UT grad's camera captures Oscar-nominated World War II trauma story in 'Colette'
When you watch the Oscars, and they get to the best documentary short category, you’ll have a hometown player to root for.
Rose Bush is the director of photography for “Colette,” which is nominated alongside four other short subjects at the 93rd Academy Awards. For cheering purposes, you should know that Bush is a Texas Longhorn. She spent nine years in Austin while working on an MFA in film production at the University of Texas, graduating in 2012. Her graduate thesis film, “Vultures of Tibet,” won the outstanding master's thesis award.
“My experience at UT was foundational to my approach,” Bush says, adding that the school encourages filmmakers to “find their own voice and form in the medium.”
Bush is based in New York and Los Angeles but grew up all over the place — in Alaska, in New Mexico, among the redwoods of California and the Rockies of Colorado. At UT, she found a global student body, and her studies were similarly expansive: “Being in Austin really opened my world, that the world of filmmaking is so diverse.”
And “Colette” crosses borders, too. Directed by Anthony Giacchino, the 25-minute film follows now-92-year-old Colette Marin-Catherine, who was a member of the French Resistance as a young girl during World War II. In 1943, the Gestapo arrested her brother, Jean-Pierre, a fellow freedom fighter. The family never saw him again; he was killed by the Nazis in the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Colette vowed never to set foot in Germany. In the present, a young woman named Lucie Fouble, a scholar of the war, encourages Colette to face the past so that she can move forward. Together, they travel to the place where Jean-Pierre was killed.
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Bush got involved with “Colette” when filmmaker Aaron Matthews — with whom she collaborated on “The War and Peace of Tim O'Brien,” a film about the Central Texas author — introduced her to Giacchino. He was working on a series of projects about the war and the people who participated. In spring of 2018, Bush and Giacchino went on a scouting trip to Europe, where they saw Nazi weapon test facilities, battlefields, U-boat pens and the communities affected by the conflict.
On the beach in Normandy, someone told the filmmakers that there was a person they needed to meet who was a member of the French Resistance and still living, and that they would make the introduction.
That person was Colette.
Bush and Giacchino interviewed her, heard her story and realized how courageous and charismatic she was. “All of us were taking notes on how to live, quite frankly, from her,” Bush says.
It was clear to the filmmakers that more needed to be done with Colette’s story. Producer Alice Doyard spent months developing a relationship and a trust with Colette.
“One of the things that was really inspiring and interesting to us is, much of the history of World War II is told through the perspective of men in military uniforms holding guns,” Bush says. “Little of it is told through women’s perspectives.”
The film was made by an international crew of Europeans and Americans, by design. The team drew from countries that were involved in the war. They used a German camera with a French and American-made gimbal, a stabilizing unit. It was not an aesthetic choice, Bush says. It was an intentional act of healing.
Bush says that Colette carries her courage with her to this day, but also significant trauma.
“In order to survive what happened in the war to herself and to her family, Colette had to forget the past, in order to move into forward,” Bush says. “The film 'Colette' is the confluence of those two means of survival — forgetting and remembering.”
As director of photography, Bush sought to capture those two sides visually. In Lucie, she had an avatar of optimism, and one of weight and burden in Colette. Bush wanted an ethereal sensibility. A lot of the footage she shot is handheld and in the cinéma vérité style.
Documentary filmmaking hinges on access to vulnerable moments, especially in this story. It was a very sensitive experience, Bush says. The crew listened to their subject. "What was meaningful and healthy for her guided what was meaningful for the film,” Bush says. If Colette said the filmmakers needed to stop, they would stop. (In fact, there’s one scene at a dinner where Colette, overcome with emotion, puts an end to the proceedings.)
But the filmmaking process also afforded moments for the subjects to process the enormity of what was before them.
“When we’re at the camp, there’s a moment where she remembers she hadn’t brought anything for Jean-Pierre,” Bush says of a difficult moment for Colette. The camera created a presence, or an opportunity, for Colette and Lucie to embrace each other and work through their emotions.
“It’s not just the two of them there,” Bush says. “It’s the process of the film that’s there with them.”
The crew listened to Colette and paid attention to when she needed more room. There was no debate among them when deciding not to follow her into the crematorium where Jean-Pierre's body was burned.
The film’s final shot is indelible. As the credits roll, Colette sits in a cold, industrial room, Lucie at her side. The older woman holds a portrait of her murdered brother. The space is pale and filled with light. It is where Jean-Pierre died, where so many others were worked to death by the Nazis. The two women gaze into the camera, strong and silent. From within the picture frame, Jean-Pierre is forever young.
To Bush, this was the shot that “Colette” had to end on. The film is the story of three people, though we only meet the two still alive.
“We were thinking about restoring a kind of dignity to the night and fog that Jean-Pierre was placed into" as just a teenager, she says.
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Colette came in with a confidence that the room was where the shot should take place, Bush says. It is a way of owning the story, of taking agency over what happened there. It gives Jean-Pierre his voice back after he was silenced by Hitler's forces.
Bush’s sense of purpose is strong, carrying into the acclaim that “Colette” has now received. It's already received a handful of awards. “It is so surreal, first of all because there are so many amazing films that are in consideration,” she says of the Oscar nod. The nomination brings more visibility for the film, and with that, more opportunity to “resist authoritarianism and fascism and promote healing around generational trauma,” Bush says.
“Colette” was a privilege to make while there still was a chance, she says. Through the journey, the filmmakers were able to extend the work of people like Jean-Pierre and Colette, decades after the war they fought. Mentioning current conflicts around the world like in Myanmar, Bush thinks it’s relevant to keep talking about these things.
“The telling of history is also the making of history,” she says.
You can watch "Colette" at theguardian.com/colette. To learn more about the film, go to colettedoc.com. The 93rd Academy Awards air at 7 p.m. April 25 on ABC. A 90-minute special featuring performances of best song nominees airs before the ceremony, starting at 5:30 p.m.
Find our Oscars picks in Sunday's Austin360 section and on austin360.com.