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”.
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