If the BBC, for all its perceived faults, is one of Britain’s most cherished institutions, Radio France is the French equivalent.
Nicolas Philibert’s affectionate film, La Maison de la Radio, which premiered in Berlin in 2013 and is now released here, is based on a bit of a fib. Advertised as a day in the life of the broadcaster, it was in fact shot over several months. It isn’t in any way a polemic, as some documentarists might have produced, nor has it the obstinate logic of a Frederick Wiseman film, building from sequence to sequence.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Philibert says, “I was just curious to see what I would find.”
This is Philibert’s way, you don’t expect a rigid point of view from any of his remarkable films, such as Nenette, the story of a 40-year-old orangutan from Borneo incarcerated for life in a French zoo, or To Be and to Have, which follows the children at a rural school as they grow up.
Like those films La Maison de la Radio has an ineffable sadness about it which is able to move its watchers to tears. It is endearing and heartening to see the highly professional staff at Radio France striving to show that television isn’t the only medium worth turning on at home.
Among the famous faces we see are Umberto Eco, Jean-Claude Carrière and Bénédicte Heim, and sometimes one wishes that Philibert paused for a linger at the often typically French controversies they are talking about.
But that’s not the director’s way. He wants to show a very special station plying its trade with due diligence. And in that he has succeeded.
La Maison de la Radio is showing at the BFI and ICA from today.