CALVET: Dominic Allan

Never Believe You’ve Played Your Last Hand ….

In March 2010, I interviewed French artist Jean Marc Calvet.  In that Aberration Nation post, Jean Marc wrote,

“I spent a large part of my life wondering why I was born, why I was here! When I turned 36 everything started. I was painting on the walls, the ground, the ceiling with all sorts of things such as paint, tomato sauce, chocolate, mud, etc. I didn’t think I was making art. For me it was a way to keep my sanity, and it still is today. The main difference between yesterday and today is that today I know why I was born–and that changed many things!” 

Now Jean Marc’s phenomenal story is brilliantly captured in a new feature film directed and produced by today’s guest, Dominic Allan. 

CALVET premiers this month at two major European film festivals, the Sheffield Documentary Festival (8 – 12 June), and the Edinburgh International Film Festival (15 – 26 June).

During his mid-thirties, Jean Marc’s overwhelming aberrations miraculously collided with an outpouring of creativity.  Jean Marc Calvet could very well reign as King of the Aberration Nation.  In a world where millions dream of becoming recognized artists, and the art world isn’t adequately celebrated, Jean Marc shining creative spirit emerged despite all the suck life threw his way, and all the suck he created for himself.  CALVET is about the redemptive power of art.

Perhaps art can’t possibly redeem and/or save everyone, but there seems to be a more basic point at play.  Maybe the message found in CALVET is that when you believe there’s absolutely nothing left to lose, there’s still something to find.  In the end, (despite circumstance) destruction, hopelessness, fear, and misery don’t choose us; we choose them.  And sometimes the answers that offer redemption make themselves known … but we must have the courage to embrace them.

The powerful, tortured paintings of French artist Jean Marc Calvet sell from $20,000 a piece, he has major solo exhibitions in New York, yet until 7 years ago he had never touched a paintbrush. In fact, art was the last thing on his mind when, aged 38, he was on the run in Central America with a large sum of stolen money. There, haunted by his past, Calvet decided that death was his only way out.

This is one man’s extraordinary story of redemption as he embarks on a journey to make peace with his past. A man who lived a dark and violent life, who via a terrifying trip to hell and back was given a second chance.

Calvet spent his life on a course of self-destruction, more often than not trashing anything and anyone in his path – including his own 6 year old son whom in 1996 in France, he abandoned without a word. He neither saw nor spoke to him again.

“See you next Saturday” were the last words Calvet said to his son before he disappeared. “See you next Saturday” – words that have haunted him every day for over a decade. Clues as to how he could do such a cruel and cowardly thing to the person he loved most in the world lie in his deeply troubled past.

Abused street kid, Foreign Legionnaire, vice cop, professional bodyguard, underground thug – Calvet is a cat with many lives, all harrowing and disturbing. Then in 2002 in Costa Rica, he arrived at the end of the road. Lost and damned, besieged by shame and self-hatred, he bought the last house at the end of a cul-de-sac, shut himself in and refused all contact with the outside world. Fuelled by obscene quantities of crack and alcohol, he believed the end would arrive quickly.

It didn’t.

After meeting Jean Marc and hearing about the upcoming film based on his life through our shared connection with Monkdogz Urban Art (NYC), I also became curious about Dominic Allan, a man so touched by Jean Marc’s story that he’s now sharing it with the world through film. Dominic is an award winning filmmaker who happened to stumble into Jean Marc’s world while traveling in Nicaragua in 2004. Dominic shares the fascinating story of how the two men met, and the subsequent evolution of CALVET on the Director’s Note page of the film’s website.

Dominic is a fascinating man as well.  I’m quite certain that his own creativity has enabled Jean Marc’s story to result in the outstanding film, CALVET. As Dominic points out in his interview below, the story is one fantastic thing, and the storytelling is another. The charismatic, relevant, and fateful marriage of these two components make CALVET shine.

Congratulations to both Jean Marc and Dominic for making us believe there’s always another hand to play.

How did you get into filmmaking and why does it appeal to you?

I come from the rural southwest of England. Lived and worked out of London from the age of 18, then traveled a great deal. Lived in France, US, South America and many other pit-stops along the way. I now live in Spain, north of Barcelona. I’d always imagined I’d end up in the English countryside with loads of kids and it ended up being quite different so far!

Film … well, soon after leaving school, I thought of all the things I loved and if I might be able to make a living with any of them. There two things on the short list – filmmaking and horse breeding. Filmmaking won quite easily! I have always been a film fanatic–addicted to that spell an extraordinary film can cast on you when you walk out of a cinema, especially when it lingers for days afterwards. I wanted to make films that achieve that. How I got into it and how I arrived here is perhaps not that interesting–though for all the adventures, the places I’ve seen, the people I’ve met and the things I’ve learned–I am incredibly grateful.

You recently completed a powerful documentary feature film focusing on artist Jean Marc Calvet. What about Calvet inspired you to make the film, and why should viewers be interested in this particular story?

I’d never heard a story like it. Quite early I latched onto what I saw as the film’s message. It’s never too late–never believe you’ve played your last hand. No matter who or where you are, no matter what your perception of your life situation, no matter how lost you think you are … things can change is ways you don’t yet comprehend. And a moment of real crisis may turn out to be the catalyst for total metamorphosis. From there, a new life is ahead of you. It was the notion that you can start again fresh with renewed integrity, and set out to right some wrongs.

Jean Marc is cat with many lives, many of them harrowing, wild, dark and violent. My own story doesn’t remotely resemble his, yet I identified with something in him and his story–and it took much of the time making the film to work out what that was. Possibly this, that perhaps most of us carry a sense that we’ve done something that we need to atone for. We may not know what that is and for many it may be totally irrational, yet still this sense endures that we need to forgive ourselves for something. For most of us, release from that is the stuff of fiction, of well-designed movies through which we live vicariously. Here you have it for real–and it’s a movie. too. I wanted to make this film in a way that would grip and carry you like a (fiction) feature film, yet at every turn you know it’s real, it’s documentary. I think this notion of personal emancipation and making good is a very strong universal theme with which many of us can identify. Despite the extreme nature of Jean Marc’s story–it speaks to us loud and clear. It is very exciting, very powerful to believe that we have the capacity deep within us to transform and bloom, to manifest the beauty within and shine as we were born to.

With regard to the film, CALVET, was there an “ah-ha” moment you can tell us about?

In 2006, when I started to interview him for my research, he said something to me that I never forgot. It was a key (one of many) to unraveling the Calvet psyche. He said (and it’s irrelevant which era of his life he was talking about at the time), “All I wanted was a family. The person I turned myself into didn’t need one, didn’t want one.”

Each novel I write seems to change my life or create a shift in my thinking or perception in some way. Did making the Calvet film change your life in any way?

Well, the film was a big step away from making commissioned films for TV as a director for hire and starting to make films of my own that make a difference in some way. So a big surface change. Films should inspire people–at least for me. And sincerely, I think this job is a privilege in that I get to explore other people’s lives and study the human condition–in my protagonists, and inevitably in myself too. After all, what hooks and fires me to spend (a long) time making a film about someone or something–is a gravitational pull to find an answer–and hopefully the film will suggest one! I always learn and grow through my films–that’s the stuff of it. As I said, I’m working while exploring who we are. It’s a fascinating journey and fathomless–often with sudden realizations that occur along the way.

Did I dodge the question? Yes, I am absolutely sure it has changed my life in some way–though we might have to do this again in a few years for me to tell you how!

How does creativity factor into making a successful documentary? As with nonfiction writing, some folks may struggle with understanding why and how creativity factors into the delicate mix of relaying real life information in a powerful way.

Ohhff, that’s a hard one to talk about. Rather there are many answers The short answer is that it’s all creative–from idea to research though production to completion, it’s a creative process, period. The obvious stuff–looking for answers, how you visualize the film – content, style and so on. Then of course all the details – what shot, what sound, what kind of music to use or not, what tone, what pace etc … all of it. What are you trying to say in any scene and how can you best achieve that. Documentary is very like making any other film in many ways, the dramatic story structure has to work or you’ve lost your audience. But you have to be flexible as an unpredictable real life situation unfolds in front of you and be true to what’s happening and what’s being said. Your mind dances as you work–piecing it together, what you’re getting, what you’re not getting, what you need. Then in the edit suite the dance changes as you craft the story with the material you have. Some of the original ideas are still there, many have gone to be replaced by new ones, hopefully better ones!

In any case, creativity is everything. Any real life situation retold by someone will be filtered through their perception and creative interpretation–unconsciously. It’s not intentional, but even the person who’s telling me the story is giving me their memory and perception of events. We all do this every day in every aspect of our lives. Once a moment has gone.. only memory and perception remain. So what’s real and what’s true? I’m not going down that rabbit hole! But for what we take as real and true–Calvet’s story is as real and true as it gets. Shockingly so.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life’s aberrations, or both? How so? Did those experiences help you to identify with Calvet in any way?

Oh god yes–the first definitely! Has it helped me deal with life’s aberrations? I really don’t know–maybe, maybe not, probably not. I’ve probably also helped create a few! My connection with Jean Marc of course has much to do with how we identify with each other and where are sensibilities collide.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you’ve dealt with it?

All the time! Though more so before, less now. I think we live in a world where any creative pursuit is tough, being a creative personality is challenging–challenging to fit in and legitimize particularly in a material world where the values we are taught revolve a great deal around financial success, which as we know doesn’t always mean creative success. It’s a delicate business to evict compromise for an integrity that sells or combine the two well. As far as human relationships are concerned–it’s perhaps both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward. Looking back, I’ve certainly learned and of course continue to learn how to express myself more effectively, more calmly and more compassionately. It’s about how to turn a battle into a wonderful adventure–for everyone.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your filmmaking goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role of discipline and organization?

That’s too big! I have endless systems I guess, some from experience, others spontaneous depending on what’s in front of me. Planning, asking myself questions, finding answers, and being honest. Problem solving, persistence and faith–even when the road is loooooonnngg. I was always a bit of a perfectionist which can be both painful and rewarding–though these days I know perfection doesn’t exist, only the pursuit of excellence, or rather an instinct that you’ve arrived where you wanted with something that you’re working on–there’s deep satisfaction there. But most important–one step at a time, and you’ll arrive. Thinking about too much and trying to focus on it all can be overwhelming. It dilutes the step you’re in and reduces the quality of anything you do. One step at a time …

What’s next for Dominic Allan?

Not sure yet … I have a feature film in incubation and there are plenty of fires inside waiting to be lit!
What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?
“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.”  -Eckhart Tolle
The older I get, the more I realize how little I know. But if there’s one thing of which I’m sure, it’s that. Moving into the present moment is always the answer–for real peace that is often illusive or at best temporary as we move in and out of the mental noise. As the man says, pretend there’s no past nor future–there isn’t, everything that happened or will happen, was or will be in the present moment. Easier said than done, don’t we know …

CALVET on Facebook.

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