Launching the 2017 Antenna Documentary Film Festival (now in its seventh year), Faces Places had a big job to do. It's interesting, then, that in the era of "fake news" and sweeping uncertainty, when the documentary art form itself is under enormous pressure and scrutiny, that a movie like Faces Places should be first off the rank. Small to the point of almost being quaint, but somehow simultaneously enormous in scope, Faces Places resonates with refreshing wonder and congeniality.
Since she moved from fiction to documentary, famed French filmmaker Agnès Varda has not been content to simply observe. She likes to place herself in her films, prod at the world around her to see what happens, and come to understand how it works alongside her audience. Her first full-length documentary since 2008's wonderful, autobiographical The Beaches of Agnès, this new film is a collaboration with photographer JR, who is best known for pasting enormous images to otherwise blank objects.
It's a seemingly odd pairing - she nearly 90 with her trademark white and red hair, he in his early 30's with signature pork pie hat and sunglasses he never removes - but the chemistry between the two is astonishing. Their mission is simple: They wish to travel the French countryside with a mobile photobooth and artfully combine the faces they meet with the places they live. Along the way, Varda and JR also become players in the towering collages they create.
Past and present are combined in jaw-dropping ways as the pair find increasingly novel approaches to bringing life to otherwise anonymous walls, barns, houses, and even water towers. What's most fascinating, though, is seeing the reactions of people to their own images being blown up to colossal scale and pasted to the buildings and structures that have become as familiar as their own hands. The filmmaking duo make the structures that contain life also exude it, each in their own unique way.
Agnès Varda has lived a long and beautiful life full of creativity and enduring friendships. Her age shows, and she does not shy away from discussing her health, but she remains full of clarity and vigour that is enchanting. Ultimately, Faces Places becomes an emotional journey for her and her young friend - perhaps something neither of them expected, but which they navigate with thoughtfulness.
Edited with a sprightly pace and a keen eye for off-the-cuff comedy, Faces Places is enthralling from its first moments. Both the moving and still images on show are stunning and sometimes otherworldly in their beauty, but the very human personalities at their centre are always the focus; Faces Places adds a kind of magic and joy to the rote, mundane lives that it uncovers, purely by virtue of the fact that they are not our lives, but lives inhabited by a stranger.
While this might not be the kind of hard-hitting exposé that is perhaps most expected of groundbreaking documentary filmmaking, Faces Places still has some very important things to say. It's shaded with death, but more importantly it wants us to consider what we do before we get there. Consider the people around you, listen, remember their faces, and remember that there is heart and soul in everything around you.