Q&A: Jean-Gabriel Périot on the Timeless Questions in ‘A German Youth’

Covering a decade of worldwide political unrest (1965-1975), A GERMAN YOUTH is a compelling portrait of the Baader-Meinhof Group (a.k.a. The Red Army Faction), a radical movement which drew into its orbit not only disillusioned students, but also established journalists and intellectuals as well as important filmmakers such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean Luc Godard and RW Fassbinder. Culled together from a fascinating pastiche of agitprop, news broadcasts, interviews, student films, and other archival footage, Jean-Gabriel Périot‘s A GERMAN YOUTH provides the context for an ideology that shaped an entire generation.


A GERMAN YOUTH explores the roots of a radical movement that grew out of the disillusionment of post-war Europe. What attracted you to this particular story?

Jean-Gabriel Périot: The story of the RAF is a crossroad of many of the questions I usually work on. The questions of violence: How does it happen? Why? How to deal with it? The questions of commitment: How to resist? How to act? The questions of history: How it is written? How are the memories built? The questions of images: Could images act and how? What are the links between images and politics? Etc. This story also questions what terrorism is, and how some could decide to go from political action and art to weapons, and how the State could use such violence.

How did you go about researching the film? Was all the archival footage readily available, or did you have to dig deep?

Jean-Gabriel Périot: As this story is already quite old, it was not so easy to find the relevant archives. So much material had already disappeared… I needed a lot of time to go through archives to find all the footage used in the film. But I was lucky enough to find almost all of the existing material featuring the members of the RAF before they found the group. Fortunately, some footage was hidden among thousands of other films or video, but at least they were not lost! They were just waiting to be found.


It’s fascinating to see the key players of Baader-Meinhof in their early days—for example, Ulrike Meinhof talking about labor on television news panels. What footage surprised you the most? What were you most excited to find?

Jean-Gabriel Périot: For sure, the TV footage we see in the film showing all the ones who founded the RAF some years later are surprising. There is such a wide gap in between the images we all have in our minds about who is a “terrorist” and who Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler, etc., really were. At this time, all of them were figures of the left who were really integrated into society; they were even invited on TV to talk!

But perhaps the most amazing for me in the archives I found were the films done by Holger Meins. Almost all of them were supposed to be lost, but they were not. And some of them are really good cine-tract films. When I found them, I was like a child with a wonderful Christmas present. But the kind of present one could share with others.

It’s tough to talk about the film without examining parallels to today. How do you compare the movements in your film to our current global unrest?

Jean-Gabriel Périot: I could for sure answer this question, but I think that everyone who sees the film could have his own answer according to his own knowledge, his own interest in politics, his own curiosity about what is happening today… even according to the country he lives in.

For me, particularly after the Charlie bombing, the most significant parallel between the film and today is the way politicians talk about Terrorism and use it to change the laws. But generally, I’m more interested by the questions that arise in the film about how to act against what we disapprove of. I’m quite afraid that such violence could appear again, because in a lot of countries there is almost no real democratic way to change society.


As a seasoned documentarian, do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Jean-Gabriel Périot: I have only one simple piece of advice: always work! Don’t wait to make your film. There is only one way to become a filmmaker: by doing films.

The film has screened around the world; how have audiences reacted? What would you like the HIFF (or American) audience to take away from the film?

Jean-Gabriel Périot: The reactions worldwide were quite good! I am still surprised that a lot of people react the same way to the film; they share the same questions and impressions. The only thing that changes in the feedback is that the people have different ways to compare what is described in the film—the story of the RAF in Germany in the 70s—and what happened or happens in their own countries. But it seems obvious that all around the world, the questions of commitment, of violence, and of repression are shared.

I never expect something special from the audience. But if some who see the film leave the room still questioning the different topics of the film, and even start to do their own research about it, it’s great for me. I just try to pass my own questions to the audience, not answers.

What are you most looking forward to about being in competition at HIFF 2015?

Jean-Gabriel Périot: I do not really expect anything other than to share this film with the audience!

A German Youth makes its East Coast Premiere in Competition at HIFF 2015.
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Born in France in 1974, Jean-Gabriel Périot has directed several short films, both in video and cinema. He develops his own editing style through the use of archives. Between documentary, animation and experimental, most of his works deal with violence and history. His last works, including OUR DAYS ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO BE ENLIGHTENED, THE DEVIL, THE DAYS HAVE CONQUERED THE NIGHT, AND OPTIMISM, were shown worldwide in numerous festivals and were honored with many prizes. A GERMAN YOUTH is his first feature.