Exile and poverty hung as a shadow over the Cinéma du Réel short film festival

Endre Eidsaa
Department of Art and Media Studies Faculty of Humanities

The exchange of gazes between two people people observing their surroundings, are often connected to a quality we like to call «cinematic». The obviously cinematic character of the gaze is confirmed in two films currently being screened: “Carol” (Haynes, 2015), which for long sequences floats like elegant, wordless exchanges of gazes between supressed feelings, and “Son of Saul “(Nemes, 2015), which puts us face to face with one of the victims of the Holocaust and his struggle to keep his composture while witnessing the things happening around him.

Saul in the latter of these films, a prisoner working in a concentration camp in Auschwitz, has to use his eyes in order to orient himself in the machinery of death, but in reality wishes that he was couldn’t see. «It would’ve been much easier if you didn’t understand», he tells a fellow prisoner while starting into his bowl of food. Saul has chosen to concentrate on death rather than life. Death is seemingly the only thing left saving. His body, his gaze and his thoughts are completely focused on it – for instance, obsessed with how to bury a boy who has been strangled by the Nazis, a boy he believes to be his son. Saul tries to make himself blind to – or put up a personal, almost absurd resistance to – what is happening in life, and the film glues us to his face of denial.

“Son of Saul” shows how there is also a strong cinematic potential in the opposite of the eye’s field of vision. Films can also create an eye for what is surrounding, what is outside our field of vision – an eye for absence, an eye for what we cannot see or choose not to see. An eye for blind spots, and even – as in “Son of Saul” – an eye for death.

Absence and silence. During this years’ French documentary film festival Cinéma du Réel, which took place in Paris 18-27 March, the international short film program reminded us of this.

In the opening of “Al haffar” (Cherri, 2015), a meditative film about graves in the Arab Sharjah Desert, a poster reads: «Sometimes, the most terrible place is the place where there is nothing. Where nothing has yet happened.» In the image to follow, we see a person with a torchlight, walking through a vast darkness. We hear the sound of his steps as if we were close to him, but visually, he’s just a small spot in a dark eternity (we know that the darkness extends beyond the frame), illuminated only by his own light source.
“Exile exotic” (Litvintseva, 2015) also reflects over the absence of something somewhere: Over neatly composed images of a copy (in real size) of the Kremlin (now in the form of a Turkish hotel), the director reflects around his and his mother’s exile from Russia, ad how parts of an ideological construction has been buried and rebuilt as a copy. Some of the director’s reflections, in adittion to the above quoted opening lines in Al haffar, are refelected in Il caffè si beve bestemmiando (Brandi, 2016), an observation of two immigrant children’s meeting with racism in Italy.

A teacher says that the word omerta – which describes the silence between two people when they are holding back something they wish to say – is the opposite of eros (beauty). The teacher explains the opposition by claiming that nothing happens in this silence. The film pursues this thought in its observing, almost reticent visuality: Could it perhaps be a prejudiced silence (disguised as hateful words) that characterises the Italian childrens’ encounter with immigtrants?

Implication rather than demonstration. Most of the films in the program implied rather than demonstrated. That could also be said of the lyrical montage in “Há terra!” (Vaz, 2016), a travel journal critical of imperialism, in the spirit of Peter Kubelka’s “Unsere Afrikareise” (1966), and the city symphonic tone of “Scales in the Spectrum of Space” (Silva, 2015). It could also been seen in two films thematising poverty in two very different ways: “Fora da Vida” (Reis and Guerra, 2015) and “Allo chérie “(Arbid, 2015). In the latter, one of the best films in the program, we hear the desperate and humiliated voice of a woman who is constantly calling new people to extend down payments of loans. While we listen to the conversations, we are driving around in a peaceful Beirut. The film opens in a parking lot with newly washed, empty cars, takes us through a sun-filled city landscape and ends in the highway, late at night, in a kind of empty space illuminated by advertisements and cars passing hastily.

The dictator. In For a da vida we hear a message from a TV: «Behind every dictator there is always love.» This propagandistic phrase is given a less naïve and more complex expression in “The Benevolent Dictator” (Braunstein, Hasenöhrl og Lichtblau, 2016). Exile and poverty hung as a shadow over the entire program of the short film festival, and here, we meet an Austrian-English colonial master in Malawi in South East Africa. In a country where 80% are illiterate, a benevolent dictator is preferable to democracy, the man suggests. He bases the situation in how the English held on to imperial power and status quo by hindering education. The movie makers give the storyteller’s perspective to the colonial master, but never show us the man while he’s talking. This makes his social world the film’s visual main character. The images show us crowds of people in the streets – and overviews, attempts at clarifying images of the man’s great property and the things he owns (including his servants and bodyguards). While we hear the man say that he gives minimum wages to his workers, and that he keeps strict control of their debts to him, we see one of them during a short break from his work. The worker is leaning on a dusty car, a small Coke bottle is lying on the hood, and he’s holding on to the last bit of a cigarette. He draws in the nicotine as if it’s the last thing he’ll ever do. The man is placed honorably in the center of the frame.
image_650_36542“I Dance With God”. The most curious of the films in the program was a sensitive portrait of a blind textile worker and his wife (a couple who, like Saul, have lost their son): the Iranian film “I Dance With God” (Mirzae, 2015). The unaffected and altruistic images are completely concentrated on the blind man’s body, which continuously surprises us with its spontaneous vividness and particular interaction with its surrounding. Whether he is singing songs of love, making sarcastic jokes, dancing around a bonfire or working out in the potato field, Hooshang Mirzae finds portraits that seem homegrown and unforced in their life-affirming poetry.

The power of the film lies not only in the images of the people who are being filmed, but in the cut, which spontaneously dances and sings with the blind man. In many ways, the film’s energy lies in what we cannot see, because the portrait seems to embrace the man’s contact with himself and his own situation, his blind embrace of life. In this, the film reminds us of the poetic-ethnographic documentaries of Les Blank.

Motion pictures are good at showing us that exchange of gazes between people are cinematic. But short films, in their sometimes rich briefness, also shows us that the eye for what is blind in our experience – the eye of the empty space that surrounds the living places, the eye for what is not shown in what is created – is highly cinematic.


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