Reclaiming the Body
An Interview with Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (directors, De Humani Corporis Fabrica)
By Leonardo Goi

Five hundred years after autopsy pioneer Andreas Vesalius opened up the human body to science, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor open it up to cinema. De Humani Corporis Fabrica borrows its title from Vesalius’s groundbreaking 1543 seven-volume anthology on human anatomy: at once repugnant and entrancing, it turns the body into the ultimate frontier, an alien landscape teeming with surreal visions, less a decaying vessel than an undiscovered planet.

Best known for their documentary work out of the Harvard Sensory Ethnographic Lab, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor shot across eight hospitals in Paris. Fabrica is as concerned with our corporeal makeup as it is with the social lattice of the institutions we become inextricably part of. Graphic images of surgeries make up most of the film, but they’re interspersed with moments when Paravel and Castaing-Taylor zoom out to follow scenes of everyday hospital life. We watch dementia-riddled patients tiptoe across empty halls and corridors, and we eavesdrop on doctors as they share ward gossip and banter (interludes that infuse the film with much-needed levity). Likely to be remembered primarily as a close-up foray into the human anatomy, Fabrica also explores our technologies of seeing, examines the ways we navigate our bodies, and inquires into what we do with the images we extract from them. As in their previous collaborations, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor rely on a number of different cameras: a ceiling (scialytic) camera the doctors themselves would use to record their operations, a laparoscopic camera, and a modified version of a “lipstick” camera, specifically designed to mirror the aesthetic of medical lenses.

As it was for Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s Caniba, the initial effect can be stomach-churning (Fabrica is definitely not for the squeamish), yet the film gradually sheds its gruesome aura to become something far more singular and ethereal. As bodies are sliced open, stitched and hammered back together, the world of the film increasingly becomes a foreign terrain, human insides taking on shapes and colors that swell into extraterrestrial vistas. Bodies cease to look like bodies at all, and the whole film works to de- and re-familiarize ourselves with them. Fabrica juts into being from that liminal space between beauty and horror, and hangs in that nebulous region throughout, culminating in an arresting scene where the camera twirls inside what looks like a cellar-bar, the walls covered in murals illustrating doctors, skeletons, and priapic figures drinking and dancing together, an orgiastic fresco where death and sex collide.

Fabrica plays this week at the New York Film Festival; I sat with Paravel and Castaing-Taylor upon its premiere in Cannes to discuss the film’s genesis, the ethical concerns they wrestled with, and the paradoxes at the heart of their multi-sensorial filmmaking. ­

Reverse Shot: Can we talk about that last shot? You leave us inside what looks like a cafeteria, twirling and gawking at all those eroticized frescos. Where was that?

Véréna Paravel: Oh, you’ll find those places in all public hospitals in France.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor: Pre-war hospitals… It’s something that started in the 19th century, not so sure if they kept building them after WWII. But yeah, it’s the doctors’ restaurant. A dining room, inside the hospital, where they would dine every day.

RS: It was such a surreal and potent image to end the film. It felt like staring at some prehistoric cave paintings, teeming with intimations of sex and death.

LCT: Absolutely. It’s sex, death, and spirituality, all combined, all colliding.

RS: I was hoping we could start with the film’s genesis. I understand you started shooting in the U.S. before relocating to France. How did it all begin?

LCT: Basically, we filmed with hidden cameras and followed people around…

VP: [Laughs] Yeah, we would wait for them to be fully anaesthetized and then…

LCT: …shoved them down their throats! [Laughs] No, we started filming in a few Boston hospitals. But while medics and patients were keen to let us film them, the hospitals themselves were petrified at the thought of letting something out in the public domain. So, we took another route. We were still in Boston when we met, through many degrees of separation, François Crémieux, who at the time was the director of five public hospitals in Paris. Not to mention he’s a huge cinephile and a filmmaker himself. Did you know that he worked with Chris Marker?

RS: That’s quite a coincidence!

VP: Yes! He was the subject of a series of films by Marker, the Balkan Trilogy. You can see him in Blue Helmet. He was a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia in the mid 1990s.

LCT: And we got to know him. We told him what the project was about, and he essentially gave us carte blanche to shoot inside his hospitals—subject to the legal and ethical consent of those we were trying to get involved: doctors, paramedics, patients… He told his people to give us universal access to the facilities, for a year or two. And he kept renewing those permits! Anytime we asked for an extension he’d go, “Oh, I’m so happy you’re not journalists; I’m sure your film will be worth watching, that it won’t be a simple journalistic account.”

RS: It certainly doesn’t feel like one. More like a diary, if anything, and an unbearably vivid and intimate one at that. I was actually curious to hear how people looked at you during the shoot, how doctors and patients reacted to your presence.

LCT: Well, to be quick about it, as far as medics and patients are concerned, we were very surprised by how welcoming and ready to be filmed they were. Not to generalize here, but the doctors themselves were often very exhausted. They work extremely hard. Their lives are super routinized, ritualistic, repetitive. Surgeons especially are very macho. They’re like alpha males, near-godlike figures who are used to be all-powerful. And for them to suddenly turn into objects of this alien anthropological gaze coming from another country—they were intrigued by that, not scared. They would look at us and go, “Okay, let’s see what they can do.” Sometimes they’d make jokes about our work. “We’re your tribe. You’re anthropologists, and we’re your tribe.” Sometimes they’d introduce us to other colleagues, grant us access to different wards and people. And the patients themselves were just as welcoming. There was this one person who didn’t want us to use footage of an operation that saved their life…

VP: But that was really the one and only time when something like that happened. A doctor asked that patient permission [to use that footage] on our behalf, and they refused.

LCT: Bear in mind this was a doctor who was apparently really good at getting those permissions.

VP: And it was also a different context. It wasn’t a scheduled surgery, like the others we show. In those cases, we would normally talk to the patient before the operation. We’d explain who we are, what we’re doing, what we’ve done before, the way we work; we would reassure them we’re not journalists, and finally ask for their consent. But when you’re working with the ER staff, when you hop on an ambulance and suddenly arrive at the scene of an accident, where someone’s dying, basically, it’s completely different—because you get to ask for their consent only after. And most of the time patients are in a very bad state. But otherwise, they were extremely welcoming. They were curious about our curiosity. And became curious about their own body. There was this patient, whose operation we show early in the film, who called me twice, long after that, because they were going to go through surgery again.

RS: It sounds like you managed to establish a deep, almost codependent relationship with them.

LCT: Yes, but I don’t think it was unhealthy. You just feel so… vulnerable when you’re being anaesthetized. So, to have somebody who’s not part of the medical institution bearing witness on your behalf while you’re unconscious is sort of like having a guardian angel, someone who’s behind you—a benevolent gaze hovering over you. It was quite a surprise for us, too. And it was very different from what we experienced with the old patients with dementia. We spent so much time with those and got to know them much better. They could tell that we weren’t with the medical staff—we would hang out with them as opposed to the doctors—but they knew we weren’t patients. We became part of their subculture, basically.

RS: And how did you feel once you realized that you were, slowly, becoming part of a community? I’m assuming the proximity—especially with patients suffering from dementia—must have felt a little heavy.

LCT: Well, it may have felt heavier quantitatively, but not so much ethically. As in, I don’t think what we did is that much different than if we’d spent, say, ten years with one patient and watched them go through different stages of fragility, embarrassment, pain, and vulnerability. After all, the medical staff see these things day in and day out. So, you just normalize it. You realize that these people—even as they are losing cognitive powers and agency—are still trying to hold on to something that can give them a sense of well-being, understanding, and community. As for the ethical issues of whether we were trespassing, transgressing, or being insensitive in how we chose to portray them… these are the same issues doctors have to face every day. There’s a moment in the film when you see them locking up patients. They do that because they may harm themselves and others. But just how long should a patient be locked for? Ideally, they’d never have to, but they don’t have enough people to look after them, and wouldn’t be able to do the dishes, clean, cook... There’s really no right or wrong answer, just like in life.

VP: For me, some of the most meaningful moments were the conversations we’d have with the patients after their surgeries. I remember one person in particular, whose operation we asked permission to film and then sat with her once it was over. This is a scene that didn’t make it into the film. It was just so overwhelming.

LCT: Possibly the best scene in the film…

VP: …and I had to fight with Lucien and the producer [to try and squeeze it in]. But the scene was so powerful that we knew nobody and nothing could exist after her. She was a young woman, and she went through a liver surgery. I talked to her for hours on the phone afterwards, and then I saw her again after our first meet-up. I was going to the hospital for a heart problem and right as I went in, she sent me a text asking how I was doing, how the film was going. “I was thinking of you,” she wrote, “because I’m in the hospital again. Sadly, I have to go through another surgery.” I read her texts as I was waiting for an MRI of my heart, and as it turned out, she was at the other end of the corridor! It was the strangest coincidence. I say all this because the most powerful thing for me were these exchanges, like talking to the relatives of the people in the geriatric ward and hearing their thoughts on what it’s like to live with someone suffering from dementia. And it’s in moments like these, when you’re immersed in these conversations, that you suddenly realize that you’re not stealing images, you’re not transgressing anything—you’re starting to belong to a kind of family. Ultimately, it’s for the viewer to decide if we went too far or not.

RS: I rewatched Leviathan on my way to Cannes. On the one hand, by divorcing your sounds and images from traditional, shoulder-mounted POVs, your footage in that film feels completely disembodied. But at the same time, by attaching all those cameras to the fishermen’s bodies, it also seems so attuned to a subjective and embodied experience of what being in the world feels like. I was wondering if you think the same paradox is at work in Fabrica, or if that tension has changed in any way.

VP: That’s a good question…A lot of people seem to think that in Leviathan we only filmed through cameras attached to the fishermen’s bodies. But at least half the footage was us holding those cameras. For me, filming with the body and not through the viewfinder means that your perception of reality is yoked to the circumstances you’re in. Take Leviathan again. You’re in the middle of the ocean, it’s night, and you’re exhausted, you don’t know how long you’ve been there, and you’re doing all you can to stay alive and not throw up. In other words, it’s a way of filming with the body that’s detached from the intentionality of the frame and the gaze. It’s not a holistic filming, more like somatic filming. And I think there’s a continuation between Leviathan and Fabrica. Here too, we attached the camera—which was very small—to a kind of harness, in a way that helps you feel the arm movements and other bodily gestures. But it’s also very different, in that we know we’re going to record what’s inside, and that we are the outside continuation of what’s going on inside of us. So, it’s very much embodied, too.

LCT: I don’t think we disembody conventional filmmaking, to be honest. We have the most profound, the most intimate relationship with our body. It’s the most extraordinary thing we have, and still we don’t understand it. Most documentaries don’t do justice, sensorially, to the way we incarnate and embody our daily experiences. On tripods, the camera on your shoulders… you get a limited view of life. I think Leviathan is interesting for the reasons you just mentioned. As for the footage that was not attached to our bodies, but to the fishermen’s—they were so immersed in their work that they had no time to think through the gestures they were doing and recording. Which is another way of saying that there was zero directorial or cinematic consciousness. Even so, it was more embodied than the most conventional, camera-on-your-shoulder footage you could ever get. But in Fabrica, I think it’s a combination of different points of view. Of degrees, points, and modes of embodiment. It kind of reminds me of Dziga Vertov. He was so obsessed with the quality and the placing of his camera, the use of tripods—all to give us a multiplicity of angles of view that the human eye cannot get. And I think both Leviathan and [Fabrica], the reason why they end up feeling paradoxically more embodied and more conventionally perspectival is because they deploy multiple different perspectives. We all have access to them over the course of the day, they’re just usually not condensed into a two-hour, intense experience.

RS: I must confess there were moments I couldn’t keep my eyes on the screen, especially early on, as I was still trying to “adjust” to your footage. But as the surgeries piled up, the bodies you dissected onscreen didn’t seem to look like bodies anymore. It was as if you’d turned them into strange visions from outer space. It was both alienating and oddly comforting: it made the goriest bits suddenly more accessible, less terrifying.

LCT: And isn’t that interesting? The alienation you felt is, ultimately, what allowed you to overcome your initial squeamishness. So, it’s a form of alienation that actually reconciled you with your body, your ability to be one with your body, and to view it as such. To re-own your body in all its otherness.

VP: To reclaim it. That, for me, is the idea that hovers above the whole film. My hope was to make something that would make me feel different in my body, that would get people to think about themselves differently. That they would inhabit their own body as if it were a different territory and appreciate the myriad connections with other living beings inside it—parasites, viruses, bacteria—and our relationship with machines and other bodies who can take care of us. After all, the body is a territory that connects us all. And how could you not be in awe of all that beauty? How could you not feel stupor and wonder, when even a urethra can suddenly look like the cosmos?