boring, limited and insufferable for 15 year olds.
It is clear that those girls were taken by madness, but in a way we understood them, we felt as if we knew them.
What matters in the film is not the naive and unpredictable pact they make, but the odd sentiment, a combination of melancholy and joy, which we feel in view of this united group of not-completely conscious girls, but attached to one another.

M: They made babies like others went across the world or jumped off a bridge, and we could understand them. There are a thousand of intimate reasons for this gesture and an unbelievable group effect, like that of a terrorist group.

D: David Lynch said that cinema is to create worlds and see if they function. It is a bit what these girls did: they created a world, but one that could not function. All our short films are stories of disillusion.

Did you have any surprises, good or bad, during the work on a first film?
D: Everybody said to us: you made five short films, it will be the same but longer; an utter lie! I am warning anyone who decides to dive into this – everything is different, everything is harder: six trucks, 45 crew members; from one day to another we turned into business women, when until that day we had written novels in our room! And the need to supply answers and ideas very quickly: there is a demand for immediacy that is quite contradictory to the creative process! We expected it, but not to such an extent.

What kind of filmmakers will you be ten years from now?
M: It is not a question I ask myself...

D: Neither do I; let's see first of all if we make a second film, it is not a piece of cake...

M: A film is a necessity, we can't plan ahead.


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International Women's Film Festival