October 1, 2001

Chasing Tapie: Perpetual Pursuit Pays Off

Bernard Tapie, the elusive subject of Marina Zenovich's <em>Who is Bernard Tapie?</em>

In April 1997 I went to a screening of Claude Lelouch’s Hommes, Femmes: Mode D’Emploi (Men, Women: A User’s Manual). Lelouch introduced the film and dedicated it to one of his actors—“My friend Bernard Tapie, who is in jail tonight.” I remember thinking, “Who in the hell is Bernard Tapie and why is he in jail?” Then I saw him on the big screen. The next question suddenly became, “Who is this amazing actor with all this charisma, and why haven’t I heard of him?”

I soon found out that Tapie was not just an actor but a household name in France—a renaissance man who had made his mark as a singer, millionaire businessman, variety show host, politician, football team owner, and, ultimately, convict. A perfect documentary subject, if only I spoke French!

Little did I know that not speaking French would not be my biggest problem. Having been hounded by the media for the past 15 years, Tapie, now out of jail, had little interest in taking part in a documentary. But for some reason that didn’t stop me. From December 1997 to May 2001, I made a total of 15 trips to France to try to get an interview with him.

I got to the Tapie “experts” —people who’d written books about him, people on the street, journalists, his former lawyer, his best friend. I traveled to Marseille and went to the jail in which he had been incarcerated. I went to his childhood home. I went to his favorite restaurant to wait for him. After finding out where he lived, I nervously parked myself in front of his house and waited for him to come out. Then one day someone gave me his phone number.

Once I discovered that Tapie picked up his own phone when his secretary was at lunch, I started calling at the right time, and we started talking on a semi-regular basis. We had a fun phone relationship, he in his deep-voiced bad English, I in my badly accented French. Even though we could barely communicate, I really thought I could talk him into meeting me. But he simply did not want to be interviewed. What was I thinking anyway? We didn’t even speak the same language! There were many frustrating moments when I wondered what I was doing, but somehow I kept going, and as I told Tapie one day (as he turned my interview request down yet again), “I’m like you, I don’t give up.” He laughed, so I realized his understanding of English was a little better than I thought.

So here I was—former actress, wannabe detective, would-be journalist, documentary filmmaker—in a country I didn’t know, trying to get to a man who didn’t want to talk to me, in a language I didn’t speak—and illegally tape recording our conversations to boot!

What I love about documentary filmmaking is that at a certain point the film just becomes what it’s supposed to become. And your job as the filmmaker is to just let it happen. When I gradually realized that Tapie wouldn’t sit down for an interview, my film went from being about him to being about him and my quest to get to him.

So the editing process became a study in two stories: Tapie’s journey and mine. After editing for three months, my editor(s) and I had a screening to determine whether there was too much of me in the movie or not. I think we somehow struck the perfect balance. At the premiere of the film at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the audience was asked, “Who is this film about—Bernard Tapie or Marina Zenovich?” To my amazement, the audience was split in half. And they seemed to care more about Bernard Tapie because of my unwavering interest in him.

I still don’t know if Bernard Tapie has seen the film. I was scheduled to show it to him but due to his busy schedule, it never happened. My plan was to get him to see the film, then ask him to sign a release. One day last summer I got a phone call from Tapie’s son Laurent. He’d seen the film, loved it and wanted to be in it. I remembered the #1 rule in documentary filmmaking: never turn down an interview request. After much debate about where to put Laurent in the movie, I ended up inserting him throughout the film, clarifying some issues and further humanizing his dad’s story.

On my last trip to Paris, I called Laurent to see if he could get his dad to sign the release. Without saying whether he could or not, he asked me to come to his office. “I have something that is going to make you very happy,” he said, greeting me warmly. He handed me the signed release. I couldn’t believe it. My four-year journey was over.

 

Marina Zenovich’s first film, Independent’s Day, a look at independent filmmaking and the Sundance Film Festival can be found at most Blockbuster video stores. Who is Bernard Tapie? premieres on the Sundance Channel in November and BBC in 2002.

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