Visions du Réel deserves credit for continuing to put documentaries of a more experimental nature on the program. Yet besides its retrospectives at the latest festival in May, the more traditional works made the greatest impression. ULLA JACOBSEN reports.

Ulla Jacobsen
Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.

“The field of communication must challenge. I do not like music that confirms, I want to explore.” The words belong to Italian post-modernist composer Luciano Berio in Frank Scheffer’s elegant portrait of him Voyage to Cythera. The same philosophy could be applied to Visions du Réel where the film was screened. The festival insists on programming the offbeat experimental works along with more conventional material.

The experimental was especially visible in the two retrospective series. One with the Italian partners Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. The other was on Japanese director Naoimi Kawese, relatively young for a retrospective (born 1969), though Visions du Réel presented 13 of her works. In an associative, collage style she creates a dreamlike atmosphere. She centres around herself and the relation between people. In her international debut The Embracing she is searching for her father whom she has never known, and in her latest doc Mange-kyo she focuses on how art can be created in a cross-field of artistic egos.

When a festival dares to show the more indefinable works, it also risks selecting films that are more boring than they are challenging. Unfortunately, progressive and refreshing films were rarer in Nyon than one could have wished for. One of the more interesting was Karl Kel’s Elephants – a minimalistic film about elephants and the restoration of the elephant cage in a zoo. Disobeying any sense of chronology, Kel instead juxtaposes the acts of the elephants with those of the construction workers: elephant trunks with cranes or an elephant defecating and a lorry unloading soil. It becomes absurd theatre as he uses fixed framing, letting elephants and persons walk in and out of the frame, and abolishes sound and any story line.

The short films on offer included many gems that proved that the short form can be convincing when the storytelling is intact, like Pawel Lozinski’s Sisters that in one setting captures the lifelong love-hate relationship between two elderly sisters. Another concise portrait is Johan Eriksson’s Doos and Don’ts about friendship, hatred and passion among pigeon keepers in a small Scottish community. Jackson the Man With the Box by Martjin van Beenen is a warm portrait of a man named Jackson in Kenya, a widower who takes care of and supports his three children by selling all sorts of things from his bike – with everything being accounted for in detail in his books. Finally the Audience prize-winner Susanna Helke and Virpi Suutari’s Soapdealers Sunday is an evocative film about the family life of a Finnish man who dreams of making a fortune on network marketing selling various soap and vitamin products. He and his wife, with three children and a fourth on the way, have very little money, but they seem happy and content with their everyday life. The sunlight glows softly through the windows, and the atmosphere created is warm and peaceful, showing the beauty of everyday actions that take up much of our lives.

Far away from family idyll, Arthur Howes has made an important film Nuba Conversations about the terrible crimes committed against the Nuba tribe in Sudan. Ten years ago he made Kafi’s Story that depicts the Nuba’s way of life, but the reality he finds ten years after is shocking. The government contributes to exterminating the Nubas by depriving them of much of their land, splitting up the families, putting the children in camps and indirectly forcing the men to join the army where they often end up fighting their own people. Howes goes to a lot of trouble to find some of the Nubas he filmed ten years ago, and his unique access to these people makes this documentary inescapable.

The ‘regard neuf’ winner, I love (080), is a very noteworthy doc from Taiwan. Yang Li-chou made this video diary about his friend, Zengh, who enlists in the army and later deserts. It is also a criticism of the Taiwanese army where young men enlist to earn money for their studies and have to sign contacts for three and a half years. Army life becomes too much for Zengh who eventually deserts. After he turns himself in, he is acquitted of desertion, but committed to a mental hospital. The film casts doubt on whether he is pretending to be mentally disturbed to escape military service, or whether his illness is genuine.

Johan van der Keuken’ s significant personal epos The Long Holiday certainly deserved its first prize as well (see DOX# 29). An excellent film that did not receive an award is Geri, Molly Dineen’s portrait of Spice Girl deserter Geri Haliway. It is a refreshing, sympathetic portrait of a young, frustrated woman, who gradually becomes less bitchy and more human the further she removes herself from the hysterical media-fabricated fame.


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