France Télévisions’ new docu-drama traces the Rehabilitation trial of Joan of Arc, which took place 25 years after her death, Using animation and fiction codes of the mediaeval fantasy genre this historical documentary offers a universal appeal. Fabrice Coat, Executive Director of Program33, Michel Spavone, Producer of Program33 and Florence Sala, Head of International Distribution & Marketing of Arte Distribution, discuss the film’s historical credentials, superbly original format, and international ambitions.   

The Interview

Rehabilitating Joan, remaking the documentary genre

Unifrance: How did this documentary about Joan of Arc get started?

Fabrice Coat

Fabrice Coat : The mystery of Joan of Arc  is the third film in our docu-drama collection, Heritage of Centuries, following  The Last Stand and Notre-Dame, the age of the builders.

These films, a centerpiece for France Télévisions, look at key moments from history and target a large family audience – starting with the very youngest!

The Last Stand and Notre-Dame, The age of the builders both critically acclaimed were major successes in terms of audience: 3.7 million viewers / 16.4% audience share for the first broadcast of Notre-Dame de Paris on France 2 in 2019, and 10 million viewers in total.

Florence Sala

Florence Sala : Notre-Dame de Paris  also exported very well to more than sixty countries and won over the biggest international networks: including WNET / PBS for the United States (best audience of the year in the Secrets of the Dead slot) , Ici Explora in French Canada, ZDF and Deutsche Welle in Germany, CANAL + in Poland, Spain, Portugal, Eastern Europe, but also Korea, Japan, China, Africa… In short a fabulous world Tour !

Fabrice Coat : We worked with France Télévisions and Antoine de Meaux, the writer-director of several primetime history documentaries, to find a subject which would work as a continuity of the collection, and Joan of Arc quickly became the obvious choice!   

She is a fascinating historical figure. A young girl of 17 who changed the course of history and opened the door to the construction of Europe’s modern nations. It is barely believable and yet true and well documented!

Joan is a legend who has made her mark on the whole of western culture, from the writings of Shakespeare to Voltaire, the films of Luc Besson to Cecil B. De Mille, the music of Leonard Cohen to Madonna. There are statues of her all over Europe and also across the world – in India, the USA and Australia!

Joan is one of history’s greatest heroines. She broke the taboos of her era, questioned the moral and societal codes. It’s important for us, in the times we live in, to highlight that.  

We all know the story of the young peasant girl in the 15th century who believed she was sent by God to crown the king and chase the English out of France. She succeeded it – only to be burnt at the stake as a heretic two years later. But no-one knows that, 25 years after her death – and on her own mother’s initiative – the Pope and King Charles VII whom she put on the throne, opened her Rehabilitation trial. A trial for which the majority of the evidence have been preserved intact. This is a unique opportunity to rediscover Joan’s story in a brand new light.

Unifrance: The really surprising bit is the animation.

Michel Spavone

Michel Spavone : For us, it’s the most appropriate way of handling the story for a prime-time historical documentary in 2021.

It is above all an artistic choice: 3D animation allows us to show the era and its richness, to bring to life the characters and the backdrops in a way we just couldn’t with a real film shoot. There are battles with thousands of soldiers, court ceremonies, scenes of celebration, settings that no longer exist. To an extent, animation overcomes the technical and budgetary constraints of a re-enactment!

Animation also brings us closer to a historical truth: each element (character/set/prop) is made for the film with great scientific rigor.

Animation is also a strategic choice: the look of 3D animation, with a decisively modern and dynamic rendition uses the codes of animation films and video games. It helps to attract a younger audience who is not always interested in historical documentaries. If the “visual grammar” is rarely seen, it remains a very accessible film for the whole family.

The film really does belong in the documentary genre. We take the time to set out the historical and geopolitical context of Joan’s adventure. We mix the fiction of the animation with real-image documentary sequences on a par with international standards and information sequences using motion design (royal genealogy, military strategies, Joan’s history, etc.).

Unifrance: Why did you choose to look at the subject through an investigation?  

Fabrice Coat : Telling the story of Joan of Arc through a real investigation by the Grand Inquisitor of France, Jean Bréhal, is mostly an editorial choice. We wanted to move away from the traditional biopic form and gain perspective. That is why we chose to use a fascinating and little-known historical fact: the trial to rehabilitate Joan of Arc, 25 years after her death.

The mystery of Joan of Arc  is like a thriller where we follow in the footsteps of Jean Bréhal as he questions numerous then living witnesses about Joan’s epic story: family members, fellow soldiers, the magistrate who oversaw her trial, etc.

Bréhal is supported by his assistant, Pierre Fournier, a fictional character and fervent admirer of the Virgin of Orleans who is also the film’s narrator. We wanted Fournier to be as realistic as possible: throughout the story, he shares his questions and his admiration for Joan but also his doubts. Viewers can identify with him and relate to his discoveries. Throughout Joan’s extraordinary journey, he tries to sort the true from the false, the political lies from the historical truth, the legend from the reality. 

It’s as if we were watching a cold case episode on Joan of Arc!

Unifrance: Apart from certain fictionalizations, you remain true to history.  

Michel Spavone : This film might be unusual but it is still above all a historical documentary. Scientific rigor is therefore our number one priority. That is why, apart from our narrator, all the characters depicted are real.

The script was based on the minutes of Joan’s trial and the work of Jean Bréhal that remains today. But imagine: Jean Bréhal’s investigation lasted several months, and he interviewed 115 witnesses. It was of course impossible to recount all that in a 90-minute film. We had to make choices, but without sacrificing historical accuracy.

The sets, costumes and backgrounds are all accurate to what we know of the Middles Ages. For that, we drew on the work of French and international historians who have renewed the story of Joan over the last few years. From Colette Beaune to Philippe Contamine, Anne Curry and Marina Warner, their research was extremely helpful to us.

And to guarantee the accuracy of every tiny detail, we worked with Valérie Toureille, professor of mediaeval history and author of a remarkable biography of Joan published in autumn 2020.  

Unifrance: It’s a big budget for an extraordinary production!

Fabrice Coat : We did have an exceptional budget for a documentary. But actually quite reasonable given our artistic ambitions and the budgets usually given to animation films!

This is all the more true given that this story wouldn’t be out of place in contemporary medieval fantasy: a heroine who abandons everything to face her destiny, political machinations, betrayal, epic battles: we have to match the level of our subject matter!

We offer animation with a strong aesthetic that can create real feeling among viewers. The characters are real, living. That’s never been done in a documentary and it’s the result of a colossal amount of research.  

France Télévisions is supporting the film with a significant financial contribution. We are supported by the institutions and the animation branch in France. We are also working with international co-production partners: AT-Prod (Belgium) and Kobalt (Germany), and we have benefited from the support of the Media Program right from the development stage. But for this exceptional range of films, the financial journey is also somewhat acrobatic – even after the international success of Notre-Dame de Paris! We are therefore really counting on our international distribution!

Unifrance: Why did ARTE choose to carry this new project?

Florence Sala : The mystery of Joan of Arc  is an extremely ambitious film and totally different from all the documentaries that have been made about Joan of Arc to date.The approach is very innovative for several reasons. The film is treated like a mediaeval cold case, a real inquiry handled by characters of the era and a script with narrative arcs that are inspired by fiction. It also leverages archives that have never been used before in a documentary: the minutes from the Rehabilitation trial of Joan of Arc, held 25 years after her death, and they plunge us into the heart of that trial. How the film handles the character of Joan reflects its modernity: she is ahead of her time, a woman who counselled a king during a war as no other woman could have done at that time, a woman who dressed like a man and went to war, a woman who pushed back the boundaries of what a women could do at that time in order to save her country. These are themes that speak to people since the #MeToo movement has emerged. To look at this period in history, the documentary is a real 3.0 immersion in the mediaeval world with the use of 3D and motion capture.

All these ingredients appeal to buyers the world over, both from major channels and platforms, with a film supported by the greatest historical experts and which addresses a wide public. It paints a picture that presents history like a mediaeval fantasy and that highlights themes that resonate with countries across the globe, even in today’s society.  

With the expertise of Program33, whose reputation precedes it, we believe this film will make an exceptional primetime documentary that will make a real impression and appeal to people around the world.

Following the international success of Notre-Dame de Paris and on the strength of the incredible editorial promise of The Mystery Joan of Arc, we are very confident in its international distribution. Presales are just starting.

Unifrance: When is delivery scheduled?

Michel Spavone : We are currently in production. Delivery is scheduled for the end of 2022.

The film has been totally storyboarded, and filming begins this winter. We are perfecting cuts in the animation fiction part now. We are working hand-in-hand with Circus, a French animation studio that specializes in the creation of premium animation series and animation feature films. They are an exceptional partner and have never ceased to push our artistic demands ever further!

We are currently creating the film’s assets (characters, sets, props), and our tests show that the fiction animation will be of an even better quality than that of our first two films. That is the result of technological innovation and unique know-how but also of our constant drive to contend with international standards and give this film an international scope.