When conceptualizing a documentary that deals with the legalization of same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples, telling that story through the use of puppets and toys probably isn’t an idea that jumps out at you. But it did for filmmakers Mathias Théry and Etienne Chaillou, whose film La Sociologue et l’Ourson (The Sociologist and the Little Bear) details these events in France.
In 2012, a bill granting same-sex couples the right to marry and adopt children was introduced in France’s National Assembly. While the bill would become law in 2013, the period before that was not without controversy. During this time, and well before it, one of the principal figures in support of same-sex couples was Irène Théry, a distinguished sociologist whose focus has been on family and law for the last 30 years. She’s also Mathias’ mom.
It was actually Irène that encouraged Mathias to make a film on the subject, believing the people of France needed to know same-sex families and that using the medium of film would be a great introduction. She didn’t, however, want the film to be about her. But, as you’ll realize watching the film, she’s too good of a storyteller for that not to be the case. “With time, we realized that the thing which was exciting for us was my mom,” shares Mathias.
So why the puppets?
“We tried to film her, to shoot her, but she was always transforming herself from the mom to the professional sociologist.”
Instead, they decided to record phone conversations with Irène, not telling her about this during the first month. Even when they did tell her, Mathias is convinced she forgot about it a lot of the time, allowing for the spontaneity he wanted. After nearly three months of recording and gathering 14 hours of useable audio, the team had to decide how they would tell this story visually. Animation and using real actors were options put forward, but ultimately they decided on using puppets and other figures to tell the story. It was the simplest and most cost-effective way to do it.
“We wanted to show the society like a little theater,” Mathias said.
That’s not to say there aren’t real life images used as well. We see Irène meeting with French President François Hollande. We see some of her home life. We also see her interacting with gay couples and, unfortunately, but delightfully, putting same-sex marriage and adoption opponent Frigide Barjot in her place.
“During one year we were focused on the humans,” says Mathias. “And then when the law was accepted, we worked more with the puppets.” About four months’ worth of work, to be exact.
In the lead up to the decision on the bill, 60 percent of the French population supported same-sex marriage. In the film, Irène makes it clear that France is not a homophobic country and that this is a generational issue, with no one under the age of 50 having a problem with it. As a woman in her 60s, that leaves room for her own progression on the issue, which is certainly what happened.
“She changed her mind,” says Mathias, who explains it was only 20 years ago that his mother became a supporter of same-sex marriage. “She likes to work on the past. She says, ‘To understand the present, you always have to understand the past.’”
That’s what Mathias hopes this film will help people do in about a decade’s time. He sees it as bringing sense to a period during which a lot of nonsensical things were said by both sides.
“We thought a lot about the people who will watch the film in 10 years, and we wanted to show them how France was in this time.”
Who better to explain it than mama bear and her puppets?