Though the title of “Neither Heaven Nor Earth” may suggest otherwise, Clément Cogitore didn’t necessarily plan on being in hell making it.
“Each day, there was like a scorpion attack or a sandstorm or a fire on the set,” said Cogitore of the production based in a remote part of Morocco. “Little by little, we managed to shoot what we had to shoot and we just managed to catch what we liked, but most of the time, I was a ghost on the set trying to solve problems.”
In doing so, he became one of many apparitions in the story of a group of French NATO soldiers holed up at a military outpost in Afghanistan, positioned to keep a village of shepherds and farmers from the reach of the Taliban, which is spreading throughout the region. Keeping the peace with the locals is difficult enough for the French Captain Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier) with complaints that the sheep are getting caught in barbed wire set up by the soldiers, but he soon faces an even greater upheaval when after an evening in which he sees the villagers start a fire and the men from his unit charged with watching over them inexplicably disappear.
While Cogitore may have made an effort to be an invisible hand on the set, he shows a real identity as a filmmaker in just his first feature as “Neither Heaven Nor Earth” adds an eerie existentialist crisis on top of its already potent core conflict. After constantly alluding to a larger threat that “you don’t want here” to various parties in order to keep them all under his control, Bonassieu begins to worry the threat is far bigger than anything he could even imagine as his own efforts to figure out what’s happening turns his troops from protectors of the village to occupiers and the futility of his search leads him to question what he’s actually fighting for. As a result, “Neither Heaven Nor Earth” becomes more tense the more internal it gets with a strong central performance from Renier grounding the transcendent thriller.
Just a year after it first premiered at Cannes, the film is finding its way to America and on the eve of its release, Cogitore spoke about the enigmatic war drama, the film that changed his life and developing the film’s intriguing visual language, which turns the surveillance equipment of soldiers into an effective window into their psyche.
There were different interests that came together — I’m quite interested by the way the Western armies are fighting [wars] using images, like taking control over visible reality, so I wanted to experiment with this and the other idea was to make a film about the process of mourning, but [specifically as it applies to] the case of disappearance, like the story of the plane that crashes in the ocean and we don’t know at all what happened or the story of the little girl or little boy that disappeared when they were eight or 10 years old, and 10 years later, with simulation, we’re trying to figure out through digital simulation what his or her face would look like today. We don’t have any answers, but the process of mourning has to [still] exist, so these two ideas just came together in the [story] of the soldiers disappearing in the mountains and how the rational mind [works] facing this phenomenon.
Since the idea of war imagery inspired this, was it interesting to figure out the visual language of this? You film through a number of different lenses, whether it’s infrared or the telescopes the soldiers use.
I’m also a visual artist, so I work a lot with experimental forms and photographs, so it helped me a lot to construct the visual part of the film. The choice we made with my director of photography and my producer was to use the real military devices – not to shoot with HD cameras and put like an infrared effect on it, like we see in most of the contemporary war films [where] they shoot in studio and then do the effect in postproduction. What I wanted was to have the real, small infrared goggles the soldiers have [in the field] and put a small camera in it, so we see exactly what a soldier does when they’re in the landscape. It created a completely different sensation and image and we realized with these goggles, the soldier doesn’t see a lot. There is absolutely no light and there are a lot of pixels and when there’s too much light, the soldier is dazed, so the eye is completely lost. These two extreme points of vision — between obscurity and light — interested me a lot as a visual artist, [to figure out] what is perception and what kind of belief system do we build on this perception.
The score, which moves from classical to contemporary and back again, also feeds into that jarring of perception. What were the ideas behind it?
That was in the early stage of the project that I wanted to mix some really contemporary electronic music with French music from the Middle Age because I love these two kinds of music and the emotion that brings in the film, but also because the ancient music connects the story to something really old because this story could happen maybe in the Middle Age and it wouldn’t be French soldiers in the NATO army, but some knights in a castle somewhere. That helped me to [connect] my contemporary fighters, who are confronting death — a timeless emotion — to something that happens in the whole history of humanity.
How did you find this location?
Clement Cogitate: I traveled all of Morocco, and all of the Moroccan mountains to find a location. It was really difficult because there’s a geographical precision in the script that’s really important – the border, the outpost, the camp, the village – and everything has to be located precisely to make the film work. it was impossible to shoot in other countries because since the Arab Spring [was happening] and politically, it was impossible to shoot [anywhere but Morocco]. I was quite dispirited, but finally, we arrived in this valley and immediately I recognized the valley I wrote in the script. Sometimes like with an actor, you meet him and immediately you know this is him. For the location, it was exactly the same situation.
Before the first group of soldiers disappears, there’s a scene that hints at the metaphysical ideas in the film when one relates a story about collecting a body blown to bits that required dirt placed in the bag to be disposed since it was far less than the weight of the person as if to make them whole again. Was that actually from something you heard?
Yes, actually I think that every soldier back from Afghanistan tells this story because it happened a lot of times. If a soldier hasn’t faced this story directly, another soldier told him he saw [something like it]. I heard it many times. The first 20 to 30 minutes of the film are quite documentary in a way. I brought a lot of the testimonies I heard to [that section]. I also wanted to be quite precise about the relationship between the soldiers and the locals – how do they act, how do they speak to each other, what kind of conflict [do they have]. For example, the first scene with the locals when they are in the house, sitting in a circle, every single sentence of dialogue is real. I managed to watch some real video shot by officers who had this meeting with locals and they filmed it, so I saw the archive of the French army [had] and I managed to catch one line of dialogue here and one reaction here. I was also really interested by all the possibilities of camouflage, so I made a research walk to experiment with the camouflage from the most simple to the more technological.
You mentioned being a visual artist before. How did you become interested in narrative filmmaking?
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a painter, but then I studied art and discovered photography and video installation. Little by little, I would come closer and closer to film. Then when I was 16, I saw “The Sacrifice” by Andrei Tarkovsky and I realized what I wanted to do in painting was maybe possible in film. The work of Tarkovsky was for me a cinematic revelation.
Since you’ve had a year since the film’s premiere at Cannes, have your feelings changed about the film?
Of course, there are some things I would do differently, but shooting is an idiomatic experience – you have to face reality and that’s also what gives you in the film sometimes some things that are stronger than are in the script, so when I’m looking at the film, I’m seeing the eruption of reality. It’s the difference between the project and the film when it’s done.
“Neither Heaven Nor Earth” opens on August 5th in New York at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center and on August 12th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal.