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.
In “Prove di stato”, another film by a close collaborator of the Varan workshops, Leonardo di Costanzo portrays the struggles of a woman, Luisa Bosa, who is mayor of Ercolano, a suburb of Naples infected by the Mafia. As the days go by, the most extravagant, even surreal situations, arise; she accepts them calmly, or with anger, but always with great dignity. In one scene, a woman comes to request that her husband, an illegal taxi driver, be allowed to work “honestly” – i.e. without getting involved in drug trafficking. She emphasizes that her husband cannot stand the stress provoked by the sight of the police officers who pursue him and prevent him from working. Finally, all the illegal workers come to occupy the city hall to protest against police persecution, of which they consider themselves the victims. In spite of Luisa Bosa’s efforts, a just state remains a very abstract idea in Ercolano, and “Prove di stato” allows us to understand to what point.
Although the French selection did not really bring to light any promising new talents, at least half of the documentaries in the international selection were by filmmakers under 30. With his film “Pripyat” (see review p. 23), one of these young filmmakers, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, presented an extraordinary vision of the town situated 5 kilometres away from the Chernobyl nuclear power station. The film is based on the use of two devices – black and white cinematography, and the inclusion of the ‘outtake’ frames (usually edited out) at the beginning of each interview – and distils a strange feeling. A polished aesthetic, the invisibility of the danger, houses destroyed and overrun by brambles, and the dissonance between the men wearing special outfits, and the inhabitants’ return to pre-industrial times (an elderly couple fetches water from a frozen lake, which they bring home on a sled). This is the post-apocalyptic world which Nikolaus Geyrhalter shows us; perhaps the world we could all be living in if the current situation went wrong. “Pripyat” has all the qualities of a science-fiction documentary.
With Lut Vandekeybus we enter the past rather than the future. “Not all that “the World” does is good for a Mennonite” takes us to Mexico, to a colony of followers of the church founded by the Dutch reformer Menno Simon, who have maintained a lifestyle which rejects technological progress and consumer society. Their daily life is filmed with great talent: long takes, often motionless, correspond with the Mennonites’ way of life by taking their time. The community’s vision of life, history and motivation gradually unfold without ever presenting the Mennonites as abnormal, ridiculous, or – even worse – intolerant. Ultimately, their choice of lifestyle refers back to our own agitation, without condemnation, but like a reflection in negative. Subtly depicting one culture in order to evoke, by echo, another: an impressive success.
Finally, the film which received the Cinéma du réel prize was “La Leçon sibérienne” by the Polish director Wojciech Staron. For his first film he chose to focus his camera on his partner, a young teacher starting her career in a Siberian community made up of the descendants of Polish exiles. Taking the form of a diary, “La Leçon sibérienne” deeply probes Malgorzata’s feelings as she confronts a new experience, and allows us to get to know the people who enter her life. The film becomes even more intimate when it evokes, in the words of the young woman herself, its own core: the relationship between the filmmaker and his subject. “I can’t think about a film on myself. A film about me wouldn’t be true. I don’t exist all alone anymore.” Thus the film becomes the documentary witness to the evolution of a precious feeling of love.
A large-scale inquiry evoking a major historical event, a light chronicle of everyday life, an absurd farce, science fiction, a backward-looking fresco, or an intimate diary: the terrain of the real allows for films of all genres, each one carried by a style all its own. The possibility is there: television, instead of shaping everything in its own image, could instead provide a space for original films – on the condition that some filmmakers continue to refuse to opt for the easy way out.