Especially in the French section, however, the films were more notable for their subject matter than their cinematic approach.
“Watching the international competition films at Cinéma du réel 1999 confirmed for us the mediocre level of current production, which reflects television’s grip on documentary cinema (…) Although their subjects are diverse, the filmmakers often seem to approach them in a uniform manner, without insisting on a point of view, an ethical standpoint or cinematographic language.” This was the message which the international competition jury (composed of Andrée Davanture, Jean-Claude Luyat, Daniele Segre and Kamram Shirdel) made a point of reading before the prizewinners were announced. A condemnation of the competition as a whole was daring, but those in the audience reacted positively, enthusiastically applauding the very people who had just pointed a finger at the limitations of their productions.
Within the circuit of events devoted to the documentary in France – Vues sur les docs in Marseilles, the États généraux in Lussas or the Rencontres in Gentilly – the Parisian festival, founded in 1971 by the Pompidou Centre’s Bibliothèque publique d’information, is committed to exploring the spectacle of people from all over the world, whom we are invited to get to know through the selected films. For its 21st edition, the international festival of ethnographic and sociological film, more soberly entitled “Cinéma du réel,” presented a retrospective of Iranian cinema as well as about 50 new films in the French and international sections. Of the films selected, it is true that some (especially in the French section) do not distinguish themselves by their cinematic form, but others undeniably display all the characteristics of fascinating works. Coming as close as possible to an unimaginable “real” they allow us to get to know – and to live out – unique experiences.
The biggest shock came from a French film: “La Commission de la vérité” by André Van In, shot over a period of 3 years in South Africa. The filmmaker, who became well acquainted with the region while holding filmmaking workshops there (under the auspices of the “Ateliers Varan” training programme), was able to obtain permission to witness all the stages in the work of the “Commission for Truth and Reconciliation.” Initiated by Nelson Mandela, the commission’s task was to promote reconciliation between the country’s two communities by recognizing the crimes committed under apartheid, thus permitting a smooth transition to democracy. Freedom of speech, placed at the centre of the proceedings by the South African authorities, was supposed to bring about a catharsis for the entire country. Testimonies were collected ‘in the field’ by people especially devoted to this task, and subsequently processed by theme: murder, torture, disappearance… The process then concluded with a “trial” without punishment of the guilty, since amnesty was a prerequisite for the holding of free elections. For 2 hours and 20 minutes, a people’s incredible journey from horror to hypothetical peace kept spectators on the edge of their seats.
Another noteworthy film, in a completely different genre, was Didier Nion’s “Juillet”, which takes place in a seaside campground in northern France. With small impressionist strokes, a mere nothing, Nion traces the portrait of “little people” and reveals, through the simplest phrase, to what point social hierarchies are firmly anchored in everyone’s unconscious. The young teenage boy’s dream is to become a truck driver, to escape from the unemployment which affects his entire family. Through his interest in the moments in between, in contrast to television reportage which is only there for the highlights, the filmmaker comes closest to life at this coastal campsite: grandparents waiting while their grandchildren swim, or the children waiting while their grandparents prepare dinner.