La Maison de la Radio
Runs Fri., Nov. 8–Thurs., Nov. 14 at Varsity. Not rated. 99 minutes.
If I told you they were making a documentary about NPR, would you line up to see backstage scenes of Scott Simon, Ira Glass, and Terry Gross? (Personally, I’d flee in the other direction.) And what if the radio hosts were all French? The miracle of Radio France, which is something like the BBC, is that it gets to broadcast several specialized channels—news, arts and culture, classical music, etc.—with scant regard for profit or plebeian taste. (The state-supported broadcaster was gradually privatized under Mitterand.) Located in a large circular fortress in Paris, the enterprise is unapologetically highbrow, and director Nicolas Philibert (To Be and To Have) is not one to question that mission. Like Frederick Wiseman, he simply looks at and listens to the hosts, technicians, musicians, and producers.
A workplace documentary is only going to be as interesting as the work, and these people are not lion tamers. Meetings and recording sessions are hardly scintillating to watch, though I have seldom seen so many faces concentrating on the precise sound of words. These people are exacting about every syllable and tweak at the mixing board. And we do occasionally venture outside to record wild sounds or report on a soccer game or the Tour de France. One or two moments are even fictional, as when a host asks us to imagine the sonic landscape of 17th-century Paris. The streets are wooden planks and mud, he explains; there’s livestock in the streets; church bells ring the hours; and no one ventures out at night, when wild animals creep back into the city. And there you might imagine a Victor Hugo story—but written for the ear, not the page.