When POV editor Marc Glassman asked me to write something about my travels to European film festivals, I hesitated. I had visited five festivals last autumn – it would be impossible.
Too many films. But let me note some impressions that may go at least some of the way. Sitting outside at a dinner table on the terrace of an old building in Lisbon, the old woman beside me has a tattooed number on her arm. She is now in her eighties; as teenager she survived Auschwitz. She also survived running around the frontline with her husband during the Vietnam War filming The 17th Parallel. She was shot, and had to stay some weeks under ground, together with other Vietnamese, recovering from wounds. Her eyes tell me that she has seen it all. The grand old lady radiates: she is living film history.
DocLisboa invited her in October for a masterclass, and screened a retrospective of both her and her husband’s films.
Marceline Lorain-Ivens worked for 30 years together with her husband Joris Ivens. I “met” Joris in the film Témoins: Joris Ivens. At an airport, the “Flying Dutchman” talked about when he made The Spanish Earth during the Civil War, the precursor to the Second World War. He recalled driving with Ernest Hemingway to the war zone, his senses so alert that he could still recall a wet leaf stuck to the ground as they passed at high velocity in a car. They didn’t know if they would be back at the end of the day. He risked his life instead of going back to the Netherlands and signing protests against the Fascists.
Ivens’ commentary follows the images in several of his films. But in his ...A Valparaíso the narration was really written by Chris Marker, and the cinematography done by Patricio Guzman. It was about life at the lower and higher ends of a city. In A Tale of the Wind, the old man with long white hair sits on a chair alone on the desert sand. Waiting for the wind, he suddenly faints and falls head first to the ground.
The camera is running in slow motion. Marceline uses another scene, where Joris walks away from the chair and out of the frame – as he left her when he died. Old people have done the most. Take 73-year-old Jørgen Leth, who was also invited for a DocLisboa masterclass and retrospective. Documentarian Amir Labaki, who made the portrait 27 Scenes of JL, writes of some of his best work: “In these audiovisual essays, Jørgen ponders the great human questions, like happiness (The Perfect Human), kindness and villainy (Good and Evil), the everyday (Life in Denmark).” Not just an essayist, Leth has also made observational “road” documentaries (Notebook from China) and films such as Notes of Love, a tribute to the Polish anthropologist Malinowski, in which he examined love, sex and relations between people in the Trobriand Islands and in Denmark. Leth has continued this study with his current “testament” as he calls it: Erotic Man. Do the old masters know best?
Back in Venice in September, the film Promises Written In Water by Vincent Gallo reminds me of Leth’s early film The Perfect Human. Gallo must at least have taken some hints from the director Robert Bresson, who prescribes a focus “on white, on silence and on stillness” in his book Notes on Cinematography. Images should come first, then content. Gallo edited 100 hours of film down to two and a half hours just on photographic and aesthetic quality. After an absence of three months, he edited the film down to 75 minutes. The film centres on a dying woman, who wants to kill herself before the suffering becomes too much. The film is poised between fiction and documentary.
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