For a decade the cultural channel ARTE has been broadcasting high quality documentaries to European audiences. Considered elitist by some and truly creative by others, ARTE programmes explore a wide range of subjects and promote the individual touch. At this year’s documentary film festival Cinéma du Réel in Paris, nine Arte co-productions were on the programme. Although not all were creatively impressive, they had something to offer from a sociological and ethnological perspective.

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

Rarely have I seen so many cows, sheep and chickens on screen as during the short span of my visit to the ‘Festival of the Real’. Not unlike cattle being herded through paddocks to the slaughterhouse as in the documentary Qui a peur du Minotaure, by Dominique Gros, we festival goers queued up in long rows outside Centre Pompidou (or ‘Beaubourg’ as it is commonly referred to), inching closer to this Mecca for documentary culture. Except that our purpose proved more pleasant than the fate of the cows.

The film by Dominique Gros revolves around the image of the cow and the bull, each a figure of mythology as well as modern culture in which they represent food and entertainment (steaks, milk and bull fights). Texts about the myth are read aloud on the soundtrack, all the while close-ups of big cow eyes gaze at us.

Dominique Gros "Qui a peur du Minotaure"
Dominique Gros “Qui a peur du Minotaure”

From prairies and cowsheds, the film takes us to the laboratory where scientific research in animal embryology is carried out. Although the cow clones are not complete look-alikes, they are genetically identical. Quite a disturbing thought when you consider that this kind of research is applicable to humans. The filmmaker interviews a number of people while making comments of her own. Stylistically the mix of voiceover narration, interviews and associative images does not really blend into a successful whole, but provokes a feeling of confusion. I’m not sure what the director was trying to say with this film exactly, except that it takes an intellectual view on society and culture through the ways we domesticate, breed, select, kill, consume and industrialize animals. It’s a film at the elitist end of the spectrum but lacks focus on the essential issues.

Rural and Urban Realities 

A dead chicken is a source of misery to an Ethiopian woman in the documentary Le prêt, la poule et l’oeuf , by Claude Mouriéras, on the international competition programme. It’s a story of a new, emerging micro-economy in the Ethiopian countryside. Agents from Buusaa, a small, local loan company, encourage the women peasants to take out small loans and invest the money.

A woman tells her friend how she took out a loan and bought a chicken. A rat ate the eggs. The woman then put out rat poison but the chicken ate it and died. And she still has to repay the loan. This is a concrete example of the fragility of a micro-economy. The loan agents urge the women to take out bigger loans, but most of them are sceptical and hesitate loaning more money than they will be able to repay.

It’s an eye-opening film that redirects the spots from the theatres of war to issues of survival on the African continent. In the Q&A discussion that followed the screening, the director stated he wanted to show the first signs of this new market mechanism and how people confront it. The film presents a somewhat general view of the subject, showing a bit of every woman’s life, and it might have benefited from following only one or two of the women over a longer period of time to measure the effect and change that a loan may or may not have had on their lives, like the woman whose chicken died after eating rat poison…

Et si on fusionnait, by Julie Bertucelli, also deals with economy and market forces, on a different level, however. The merger of three major European steel groups into an international industrial giant risks to throw thousands of people out of work. But unemployment is not an issue, profit is paramount.

Julie Bertucelli
Julie Bertucelli

The merger is a pretext for the filmmaker to examine the inner circle of men whose exercise of power decides the fate of thousands of workers (“Or ‘employees’ as we call them,” says one of the steel bosses). The director follows the executives of the three merging companies at dinners and negotiations that take place behind closed doors. The ironic voiceover commentary reinforces the prejudices one might have of businessmen in action, discussing tactics in shirtsleeves over half-empty wine glasses, popping bad jokes or putting on self-assured airs in front of journalists. The gamut of the internal and external power game. The subject is probably the least sexy in the whole world, and unfortunately the film fails to render it appetizing enough for the big screen. But I’m sure it works well on television.

ouvriers_terre_jaqLes ouvriers de la terre, by Jean-Marie Barbe, takes us back to the French countryside far from the corridors of power at the Metropole offices. In the vineyards of the Ardèche region in the south of France, farmers work their way through the year picking grapes in late summer and cutting wood in winter in their struggle to make ends meet. The director presents a sympathetic portrayal of these people, who are also his neighbours. The film was obviously made with great affinity for its subject(s). Not that farm life is depicted as romantic. On the contrary it’s hard work with its drawbacks of loneliness and alcoholism. Nevertheless, humour is an ever-present ingredient.

Humberto, a Portuguese farmer who survives on a tight monthly budget, writes to his father in Porto every now and again. The scenes of him writing letters about his life (read aloud in voiceover) are touching and add a poetic dimension to a documentary that sometimes borders on banality.

Insecurity and Violence

The goal of the architects who constructed Evry-Ville-Nouvelle, a ‘new city’ within the city of Paris in the mid-sixties was to create a town and space where habitat, work and leisure formed a synthesis.

La véritable historie du bus 402 takes us on a bus ride through this once fashionable neighbourhood that has turned into a ghetto. Le Pen would have been delighted to see that the film deals with one of his favourite issues: insecurity, though not on the level of his condescending discourses. In the ‘Pyramides’ area, rampaging young teenagers generate fear and insecurity among the passengers of Bus 402. As one of the more tolerant and understanding passengers explains, the youths refuse to pay the bus fare claiming it’s ‘their’ bus ‘because they don’t have any other property’ or anything else to do for that matter.

A special prevention network has been set up by the local public transport service to tackle the violent bus incidents. Yet the director chooses not to show these conflicts and this part of reality. Instead we get to see the streets of a desolate suburb from the bus driver’s point of view and the graffiti-covered walls of the buildings which in fact amply expresses sources of frustration.

The best parts of the film are the training sessions of the prevention teams as they learn how to confront passengers who refuse to pay bus fare. These dramatic moments contrast with the rest of the film, which never reveals any of the real trouble or the young troublemakers.

What we do see are the positive side of the problem; two young ex-delinquents who have joined the preventive team and whose job is to establish a dialogue with the teenagers causing the problems. But again, no scenes visualize their work, we only hear about it from what they tell us. And here is a real problem. The director lets people talk without interrupting until they repeat themselves. Much tighter editing to boil down all the talk to its essence would have improved the rhythm of the film that felt longer than its 78 minutes.

Dor de tine by Mireille Abramovici is an enjoyable film to watch and a touching way to depict and remember the fate of the Jews killed during the Nazi regime. It is a story (a love story actually) of the director’s own parents, Romanian Jews who lived in France. Old photos of them intertwined with associative interior images comprise the material of the film. We see a plate of food – then we see the same plate with the remains of the food. On the soundtrack, French actors read the letters that Isaac and Sylvia exchanged. We see the interiors of the houses and the places mentioned in the correspondence; the curtain floating in the air as if someone had just opened the window. It’s a simple trick, but it works; we feel the presence of the main characters, Isaac and Sylvia and the life they led before Isaac was killed by the Nazis. A very delicate and personal film with a convincing story universe.

Pouvons-nous vivre ici, by Sylvaine Dampierre, and The Tube, by Peter Entell, are two other ARTE co-productions screened at Cinéma du Réel. I did not get a chance to see the former, but the latter is an entertaining, intriguing film about the effects of television on its viewers. A journalist wants to find out why his four-year-old daughter throws a fit when the television is turned off. Is television a drug? The film unfolds as an investigation into the realm of television imagery that seems to have an almost hypnotizing effect. It’s a very entertaining film that asks more questions than it answers, but nevertheless succeeds in a fascinating depiction of the subject.

The highlight of the ARTE co-productions programmed at the festival was *Work in Progress, by José Luis Guerin.


-