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History Of A Secret • Director's Note

As a documentary maker, I have always told other people’s stories. Here, I was confronted with the difficulty of telling my own. But I knew that I would have trouble focussing on other subjects as long as I hadn’t managed to re-appropriate my own history.

 

The Secret

Telling this story was not only a matter of telling the secret. I also needed to impart the specific experience of this secret and its revelation to the viewer. I did not want to speak about the secret, discuss or explain, but rather create a cinematic equivalent for the way I experienced it. The story was to be like a puzzle whose pieces accumulate without finding their place until the revelation throws them all up in the air while at the same time giving them meaning. When my father tells the truth about my mother’s death, I wanted the viewer to undergo the same mental operation as that experienced by somebody who is being told a secret: he or she suddenly has to go back, rethink and revisit his or her own history. When the group photos appear with my mother in the middle, we don’t know who she is. The viewer looks for her and without knowing it, goes through what I went through. Experience preceeds the story. The film’s structure reflects this.

 

The Stories

On one hand, there was the story as I knew it up until then and with which I had made do despite its missing parts and dark corners. On the other hand, there was the one I had just learned. Although it was disturbing, it had given meaning to the improbable. There were also the many similar stories, still hidden and taboo - this political and social history to which I belonged without knowing it. There was the revelation of the secret as well as the description of my mother’s last days and her death. And finally, my desire to give form to a presence, using cinematic means, to a dead and forgotten mother, making visible the invisible and filling the absence. I wanted many things in this film and I needed to find a structure that would bring together all these scattered pieces, true and false, before and after, individual and collective, life and death, my mother and me… The political and narrative challenge in this film was to bring together what had been kept apart by secrecy, taboo and the law.

 

Representing the absent mother

I wanted the film to be inhabited by my mother Clotilde Vautier, and for it to evoke things that cannot be seen or heard. I wanted to make her presence felt despite her absence. The trip, the visits, the landscapes, the way the images are framed and the dialogues had to allow us to approach the men and women who are no longer here. The film became a meeting place or a passageway between the living and the dead. When I shot the modeling sessions in my parents’ old apartment, I was not interested in a reconstitution. Rather, I wanted my mother’s presence to spring from her paintings. They are traces of past moments that I attempt to reveal. For the models and for myself, being back in that apartment triggered an unsettling emotion that bridged past and present. The film was edited with this in mind: giving the film a poetic dimension to allow absence to take form. The shots had to suggest something other than themselves: something distant off-camera, something from beyond that pierces the present. This off-camera element is suggested partly by silence. It is as important as speech. While shooting, attention was focussed on words and atmosphere. Yet during the sound editing, we worked a lot on silences and its minute variations. Music contributes to giving my mother a presence, accompanying the moments when I discover the paintings. It is like my mother’s voice, her chant, that makes itself heard after a long silence before fading. It comes out of the paintings slowly, in snatches, becoming more complex and gathering momentum until it becomes a melody that accompanies the exhibition.

 

Structure

It sits at the crossover between fiction and documentary. Unlike my other documentaries where the scenario came together during shooting and editing, here I had a script. I wrote the starting point for each scene, but obviously I did not know the responses my questions would generate. Based on the answers, on what happened, I adapted the scenes and at times, I felt I was writing the story at the same time I experienced it. For example, I had not planned to tell my aunt and uncle the secret on camera. As the scene unraveled it became clear to me that I had to speak. Most of the time, with the models, with my father and my sister, we told each other things that we had never said before. My father waited until the last day of shooting to reveal my mother’s last words. If he hadn’t taken the initiative, I never would have dared ask him.

I chose shooting locations for their evocative power. I looked for places where something important had taken place. I hoped that seeing these places would make memories resurface. I favored everyday settings, where relationships had been forged over the years, to allow the different protagonists to feel comfortable. Beyond the simple evocation of everyday life, they were to encourage a loosening of tongues, giving on to a space off-camera filled with the absent and the dead. The way shots were framed, the sets and the lighting were based on this. Every bit as important as the places was the way they were inhabited by bodies and lighting. With my sister, to evoke our imaginary relationship with our mother, I felt we had to be sitting next to each other, very close, like we had never done before. This physical closeness threw us back into childhood and we told each other things we had never said before. Being on screen was also a way of presenting a relationship, a story that is told by body language as well as words. With my father, the car was an ideal setting because we could look into the distance and avoid eye contact while remaining in an enclosed and intimate space.

 

My mother’s paintings

My mother’s paintings are what I have left of her. They are a trace of her life, her movements and her thoughts. They also represent a metaphor of the secret. They were hidden along with the circumstances of her death. Each of the important characters in this story owns at least one of her paintings. At the same time as I uncover the secret, I seek out these paintings. I take them out of the cupboard, bring them together and exhibit them, finally. I really did see these paintings for the first time while the film was being shot. It was partly the perspective and analysis of the restorer that allowed me to transcend the emotion that had always overcome me when I looked at them. Today, I feel I have come closer to my mother thanks also to the way I look at her paintings. The paintings are wonderful. They represent a fulfilled, happy and free woman, in unfortunate contrast to the causes of her death. These bodies are also in a way all the women that the film speaks of. Today, all of this resonates in my mother’s paintings.

 

The revelation

When I learned at the age of 30 that my mother had died of a back-alley abortion, I was stupefied. It was hard to admit that it could have happened to her, that this event was suddenly part of her history, my history and that of my family’s. I couldn’t believe I had lived so long without knowing the real causes of her death. As for many women of my generation, the tragedies linked to abortion belonged to a distant and forgotten past. My stupor turned into revolt and anger. I could not allow that she had died almost illegally, surrounded by shame and secrecy. As the victim of an unfair law, silence had made her a culprit. When I first dared talk about the circumstances of my mother’s death, I realized that other families had been through the same horror and in most cases, secrecy had been maintained, particularly with the children.

I observed that old or recent historical publications barely mentioned women who died after back-alley abortions, or only in statistical terms. It was as if these tales did not reveal our political and social history.

The legalization of abortion did not make it easier to talk about it, nor did it reduce the guilt of which the women and their families were victims. They were not rehabilitated. There were no apologies. Annie Ernaux stresses this in her book “The Event”: "The paradox of a fair law is almost always that it obliges the old victims to keep quiet in the name of “that’s all over now,” to the point where the same silence as before covers up what took place.” These tales are still confined to the guilt-ridden and guilt-inducing privacy of families.

I had never had the impression that I was living with a secret and this situation was unbearable. I had to break the silence. My film had to participate in lifting and destroying once and for all the secrecy within my family to restore its political and social dimension. I hoped to contribute to facilitating discussion that had remained blocked and which, with the death of the fathers, would be forgotten forever.

 

My father

I could never have made the film without his permission. He supported me from the start of the project because the secret weighed down on him too heavily. He was aware that telling his story would help other families and do them justice. The collective part of his secret that I would evoke in the film would relieve him of the weight of his individual guilt. He gave me carte blanche. I did not show him the script so that he would not prepare for my questions. I did not want him to consider the final result but rather, be really with me in the here and now of each scene. He lent himself to this method fully, with no fear or holding back. The making of the film was surely painful for him but also did him good.

 

Research

I did research to find families and doctors who would testify. In most of the families I met, secrecy was still being maintained and nobody agreed to talk in front of the camera. Doctors from Rennes – the city where my parents lived – put up a strong resistance. While they all agreed to answer my questions, some affirmed that there had been no deaths “in this quiet, peaceful town.” It was clearly false. My history and others prove it. These doctors did not want to recognize that that they had simply not known about it and even, among themselves, 30 years later, they don’t talk about it. Others told me there was no point going back to that time, sometimes put bluntly in expressions such as, “Don’t stir up shit.” They said that going back to the past would “tarnish my mother’s image”. For me, the silence surrounding the real circumstances of her death is the real negation of her memory. Then I met Joëlle Brunerie-Kauffmann and I found a doctor and an activist. She was able to conjure up an entire page of our history in a few moving and precise sentences. Her testimony is important because it links my history to others. It gives the context and transmits this painful past. If it is not handed down, future doctors risk “forgetting” the extent to which performing an abortion is above all a militant act that saves women from the worst anxieties, mutilation and even death.

 

Production

Denis Freyd, right from the birth of the project, always listened to me and gave support with great delicacy and confidence. Although he left me complete freedom, his perspective was essential. He served as guarantor before the risk of me losing the plot, reminding me at times of my own ideas on the film, those I had expressed in the preparatory working sessions. When the film was being shot and edited, plunged into a sometimes-overwhelming reality, I could have forgotten them. Mariana Otero.

 

Mariana Otero