Cannes International Film Festival is without a doubt the most prestigious fiction film event of the year, where documentaries like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 or the great Waltz with Bashir occasionally manage to make it into the competition section. It didn’t happen this year, but three films taken from the Critics Week’s Un Certain Regard selection and from Director’s Fortnight proved that the festival and its related events remain open to stories rooted in reality. Each of the three directors concerned, seems to have been moved by the same question: since cinema is made of moving images what is left to film when the main character has disappeared?
The first attempt to capture the essence of death when there is no body to film was shown as one of the official selections in Un Certain Regard – a section of Cannes that aims to encourage innovative and audacious works. It is the new film by Alain Cavalier and is called Irène. After directing fiction films from 1962 to 1993, the winner of the Jury Prize in Cannes (with his evocation of the life of Sainte Therese of Lisieux, Thérèse, 1986) turned to documentaries, whereupon he began to adopt a very minimalist approach. Shot with a DV handycam, the new Irène is a personal quest for the memory of his wife who died in a car accident many years ago. As in Le Filmeur (2005), the director’s voice shapes Irène in a very subjective way; the magic of his preceding essay seems, however, to have disappeared.
The subject is so intense there is no place here for any humorous distance. As spectators we are hostages to a condence that places us in a voyeuristic position. For example when trying to bring Irène back to cinematographic life, Cavalier films a hotel room where he had sex with her. But instead of letting us imagine what could have happened here regarding love and passion, he makes a pillow sculpture representing his wife’s legs wide open. On another occasion, he films a Sophie Marceau picture pinned up in some closet and wonders how the famous French actress could or could not embody Irène. These scenes generate a feeling of embarrassment that makes it difficult to feel empathy for the director. Most of the film is based on the diary Cavalier wrote during the year 1971, before Irène died, but filming the words he wrote when she was alive doesn’t help to make her any more real. It seems that with this documentary Cavalier couldn’t find the right form to make us share in his grieving. The intimacy of the devices he has employed has become an obstacle to the intimacy of the subject.
The filmaking duo of Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth took a very different approach with their feature film Altiplano. No small DV camera here, but rather a sumptuous 35 mm. No diary improvisations but a fiction script based on the documentary work that Peter Brosens undertook in Peru during the making of many other films. Yet the story itself is not that far from Alain Cavalier’s Irène, since Grace – one of the main characters – travels to the high Andes where her husband Max was killed.
The film is inspired by a true story: the devastating mercury spill that took place in the Peruvian village of Choropampa in 2000. It is an example of the “ongoing struggle between Andean communities and mining corporations” explains the director, even though all the characters are invented in order to embody the story. The common link between the people represented in the lm is Max, a cataract surgeon working in an eye clinic in the Andes. The villagers succumb to illnesses caused by mercury leaked from the local mine, but for the indigenous people, the foreign doctors are just as much white people coming from abroad as the people from the mine are. Because the doctors can’t provide a cure, the villagers turn their rage toward them and Max is killed during a riot.
Trying to find the soul of her dead husband, Grace comes to the village. She observes the arid mountains, watches the villagers demonstrating against the foreigners’ mining company and discovers the deserted clinic where her husband used to operate on the indigenous people. This pictorial formalism, the immoderate symbolism and the motionless filming does not, however, manage to enable the viewer to feel the spirit of the dead. The film is redeemed by the second story line, the one based on more documentation. Saturnina, the indigenous girl responsible for killing the surgeon, is shown to be suffering after the death of her own lover who was poisoned by the mercury. In total despair, she decides to commit suicide. But she chooses a particular form of suicide, the protest suicide, something Brosens studied extensively in the early 1990s during his years living between Ecuador and Peru. For indigenous people helpless in their struggle against foreign exploitation, it is the last desperate measure for attracting attention to their situation. For the shooting of Saturnina’s protest suicide, the filmmakers abandoned 35 mm and used the DV camera instead. The wonderful actress Magaly Solier looks us straight in the eye through the objective lens while drinking poison. It is this scene that delivers more intensity than any other beautiful Altiplano framing can do.
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