La Maison de la radio (Nicolas Philibert – France/Japan) 103 minutes
The French love their radio. Polls of French people consistently report greater levels of trust in radio news than print or TV; knowledgeable French football fans prefer radio to television commentary for games; telling people you work in radio generally elicits a warmth that few other media positions can generate; politicians are far more likely to appear in studio on a morning radio-news broadcast than on TV. And the French love no radio more than their public-service broadcaster, Radio France. The national broadcaster is revered by both left and right, in a way the BBC used to be in Britain. There is no Daily Mail-style campaign questioning the amount of money allotted to Radio France – it is more or less untouchable.
The reason for this love lies in the company’s roots. Founded in 1946, Radio France was a Gaullist operation from the off. And, in France, radio is inextricably linked with the General, whose Radio Londres broadcasts from the BBC kept the cause of French freedom alive throughout the Occupation. Radio France has its own splendid headquarters, la maison de la radio – the doyen of French broadcasting, in the 16th arrondissement by the Seine. Henri Bernard’s vast sinuous curtain-walled edifice was one of the glories of the trentes glorieuses, a building so iconic it has been incorporated into the station’s logo. Nicolas Philibert’s new documentary is an observational portrait of several months in the building among the 4300 employees of the company’s seven stations.
Like Frederick Wiseman, who has recently completed a number of fly-on-the-wall documentaries of Paris institutions, Philibert does not employ voice-over or captions; unlike Wiseman, Philibert dispenses with interviews too. It gives his film a more free-flowing air though it also means it lacks the depth of Wiseman’s films and non-French audiences might wish for greater context to help them understand what’s going on (even I missed a few references that clearly resonated greater with the audience I watched the film with).
The film takes place throughout the course of 2011; we hear snippets about the Japanese tsunami, the Arab Spring, the election violence in Ivory Coast, the Strauss-Kahn trial in New York. Guests file in and out of the studios, some of them famous – Jean-Claude Carrière and Umberto Eco – others less so. We see young journalists being trained, sound engineers at work, reporters making preparations to go out into the field, the station’s famed orchestra and choir recording. We get the chance to eavesdrop on morning editorial conferences that are replete with wry humour: ‘We have to get a sociologist, that’s very Radio France’, ‘a left-wing sociologist, to be precise.’ We even catch a glimpse of such ordinary departments as the cafeteria and the garage, where the fleet of Radio France outdoor broadcast vehicles is tuned.
Philibert’s film has a neutral tone even though it is clearly sympathetic. Detractors might say it is far too complaisant and offers a slice of French society as utopian as that in Philibert’s earlier schoolhouse film To Be and to Have (which I found more grating than most people did). If it is gentle and admiring though, it lavishes its admiration for the people working for the company rather than the institution itself. In this respect, it is much less annoyingly eulogistic than the recent New York Times love-in Page One. La Maison de la radio will probably be best appreciated by French people and francophiles but anyone with an interest in the eternally resilient medium of radio will surely be interested.