I really wanted to love Denis Côté’s latest film, his ode to a multicultural working class, Joy of Man’s Desiring. It’s an strikingly beautiful film with a mesmerizing rhythm. His film not only features many different kinds factory workers, from crafts people to machinists, he also acknowledges the diversity of the modern workplace, where workers listen to Indian music and discuss the Moroccan monarchy by the water cooler. But if I had to be very honest, it also left me scratching my head. Côté’s resistance to a narrative thread – in the conventional sense – makes the film inaccessible. In an interview, Côté explains some of the ideas behind the making of the documentary.
Aisha Jamal: What issues or themes outside of the rhythm of a factory were you initially interested in exploring?
Denis Côté: As an artist, it’s been nearly 10 years [since] I’ve managed to earn a living as a filmmaker. Sometimes work is not a concrete thing. You go to bed at night not knowing what your day was made of. The idea of work is an abstract one because you can’t quantify it. So I decided to make a film about that abstract idea, about that gap between my situation and a world I don’t know anything about — shops, industries, factories — about what we consider “concrete.” The film is an allegory and looks at different work environments in a very free and open way, far from any social statements.
AJ: The film starts with a scripted monologue. Can you tell us a bit about the opening lines?
DC: I wrote a sort of contract between the workplace and the worker, between the boss and the worker, between the film and the audience. It seems a bit mysterious, it tells you the following program might be a doc, a fiction, it might be staged or hard to watch. You must be ready for everything and be open minded. It’s basically the same when you start a new job and you meet the boss for the first time.
AJ: Your doc seems to resist a conventional narrative form. What were your organizing principles in the editing of the film? Were you assembling and organizing your film based on other cinematic elements instead, such as sound or visual composition?
DC: Of course the sound design, the quality of light and the framing are important cinematic elements for a proposition like that. We wanted to achieve something hypnotic. Basically, I asked the editor to create a very simple structure: a normal day at work. If you look carefully, the beginning is the boss talking to you about your day, then you work, they you take some pauses, then you go home and complain a little. Like in real life. The form is very hybrid but it’s still very simple and quite observational.
AJ: Since you don’t see it necessary to guide your viewer with a voice-over or an instantly obvious narrative, do you have a guiding philosophy on this subject matter?
DC: You can guess I wanted to react a bit to the numerous social documentaries made about the idea of work. I observe manual work then I let the film be contaminated by fiction, with actors playing workers, using theatrical and cliché petty dialogues about their little discontents. I wanted the last tier of the film to be melancholic. I always thought it’s funny and absurd that we must work all our life to find peace (or even heaven!) at the end of it. The last part of the film carries that absurdity for me. It was clear there would be no social angle to the film and it had to be a very open experience.
AJ: The film works on a set of interesting contradictions (for example, it is totally firmly situated but it’s also disorienting; it is both restrained and expressive). Did you have these contradictions in mind while making the film or are these unintended result?
DC: Absolutely. We made some clear choices: interiors only so when we see the outside it’s intriguing, as if another world would be possible. We made sure that the audience never clearly knows what these workers are doing [or] building exactly, so we stay close to the “act of working.” The satisfaction or the result is never apparent; it’s a never ending task. We shot in nine different shops but we tried to make it look like it’s one huge place and we just move to another room. We made sure to pick factories and shops where people are not exploited, tired, depressed and where conditions seem pretty fair. It gives an objective edge to the film even if we know that objectivity is impossible to achieve.
AJ: Your last film was a big success. Why follow your biggest hit to date with a rather difficult film?
DC: It’s a necessity for me. I need to answer a big film with a smaller very free one, made with three to four friends. I feel very alive when I make those. That way, I can return and find the strength to make something bigger. I’m very DIY so when I work on films like Vic + Flo or Curling, the big production machine tends to frustrate me. I understand when directors always want to do bigger and more ambitious but I don’t think in those terms.
AJ: What kinds of documentaries do you enjoy watching yourself?
DC: You can guess I’m no fan of activist stuff or Michael Moore style simple-minded, denunciation affairs. There’s a good place for informational and historical docs and it’s called TV. I think documentaries don’t really exist because as soon as you make strong cinematic choices, you use your subjectivity. One can easily see I am a big fan of the films by Nicolaus Geyrhalter, Pedro Costa and I can be a good audience for James Benning. I can deal with Errol Morris as well. I’m obsessed by reality but I’m also obsessed with the necessity of making it your own. It’s the obligation of a filmmaker.
Aisha Jamal has a PhD in German Cinema from the University of Toronto. Currently she is teaching at Trent University and Sheridan College. Outside of talking, thinking and writing about film, she is also interested in food and books.