Released in June, the Meeting Snowden Arte documentary questions us about our democratic system. Its fearless intuitive director Flore Vasseur met-up with MakeSense STORiES. Read about the fertile terrain that led Vasseur to a Moscow hotel room where she brought together ‘an Icelandic poet’ and ‘an American law professor/activist’ with ‘the NSA’s most notorious exiled ex-agent’. On the cards: democracy.
A microphone recording device picking up the conversation between MakeSense Stories and writer and film maker Flore Vasseur June 2017 at Cafe aux Ondes next to the Maison de la Radio in Paris’s 16th arrondissement. With Vasseur’s laptop showing a sticker quoting the American politician, diplomat and activist and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt – ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today a gift; that’s why they call it the present.’ Pic credit @Paul Wright.
MakeSense STORiES: So can we leave it running (making reference to my microphone recorder)?
Flore Vasseur: Hello.
MakeSense STORiES: Thanks for joining us this morning for this MakeSense interview. Why are we sitting in a cafe near the Maison de la Radio [the home of France’s national radio]?
Flore Vasseur: Because these days I’m trying to push as much as I can the communication around the new film I just completed about Edward Snowden, Birgitta Jonsdottir, and Larry Lessig (pictured), where they meet in a hotel room in Moscow to have a conversation about a topic – that – to me is absolutely nowhere, and that’s a tragedy – and this topic is ‘How to save democracy?’ because we are at this point right now.
MakeSense STORiES: I’m interested to know how you arrived at [making] this documentary – Meeting Snowden; but also looking at your career trajectory, way before delving into the film, could you tell us what you think the trigger was that got you into documentary film making?
Flore Vasseur: You know, it has been a long time that I’ve been doing writings, fictions: narrative fictions (Vasseur has penned 3 books and multiple journalistic pieces) – that’s to say that I mix facts with imagination and fiction, to try to tell compelling stories about ‘something we are going through, that maybe we do not understand very well’.
And, I don’t recall how it came about, but next I had an opportunity to make a TV series for Arte (Europe’s flagship cultural channel) in partnership with TED conferences; asked by Arte to try to imagine what kind of format it could be, and what kind of episodes there could be, as by then I’d been covering TED for years, for various publications like Le Monde.
So it seemed like I was the one able to do it, even though I’d never done that [before]. So I imagined something, and that was huge to me. We created a show, called TEDStories doing 8 episodes all over the world depicting the work and the personal journeys – the ideas and the personal journey – of the individuals trying to instill change in his or her field. So that’s how I kind of learned how to write documentaries and then direct documentaries:
and at the end of it, in the process, I had learned this new job, new skills; which is what I love to do: I love to learn, I love to dig, I love to question.
With documentaries it’s really neat because you go in quite fast; and compared to books, you’re not alone – you have a team, a lot of people to rely on when you’re tired and when you’re not inspired. In fact, I needed it – doing these documentaries.
I did a TEDStories episode on Larry Lessig who is this professor of law in Harvard trying to instill change in politics, which is the topic that I’m [constantly] working on, in my books and writing – this is my thread, ‘Who rules?’, it’s been like that since the beginning I [started] writing.
And suddenly meeting [Larry Lessig] – documenting his work – we built this relationship where I think we trust each other; I documented his trying to mobilize people against the influence of money in politics and his attempt to run for president in the United States. I saw him trying and failing – a wonderful story, a metaphor of what we are all experiencing. Us – we – us, trying to instill change.
The truth is that we fail all the time, but we do it again; and I love this. The fact that whatever the failures – you grow and you start again and you learn in the process. And I think this is – I think, what we have to understand. That we are on a learning curve.
Left to right – Larry Lessig, writer and Harvard Law Professor who mobilizes people against the influence of money in politics; Birgitta Jonsdottir, poet and co-founder of Iceland’s Pirate Party; and Ed Snowden, previous NSA employee and now exiled in Russia meeting in a Moscow hotel room for a conversation on their convergent points, or not, about democracy featured in the new Arte documentary film directed by Flore Vasseur called Meeting Snowden. Pic credit: @Zadig/Arte used with kind permission.
MakeSense STORiES: Thank you for that. There’s lots of threads to go on. So, as much as mastering the question forming and the question asking, how much does listening play a part. Because you’re prepared when you’re interviewing, yet maybe they say something and it sparks an idea that you want to unravel and travel down this other route instead. But you’re well aware that you have target questions; yet you don’t want to loose the impulse of the moment, how do you measure when it’s ok to go on a diversion – off script?
Flore Vasseur: You know, I go with a set of questions prepared, and I know what I need to have going out of the room. But I always make sure that I keep the flow of a conversation. This is not like me interviewing per se.
I’m trying to build on the answers; trying to probe on things that are of interest for me (smiles) – super selfish and usually forget about my script. I’m not thinking about the film or the interview, I’m thinking about me, the fact that I’m learning something and that I have this opportunity.
So yes, interviewing, but before that, meeting someone of whom I value her or his ideas; so that’s the way I see it. I always… do super long interviews (smiles). Maybe people are tired with me… I don’t know, but I do super long interviews and I keep it a conversation as much as I can, letting the inertia of the conversation take power.
But with these three players that are in the film: Larry Lessig, Birgitta Jonsdottir, Edward Snowden, – they all have…
one of the things that they have in common is their extreme attention to words. They love words. They pay attention to what they say and how they say it.
Some of them at some moment could be poetic, and I love that, I’m a writer – I’m very interested in the way they formulate things. And before entering the room that time, I knew I had good reason to rejoice, that there won’t be any fluency issues – no issues in the wording, how articulate the conversation is gonna be; so, honestly [on this occasion] I just put down the mic and I tried to not look stupid; and to not be intimidating – for them to be happy also with [the idea of having] the conversation.
Left to right – Larry Lessig, writer and Harvard Law Professor who mobilizes people against the influence of money in politics, Flore Vasseur, writer and film maker, and cameraman Emmanuel Royer during filming of Meeting Snowden in Moscow, December 2016. Pic credit: @Alissa Amblard used with kind permission.
MakeSense STORiES: You spoke about working with a team, and there’s a balance of energy in a room with a team. But thinking of the film making dynamic more broadly, who do you think comes first in getting the film out there [into the public realm]? Is it the distributor or a producer? Because [so many] people talk about distribution as being the key these days.
Flore Vasseur: I’m lucky. With a topic like that [Ed] Snowden you don’t have issues with distribution and broadcasting. I mean, it’s not a regular film, so on that specific, the key component is not distribution – it’s more of a trust component. All of the film, its very existence and the flow of it relies on two things: trust – the trust that some of the players maybe all the players have conveyed to me [in the process] – plus the joy of doing it.
On a personal note, I really, truly believe that this is not going to happen to me twice; I mean it’s huge for me, and there was just this joy of, you know, just doing it. Just going through the moment, to go and make the most of it. And I was not thinking of the end product, of the distribution of the broadcast. I mean at that moment I did not care. I was focused on the conversation.
I was just in the moment of an adventure… of a meeting… of a journey, trying to make the most of it for everyone in the room, for myself and also for the team.
It’s not about the deliverables and… it’s just… be happy, and show it in a subtle way. Not in a way, you know, like, say it out loud; it’s just like, yeah, this is a great thing to do, this is… exciting. You are lucky so create a space for something to happen.
MakeSense STORiES: And you touched on the idea that you’re not exploring the idea for the sake of meeting Ed Snowden; you’re exploring an issue that’s about liberty and democracy – Snowden being one of the players in this set-up.
We’re in a period of sovereign instability in many countries; institutions, in the popular sense being in turmoil. So are we in fertile territory to use the documentary format to explore these issues? But in doing so should people be aware just to be careful of which issues about which they choose to make documentaries?
A promotional sting for the Arte documentary film TV premier of Meeting Snowden, June 2017, ahead of the film by Flore Vasseur promoting its visibility on other public platforms. On the website http://www.meetingsnowden.com/
Flore Vasseur: Do you mean, are we in a censorship moment?
MakeSense STORiES: No, not totally, but the opposite… ah… but, maybe that’s a good point. Tell, me, how is censorship then you think affecting which subjects you can tackle?
Flore Vasseur: Well I think it’s… we’ve got to wake up. I mean I was just checking this morning, France’s RSF (Reporters Sans Frontiers) annual ranking on the Freedom of Press comparative to world rankings. How far… where do you think France is in this ranking?
MakeSense STORiES: Press rights are probably quite badly treated. 6th..?
Flore Vasseur: 6th…? 39th!! So, it’s… there’s ‘soft censorship and auto-censorship’ I believe due to economical constraints. Actually, because for this kind of work (referring to the Arte documentary Meeting Snowden and the TEDStories series), that are not products that are gonna make a profit in the most obvious way.
I mean there’s not a lot of room for this kind of topic nor object… you know… it’s not gonna be easy. You have to… there’s a lot of thoughts… they just talk – all the time. And there’s not a lot of TV channels that are gonna broadcast that… because it’s not in the regular format of what we are currently accepting on TV, like Reality TV or this easy to watch program, entertainment or even infotainment and, you know, all these things that we nourish ourselves on. So I think that there’s a censorship because of the economical constraints.
This is true for the media, first. Then for most of the journalists… or at least some journalists, who are afraid to loose their jobs – this is a profession that is struggling right now because of the economical pressure. So journalists can be quite careful to not dare go into these kind of subjects:
sometimes because, not only is there no money to investigate, but if you do, maybe your media is going to say, you know, ‘maybe it’s not going to work. And we can not afford that, things that “do not work ’.
And then the biggest censorship lever is that the media now rely on advertising… whose advertisers decide what appears in front of their advertising. So we are in this moment of irony where as we do not pay the fair price for a proper press, as we expect it be [cost] free, information is… no longer free!
MakeSense STORiES: This is like the paywall? That we subscribe to for a few euros to have access?
Flore Vasseur: Yes. Accepting media as being a commodity, then you don’t accept it to treat you – the reader – correctly, because there’s nothing that is free really. Or you – we – become the product.
MakeSense STORiES: The reader is the product?
Flore Vasseur: Yeah. The reader is the product. You know… so, there is this great advertising from Adbusters (Canadian magazine) saying:
‘your living room is a factory and your brain is the product’ – the battle is here today. It’s a battle for the brain, it’s not the battle for press freedom, in a traditional sense. It’s the freedom of the thoughts!
We [as citizens] have a huge responsibility – not only journalists. I don’t formally consider what I do as journalistic work… it’s more something in between maybe, more as an artist… I didn’t go to Moscow to do a straight repetitive investigation on what Ed Snowden was doing there.
Sense Stories: Yeah, because that’s the mechanics, and people can read that elsewhere.
Flore Vasseur: Exactly. This is what everybody is debating and that’s not of interest to me. It’s a bad use of his time… and of everybody’s time who’s involved, and of the producer’s money; to go there just to ask questions that everybody is asking. So that’s not what interests me.
What’s interesting to me is, ‘Where the hell are we going?’ And he’s [Snowden is] one of the most interesting people on that matter; and not the only one. That’s the reason why I went with Birgitta [Jonsdottir] and Larry [Lessig] – each of their contributions treated equally. It’s not Ed Snowden and the rest of the people. It’s maybe the idea that there is some kind of a tribe, something is happening.
And we’re going there because he’s [Snowden] the one who has no freedom of movement. Though the speech [between them] is evenly distributed… and that’s my point, that many people are doing important things right now.
What if we look. What if we value that!
Caption: Moscow as seen by the Arte documentary film crew behind Meeting Snowden during filming in December 2016. Pic credit: @Zadig/Arte used with kind permission.
MakeSense STORiES: And with the observing… you’ve also been to Columbia for the Arte/TED conference series, and recently to Russia. I’m curious about the impressions you’re left with having interviewed in these troubled countries. Which evocative memories, maybe of a certain scent, I mean can you recall the sensorial experiences of being Columbia and Russia?
Flore Vasseur: Yeah… when I go to a country I either see nature or… food. In Bogota which is over 2000m altitude… nature is absolutely everywhere leading me to remember most these huge flowers.
By contrast in Moscow during December, the experience was really about food… and we were working like hell… and thankfully our fixer ensured I got a daily dish of Borscht ! So I tend to experience a country because of the nature, the food; but also the music.
Leaving from the airport I tune-in to hear a local radio station – we put it on loud and we go and with the crew we go places where we can mingle with where the people are; trying to go not necessarily just where the youth are going. Mainly relying on our fixer’s judgement.
Director Flore Vasseur with the film crew’s fixer Alissa Amblard during filming of the Arte documentary film Meeting Snowden in Moscow, December 2016. Pic credit: @Zadig/Arte used with kind permission.
MakeSense STORiES: The fixer? Somebody who’s living in the city?
Flore Vasseur: Yes. And who is extremely knowledgeable about everything a TV crew might need from… yes, I broke my camera, I need one in 10 minutes… or let’s find a good restaurant for tonight because the crew needs to relax. And so I always try to develop… or I always happen to develop a very close relationship with, what is called… a ‘fixer’… most of the time women; and not only do they take care of me like they were my mother, which is super great, but on top of that, they are really… they know that this is important for a TV crew to really get it, not lecturing like a guide about the history alone… but getting to places to see how people live and talking with them as much as we can. And… this is what we try to do.
MakeSense STORiES: So, there’s a lot of… well, anticipation. It’s part of the experience – going with the flow, often. In the questions we’ve kind of touched on the five senses of touch (being personable), taste (knowing which stories to tell), hearing (listening to the conversation), sight (observing beyond the ordinary) and smell (your sensorial memories of the places). So, speaking as a documentary film maker what would you say is your sixth sense? Tell me… what’s your superpower Flore?
Flore Vasseur: Intuition.
MakeSense STORiES: How does that play out?
Flore Vasseur: Well easy. I mean, it’s the most important one. I don’t know if this is taste, touch, looking, or what is triggering this… or nourishing it. But the most important thing is intuition. And…
the battle is to avoid fear or… fear of the unknown… to kill the intuition; because I sense this is honestly what is happening.
[Having a vision] an intuition, you are super alone; nobody really gets it. Most of the time when you mention it, people can be hesitant.
MakeSense STORiES: How exactly? When you’re planning and freely shaping up a story idea?
Flore Vasseur: Well, when you have an intuition and you say, ‘eh, what if we do that?’… people can reply… you know… no… no way. No, no, no, no, no… this is what you hear on many occasions.
So you have to find a space to have these crazy conversations… where you can dream big. This space is not there, you have to create it. Trust is not something you buy but that you gain. And this is fragile. And you know, maybe you’re not gonna do everything… but if you even do just one thing – this is a win. And it’s been 10 years [of working and relying on intuition]. Even before I started writing as an entrepreneur before that. And… well… I’m still an entrepreneur… I think.
MakeSense STORiES: Delving further then, what do you think it mean be an entrepreneur today?
Flore Vasseur: Entrepreneur… In short, I evolved my career in a start-up [in New York], then books and stories and now I’m in films… not so very different in energy, except that the rules are different. I think business is kind of easy, you know the rules, that everybody wants the same thing. So you know, the arena – it’s ok. Film… you never know… film content, books, you never know.
Meeting Flore Vasseur the writer and director of the recent Arte documentary film Meeting Snowden in June 2017 for Sense Stories. Pic credit @Paul Wright.
Buzznote: To suggest an event or debate around the subject of the film and a projection or screening of Meeting Snowden, contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter.com/florevasseur. Main website www.meetingsnowden.com/ and follow the film’s progress at facebook.com/meetingsnowden/ or on Flore’s website : www.florevasseur.com