WG Sebald’s maxim could equally be used for documentary making as some of the films shown at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival exemplify. There were 18 documentaries in total in a festival which plays a crucial role in introducing UK audiences to international authors. Although now known primarily for its fiction, it started as a documentary festival in 1947. The festival can only benefit from more documentary screenings: almost every screening was sold out. Clearly, we have a huge appetite for these visions of the real world and a need to “discover things hitherto unseen.”
The feature version of Philbert’s Nenette was one of the highlights. Deliberately exploring the unseen, it was a profound, bold film.
Philibert consciously searches for the mysterious in his subjects. When he directed Etre et Avoir about a small school in France, he apparently spent months searching for the school with the right teacher. He wanted to find a character that embodied an ambiguity, something which eluded him as a filmmaker and us as viewers. During a fascinating talk, Philibert admitted he felt he had found “l’autre par l’excellence” in his new star – Nenette.
Slowly out of black, eyes appear. A mouth. Nails. A gaze. Like us but so not like us. Eyes which look way beyond us. Familiar and so different. Voices. A camera clicks. Nenette, an elderly female orangutan sits in a glass box in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris as we hear the voices of visitors, philosophers, zoo keepers. These unseen voices muse, tease, wonder, explain. We watch. Mesmerised.
Philibert revealed how for him Nenette is like the Mona Lisa. It is impossible really to see her. We watch her watching us watching her and our attempt to understand this exotic being dissolves. By alerting us to the act of seeing, the film becomes a conscious metaphor for documentary itself. How can we see beyond our projections?
Philibert deliberately separates sound and image, liberating the viewer’s eye to trace its own journey from perception to thought. Voices are edited like a musical composition over long uninterrupted shots of Nenette delicately moving her hands over knitted fabric or just gazing into some incomprehensible distance. We never see the commentators. Our imaginations fill in the gaps, but Nenette remains elusive.
A child reads the label “Nenette. Born in 1969 in Borneo. Arrived at the Jardin des Plantes 1972.”
“Same age as your dad “says the mum. Other voices wonder: “I think she’s depressed, totally depressed… Maybe her husband’s dead already… You need someone even at her age.” The voices disappear leaving Nenette in silence, pressed against the glass.
The comments reveal everything about us, nothing about her. The human is ever present. Even when the voices stop, the space resonates with the sound of footsteps, sirens, locks, voices of street protestors chanting, complaining against “too much video surveillance”.
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