Visions du Réel: Occupying differing positions on the documentary spectrum, two shorts, Wound & Diary of Cattle, represent the adventurous approach of Nyon’s Visions du Réel.

Neil Young
Young is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: May 15, 2019

Wound/Diary of Cattle

Arthur SukiasyanLidia AfrilitaDavid Darmadi

One of the longest-running and most influential documentary-oriented festivals on the circuit, Visions du Réel (VdR) celebrated both its 50th anniversary and it 50th edition this year (it skipped one edition somewhere down the line), the second under the artistic direction of French-born Emilie Bujès, only the sixth ‘AD’ in the event’s half-century. Her first predecessor, the Exeter-born Moritz de Hadeln, who founded the event with his wife Erika, went on to run the festivals of Locarno, Berlin (for more than 20 years) and Venice. Under de Hadeln, the «Nyon International Documentary Festival» became renowned for showcasing works from behind the Iron Curtain at a time when international exposure for such endeavours was relatively meager.

«cinéma du réel»
Taking place over nine April days in the small Swiss city of Nyon, on the affluent shores of Lake Geneva, the festival was effectively relaunched with its current name in 1995 when critic and theorist Jean Perret took over the creative reins. The new name reflected Perret’s ongoing interest in and championing of «cinéma du réel» (cinema of reality) as opposed to traditional, narrow definitions of non-fiction.

The programming was increasingly opened up to «hybrid» works of a sort which may involve re-enactments, narrative elements and multiple modes of address. In a 2009 interview, Perret observed that «from the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s, one could perceive a certain ‘breathlessness’ (un certain essoufflement) of fiction film which was struggling to find rich themes or innovative stories. The cinema of the real brings solutions with stories showing real people, staged in narrative forms and (thus) a renewed aesthetic.»

«from the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s, one could perceive a certain ‘breathlessness’ (un certain essoufflement) of fiction film which was struggling to find rich themes or innovative stories.»

This stance is now the default mode of successfully adventurous festivals such as Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, FIDMarseille (acronym derived from former moniker, «Festival International du Documentaire de Marseille»), Montreal’s RIDM («Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montreal») and the closest North American parallel, True/False (Columbia, Missouri). These events’ titles may specify a particular interest in documentary and non-fiction material, but whose content nevertheless spans a wide range of artistic approaches.

Two of the more effective short documentaries at VdR this year profitably occupy different positions on the documentary spectrum. Arthur Sukiasyan’s Wound is a 25-minute «fly on the wall» study of three middle-aged men who live in the Armenian countryside near the regional capital Gyumri. This area has, as various rubbly vistas make plain, has yet to fully recover from a devastating earthquake in 1988. Diary of Cattle, by the Indonesian duo David Darmadi and Lidia Afrilita, devotes its 17 minutes to a detached survey of a landfill site in the Sumatran city of Padang, upon whose mounds of trash a herd of cows grazes daily. The bovine protagonists occasionally show mild interest in Darmadi and Afrilita and their camera, but otherwise preoccupied, largely go about their business as they would if the directors and their equipment were absent.

Wound depicts the quotidian reality of fisherman Hovik, dove-keeper Ando and Ando’s son Arthur, a wood-carver. Director Sukiasyan, working in close collaboration with his own father Martin Sukiasyan (who edited the film), enjoys intimate access to the (separate) living-quarters of their three protagonists: we observe them at various times cooking, working (Arthur’s craftsman skills are amply showcased), shooting the breeze, drinking, and bemoaning their lot.

Wound, a film by Arthur Sukiasyan

At no point are the Sukiasyans’ cameras addressed or acknowledged, and there are are moments emphasising the solitude of the men which require a certain amount of indulgence from the viewer: the well-established rules of the documentary «game» require us to conveniently and temporarily forget the fact that other people are in fact present in the room, and that the subjects of the film must to some degree be conscious of the requirement that they behave «naturally» in front of the lens.

This isn’t a significant distraction in Wound, which functions as an empathetic immersion in a bygone backwater where in many ways time seems to have stood still: the dwellings appear to date from the 19th century, and to have been relatively little-changed in crucial details, their sturdy construction presumably helping them withstand an earthquake which, opening titles inform, killed at least 25,000 people and damaged 1,500 villages. The film is at its heart a study of dogged resilience, with the bonds of family and friendship becoming even more crucial given the post-USSR breakdown of social and administrative infrastructure amid burgeoning inequality and corruption.

The film is at its heart a study of dogged resilience

Much of the dialogue consists of these aging fellows (women are conspicuous by their absence; one of the subjects was widowed by the quake) voicing their discontents. They look back through rose-tinted spectacles at the Soviet era, whose chaotic end was already in sight at the time of the 1988 disaster. «Try to complain today? Who will you reach? If you don’t have money, you are nobody.»

Wound thus seeks to probe and depict the ongoing aftershocks not only of the temblor but of the upheavals and traumas suffered by Armenia (among numerous other eastern-bloc states which regained their independence in the 1990s) and its long-suffering residents. It’s a clear-eyed vision, often decidedly bleak («in this country and this state there is no future»), of a forgotten and overlooked corner of the world whose economic prospects appear to have caused most of the young people to flee: we see children and the elderly, but no-one in between.

Religious faith provides consolation to some: the film ends with Arthur reflecting on the biblical story of Job, clinging to the possibility of a heavenly reward after an earthly lifetime of hard knocks and affliction.

Diary of Cattle
The four-legged protagonists in Diary of Cattle likewise have found a way to eke out a form of rudimentary existence in decidedly unpropitious circumstances. Evidently, the property of farmers, who are seen walking the animals to the landfill under the morning sun, the small herd is brought to the rubbish-dump every day in order to forage for whatever scraps of edible material can be found. There are disturbing images of the creatures munching on non-nutritious items such as plastic bags and pieces of moldy rubber, but while occasionally showing signs of disease they do not (apart from one unfortunate cadaver) bear the marks of starvation or serious malaise.

Diary of Cattle, a film by Lidia Afrilita & David Darmadi

Eschewing commentary or title-cards—the only dialogue heard comes in the final couple of minutes, as the cow-herds appear to round up their charges—Darmadi and Afrilita let their remarkable, almost surreal images speak for themselves. Their film is audaciously direct, stripped-down to the bare essentials, which amass a considerable cumulative impact. The cows wander placidly through piles of disgusting trash, behaving as they would in more «natural» or traditional farm surroundings.

Darmadi and Afrilita let their remarkable, almost surreal images speak for themselves.

Perhaps surprisingly, no humans scavenge here (several documentaries and fiction films in recent years depict desperate people living on and from very similar dumps): large white gull-like birds are the cows’ only «competition» for the scraps of food and greenery which provides their daily diet. This is a dystopian man-made landscape of a depressing and even harrowing kind, the brief run time—which condenses a typical day into a quarter of an hour—more than enough to give us a pungent flavour of this noxious wasteland. The fact that «cinema of reality» has never extended to olfactory simulations is, in this case, a significant blessing.

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