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How 2 French Filmmakers Travel The World To Make A Difference

BY JERRY ALONZO LEON

Gwenn Gwendall french filmmaker

There comes a point in a person’s life when the mundane routine of a demanding career, coupled with the social pressure of chasing success while maintaining some semblance of happiness, can unnecessarily conflict with the dreams and passions of one’s heart—it is then that a choice, for the sake of one’s sanity, must be made. For filmmakers Gwenn Lainé & Gwendal Danguy Des Déserts, the decision to leave behind France, their loved ones and established careers for the uncertainty of the road, in order to shoot the documentary of a lifetime, has proven to be the best decision they have ever made.

SEE ALSO: Why Every Traveler Needs To Go See “Wild”

Gwenn, a ten-year veteran and former officer in the French Navy, and Gwendal, a former PR executive for a French Industrial firm, grew weary with their respective careers and realized a change needed to be made. Committed to fulfilling their lifelong ambition of creating a full-length documentary film, these two friends of more than 20 years set forth to turn their dream into a reality. To help document their experiences on the road, they set up The Gwens’ Chronicles, a blog that follows their travels as they interview ordinary people from around the world who have undergone important, and exceptional, life changes of their own.

Gwenn Lainé was kind enough to sit down with Jetset Times to discuss the project, the challenges of being a first-time filmmaker and his insatiable appetite for Indonesian food.

Gwenn Gwendall french filmmaker

How did the idea for the project come about?

Gwenn: Well, Gwendal and I have been friends for more than 20 years. Although we are different, we share many similar values: friendship, the outdoors but above all a taste for genuine human encounters. We always wanted to do something creative together but never really got round to doing it. Life takes over, you start a career, invest your time and energy in it. It’s so easy to lose your way in the process and lose track of what you really want. In early 2014, there was a moment of synchronicity: I decided to leave the French Navy after serving 10 years as an officer whilst Gwendal chose to take a sabbatical from his job as a PR executive in a French industrial firm. For us both, there was an imperative to reconnect with our core values and with the men we wanted to be when we were 10 years younger. Rather than keeping all these questions to ourselves, we decided to turn them into something creative.

Many people reach a point in their lives when they wonder why they should carry on doing something they don’t like. We thought it’d be interesting to go and meet people who have already made radical life changes and share these encounters. That’s how the idea of the documentary came about. Then began the preparation phase: we put together an itinerary and asked everyone we knew if they could put us in touch with people who fit this profile along this itinerary. The response rate was amazing! We also needed to learn about film making, so I went to the New York Film Academy to get the foundation training. Pre-production took six months altogether. Now, we’ve been on the road for almost three months and have interviewed 9 persons.

Gwenn Gwendall french filmmaker

What has been the biggest challenge/fear you conquered in making the film?

Gwenn: Simply put, to go and do something of that magnitude. Neither Gwendal nor myself had filmmaking skills so it was a rather big leap! I feel that for many years I have had many big ideas, which never translated into anything real. The biggest challenge was trading certainty for uncertainty. Leaving a predictable life behind and not knowing exactly how the path will end!

Gwenn Gwendall french filmmaker

What does you’re normal day on the road look like?

Gwenn: Whereas in a 9-5 job, one could speak of a normal day, it’s a bit more difficult in the case of our project. It really depends on whether we are shooting an interview with someone, editing, or travelling between places. For a shoot, we try to spend at least three days with the person we’re meeting. On the first day, we never take the camera out. First, we try to make a genuine connection with this person. This can mean having a beer or dinner together. More often than not, we end up having very deep philosophical discussions during those first encounters. I think the nature of our project, understanding radical life changes, encourages people to speak of the heavy stuff at the onset. So it’s always pretty full on from the first few minutes. When we get to the stage of the actual filming, we have a routine. It usually involves rigging the cameras and prepping the rest of the equipment. When we get there, we go location scouting to assess light conditions, and interesting backdrops. Then we set up the camera, lights and sound. We check the aperture and focus and frame our shot. Then we tell the person we’re good to go and then it’s “all cameras rolling”…

Gwenn Gwendall french filmmaker

What has surprised you the most about being a filmmaker?

Gwenn: When I left the navy, I thought that whatever I would do next I would have to start from scratch. It was a big surprise when I went to film school to realise that a film set is very much organised like a warship, both in terms of hierarchy and procedures. That realisation created a sense of familiarity I did not anticipate. But the most important thing I’ve learned and also the biggest surprise was discovering that we don’t only learn from the people we go to interview: they also learn from us. Many amongst the persons we have filmed so far told us that because of the questions Gwendal and I are asking — about their past, present and future — the days we spent together felt a bit like a kind of therapy. I guess I thought that we would be objective observers of people’s life stories. The big surprise was realising that there is no such thing!

Gwenn Gwendall french filmmaker

What advice would you have for travelers who want to start their own film but think it’s too hard?

Gwenn: I will quote the first person we interviewed in Peru, John Whelan. When you take a task as a whole, it’s always too big. Break it down into manageable chunks and take it one step at a time. Filming is a process. Before you start anything, you need to understand what are the steps of this process. Improving your understanding of this process will help you identify the skills you have and those you lack. But there’s a very important point: very rarely is filming a solitary endeavour. There are too many moving parts to be doing it alone. Find partners who share your vision and whose skills complement yours. You might be creative but not very good at organising things. Find someone who’s a good project manager. You’re good with cameras but can’t be bothered with the editing stage, find someone who’s geeky enough to do it! To wrap it up, I would say that saying it’s too hard is taking the problem backwards. If you really want to do something, you will work out how to make it happen.

Gwenn Gwendall french filmmaker

You have overcome and persevered through many hardships in your lives, how have you been able to keep perspective and stay focused on your goals?

Gwenn: Remember the film “The Shawshank Redemption”? Towards the end of the movie (spoiler alert), the hero, Andy Dufresne, escapes Shawshank by swimming through the prison’s sewage system. His friend (Morgan Freeman) explains that Dufresne “had to swim through a river of shit to come out completely clean on the other side”. Sometimes, you need to let life remind you that you are focusing on the wrong stuff. Tough times force you to reconsider what is essential in your life.

The period 2011-2013 was such a period for me: a difficult and costly divorce, my decision to leave the armed forces and to stay in the UK as opposed to going back to France. These two years helped me get rid of my status anxieties, welcome risk into my life and take full responsibility for it. So if you ask me, I didn’t have to keep perspective despite hardship, but it’s hardship that gave me perspective!

Gwenn Gwendall french filmmaker

So many people want to travel but think it’s too expensive or dangerous. What are a few tips and tricks you learned on the road to help debunk this myth?

Gwenn: We keep meeting many people who have been in places we’re going to next. We ask them how is this place or this town. Sometimes they say that the people are horrible and we find that they are kind and generous. Sometimes they say that this place is amazing and we feel no connection whatsoever. What I’ve learned is that you find what you bring with you when you get to a place. Your attitude determines how people will interact with you. Be relaxed and others will be relaxed. To stay practical however, I’d say that tensions are found where there are huge wealth gaps: in cities and super touristy places. The same applies to the U.S. You will probably feel more secure in Patagonia than in the centre of Buenos Aires! When it comes to the actual costs of travelling, people are often taking the problem backwards: the costs are determined by the needs: adapt your needs and costs will decrease accordingly. Stay in hostels, cook your own food, travel by bus. There are enough places in the world where one can travel cheaply. And there’s a wealth of advice out there too. Websites such as Tim Feriss’ ‘4h workweek’ or ‘Nomadic Matt’s’ blog are great resources. Beyond the difficulties associated with travelling, I’d like to go one step further. I think everyone has an obligation to go and see what’s out there. Not necessarily very far or for very long. It could be the next town for the weekend. My point is to understand these differences, which is key to being an informed citizen and overcoming abrupt generalisations about people who are different.

Gwenn Gwendall french filmmaker

What would be one travel moment that you would want to relive?

Gwenn: I wouldn’t necessarily want to relive moments, as they are each unique. But there are a few memories I like to go back to. I’m thinking of one of our first shoots in Peru where we were interviewing a local coffee farmer. I was following him with the camera on his plantation. The sun was hitting pretty hard so I was sweating a lot and getting sunburnt. In addition to that, I was walking in sandals in the middle of the plantation, which was not my best idea at any rate. Despite all the discomfort, the feeling that I was exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I should be doing, overwhelmed me. This remains one of my strongest experiences during this project.

If you could go anywhere in the world (other than your hometown), where would you like to spend your ideal day? And what would you do?

Gwenn: That’s a tough one. This journey is very much about letting go and being in the present. As we speak, I’m seeing my first glacier ever through the window of the boat. ‘Here’ is pretty much where I want to be right now!

Gwenn Gwendall french filmmaker

Where haven’t you gone that you would love to go?

Gwenn: I’m very much looking forward to the next destinations in our project: New Zealand and Vietnam. I love the idea that they should both be very different from what we’ve experienced so far in South America.

What is your favorite meal/restaurant?

Gwenn: I love Indonesian cuisine, especially Nasi Goreng. But I’m trying to be a bit more adventurous: my girlfriend and I love to travel through food. We have this challenge where we’re travelling between cuisines that share a common border: we’ve started in an Afghan restaurant and then sampled Uyghur, Kazakh and Mongolian cuisines. I say never keep to your comfort zone!

What does being a jetsetter mean to you?

Gwenn: To me, travel is a state of mind that extends far beyond the act of travelling. I think the differences we face whilst travelling force us to reconsider what’s the norm, what’s important and what’s not. These are lessons you take home with you and which can help you make more informed decisions: do I really need this gadget? Am I forced to do this job? Am I there when my friends need me? It’s so easy to let your choices lead to an unhappy life and then blame it on external factors: your work, society, your family. The truth is you never stopped being in control of your own life. Travel is an opportunity to be reminded of that.

Jerry Leon contributor profile

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2 Comments on “How 2 French Filmmakers Travel The World To Make A Difference”

  1. April 13, 2015 at 7:11 am #

    Great article! This really made me feel like escaping “cubicle life” and setting out to see the world.

  2. April 15, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

    Thanks Jerry for your interest in our story 😉

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