A vision of conflict that’s as raw and real as the pictures that inspired it, Camille depicts the turbulent last days of 26-year-old French photog Camille Lepage, who was killed in 2014 while covering the ongoing civil war in the Central African Republic.
Directed by former documentary filmmaker Boris Lojkine (Hope), and shot on location in the very places Lepage captured during her final tour of duty, the movie offers a lucid, bare-bones portrait of photojournalism from a female perspective, as well as a look at sectarian warfare in a country rarely given international attention.
Starring the talented if relatively unknown Nina Meurisse, who both looks like Lepage and conveys her earnestness with emotional aplomb, the film premiered in Locarno and was released this month on French screens. Festivals and distributors abroad could take notice, especially for the movie’s focus on a young woman trying to make it in an extremely hazardous man’s world.
Beginning in May 2014, when Lepage’s body was recovered by French soldiers patrolling a Central African Republic beset by violent skirmishes between Muslim fighters (the Séléka) and Christian militias (the anti-balaka), resulting in thousands killed or massacred, the film flashes back to the year leading up to Lepage’s death.
A novice combat photographer who had already served in Egypt and the Sudan, Lepage arrives in Bengui, the capital of the CAR, in early 2013 as tensions are sky-high after armed Séléka fighters seize the country’s main city and start committing acts of genocide in surrounding villages. Trying to make her way in a hostile land, Lepage befriends a group of rebellious local students while also meeting a small band of French journalists and photographers arriving in town as the war breaks out.
The latter group, which includes Le Monde reporter François (Grégoire Colin) and photographer Mathias (Bruno Todeschini), initially excludes Camille from their circle, and the film underlines how young women like Lepage aren’t easily welcome in a field dominated by world-weary men hopping from one combat zone to the next.
Indeed, what separates Camille from the others, and will inevitably seal her death sentence, is her refusal to indifferently depict the conflict at hand, choosing instead to befriend the various subjects — most of them Christian victims or anti-balaka fighters — she photographs, eventually joining an armed contingent as they try to drive the Séléka from the land.
Lojkine, who co-wrote the movie with Bojina Panayotova, portrays Lepage as an impassioned idealist unable to look away from the atrocities she sees, and unwilling to let it go during a short stint back in France with her family. Camille may be naive, but her heart is in the right place. She calls the rebels “my brothers, my human brothers,” and, unlike her French counterparts, who disappear once the UN steps in to mitigate the conflict, she won’t let the rest of the world forget what’s happening.
Inserting Lepage’s actual photos throughout the narrative, Bojkine guides us through the action in a style that avoids easy sentiment and never tries to sensationalize the events depicted. Cinematography by Elin Kirschfink (Our Struggles) is naturalistic but filled with instances of beauty, such as a late sequence where we see Camille riding with the rebels into the morning mist. The score by Eric Bentz (Neither Heaven Nor Earth) is used sparingly, heightening the tension at key moments.
Meurisse, for whom this is a first and noteworthy leading role, makes Lepage appear as both humble and ordinary, which she no doubt was despite her courage and budding talent. You perhaps wouldn’t remember her if you passed her by on the street, but nobody she runs into seems to forget her the brave young woman who chose to venture into a very dangerous place.
Or rather, Camille made those around her unforgettable by immortalizing their struggle in her photos — a struggle all of us, and especially the media, quickly lost sight of even though the conflict in CAR still endures to this day. In the end, what was perhaps most impressive about Lepage was neither her daring images nor her willingness to risk her life for them, but how she always tried to put herself on equal footing with those she photographed. And for that she paid the ultimate price.
Production company: Unité Production
Cast: Nina Meurisse, Fiacre Bindala, Bruno Todeschini, Grégoire Colin
Director: Boris Lojkine
Screenwriters: Boris Lojkine, Bojina Panayotova
Producer: Bruno Nahon
Executive producer: Olivier Colin
Director of photography: Elin Kirschfink
Production designer: Jan Andersen
Editor: Xavier Sirven
Composer: Eric Bentz
Casting directors: Adelaide Mauvernay, David Bertrand
Sales: Pyramide International
In French, English, Sango