In our era where the public is accused of political apathy, and sports and pop stars and IT business leaders are celebrated as modern heroes, it is comforting to attend a festival that focuses on people at the very bottom of our world – outcasts struggling for their place in the world and to make their lives just a little more decent. It is comforting to know that there are filmmakers who find it important to spotlight the lives of these people and a festival that believes in showing their films to the public.
As for public interest in politics and social issues, the local audiences were large. Seeing films with such strong impact, I missed debates after the films, but this was apparently due to some technical problems in the newly reopened Pompidou Centre. Debates are normally on the Cinema du Réel menu.
Outcasts and struggling
Many of the films in the competition were about outcasts: people living in abject poverty, mentally disturbed people, alcoholics and oppressed groups. But instead of dwelling on their misery, the films showed people who were struggling to make a better life for themselves – with more or less success.
American documentarists uphold the tradition of digging in their own backyard, which surely has lot of material to offer as well. Two American films made it clear that certain ethnic groups are living closer to the edge than others. In Legacy by Tod S. Lending, an African-American family struggles to get off welfare, and in Nuyorican Dream by Laurie Collyer, a Puerto Rican family struggles with even worse problems. Both films are told by the one family member who manages to stay clear of the problems and get an education and a job. Legacy is a positive story in that the family actually manages to pull themselves out of welfare, out of the troubled housing project and off of drugs. It is effectively narrated, borrowing dramaturgy from classic fiction films: their situation initially goes from bad to worse before it finally reverses and progresses towards a happy ending.
Like Legacy, Nuyorian Dream is a straightforward observational doc. Whereas Legacy was shot on 35 mm and has nice photography, Nuyrican Dream is shot on video with an often poor picture quality. Nevertheless, the story is strong enough to overshadow its technical imperfection, and the aesthetics fit in well with the street life lived by this family. The mother of the family has five kids. The oldest, also the narrator, is Rob, who has a college degree and works as vice headmaster at a school. He tries to help the rest of his family, but as he says, “I am not sure I can.” And he can’t. Danny is in jail for armed robbery, Betty and Tati are both on drugs and can’t escape, both became mothers when they were teenagers. The only hope left is for Mille, 13 years old. With Rob in the role as investigator we get very close to this family and understand the mechanisms that hold them imprisoned in misery – supplemented by Rob’s analysis of failed political initiatives. Though very disturbing, this film is unfortunately probably closer to the truth for most families than *Legacy, leaving us with little hope.
On the more entertaining side, the Canadian The Choir Boys by Magnus Isacsson tells a wonderful story about a choir of homeless men, clearly pointing out the basic human need for dignity and how to obtain it by feeling some kind of result of one’s efforts. Under the framework of a church organisation, a volunteer named Pierre starts a choir for homeless men, most of whom are alcoholics. They earn some money by giving street concerts and concerts in the underground and even end up on television. A crisis occurs when Pierre wants to place their money under administration, as he doesn’t want them to use it on alcohol. At that point he infringes on their human dignity. The film is good at walking the line between humorous and touching moments and at raising important issues. It also has some wonderful characters: the rough men dressed in clean white shirts performing gentle love-ballads.
Another film dealing with human dignity among a group of outcasts is La Devinière by Benoît Dervaux, whose outcasts are mentally retarded and disturbed persons. It depicts a unique place, La Devinière, a house in the country that in 1976 took in a group of mentally retarded and disturbed children whom the official treatment system had abandoned. They have lived there without any sort of chemical treatment or therapy and been allowed to “live with their madness”.
The film offers no answers to whether this is a good solution for them, nor do we get any closer to understanding what goes on inside their heads. Even so, the mutual tolerance of their individual oddities is set off against two visitors – the parents of one of the children – who awkwardness towards their son is very clear. Only one of the characters, Jean-Claude, can communicate his thoughts to us, but you end up wondering whether he would have been “normal” if he had grown up in another place instead. He is a very interesting character, very intelligent and sharp-witted, but clearly stands out from the others. Though it is undeniably an educational experience to see what happens when people are allowed to live with their madness, the film unfortunately lacks focus. It starts out as a portrait of the institution, but moves towards portraying Jean-Claude, who is not a representative for the others. I think two separate films could have been made with greater success.
Outside the Western World
Cinema du Réel specialises in sociology and ethnography, and many French documentarists have a tradition for depicting foreign societies rather than their own backyard – like the Americans do.
The real outcasts of the world as such, some of the poorest people in the world, are depicted in Rithy Panh’s La terre des âmes errantes. The film follows day labourers laying a cable in Cambodia to the Thai border. They sleep on the ground, and their most nutritious meal consists of the ants they collect. A very disturbing film (see review p. 22).
Equally poor are the long-term prisoners on a small island of Madagascar in Les damnés de la terre by Rivoherizo Andriakoto. The prisoners have grown old, having served their sentences long ago, but are now forgotten by the authorities. They have to stay in the prison indefinitely just trying to get by, since there are no longer any incoming supplies.
A prime example in telling a rich story through a very simple structure is the French/Iranian Zinat, yek rouze bekhosous by Ebrahim Mokhtari. Within a very limited time and framework, it tells a lot about the status of women in a male-dominated Iranian society. The setting is a small village on a little island, and in that very traditional society, it causes a great stir when a woman, Zinat, runs for the local council. The film follows her in her home on election day. Not only does she have to argue with her uncle who visits her trying to convince her that politics are not for women, but she also works as a nurse caring for the sick and is simultaneously in charge of doing all the house work. Her husband who is also a candidate – just hangs around, and lets himself be waited on hand and foot. At the same time she explains her political programme to the film crew with untiring energy and conviction. During the counting of votes, contradictory results come in all the time, and tension is great. She gets more votes than any other candidate however, and a text at the end of the film describes the improvements she has implemented: schools, piping, etc. Zinat is undoubtedly one of the real heroes of our world.
As festival director Suzette Glenadel says in her intro, docs from South-east Asia are coming into their own, and one fine example is the 94-minute Lao Tou by Yang Li Na. A ‘state of things’ observation of a group of old men in Beijing who meet every day on a little spot on the pavement to chat. The only action is when somebody dies, or they accept a new person into the group. A warm portrait of old age and the difficulty of understanding how things have changed, and since they are Chinese, it has certainly been a turbulent century.
In contrast to all the films about outcasts struggling against all odds to improve their miserable lives, Cinema du Réel featured a programme about ‘love’, including a very fine selection of classic and new docs dealing with the subject. A wonderful idea that I was sorry I couldn’t fit into my tight festival schedule. But it also shows the scope of one of Europe’s most important doc festivals.
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).