EPT11 Deauville: The man behind Nosebleed
For a game that has captivated so many people and for such a long time, poker has been strangely under-represented by decent documentary film-making. There are certainly a handful of films that have gone someway to exploring this peculiar world -- Bet Raise Fold and That's Poker spring to mind -- but none that really leap out as having absolutely nailed it.
Last year, however, a distinctive low buzz greeted the release of a film named Nosebleed, directed by a French film-maker named Victor Saumont. Despite being entirely in French, and focusing almost exclusively on the French players Sebastien "Seb86" Sabic and Alex "Alexonmoon" Luneau as they take temporary leave of the high stakes cash games to play the World Series in Las Vegas, the characteristically difficult-to-please aficionados of the online poker forums declared Nosebleed to be a hit.
With almost no advertising, and very little mainstream attention, the online poker watchers demanded an English version, even offering money to have the film subtitled. Saumont quickly arranged the translation and uploaded it to his YouTube channel, where it amassed more than 100,000 views and garnered almost unanimous praise.
"This is the best poker documentary ever made," one commentator said. "I think this is the only poker documentary interesting to non-poker people," added another. Perhaps most gratifying of all was a comment that read: "This is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. Not poker documentary, documentary period."
It is high praise indeed, but richly deserved. As Sabic and Luneau open up before Saumont's camera -- first in front of their laptops in Luneau's house in London, and then when the pair go bracelet hunting in Vegas -- we get an unprecedented peek into the real lives of two of high stakes poker's most talented enigmas. Nosebleed captures the warts-and-all reality of Sabic and Luneau's existence: they are unflinchingly honest about themselves, about their quest and about others they encounter along the way.
There is refreshingly little self-aggrandisement and no PR machine smoothing away rough edges, even though the sums they are playing for are dizzying. Luneau, in particular, is a regular at the $2,000-$4,000 mixed game tables online, some of the richest and toughest games in the world. But closely obeying the rules that govern effective documentary film-making, Saumont simply sits and watches everything he sees.
"Honesty, I think, was the real thing about this film," Saumont says. "To be invisible, to see them and to show the truth of their lifestyle and to be honest. Not to show them as millionaires, just to be with them, to live with them, this life."
Saumont, 32, is here in Deauville this week, occupying his usual position in the European Poker Tour press room. Born in Limoges, but now living in Paris, Saumont studied for a qualification in movie editing before beginning his career in film. He has worked in the prop department as well as in the editing suite, but having discovered poker several years ago is also on the PokerStars staff.
He writes the French version of PokerStars Blog at live events, during which he has also made several documentaries about French players. These helped Saumont gain the trust of Sabic and planted the seed for what became Nosebleed. "I did a movie here last year, and two years ago," Saumont says. "They [Sabic and Luneau] saw those movies and they believed in my work. That's why they said yes."
Nosebleed actually went through a few iterations, slightly shifting focus each time. Sabic originally approached Saumont with a request to make a film about his girlfriend, who is painter and sculptor. However as the poker player began relating some of his tales from the nosebleed games, Saumont immediately realised that Sabic himself would make a fascinating subject for a documentary, and even more so if his friend Luneau could be involved.
The pair had enormous stature in French poker circles, but almost never spoke to the press: they endured and enjoyed precipitous swings, but never really shared what that felt like. "They are well known in France, but no one has ever shot them or talked with them," Saumont says. "They are mysterious because they play high limits and they don't play any tournaments...At the beginning, it was my idea to go to shoot them in their daily grind, but when they said that they would go to Las Vegas to play tournaments, they proposed that I would go with them. I couldn't say no."
Saumont had neither the time nor the budget to put together a full film crew, but after spending a few days filming in London, packed his trusty 5D video camera in his bag and headed to Nevada. He made the trip something of a working holiday, filming Sabic and Luneau over a five-week period as they fell into and out of love with live tournament poker.
"They forgot the camera very quickly," Saumont says. "I didn't shoot them every day in Vegas; I didn't live in their flat. But I think they accepted the camera very quickly. In London, it was a bit awkward, but in Vegas, they didn't see me around. They let me shoot."
The tale told by Nosebleed will be familiar to many online players sampling the live grind for the first time. Sabic becomes quickly frustrated, switching almost immediately to cash games. But Luneau, who confesses to having dreamed about winning a World Series bracelet since his first exposure to poker, decides to face the variance head on and sticks to the task. It's a measure of Saumont's skill as a documentary film-maker that one remains engaged by the subjects despite the erosion of many of poker's most glamorous myths.
"I found they are very normal," Saumont says of Sabic and Luneau. "They don't act like we hear from Tom Dwan and Isildur. They don't spew money really. They are just normal guys, but it's very strange to see them playing because it's such large amounts. It's crazy. But in their life, they are pretty normal."
Before even the end of the tournament in Deauville this week, Saumont is heading back to Paris to re-enrol in film school. His first task there is to write and produce another feature-length piece and says that he has thought for a long time about perhaps making a poker-based drama, moving into the realm of fiction after a career spent primarily in documentary.
For a game that has captivated so many people and for such a long time, poker has also been strangely under-represented by decent feature film-making. Let's hope Saumont can plug that gap. "I think it's possible to do a good film about poker," he says. "Maybe I'll try."
Watch Nosebleed in the player below: