The film will be either 52 minutes long or 90 minutes long: “the work of a film-maker is to listen to his film, the only one to know its duration”, my former movie teacher said.
Excrement is nowadays one of the last big taboos.
Although a universal and daily matter, the relationship to it is all but simple.
On behalf of behaviorism, we sometimes go as far as endangering our health.
Social taboo and intestinal transit: consequences of the unsaid on the human being.
What do we flush away?
In my film Trash to spare, I was tackling the issue of trash: how to manage it? Is it really a matter of waste? I went through the whole range of it: from organic to recyclable waste, deliberately leaving out industrial and nuclear waste. But I was not aware of leaving out a whole part of that black tide: waste water and the waste it carries, a big part of it being made of … our poop. But unlocking the door to the toilets is all but easy.
This story starts in our plates, when eating.
In November 2007, I received an invitation for introducing my film Trash to spare to a festival in Corsica. At lunch, I sat at a table of men unknown to me but cheerful and friendly. As the meal went on, I found out that conversation centered round a rather uncommon and disconcerting topic: human excrement. This is how I met Philippe, the manager of the Gandouziers, a small atypical company that manufactures and sets up dry toilets (sawdust in place of water) for events (festivals, fairs, conferences…). At that time, I could not say the so scary word that defines the subject of their job. I was disturbed. And yet, what more natural indeed than talking about something that binds us all together, something that we all do? The seed of the film was sown.
Throughout the festival, Philip explained to me what the environmental issue in these masses of waste water is. Opposite to the sewerage system, dry toilets waste no water, while producing very useful organic manure. Although I could understand how interesting such an alternative sewerage system is, I could not overcome my deep disgust for that unclean matter. Every day I could watch the Gandousiers handling their big cans, cleaning their toilets and talking about the litters of urine daily produced. I was full of admiration for their self-control. And yet my embarrassment didn’t give way: rational on one hand, irrational on the other one.
Still unaware of the reason why I felt like making this film, I followed the Gandousiers in their steps to the Intestinals, the national meeting of specialists in the environmental sewerage system. On the agenda was a show, implying a decisive meeting for me: the actor Jean-Marie played “The human thing”, which was a conference about poop. The text did appeal to me: it sounded right and was full of impressive data. I filmed it all.
A few years later, I moved in Herault, 50 km away from Jean-Marie’s home : a stroke of luck that drove me outside of my limits. I specially learnt how to say the word “poop” without blushing. Today I’m trying to get a closer and more rational view of it. I now feel ready to get inside this seemingly repulsive subject. The issue for me rather turns into an initiatory journey through what is most common in our lives: excrement. A rich and fascinating universe, the borders of which we unfortunately do not dare to get over, for fear of immodesty. This film will thus be felt as an attempt to enter that unknown country.
My intention is to bring us to think over that taboo act, which is defecation, a so vital and yet so embarrassing function, starting from a simple question: why are excrement and the foregoing excretion act such a source of contempt, despise and awkwardness that can sometimes display pathologies?
As looking into our intestinal transit condition, the camera will try to understand the grounds for the human behavior in France, and more generally speaking in our occidental societies. For, whatever we feel, our relationship to shit and more generally speaking, to anality, never leaves us unmoved: disgust, shame, but sometimes artistic or sexual fascination… The emotional load is heavy.
And for a good reason: our life depends on excrement, as Hugo Verlomme clearly explains it in his book “The Thing: reasons for breaking the poop taboo” (Mama Editions, 2000) :
“The new-born has to expel his small meconium after his first breath.
We say in Latin: ‘Inter urina et faeces nascimur’ (we are born between urine and faeces).
Gandhi used to welcome his visitors asking them: ‘Good morning, how are your bowels?’
In the same way, our ‘How are you?’ would be short for ‘How are you going to the toilet?’
Popular wisdom is aware that excrements are the reflection of our health state.”
Excrement is also the final full stop.
A few seconds before dying, my grand-father exclaimed :
“Shit! There it’s all clearing off to my pants.”
The more I go through the thing, the closer I get to that truth, stated by so many thinkers :
“Shit is life”.
A woman’s shadow speaks on a white wall:
“I am in shit… but what is shit?”
A lecturer speaks to the public in a conference room: “Everybody does it, nobody speaks about it.
Every day we talk about death, war, but nobody ever talks about poop. But why, why?
The paradox is that we never talk about poop, but we have it every day in our mouth :
‘Oh shit! What the fuck !’ ”
Somebody working in excrement business protests:
“Shit in water means death”.
Brigitte has suffered from constipation for over thirty years, but nobody knows about it. Camille has to drive his companion out of the flat to manage to relieve herself.
Children don’t bother with principles. Arthur, a 3 year old-boy, cheerfully cries out to his mom:
“it’s a mammoth poop!”
A physician states: in France nearly 50 million laxative boxes are sold every year. A good reason for that: the country has between 5 and 15 million constipated people, three times more women than men; many more than our neighbors. Stress, constipation, hemorrhoids, colon cancer and finally anal fissure make a present-day chain reaction. All physicians state it: shitting well is living well.
In his office in Versailles, Jean-Luc St-Martin, a specialist physician tries to calm down his patients every day. They are so anxious to talk about defecation that they sometimes faint. He even happened to allow some ladies suffering from stomach to “fart”, permission their husband would not give them, however vital it is!
Men and women talk about their relationship to transit: from cheerfully pushing as children to eloquently silent as adults.
A historian gives a new definition of clean and dirty. Throughout centuries, excrement moves between gold and trash.
In the 17th century, it was most refined to take a snuff of “poudrette”, a powder made of dried excrement. In the 18th century, dresses of the color of dolphin poop were very fashionable, and night-commodes were a luxury present. Today we lock inside the toilets.
Psychiatrists talk about psychological causes for such a taboo: anal state, relationship to the couple….
Death and shit: In the present-day society, what is disturbing is denied, rejected, made invisible. The smallest room, intimacy and flushing away with salutary water: no wonder that the relationship to the thing is so complex.
Cleaning out the matter, cleaning out the smell, cleaning out the color.
As meetings go by, the picture of a taboo takes shape; the issue is beyond the door to our toilets.
“Wherever it smells like shit, it smells like being”, the poet Antonin Artaud stated.
But what is hiding behind our disgust for that stuff and for anality in general?
Do we want to be all-mighty, do we hold back too much or do we give way too much? Are we prim and proper?
For the young lady, the issue is to look straight in the mirror, to accept her shadow.
Trying to understand the psychological origins of this defecation taboo, the film drives us across the mirror, on the side of the defeated one, the abandoned one.
In short, what do we flush away ?
“Shit ? All is written inside, like in a book”
Dominique Laporte, History of shit (1978)