Derrida (documentary)

Jacques Derrida is a well-known French philosopher — well-known as philosophers go, anyway, meaning your average guy on the street probably doesn’t know anything about him. Which is fine, because the documentary “Derrida” summarizes his thoughts for you, while also biographing the man and even analyzing the very nature of documentary filmmaking.

Directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman could have put together a decent-enough film just focusing on the man’s work, which includes the founding of modern deconstructionism. Derrida is a fascinating figure, with a large shock of white hair and a joking personality. His thoughts are deep, and when excerpts are quoted, viewers are liable to be momentarily lost. But the man himself is down-to-earth and relatively “normal,” and the scenes showing him being himself are charming.

In the process of interviewing him, the filmmakers found him doing what he does best: deconstructing. In particular, he deconstructs the way documentaries are made, demonstrating the impossibility of presenting a completely accurate picture, because the very presence of a camera ruins any chance of that. He points out that normally when he’s home all day, he doesn’t get out of his pajamas. But today, with the film crew following him around, he made a point of getting dressed. Ergo, the film cannot be an accurate depiction of his everyday life. This is, in short a documentary that deconstructs documentaries — an exciting idea and one executed nearly to perfection.

A few fascinating moments show Derrida watching footage of interviews already shot: Derrida on film, watching Derrida on film. His contradictions are captured as well. He refuses to get very personal with his answers, and later wonders why philosophers never get personal. When he elucidates on particular topics — love and forgiveness being two of them — it’s philosophy everyone can appreciate and ponder, offering us a glimpse of the man and his thoughts.

Dick and Kofman could have been more concise in their storytelling; footage of Derrida visiting and speaking in South Africa is rather unnecessary, for example. But this biography, dissertation and analysis rises above that quibble, vividly achieving new ground in documentaries and introducing us to a brilliant man, besides.

B+ (1 hr., 25 min.; Not Rated, probably G, though no child would be interested in watching it.)