Faces Places screening at the Letterman Digital Complex in the Presidio, San Francisco, CA.
Street muralist JR (middle) at the Letterman Digital Arts Complex

During the 2005 riots outside Paris, JR was an 18- year-old street artist in Clichy-sous-Bois. Since then he’s pasted murals in more than 140 countries, encompassing more than 320,000 faces. Last year he added about a thousand more mugs for his work on the San Francisco Mural project.

Night or day, JR wears his self-styled uniform cum disguise with an air of focus and discipline. It provides the best balance of anonymity and notoriety and gives him the freedom to walk between the observer and the observed. Or to hide in plain sight. “When I take off my hat and glasses, no one ever recognizes me,” he says.

Traveling with his photobooth truck in Autumn 2018, JR arrived in the Bay Area to work on this colossal project inspired by the Diego Rivera murals of 1940, who spoke of this work as an invocation to ward off the forces of aggression. One of most striking, Pan American Unity, is now installed in the performing arts college of the country’s largest public school, San Francisco City College.

One of the ten panels in Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity mural, 1940

For a documentary about the making of the murals, a film called Faces Places, JR joined forces with a paragon of French New Wave Cinema, the 90-year-old director Agnès Varda. JR said it was “friendship at first sight.” They met for coffee on a Monday and started shooting on a Wednesday. On that foggy evening, though, JR’s partner-in-crime was absent for the screening. Now he missed her banter. At 90 years of age, Varda had opted to stay home in Paris.

Ms. Varda‘s filmmaking crossed over 20th-century conventions of fiction and gender. Her first feature-length film in 1955; La Pointe Courte, was a portrait of a crumbling marriage.

“JR and I earned the respect of unknown people, we shed light on them, we listened to them,” Varda told the LA Times in November. Both JR and Varda mirrored the full spectrum of experience and jettisoned the illusion of separation. They brought the gift of discernment, slowing us down long enough to feel curiosity for the idiosyncratic intimacies of other ordinary people.

“…I felt that it was one more documentary in which I question,” said Varda. “How can we approach people who have no power? How could we achieve more empathy, more understanding between people?”

Faces Places earned the film a L’Oeil award-winner at Cannes as well as an Oscar nomination last year. Angnès Varda, who died in March 2019, was the recipient of an honorary lifetime achievement award from the Oscars organization.

Describing something while the cut out of Agnès looks on bemusedly
JR ‘s photobooth truck reaches San Francisco terra firma.

Writes about people working on resilience, hopes to start a one-woman band with a singing Husky.