At 116, avenue du Président-Kennedy, in the 16th arrondissement of Paris next to the Seine River is a formidable circular white building with a single tower at its centre. This is the home of Radio France, the country’s public radio broadcaster; some might say the French’s answer to the Brits’ BBC. With 1000 offices and 61 recording studios, it houses seven radio stations, is the home of two choirs, as well as the National Orchestra of France, and the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra. In his documentary, Nicolas Philibert takes us inside La Maison de la Radio to see the inner workings of this institution.
Though shot over six months, La Maison de la Radio is meant to take us through a 24 hour period in the lives of these media professionals. Though radio is through to be somewhat of a passé medium, try telling that to the thousands of employees dedicated to the running of Radio France. From field reporters following the Tour de France providing updates from a motorcycle, to the garages where the field vehicles are serviced, to the catering team filling their carts cold beverages and coffee carafes to be delivered, we see just what it takes to keep things running.
Filmed in Direct Cinema style, Philibert takes a ‘fly-on-the-wall approach’ with zero narration. Subjects, though aware of the camera’s presence, often do not directly interact with it. Footage is compressed to represent a shorter span of time, but otherwise not manipulated to form any overt opinions. Some segments are inherently humourous, such as the man in charge of the classical music collection, who described his passion for his job with only half his head peeking out from piles upon piles of CDs. Discs that he claimed were organized in a fashion that he could easily retrieve specific titles from, despite their chaotic appearance. A new editor is seemingly unaffected by horrific events as she persistently inquires about an additional corpse that’s been discovered and its origins, her lack of emotion at first leaves us aghast, but makes room for an uneasy chuckle as the morbid humour of the situation comes to light.
Overall this observational approach leaves the film feeling rather clinical. The absence of narration/provocation from the filmmaker also means there is no arc to the film, no climax or heighten sensations for the audience as they still in the theatre for 99 minutes. The experience reminded me of watching dailies, which is when you review all the footage shot on a given day during a film production. We wade through scenes of music rehearsals, live shows, the process of pre-recording a narrative program, in studio interviews, on location interviews, etc. While we get an in-depth, unobstructed look at Radio France, we don’t have the opportunity to engage with the subjects, nor see them through in a conflict/challenge that would in turn aide in our finding satisfaction with the film.