© Michel NOLL​

You understand yourself better when you look at others.

Michel Noll

August 2023 - Yutong

      Born in 1949, Michel Noll currently resides in France. In his early years, he was a sociology and economics researcher and also provided sales consulting for companies. Many years ago, Michel began traveling around the world and making films, seeking “the other” without Western influence. He believes that only by truly seeing and knowing the other can we better understand ourselves.

Over 30 years ago, Michel came to Beijing alone, unable to speak Chinese and did not know any friends, but he managed to survive. In his view, language is not the key to communication, but “attitude” and “action” are. Since then, he has returned to China two or three times a year, making documentaries, continuously paying attention to and helping Chinese documentary filmmakers, and assisting in the establishment of the Guangzhou International Documentary Festival (GZDOC) and working for many years.

In Europe, Michel founded the association ECRANS DES MONDES (Screens of the World), dedicated to presenting documentary works from countries such as China, South Korea, Africa, and Iran to European audiences. Among them, the “ECRAN DE CHINE” documentary exhibition has been held for 22 sessions, expanding to five cities such as Paris, Munich, Rome, and Milan. Every summer, the ECRAN DE CHINE team gathers in the suburbs of Paris to select films, translate, and coordinate, bringing the images and sounds of Chinese documentary filmmakers to European audiences.

In this conversation with ACCE, Michel talked more about his original intention and direction, and the stories about documentary films and curation


ACCE: Besides as the founder and curator of Ecrans des Mondes, you have been working in the field of documentary for more than 30 years. Could you tell us why you choose documentaries and related works in your life?

Michel: Documentaries, for me is an art form in this section of cinema. It’s related to the reality of life that can have a strong impact on people’s lives, in a way, in my opinion more than fiction or animation.

It’s also a very important art form, to look at our societies that are becoming more complex. And as the days passed by, we’re now living in a on a big planet all together. Never in the history of humanity, do we ever have an opportunity to be all together? Right now, this is the first time. I know what will happen in Beijing tomorrow morning, in Moscow, in Buenos Aires, in South Africa. We are constantly confronted with new news, with what is happening in the reality all over the planet, which is very new to us.

But nobody has ever told us, and we have not learned to live or take advantage of this mass of information. We got lots of terrible things happening like wars and other catastrophes. So documentary for me is a way to help and give us an opportunity to become, again, master of our events, rather than victims in understanding what happens, why this happens, and why not other thing happens so that we can become more active proactive in our lives. Documentary for me is a fantastic tool on this road.

Besides, each documentary always is impacted by the one who is making it. If you take 100 filmmakers and tell them to make a film about one given subject, you will get 100 different films. Although it’s the same subject, and that’s a wonderful strength. That means creativity and experience. There is always a personal touch, or an inherent in a documentary, although the notion of documentary sort of tells us this is reality.

But there’s not only one reality there’s not only one truth, there are as many truths and many realities, depends on how we look at them. This is why documentary is an art form and not just a way to reproduce one aspect of reality. I think it’s very important we make clear to the general public that creativity is a vital element of documentary.


ACCE: It has been the 22nd year of Ecran de Chine since last year, and you have been focusing on Chinese documentary films for more than 30 years. Why you are especially interested in Chinese documentaries?

Michel: I have extensively traveled the world and made films in many parts of the world. I’m always looking for the other, looking for what other people do. And this desire to learn to discover, has to do with the fact that you understand yourself better when you look at others.

So I thought, I need to go to the far end of the world, which at that time for me, was Australia. I went to Australia, I made a lot of films there until I discovered that Australian isn’t that different. Australis is too influenced by the British culture because of the colonial forces. I actually was finding Britain, just in another place. Although it was very far away, it was not the other world. I also went to Canada, to the States, to Africa. The same happened. I found again, the colonial forces: the French, the British, the Portuguese but I didn’t find the other.

I hadn’t really developed my travels into Asia. I said, okay, maybe I need to choose between India and China, to big nations with huge amount of population and a lot of culture and tradition. And then I said to myself, well, in India, I will find the British again. But China, except for a short period, has never been invaded by anybody. So maybe that’s where I can find a different side of humanity.

So I decided not by books or films, to learn about China, but by actually going there. To learn about China with my own eyes, but not the eyes of somebody else who has already been there, and was reproducing to me what he or she had found.

I bought myself a ticket to Beijing and didn’t know anybody, didn’t want anybody’s help. I went for one week and walked. This is more than 30 years ago. I walked in Beijing during that week, from one quartier to another. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese except for “你好(hello)” and little funny things. But I managed to survive, and I discovered the other, the other alternative.

And since then, I’ve been to China 30 years, two or three times a year. I have the image of China that is a very personal image, because it’s made of encounters of people, of the places that I’ve visited, of films and have made, of young filmmakers that I’ve met and have helped with their films. So I have a very particular view of what China is about. And I think this is reflected in a coalition.

China for me is well living civilization that is worth to be encountered. Like others, it has two sides, the wonderful and de horrible. When you look at things from your own point of view, you can get the nice things when you look at the bad things. As an optimist in life, I always look at the good sides. For me, a bottle is not full, but not half empty.

What I tried to do is to give my European neighbors a vision of China that represents its richness and values that we don’t have enough or we have lost. And in doing so, I hope to create a desire for us Europeans, to work with China, to go to China, to have friends in China, to learn from China, and at the same time to bring some of our invention some of our visions into China. Now, the visions can be philosophical visions, technical visions, or political visions. I think it’s wonderful if there is a dialogue that creates new situations that are stronger, better, more beautiful than the previous ones. That’s for me, a coalition.

And when starting, it was full of my films, because nobody had really brought these things together. But over the years, my own films have become no longer present. And there are young individual filmmakers, who give us their vision, about their daily life. I’m interested in sharing European audiences with visions of young Chinese artists, cineastes who tell us what they believe their country is about.

Besides China, I am interested in human beings in the human experience. I’m looking for other alternative ways to our own reality today. I’m currently working very strongly with Iran. Right now, politically speaking, it seems to be pretty oppressed. It’s more difficult for Iranian filmmakers to make films freely. But I’m sure there are things we need to carve out. There are cultural achievements, artistic achievements that we don’t even know about.

I think for documentary filmmakers, it’s their job to find these out and to share them with a larger audience. It a humanistic approach. Human experience is at the heart of what I think documentary filmmaking should be about.

ACCE: You mention when you first went to China, you didn’t speak the language. How you managed to communicate with local people?

Michel: Communication between humans is very easy if you speak the language. I have traveled in many countries of the world, but I could not possibly speak all the languages that I’ve encountered. But Communication is a lot larger than just language, I’m not only talking about how you speak, or the power of a smile, I’m also talking about an attitude. And if you go towards the other, with an open mind read by the other, and that opens all of a sudden, a flow of emotion, a flow of motivation, a flow of desire to communicate.

For example, “can I please have a glass of water?”if I were able to express it in Chinese, would it make such a big difference? I don’t think so. Although it would be more convenient but you will never be able to speak it as well as your mother tongue. Therefore we have to learn to live in communications, outside languages.

Communication is not only languages, but also actions. What do you do and what do you do to make people see.

At the beginning of the festival Guangzhou Documentary Film Festival (GZDOC), I was asked to help the organizers to create the festival from the outsiders with an open view to the world. In other words, to bring foreign filmmakers to the festival. In the first year, we only have 50 people. And this is what I mean by communicating. It’s not only language, which is what you do. As a contributor and co-founder of GZDOC, that was an important meeting point for documentary filmmakers that I wanted to work with China.

I followed the development of GZDOC for 13 years, also as the artistic director. And then I said GZDOC, you’re grown up, you’re no longer a little baby. Go. So I retired from it and Chinese people took over, which I think is the way to go. I wanted to help this event to become a recognized event in the world’s documentary community. This also the communication.


ACCE: From your perspective, during the first years when you were in China and worked in GZDOC, what’s your impression of Chinese documentaries back to that time? Could you give us example?

Michel: When I arrived in China, documentary was a very, very little. There was a lot of reportage and propaganda. It took quite a while to make people see that the documentary can be something else. It is not just a reproduction of reality, but an interpretation of reality. So, this is something that you need to learn and to be guided towards.

The biggest steps we I have seen happening is to make documentary filmmakers see that although they’re talking about reality, they still need to tell a story. The great values of dramaturge needs to get into the storytelling of a documentary. And to make this understood by young filmmakers took quite a while because it’s sort of a challenge to the spirit of what we have learned when we say a documentary. It needs to be told in a way that people really are looking for the next image, the next sequence.

I have seen and could still see the questioning eyes that looked at me when I told them the idea of the story in a documentary. But story is not fiction. Fiction is a filmmaker invents a story. In documentary, the filmmaker doesn’t not use his imagination. He uses factual information rather than invented information. It’s still a story but based on fact.

Like, in a scene between a young boy and a girl, the fictionalized filmmaker might have a moment when they kiss each other. However, the documentary filmmaker stands there with the camera recording whatever happens. If they don’t kiss each other, he or she still has to tell us about.

And this, it teaches humanity. It teaches you as a filmmaker, you have to respect what the reality out there. Even if you don’t like it, that’s the real. Don’t invent something, work with what you find.

ACCE: After you had the very local experience in China, what made you decide to start a documentary festival focusing on Chinese documentary filmmakers?

Michel: In the early days, I brought my films I produced or made in China back to Europe TV channel. At some point, they said to me:“we cannot show all your films about China on the channel. People have enough now China”, and I said, “you think they have enough? I think there’s still a lot of thirst for curiosity about what is China because it’s been closed for so many centuries. We don’t know anything about China.”

Then I went to a cinema owner, I said, “I have these and I will continue to do this. Shall we run a week of Chinese films?”. And he asked would this work? I said there are a lot of curiosity. Why don’t we try it?

Okay, let’s try!

So we had 25 people on the first evening. And at the end of the week, we had to refuse people. They couldn’t get into the cinema, it was full. Since then, that was the birth of physical machine.

At the beginning, it was my own films. As we moved on year by year, I opened up and invited other Chinese filmmakers to bring films. And today it’s a window into Europe for Chinese documentary filmmakers. After it worked well in France, then I started to export this into other European countries like German, Switzerland, Greece, Italy, Finland. Because for me, the corresponding civilizational power is between China and Europe, not only China and France.

ACCE: As Ecran de Chine goes to more cities, it seems getting bigger. How you organize the organization and festival?

Michel: I would question it’s getting bigger. There is a curiosity in in Europe about what is China about and there is a dynamic evolution in this. I think COVID period hasn’t helped. In some parts, resentment. Also currently, in China there is also I’m quite restrictive policy of the government.

When I started many years ago, everybody was interested in to know more about China, and China was looking for the world is more. Now, China is more focusing on itself, so the world also reacts to that There is less curiosity now than it was 15 years ago. Now I can see this as a reality that I’m facing.

But I also see this as a moment in time. My interest for China, and the human’s interest for China should be eternal, nevermind what the government is, nevermind what sickness makes it different. So what I would like Ecran de Chine to remain is a small, dedicated place. I don’t want Ecran de Chine to become a big festival. I think what is important is that people who really are interested in China have a place where they can go to. I prefer quality to quantity.

ACCE: What is the team like in Ecran de Chine that you work with every year?

Michel: To start with a goal in association, the association is known for nonprofit. So we’re not a huge group of people. We have people who are dedicated to what we’re doing. ,Many people do this because they want to help. I think it’s important what we do, but they also have other jobs. We are like 8 or 10 people but none of us is really 100% on this we do other things and other festivals. I think it’s important that it doesn’t become an obsessive event. It’s important that it stays easy, light, good, and pleasure. We do something because we want to do it.


ACCE: How do you organize the film selections each year?

Michel: We have an open call to receive films, and anybody can send their films to us on our website, We also send out a call over the social media over my personal network. As films come in, I have a selection committee of friends and professional people from both China and Europe who watch the films and make their suggestion.

In some years, I was very keen on showing as many films as possible. But I have changed my mind about this. And now I like to show between 6 and 10 films every year. So the selection process is important. And then I nominate five members of the jury. They watch the films and we give an award or two awards to films. There’s no money attached to those awards, but it often helps to films to get attention in the future.

Volunteers help us to do the translations. Mostly we see the films in Chinese with English subtitles because the Chinese filmmakers that stay away to show their work in English. But I will not show English titles to a French audience because they will “kill” me. So we need to have friendly subtitles for local audiences. Then we create the technical communication tools to show those films in high quality with DCP in cinemas.

While the process happens, we have the place situated a little bit outside Paris, in the east. We welcome 5 or 6 students every year in the summer who come and help us make the translations and preparation. It’s more like a summer campus, in our place. Although it’s hard work, it can be fun.

We have some student writing to us for volunteering, and we have a network of about 8 universities. At the beginning of the year, we send out a note for calling, and we have a contract between the university, ourselves and the student, with rules what needs to be done, etc. The place we have is a big building from the 13th century with a lot of rooms, so students can come there, stay, cook and sleep there.

ACCE: When you select the film for the screening, do you have any standard or criteria? And if you have some preference to the documentary, will there be any conflict between your personal preference and the criteria for the festival?

Michel: Proposing films for this election for me is to bring a fresh view on a particular subject or a particular region. I look at how original or professional standard storytelling is. What I look at is there a sense of freedom in the expression of how things are being presented? I like to avoid showing in the same condition. Two films on the same subject.

It’s difficult to be precise about it, unless you talk about given films. I would like the viewer after seeing this film, he or she come out of the screening, learning something, and being challenged to revise his or her position on the subject If a film is just reaffirming what we already know, why show it? But if a film challenges what we know, then it makes it interesting.

ACCE: During these years, do you observe any changes/development of Chinese documentary in the subjects, in genres or other parts? How do you think the impact of technology evolution to documentaries, for example smartphones?

Michel: What I’ve seen happening is Chinese filmmakers are in connection with other filmmakers. Thet can be also Chinese, or other filmmakers. In other words, if they put themselves in the framework of a situation or context where they have to dialogue, films always get better. And this is not because there is an accidental influence. The same would apply for French filmmakers if they work with Italian, English or other foreign filmmakers.

This is happening more and more, with participation at festivals, with filmmakers traveling etc. This is important. Documentaries in the future might have a better chance to go into the cinema rather than just on TV or social media. Because I think the best media for documentaries is the big screen and the cinema, not just VOD, DVD or television.

Technology has made a big contribution to documentary like the democratization of documentary, which I think is a very good thing. However, it’s like whenever every kid plays football, it doesn’t make you the world champion. It helps you to develop who are capable to become world champions. Nothing against smartphone but I personally don’t think that important subject matters can be dealt with in three minutes, or seven minutes. We need space for a thought. It’s the same in the literature, little things can be very interesting, but would they be able to move you so strongly that you changed your life? Maybe not.

ACCE: If young Chinese filmmakers have documentaries that they would like to show in Ecran de Chine, is there a way to get in touch with you?

Michel: Very easy. Clicking on the submission form on out website, or they can write to me directly by email. Ecrans des Mondes : https://www.ecransdesmondes.org/