Guest Post: Emmanuelle Debats

From time to time, the OTW will be hosting guest posts on our OTW News accounts. These guests will be providing an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom where our projects may have a presence. The posts express each author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy. We welcome suggestions from fans for future guest posts, which can be left as a comment here or by contacting us directly.

Emmanuelle Debats is a French independent filmmaker who directed 2 documentaries about fandom and fanworks. Both were coproduced by France Télévisions. Citizen Fan is available online without geoblocking until 2020. Last month a follow-up documentary, Fanfiction, ce que l’auteur a oublié d’écrire, (Fanfiction, what the author forgot to write), aired on France 4 TV. Today, Emmanuelle talks about how documentaries must allow silent voices to speak in our public media, and why the stories have to go on.

How did you first get into fandom and fanworks?

I was very late to get into fanworks: I was 40 years old and I had no idea of what a fandom might be. Besides, at that moment, I had no knowledge of canons from American pop culture. Luckily, I became a fan of Castle…And that’s how I discovered fanfiction, searching the web for more info about the series. If it hasn’t been for Castle, I would have missed it. I would have seen fanworks, maybe, at random, on the internet but without understanding what they were, exactly, where they came from and why they existed.

My first reaction to fanfiction was surprise and shock. I mean I had the basic French reaction: “How can someone write from a work belonging to someone else?” Then, I discovered fansites, generosity, enthusiasm. I made my own interpretation of fanworks as an instinctive resistance to some kind of starvation. Fanworks appeared to me as a victory, a very smart tactic. Taking stuff from the canon and changing them is very wise: it means accepting being a fan, instead of fighting against it.

I am very aware of all this, since when I became a fan, I first tried to hide it as much as I could. Being a fan of an imaginary world was something very new to my me and to the way I envisioned my relationship to culture. It made me a bit ashamed of what I thought was a weakness. I didn’t have the great idea of writing fanfiction.

I discovered the fandom, in real life, a bit later. I met about a hundred fans in France, and while I was traveling, I was reading Henry Jenkins‘ and Hellekson and Busse‘s books.

How did this experience tie into your work creating documentaries?

To be honest, I needed to meet other fans because I needed to heal my addiction, in my own ways. It was not by writing fanfiction but rather by making a documentary about fans (Castle‘s, initially). From a fan of Castle, I became a fan of its fandom. I believe documentaries must allow silent voices to speak in our public media, and this is a long term involvement I made, when I chose to make documentaries. Fanfiction, as a popular art or a part of popular culture was totally silent in our media. I had noticed that among my relatives or even my friends, this phenomenon was looked down at and it made me sad.

That said, you asked how this ties into my work but it didn’t really: I was not a director at this time, I was a producer. This means I never had to talk about me. On the contrary, producers must keep a distance. Citizen Fan provoked a change in my life. I had to talk about myself, even if you might not see it when watching Citizen Fan‘s portrayals.

After your 2014 project Citizen Fan was released, what was your experience like?

I believe and I hope documentaries may act like mirrors for the audience. They often are good triggers for debates or critics. French fans were a bit astonished and some were a little suspicious towards this mainstream media product and its ability to portray them (the fact that I am neither an employee nor a journalist within France Télévisions, but rather an independent producer was sometimes ignored by them). I was invited to several fans events. Several fans wrote me or met me at conventions saying they liked Citizen Fan and they would show it to their mothers (and I suppose to other relatives as well) in order to “show her I am not crazy, and there are many people like me.” I was invited as “The pro having made a film about fandom, on the internet.”

Although, I do not believe there is such a boundary between “pros” and “amateurs”, I understand there was a great curiosity towards Citizen Fan, because it was funded by France Télévisions for the internet, which was a totally new process. I wished Citizen Fan would be useful to document French fandom, so when Henry Jenkins, in the USA, and Mélanie Bourdaa, in France, emphasized it, I was very happy they did so. Press and radio took no interest at all in Citizen Fan. I was disappointed but it was not unexpected. There is not a lot of passion around documentaries and web documentary is a hybrid and a quite unknown genre. I think my “anthropological” angle was not the easiest or the most seductive approach for journalists. They really didn’t have any interest in French transformative fans. Sometimes, they would mention American ones, but never French ones.

As Fifty Shades of Grey hadn’t been promoted in France as coming from fanfiction, we could not benefit from this huge literary event. Most of our literary critiques didn’t want to really talk about this book and its origins. I was lucky France Télévisions’ teams were happy enough with Citizen Fan, as a web documentary, to accept I’d make a sequel to be aired on TV this time. They suggested I could edit another version of Citizen Fan which would simply be put on TV but I refused. I wanted to go further (or to go elsewhere). I wanted to change angles. I had just read Anne Jamison’s Fic, Why Fanfction Is Taking Over the World. I loved that book.

Could you tell us about your current project?

Fanfiction, what the author forgot to write is a documentary I shot mainly in Salt Lake City and Paris and it just aired in France. It will be online, not geo­blocked, until May 19th. This film is in two parts. The first part was shot in the USA and gives the audience solid historical and literary references. I wanted French people to feel all the strength and all the passion shared by people like Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Christina and Lauren or Anne Jamison. The University of Utah gave us permission to shoot during one of Anne Jamison’s classes. She is an example of how well intellectuals can explain and even forecast major cultural phenomenons. I thought she would be a very convincing guide for some people in France who are not seeing fanfiction as a part of literature.

At the beginning of the second half of the film, I wanted the audience to wonder if we are doing something about fanfiction in our country or not. I hope they can hear an echo between both parts of the film. I did all I could to be positive and to say “Look! They are all interested in this! So why not change our law, now?”

Due to our “droit d’auteur” (rights of the creator), fanfiction’s status in France remains fragile. Although it is a very popular hobby among young people, it remains totally illegal. In my opinion, that means people writing fanfiction are pretending they live in another country or simply ignore the law, and the European members of the Parliament pretend this popular culture (along with all the people involved in it) does not exist.

I worked this French half of the film, very differently than what I did for Citizen Fan. I made certain things happen, so I could prove my point. I kind of pushed the “reality”, a little, towards where I wanted the film to go. I received a lot of support from most of my Citizen Fan participants and I met Magali Bigey, who is teaching at Université de Franche Comté and is one of the French scholars that are making things move. After the film aired, she told me she thought a door just opened in France. There were some good articles in the French press, so maybe she is right.

How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?

I got to know about OTW while I was searching for information about fandom on the internet. I remember I liked one article written by Francesca Coppa about fanfiction being related to theater and a bit later, I found out about OTW, thanks to her. I met Natacha Guyot, who contributed to a vidding diversity showcase for OTW. I don’t know really how OTW works but I have the idea it is an independent structure, non-profit, made by fans and aimed at protecting fanworks.

Fair Use makes a huge difference. It allows collective intelligence to live and to produce structures like OTW. In France, we are living in the most hypocritical time. If you take a French canon, only licensing would give you any right for creativity around this canon, and nothing else must exist. Fanworks are taken down from Facebook pages: for instance you cannot see “Un faux Graphiste” works on Tintin anymore. The fact that European Members of the Parliament get in contact only with right­holders is very alarming. The law should provide shelter to the weakest, the amateur, or the young, the not self-­confident ones, and it does not. I hope some day transformative works are protected by our law.

What fandom things have inspired you the most?

In Citizen Fan, there was a moment when Madoka, a fanfic writer in her late thirties was talking to me about her 14-year old “protégée” who she beta­-read for. One day, the teenage girl told her that her readers had asked for a love scene and that she didn’t know how to write that.

Madoka, as a good mentor, said to her “It’s alright not knowing anything about it at your age! And it’s alright, as well, for your readers to ask for it!” And Madoka added, pragmatical: “Well, then, someone has to write down this love scene for her!” (which Madoka did). A teenage girl who has to write some creative writing, in order to please her demanding readers or maybe to satisfy her own curiosity, is conversing with an overwhelmed mother of 3 kids, who has two different jobs and is always in a rush. And this conversation happens in order to…what? To learn something? What is it about? About writing? About love? About life?

It reminds me of One Thousand and One Nights: the story must go on. If you do not know how to write it, then I will write it for you, it is not a big deal. They don’t know each other well. They know each other’s fanfiction. They know the canon. To me, this conversation is poetry of life, poetry of fandom. A bit of fiction in a lot of reality and humanity. I was very moved when I heard it.

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