Paris comes to Amsterdam

Paul Cowan's Paris 1919, a creative docudrama on the world-shaping conference that concluded the First World War, drew a respectful...

AMSTERDAM — Paul Cowan’s Paris 1919, a creative docudrama on the world-shaping conference that concluded the First World War, drew a respectful response from a sold-out audience at its premiere screening during the city’s blow-out International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.

The film documents the peace process during which the victorious leaders of the U.S., Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan redrew the map of the world, creating new countries in Europe, Asia and Africa, while dismembering the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and German empires. Inspired by the nonfiction account by University of Toronto professor Margaret MacMillan, Cowan’s script concentrates on the conflicting desires of the so-called Big Three — U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and U.K. prime minister Lloyd George.

For Cowan (Westray, The Peacekeepers) and his fellow National Film Board veteran, producer Gerry Flahive, it was crucial to make a film that placed character and narrative ahead of a dry historical account.

‘How do you make a bunch of old farts sitting around a table into something interesting?’ asks the filmmaker. By casting look-alike actors to play the leaders and such key figures as economist John Maynard Keynes and diplomat/diarist Harold Nicholson, as well as employing Canadian thespian — and First World War buff — R.H. Thomson as narrator, Cowan’s strategy was to dramatize the complex events of 1919.

Taking more than four years to make, longer than the Great War itself, the copro by Canada’s Galafilm and the NFB with France’s 13Production was budgeted at $2 million and involved a 10-day dramatic shoot in and around Paris, as well as the purchase of rare archival footage from France and the U.S.

Paris 1919 has presold to broadcasters including ARTE France, TVOntario, SBS-TV Australia, NHK in Japan and TSR in Switzerland.

Not content to merely direct and write Paris 1919, Cowan also shot the film’s dramatic recreations. The budget — generous for a documentary but limited for a historical drama — dictated that a shoot in Versailles, where the treaty was finally signed, couldn’t take place. French coproducer Paul Saadoun found a chateau, where Cowan could shoot ’360 degrees’ unhampered by jarring modern details. The producers agreed that Cowan should shoot his scenes in color, assuming that the audience would accept it as a blend with archival black-and-white footage.

‘If you try to step down the color or use black and white in a modern shoot, it feels inauthentic,’ says Flahive.

The story of Paris 1919 unfolds as a morality tale in which, as Cowan puts it, Wilson’s ‘attempts to put aside hatred and a desire for revenge’ were thwarted by Clemenceau and George. ‘It was all about greed,’ points out Cowan, who clearly began to feel empathy for Germany, a country that was demonized and nearly bankrupted by the victors. ‘I don’t know why Wilson failed — but he did.’

Perhaps the highest praise Cowan will receive for his final NFB film — he’s retiring later this year — is from MacMillan, who wrote to Flahive, ‘Paul has done a very good job at making a complex situation and issues clear and lively.’