Damian Pettigrew

Canadian filmmaker

Damian Pettigrew (born Québec, Canada) is a Paris-based Canadian film director best known for the feature-length documentary films Balthus Through the Looking Glass and Fellini: I'm a Born Liar.

Damian Pettigrew


  • The first documentary I saw as a child was Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) broadcast one Sunday afternoon. Nanook enchanted me by his courage to smile in a frozen wasteland, and by the simple fact that he wore a fur coat rather than a military uniform: this gentle hunter wasn’t a conqueror. Later, I understood how great Flaherty was: he told a timeless story without using commentary or pedagogues, and he didn’t interview Nanook like a celebrity or an aggressive talk-show host. He remained off-screen, observing and listening to create that exceptional complicity we feel in this documentary that eschews didacticism. The emotion of life found its counterpart in the emotion of art - a rare and precious achievement in a genre that is often limited to the emotion of the informational narrative.
  • One of the key topics, for me, is a study of the individual in relation to crowds and to power. A film essay on crowd psychology would avoid commentary (it has become the madness of secondary discourse in many documentaries) and rely wholly on sound and image. Ideally, it would try to provide us with new concepts on the nature of society, on violence, and on the political bestiality of our times that is linked to the way the media has become a plague of words and images stripped of substance. It is a plague infecting our lives and, as a consequence, the history of nations with all that is sensational, random, and confused.
    • On key topics in the documentary genre, Sundance Channel Interview (July 2004)
  • Fellini was a hugely original spirit, a bona fide gagman, the king of contradiction, a well-oiled motor mouth -- in short, anything except a thinker. He needed the interviews and the media because it was during these seeming exercises in vanity that he discovered things about himself. If you pushed him hard enough, he would come up with ideas that surprised even him.
  • With a few exceptions, Fellini's films have failure and despair running through them: Life continues, but I can't imagine 'Felliniesque' as an exclusively uplifting adjective. Fellini's best films are the ones that distill this essence -- the paradoxical quality of melancholic ecstasy, a surreal, bittersweet vitality -- to perfection.
    • On the adjective ‘Felliniesque’, in The Los Angeles Times (April 2003)]
  • Fellini was a man of many selves and contradictions: he quoted Dante with genuine emotion while executing pornographic doodles on the table napkin then balked at paying the lunch bill while handing out millions of lire to the beggars of Rome. Although he boasted he was heterosexual, he nonetheless directed one of the greatest bisexual films of all time. He was Mr. Cool as well as the Nutty Professor. He contains multitudes and the journey to his center never ceases. Quite simply, you end up cherishing an Onion Man with no center. Federico really had a rough time of it but pretended otherwise and had the grace never to expose his personal problems in public. And then there are the films that continuously generate new meanings. For example, 8 1/2 contains alembicated allusions to Hamlet of tremendous power and beauty that resonate in the mind long after the film is over.
    • On Fellini's personality, in Indiewire (April, 2003)
  • Without once compromising his artistic integrity, Fellini imagined a body of work -- as opposed to a suite of spin-offs, remakes, potboilers and so on -- where each production can be ranked as among the finest of experimental films ever to reach and influence an international public. There is a breathtaking scope to that achievement and great courage in the process: surmounting unbelievable resistance from producers, enemies of all kinds and jealous colleagues, career reversals, and poor health, Fellini held true to his own vision of cinema forged in the smithy of his soul.
    • On Fellini's artistic integrity, in Indiewire (April, 2003)
  • Italo Calvino said the artist reveals that bit of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie. Art is all about the art of lying. The artist’s imperative is to create a supreme fiction, a lie that, paradoxically, discloses a truth. It's precisely this kind of paradox that Calvino and Fellini adored.
  • I don’t like making didactic, pedagogical documentaries based on standard formulas of narration: I'm only interested in the ambitious French tradition of the documentaire de création where the film, if successful, is not about something but that something itself. The goal is to incorporate areas of risk and paradox that we associate with cinematic art.
  • A filmmaker should never assume he's superior to his subject. I often find that even the simplest topic remains an enigma. The best film portraits not only evoke that enigma but ingest it in a process that renders what's invisible visible.
    • On documentary subject matter, Le Parisien (May, 2003)
  • In a synchronistic way, the Jungian term of great significance for Carolyn Carlson, her art is in accord with Hölderlin's phrase, "Poetically, man dwells on this earth." After the century of Fascism, we enter the brave new world of the digital era where bombs are grafted inside the body in a corruption of the word spiritual that Malraux never imagined. For Carlson, the question is no longer, "How to live together?" but rather, "How to live poetically our dwelling place?"
    • On the art of Carolyn Carlson, France Culture interview (December 2012)

I'm a Born Liar: A Fellini Lexicon (2003)Edit

Edited by Damian Pettigrew; translated by D. Pettigrew; Harry N. Abrams (New York) ISBN 0306805200

  • The single greatest influence on my work as a filmmaker has been the celebrated Interviews with Francis Bacon (1980) by David Sylvester. Sylvester is a master of the art of complicity: he knows how to manipulate and exploit it. Complicity requires being cautiously intellectual yet profoundly human in the sense that the interviewer must act as the concerned midwife, allowing the interviewee to express himself while at the same time guiding his thoughts to a satisfactory conclusion through sensitive provocation.
  • The filmed interview is an art extemporized under difficult conditions and successful only when the interviewee hasn't prepared his replies beforehand.

Federico Fellini: Sou um Grande Mentiroso (2008)Edit

Edited by D. Pettigrew; translated by Miguel Serras Pereira; Film de Seculo (Lisbon) ISBN 978-972-754-221-5

  • Fellini has sometimes been accused of not being interested in the work of other directors but I never found this accusation to hold true. The Federico I knew was not only a voracious reader but extremely interested in hearing about international directors, most notably, Nanni Moretti, Pedro Almodovar, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Akira Kurosawa, David Cronenberg, Wim Wenders, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick. Clearly, part of the pleasure of discussing these directors was the stimulus for new ideas that their latest films gave him. Although we never explored Portuguese film in any depth, the films of Manoel de Oliveira and Joao César Monteiro genuinely fascinated Federico. At the urging of Mastroianni, he went to see A Divina Comédia (1991), Oliveira’s superb allegory about Western civilization, and returned enthralled. He had long been obsessed by the theme of insane asylums and Oliveira’s masterful blend of philosophy and religion appealed to him at a time in his life when such questions as death and resurrection had become pressing concerns. I do not know where or in what format Federico saw Monteiro’s Recordaçoes de Casa Amarela (1989) but it was a film he described as “deliriously eccentric, a satirical bizarrie that Bunuel would have adored".
    • On Fellini’s favorite directors
  • To my delight, Federico had seen Dans la ville blanche (1983) by Swiss director Alain Tanner. Enthusiastic about Bruno Ganz’s performance, he also was impressed by the film’s startling visual poetry of Lisbon achieved by transferring inferior film stock onto 35mm. It was exactly this kind of uncomplicated technical innovation that inspired Federico during the writing of Attore. Conceived in 1992, Attore focused on the craft and the psychology of actors. Having completed a film treatment with roles for Mastroianni, Giulietta Masina, and Paolo Villagio, Fellini was now wondering if he should provide Marcello with a home movie camera to be used in a loosely Shakespearian sense that all the world’s a film set. The 8mm footage of intimate memories of the theatre from his Rimini childhood would then be transferred to 35mm – a most intriguing idea that would have been a new departure for the Maestro had he lived to bring it to the screen.
    • On Fellini’s last film project, Attore
  • It was Italian playwright and screenwriter Ennio Flaiano who first spoke to Fellini of Fernando Pessoa during their collaboration on I Vitelloni (1953). Fellini claimed, however, that it was not until he lunched with Anthony Burgess in the mid 1970s (when the British writer owned a country house in Bracciano north of Rome) that he began reading the Portuguese poet in earnest. This is not to suggest that Pessoa influenced Fellini in any direct way but simply to note a genial coincidence embedded within two autobiographical masterpieces. The first quotation is from Pessoa’s O Livro do desassossego: ‘These are my Confessions, and if in them I say nothing, it’s because I have nothing to say.’ The second is from Fellini’s Otto e mezzo (1963) during the crucial night scene at the base of the scaffolding when Guido confesses to Rosella, “I have really nothing to say in my film. But I want to say it anyway.” Suddenly, the disparate obsessions of these two great Mediterranean minds seem to fold into one another, if only for an instant, like the sounds of vibrating wires touched simultaneously. Whatever the ultimate significance may be, it amuses me to think that textual coincidences of this nature are proof of the brotherhood of artists.
    • On Fellini and Fernando Pessoa
  • We lunched in Fregene: grilled sardines sprinkled with parsley and lemon. Federico ate daintily, like someone with no appetite. The beach was deserted, the wind brisk. In the distance stood the abandoned lighthouse he filmed for 8 1/2. Like someone about to propose a toast, he stood up and "recited" from King Lear :
Hark! Have you heard the news? The king fell off a cliff.
O horrible! Were you very close to him?
Indeed, sir. Close enough to push.
We laughed until he brusquely sat down again, scraping the fish scales off his fingers, staring at the age spots that covered his hands. The beautiful adolescent waitress asked for his autograph. He drew himself as a man-lion in a hat and scarf with huge paws chasing her, and signed it "Féfé." We spent the afternoon visiting Ostia and returned to Rome in a sweltering twilight. He asked to be driven home for a change of clothes. We invited Giulietta, who wore a green velvet turban, to join us for dinner. (Had she already lost her hair from chemotherapy?) Graciously, she declined while smoking cigarette after cigarette. At Cesarina's, Federico drew hilarious, pornographic sketches on the table napkin saying, "If you have not made love today then you have lost a day!" The entire restaurant was at his feet. He was twenty years old now and as thin as Kafka. He was Rome. He had adopted us the way Rome adopts everyone, and we loved him.
  • On Fellini's final years

See alsoEdit

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