With usual modesty, the organisers of Cinéma du Réel celebrated its 25th edition this year: filled cinemas at the Centre Pompidou for a high-quality competition programme; a window on the world; an invitation to discover foreign cultures, human life, pain and joy; an extensive French panorama and a retrospective of Algerian documentary cinema. You know what you get when you visit Cinéma du Réel; that’s why I have been there from the very beginning.

Anette Olsen
Script writer, webfilm producer in Safran Film and journalist based in Denmark. Former editor of DOX Magazine (2001-02 and 2004-05).

 At a festival that has kept its independent profile – regardless of the surrounding bureaucracy at the Centre Pompidou or competition from other festivals and television.

MIGHT IS RIGHT. Director: Patric Jean, Belgium/France 2002.

Underground. We know about it, we have read about it. We have heard politicians talking about it for decades. It is on the political agenda. There are budgets set aside to deal with it: Misery. Poverty. Unemployment. Immigrants who beat up other immigrants. Immigrants who are beaten up by the police. We have even watched violent episodes from urban suburbs on television in numerous ultra-short, fragmentary, sensationalist clips. But very rarely have we actually seen what is going on. Rarely have we met a visual interpretation or reflection.

Patric Jean takes us on a journey where we not only watch, but also see. He has made an impressive and depressing essay about misery. He leaves the traditional poverty which he previously depicted in his Les enfants du Borinage- Lettre à Henri Storck, (1999) to seek out the new poverty in Europe, exemplified through visits to cities in Belgium and France. It could have been shot anywhere in Europe, this topographic description of the houses where people live. A deep sadness is the dominant feeling of the film. But also violence, police in the street. A man has filmed police violence from his window in episodes that have officially never taken place, of course. And the new slum is depicted as relatively new buildings that are torn down. A factory is empty, yet a prison is being built, ultramodern with the latest facilities for accommodating the outcasts of this modern world. With a soft, gentle voice, the director makes only few comments on what we are seeing and where we are. Otherwise the inhabitants of the underworld speak for themselves.

The imagery is what sets this documentary apart from hundreds of well meaning social reports on the same subjects. The images depict freezing environments, supermarkets, court rooms, old quarters being refurbished to attract tourists, deporting the old immigrants to council housing areas devoid of garbage collection and lifts for the elderly. The question is asked, “Do you see any Frenchmen living here?”

Welcome to the EUnderground of total misery.

150 SECONDS AGO. Director: Batul Mukhtiar, India 2002.

“On 26 January 2001, an earthquake destroyed the almost 500-year-old city of Bhuj in the Gujarat province. What disappeared was not only the palace, the ramparts and historic streets, but also a whole world of legends, traditions and culture.” These are words from the catalogue of Cinéma du Réel 2003.

15,000 died.

The director recorded what happened during the year following the tragic moments. The pain, the mourning of the dead, the burning of corpses. People being rescued from the debris. The reflections on why it happened and whether it could have been avoided. Poorly constructed buildings? Lives lived in tent camps and shelters. Making new lives with support from the world community, some getting better houses than the ones they had before the earthquake. Education in the schools. Religion. Soldiers looking for people in houses that are no longer safe. Cricket being played among the ruins. Life goes on.

The comment by a character in the film, ”We Indians run things in our own chaotic way,” could be used to characterize the film itself. It tells its story in its own chaotic way as a constant bombardment of visual and verbal impressions. It may seem a bit messy and unfocused, but it does not really matter as the film slowly builds up to a committed and detailed universal presentation of the human consequences of a catastrophe. You are taken through the sequences without pause for reflection. It lets the persons involved express their opinions. The director leads us by the hand while demonstrating an open generosity to the characters and letting the different voices, the sad and the fatalistic, the rich and the poor emerge as they are. No admonishing. This is the first documentary by this director who made 150 Seconds Ago out of love for the people who experienced a change in their existence from one moment to the next.

A WEDDING IN RAMALLAH. Director: Sherine Salama, Australia 2002.

The dream of a better life ‘over there’ in America may seem attractive, even if it means marrying someone who wasn’t chosen out of love. Sometimes the dream ends in frustration and disappointment when reality doesn’t correspond to the expectations.

This happens to Mariam in A Wedding in Ramallah when she follows her husband, Bassam, to Cleveland, Ohio. Mariam had lived in Ramallah all her life, and Bassam lives in exile in the US. The Palestinian background of Australian filmmaker Sherine Salama (she speaks Arabic) probably made it easier for her to win the trust of the main characters and to get them to talk openly about their innermost feelings.

Initially, the film focuses on Bassam, who is divorced from his first wife, an American woman he married for love. Now he tries the traditional approach and returns to Ramallah to find a Palestinian bride. The frequent use of voiceover in the beginning of the film, explaining the situations and the family backgrounds of the two characters, seems a bit excessive, but as the film progresses, focusing increasingly on Mariam, the filmmaker lets the characters and the situations speak for themselves.

The filmmaker almost seems to become a member of the family and intimately close to Mariam and Sinora, Bassam’s sister in law. They are both living with Bassam’s family as they await their US visas. This close relationship allows Salama to portray a Palestinian family and Palestinian culture from within. The women are kept in an inferior position and are not allowed to make decisions without their husbands’ consent. They are solely dependent on their husbands’ good will.

Bassam keeps Mariam in ignorance about the kind of life she can expect to have in America. He lives a modern life, but has very traditional views of marriage. He needs a wife to cook and clean for him when he comes home tired from his two jobs. For Mariam, who finally gets her visa, the encounter with American culture and a life in complete isolation (she is not allowed to leave the house and doesn’t speak any English) is a shock. Mariam and her desperate, tragicomic attempts to turn on the vacuum cleaner or to figure out where the noise from the smoke alarm is coming from, begging the filmmaker for help, constitute a sad picture of an unbearable prison-like existence to which Mariam is condemned. Being married to Bassam and living in the US did not improve the quality of Mariam’s life. The film mercilessly shows how Mariam’s dream ends in isolation and loneliness with little hope of improving her situation.

NOSOTROS. Director: Diego Martinez Vignatti, Belgium 2002.

Nosotros (‘us’) are the descendants of immigrants who came to Argentina in the early 19th century and the heirs of a tango culture created in Buenos Aires. We meet four of them, all ordinary people and ‘tangueros’, i.e., devoted tango dancers living in Buenos Aires. Through the four characters, the documentary aims to take us into the very soul of tango culture that to some is what religion might be to others: a way of identifying with life.

The director Diego Martinez Vignatti operates within the social, cultural and economic context of modern-day Argentina, a society in deep economic crisis where 60% of the population live below the poverty line. Vignatti’s camera is sensitive and searching, tuning in on the streets of Buenos Aires, its people and its ‘milongas’ (tango parties), but somehow the filmmaker fails to reveal the characters in full, as well as the mystery of a dance that seems anything but cheerful.

Eugenia, a young tango dancer and teacher, tries to describe tango as, “A moment suspended in time, full of love and sensuality.” But if tango lovers recognize the description of dancing as a blissful moment of meditation, others might not grasp the attraction of a close embrace with a sad-looking dance partner, dancing to melancholic music that inspires introvert sentimentality. To Ernesto Borgonova, a true tango ‘aficionado’ who can’t help taking a tango step on the sidewalk or in front of every mirror he passes by, “Tango is walking.” Hernán Alvarez, the young upholsterer trainee talks about the visible changes his neighbourhood has undergone since the beginning of the country’s crisis. He compares it to tango, “This mess is tango,” because tango music and lyrics speak about poverty and the problems of the working class. Throughout the film, the characters and the film define and describe tango as a state of being, as the present, as life, establishing links to the roots of Argentinean culture and the immigrants who invented it.

But it seems as if the filmmaker hesitates between making a portrait of the four (randomly chosen?) characters who happen to love tango, telling the story of tango through these people (but then at least three of them are too young), or, thirdly, making a social criticism of contemporary Argentinean society. Seventy minutes are too short to do it all. As it is, there is not enough material to make interesting, intimate personal stories – and not enough tango.

And I missed the music credits at the end of the film!


-
SHARE