The quiet, at times somber, 25-minute film Colette by South Jersey native Anthony Giacchino is an account of an elderly Frenchwoman’a pilgrimage to the Nazi concentration camp site in Germany where her brother perished in 1945. The bond that blossoms between Colette Marin-Catherine, now 92, and Lucie Fouble, an aspiring teenage historian who makes the journey with her, unfolds through poignant, potent, and unexpected moments.
“As a documentary filmmaker, you can kind of hope that specific things will happen, but at some point you have to give yourself over to the events that are going to be your story,” Giacchino said from Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, Pelin, and their children Stella, 11, and Berke, 9.
“If you try to control it too much, you can really derail beautiful things that might happen.”
The film won the Oscar for the Best Documentary Short Subject at Sunday’s Academy Awards, and is the first Oscar nominee produced by Facebook, in partnership with the video game maker Electronic Arts. Colette is also Giacchino’s first Oscar nomination and win.
The 51-year-old filmmaker, whose previous documentaries include The Camden 28 (2007) and The Giant’s Dream: The Making of the Iron Giant (2016), said Colette might not have happened at all were it not for a series of serendipitous encounters and striking coincidences.
A theatrical release was not originally part of the plan, either.
From game to film
“This film project goes back to 2016 when Electronic Arts contacted me and said they were making a World War II video game. It came to be called Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond. The company wanted documentary content that would add perspective” for players, Giacchino said. “They told me to go find some stories.”
The director grew up in Edgewater Park, Burlington County. His older brother, Michael — now a successful film composer — was the budding moviemaker in the family, while the younger Giacchino became an amateur audio documentarian, never without a cassette recorder in hand.
After graduating from Villanova University in 1992 with a BA in history and German, Giacchino studied in Germany on a Fulbright scholarship. He eventually moved to New York and worked at the History Channel for a dozen years and “learned production, coordinating, and interviewing,” he said.
He’d become a respected documentarian by the time he went to Normandy in early 2018, prospecting for material for the Electronic Arts project. (He has won an Emmy as producer on the History Channel series Great Moments From the Campaign Trail.) He had a good meeting with Alice Doyard, who would become the lead producer for Colette and is his co-nominee for the Oscar.
‘An extraordinary woman’
The two had already become interested in a D-Day story about a glider infantryman when a tour guide mentioned that he knew a local woman named Colette, who had been a member of the resistance to the Nazi occupation of France.
“The first day I met with Colette I saw that she was an extraordinary woman,” Doyard said during a Zoom interview with The Inquirer and Giacchino. “She was a fighter all her life, and one of her fights had been to deal with [the] past.”
Marin-Catherine’s older brother, Jean-Pierre, had been stockpiling weapons for the resistance when he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, jailed, and eventually deported to Dora-Mittelbau. Also known as Nordhausen, this notorious forced-labor camp built V-2 rockets and other advanced Nazi weapons in underground factories. Jean-Pierre was one of 20,000 prisoners who died there. He was 19.
“I had just come from visiting Dora when I met Alice,” Giacchino said. “Of all the concentration camps, that was the one I visited. We didn’t even know of Colette until a couple days later. Alice got her name and number and just ran with it.”
After interviewing Colette, “Anthony and I wanted people to know who this person is,” said Doyard.
Marin-Catherine had never been to the place where Jean-Pierre died, had no interest in going there on bus full of tourists, and as a pensioner did not have the means to make the trip alone. A half-dozen conversations ensued about the possibility of filming such a visit.
“She didn’t want to be seen as a hero,” Giacchino said.
“She was much more interested in paying tribute to her brother.” said Doyard. “Going there had to be something that made sense to Colette.”
Some social-media commenters have suggested that Colette had been manipulated by the filmmakers, and “it’s a legitimate question,” Giacchino said: “But in these long conversations, we talked about what would be meaningful to her, and it was clear that paying tribute to her brother was something she was willing to do.”
The director and producer also discovered that the History Center at La Coupole in northern France was doing a book project about occupation deportees like Jean-Pierre. A museum official recommended they speak to Fouble, a docent at the center and the youngest person involved in writing the book.
Chemistry between two smart women
The filmmakers were able to capture Fouble’s first meeting with Marin-Catherine. The chemistry between the two smart women is immediately evident. Colette is blunt yet caring, Lucie earnest and stronger than her shy demeanor suggests.
In an April 1 Zoom event sponsored by New York’s French Institute Alliance Francais, Marin-Catherine, speaking in French, with subtitles, said making the pilgrimage “with little Lucie” was an opportunity “to see, feel, and reflect. That is why I said yes.”
Marin-Catherine also said that while visiting Dora-Mittelbau, the past “came back like fire. Less pain but equal sorrow, was awakened. But that is the price to pay, and I don’t think it is [too] expensive to awaken [the memory of] Jean-Pierre.”
During the same event, Fouble, also speaking in French, said: “Making this trip with a former member of the resistance … was a real privilege.” She thanked the filmmakers for helping her “to meet Colette and allowing me to live this pilgrimage.”
Giacchino’s two most recent documentaries might seem to have little in common with Colette, or each other. The Camden 28 is about a famous trial of anti-Vietnam war protesters, and The Giant’s Dream concerns director Brad Bird’s quest to make the 1999 animated movie The Iron Giant.
But the director said all three of these documentaries celebrate resilience, persistence, and resistance. “While editing Colette, I said, ‘This is the most emotional thing I have ever filmed, I think it will have a life in a cinema space,’ and the studios agreed.
“So Colette was out in the world before it was released [as part of] the game. And now people all over the world can see her.”