Soon after posting yesterday’s fret fest over the state of the cartoonist, we had to hurry off to the world premiere of JOANN SFAR: DRAWING FROM LIFE, a documentary by Sam Ball about the French comics superstar. A mellow, thoughtful 46 minute film, it captures Sfar a few years ago when THE RABBI’S CAT was on its way to selling 600,000 copies in France and his work was being published here in the US by First Second…but BEFORE he became more renowned in his homeland for directing.
The film follows Sfar living what almost everyone reading yesterday’s thread would consider an idyllic life: drawing at the local cafe in Paris, drawing at home, sketching non-stop, playing the banjo, and playing with his children and cats in between. In the film, he ruminates on his family history, art and storytelling in between excerpts from THE RABBI’S CAT and KLEZMER (both published in English, by Pantheon and First Second respectively). The film features no voice but Sfar’s and lyrically showcases his art and his sketching style. Director Ball took pains to show the comics, with many long lingering shots of Sfar’s loose but precisely observed art.
“Drawing real life is is to an illustrator as exercise is an athlete,” says the cartoonist at one point explaining that he can only sketch what is before him or tell historical stories based on an imagined past.
Sfar is, of course, one of the world’s great living cartoonists, and after producing more than 150 books in a comics-loving society, he’s what you might call a success. Although the Franco-comics scene is more widespread in its homeland than the corresponding scene is in the US, I don’t think any anxious cartoonists wouldn’t have been comforted by a viewing of the film. It is certainly a love letter to the cartoonist’s art—at one point nothing but the sound of Sfar’s pen nib scratching against his notebook fills the theater. Of course, they might also despair over matching Sfar’s incredible ability to bring life and passion to his drawings, but that comes with the territory.
After the screening, director Ball and producer Rabbi Valerie Joseph participated in a Q&A. Since the film was screened as part of Lincoln Center’s New York Jewish Film Festival, many of the questions concerned the Jewish aspects of the film. (I went to the afternoon screening, not the gala night showing.) One commenter had two questions: he wanted to know where to purchase some of the books, and he was also troubled by Sfar’s marriage to a non-Jew and calling his children half-Jewish when it was obvious that so much Jewish culture permeated his life and work. Ball and Rabbi Joseph didn’t really have an answer for that but I think I do: I had the honor of interviewing Sfar several years ago and he always speaks quite a bit about being half Sephardic and half Ashkenazy…I think cultures clashing and mingling interest him a great deal, and just because you’re half of something doesn’t mean you’re not devoted to it or part of it. That’s my take, anyway.
Sfar has gone on to some acclaim as a director—his live-action biopic of Serge Gainsbourg was a critical hit, and his own animated version of THE RABBI’S CAT opened last year to good reviews. The documentary briefly shows some voice sessions for the film. Sfar is definitely a 1%er where talent is concerned, but it’s also pretty clear from the documentary that cartooning is his muse for all times.
JOANN SFAR DRAWS FROM MEMORY will eventually air here in the US on PBS — I urge all interested comickers to watch it.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.