French filmmaker and photographer Fanny Tondre (pictured on the right, next to producer Juliette Denize) has managed to find beauty, poetry and philosophy amid the wet cement, noise and chaos of one of Europe's biggest construction sites in this deeply human portrait of the men working there.
Shot in clean black-and-white – with an aesthetic sometimes reminiscent of the 1930s Manhattan-set photo Lunch Atop a Skyscraper capturing steelworkers – Tondre’s portrait reveals the construction site as a place of dedication, bonhomie as well as body breaking hard-graft.
"I saw it as a sort of human theatre," says Tondre, who also did the cinematography on the film. Tondre had wanted to make a documentary about the world of work for some time when by happy coincidence producer Matthieu Belghiti of Paris-based What's Up Films met Luc Weizmann, a French architect specialising in large-scale construction projects. "He talked to him about the project he was working on suggesting it would make a good subject for a film and Mathieu suggested me as the director" says Tondre, who made her first film Mr and Mrs Zhang with What's Up Films.
Weizmann helped connect them with some of the top construction firms in France who were receptive to Tondre's vision for the documentary. "I was dead-set against doing a corporate film aimed at promoting such-and-such construction firm. What I wanted to make was a human film in total liberty, both in terms of access and what I was trying to create," she says. She ended up spending the best part of two years researching and shooting the work, heading there three times a week as dawn broke for eighteen months.
The film focuses on four key characters: site manager Greg, the son of a mason who followed his father into the construction business; apprentice Joao; long-time construction worker Felipe and Olivier Tardiveau, a tough-talking site foreman with a strangely poetic turn of phrase who describes himself as piece of “bare masonry”.
“It was an instinctive thing,” she says of her choice of characters. “There are some thousand people on the site, but at a certain moment, I understood who would work. I think it also had to do with a feeling that they were on board the project and what I was trying to do too,” says Tondre.
She admits she was initially apprehensive about going to shoot in such a masculine environment. “It's a world around which there are lots of clichés – that it’s misogynist, racist... I set off with a lot of false expectations. I thought it was going to be really complicated to spend time on the site and that I might be the butt of a lot of jokes, et cetera. But I think because they saw how seriously I was taking the project, they took me seriously too.”
Tondre says she made it a point of honour to keep the same hours as the workers. “The working day kicks off at six o'clock in the morning, with the foremen getting in around four thirty. I would leave home at three in the morning to be sure to be the first on site. I felt for them to respect to me, I had to prove I was capable of putting my boots on at the same time as them.”
Photo: Corinne de Korver