French filmmaker Jérémie Battaglia cut his teeth as a filmmaker when he was a teenager, making his own Movies – usually about or featuring family and friends - on a personal digital video camera. No surprise then that Battaglia would end up becoming a documentarian but what might be surprising is that his latest Film tackles a subject he knew nothing about beforehand: Synchronised Swimming. “Perfect,” now available on VOD, is a film about a sport the world knows little about and one that doesn’t get the media coverage it deserves.

Recently, Jérémie discussed this documentary film and more via an exclusive interview.

Synchronized swimming and filmmaking

Meagan Meehan (MM): So, Jérémie, what inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Jérémie Battaglia (JB): As a teenager, I was lucky enough to have a DV camera. I started filming and making short films where I documented the life of my family and friends. I loved to make them happy by doing that. I wanted to show their everyday life with empathy. Somewhere my documentary practice comes from that. With my films try to empathize with the other, to go beyond the stereotypes. This is my main motivation for the heart of my passion. Then there are two films that changed everything for me: the first one was “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I remember watching it on VHS on my small 4/3 television; I was thirteen years old.

I remember being chocked at the end of the film. I was not sure I understood anything (I’m still not sure), but I knew that I lived a unique cinematographic experience. For me, it was a striking moment. The second one was War Photographer, a documentary by Christian Frei about James Nachtwey.

MM: And was it always documentaries you were primarily interested in?

JB: I was more attracted to fiction as a spectator. It is with the time that I really discovered the documentary. War Photographer was really a tipping point for me. A good documentary is as strong, even more than a fiction: it tells a true story with its own protagonists. It's something unique. And as a director, it's a way of talking about our worldview much more directly than fiction.

MM: I imagine research is a large part of the job with docs?

JB: I often say to laugh that I spend my life doing research! Every day I take notes, I record articles, I buy books, or I watch videos that will feed me about the state of the world, our society ... This is the first step to find topics. When we found our subject, we then had to search for the history of the sport. Which characters? What story? What place? This is the key to all projects. It may happen that we have an idea of a subject but not the story. The search then allows us to find the story that will allow us to tell our story in the right way. It’s very important. The more we know about it, the more we can prepare and film less: we start filming knowing what we want!

And to be prepared is also to be able to foresee the unforeseen shooting in a certain way

MM: In terms of “Perfect,” were you a fan of Synchronized Swimming?

JB: Not at all. I was myself carrying many stereotypes about this sport! So, I started from zero. I had to learn everything about this sport.

MM: Why is it such an intriguing sport, in your opinion?

JB: Synchronized swimming suffers a huge misperception in the general public due to a serious lack of media exposure - like many women’s sports - and a widespread contempt for the so-called “artistic” disciplines. The glitter of their swimwear blinds us to the reality that once the make-up is removed, what’s left are high-level, high-performance athletes.

They have to pretend that what they do is easy, they have to smile, and at the same time they are doing these amazing and crazy things in the water. These women are warriors.

MM: How did you get the swimmers involved?

JB: I started slowly. At first, I introduced myself to the team and talked about my project. I spent the first year observing, taking notes and taking pictures. I went with them to compete abroad, and I talked with each of them during the breaks, on the bus for the stadium or the meals. I wanted to go slowly and not rush them. Especially since I am a man, in a universe 100% feminine. I really wanted the trust between us to be total. So, I spent a lot of time explaining what I wanted to do, my vision for the film.

I did not hide anything. From the beginning, I said that I also wanted to talk about the harder things like eating disorders. It was my way of winning their trust. I was with them, I wanted to pay tribute to their sport and simply honor them!

The movie industry, advice, and story

MM: Was it easy to work with all the different languages? Ha!

JB: Yep! It’s Canada! A linguistic mess! It was pretty complicated for all the various versions of the film and the question of subtitles. But for filming it was pretty easy as, this is one of the things I love the most about Montreal, most people in our generation speak and understand French and English. So, the trainer was speaking English with a strong Chinese accent, some swimmers were answering in French and another one in English.

Some with a French-Canadian accent and myself with a French accent from France. Ha ha. It was fun. This is so Canadian.

MM: What do you believe the message of “Perfect” is?

JB: For me, it's really the question of the quest for perfection that is haunting. Making the film, I understood why I was so fascinated by these swimmers: I was myself way too much into this. The quest for perfection is a lost one. You will never win that battle. So, for me doing this film, I wanted to show empathy to these girls and tell them that they are perfect when they swim with joy, feeling comfortable in their bodies the way they are and not trying to fit some crazy body type images expectation from old judges. In a way by doing that for them, I was trying to do that for me at the same time.

I learned a lot about myself watching these girls. It’s a strange thing to say, but it’s true.

MM: So, what’s the best thing about being in the movie industry and where do you hope you’ll be, from a career standpoint, in ten years?

JB: What I like the most in making documentaries is to meet people, to live in someone's life for a few weeks, months or even years for this film. The people I film when I’m doing my films are incredibly generous and being able to be a part of their life while filming is a unique human experience. This is an incredible opportunity as a director of documentary films and as a human being. It helped me so much to learn about myself, to grow and improve myself. And to be more and more empathic.

I just want to keep doing films. Maybe fiction one day. Who knows? I just started my own production company as I want to help the young director to do their first film. I’m more about instinct than career plan!

I'm currently working on my next documentary film, a short film this time. The title is The Brother. It’s the story of a French Moroccan family living in France. Fehd, the eldest of the Karouani family, is a bodybuilder and former professional wrestler. Kaïs, the youngest, lives with Duchenne myopathy, a degenerative disease causing the loss of all the muscles of the body. As Fehd builds an always more muscular body, Kais gradually loses its use. It’s a unique story, I was really lucky once again to meet them and that they trusted me with their story to make this documentary.

It will be a mix of video and 2d animation! And I have the new feature documentary that I will film this summer about a small town in the south of France and Islamic radicalization. An amazing story!

MM: So, do you have any special Jérémie-Battaglia-exclusive sort of advice for aspiring filmmakers?

JB: It's a difficult career. But you have to be patient. Work hard. It takes time. And above all, remain honest with yourself: what makes you special, different is your strength. You have to protect that. Do not try to do the same as others. What's cool today may not be so tomorrow. And some people’s career will start quickly, others less: each has his own pace and career. Then do not be afraid: try, make mistakes, start again, learn. There is no good way; there is just your way to succeed!