Concerned that the documentary Route 181 might encourage anti-Semitic statements and acts and stir up public order, an unprecedented decision was taken by the festival organizers: the French Minister of Culture, the Pompidou Centre and the La Bibliothèque Publique d’Information (BPI) cancelled the second screening of the film.

The ARTE broadcast of the film in November 2003 had already provoked reactions against what some described as an underlying hostility to the existence of Israel. Since the announcement of the film in this year’s Cinéma du Réel festival, letters from diverse sources expressed displeasure that the film was to be publicly screened again.

The two directors reacted by issuing a press release stating that, “This defamatory accusation is the result of a campaign of pressure and intimidation on the Centre Pompidou and on the BPI.”

The festival director for 17 years, Suzette Glenadel, called the cancellation “a serious precedent. I think ‘le Réel’ has been wounded. The incident could serve as a lesson to our authorities. A festival ‘stained’ in this manner loses credibility,” she said.

In the four-and-a-half-hour-long ‘Route 181’, the two directors, Eyal Sivan (an Israeli living in France) and Michel Khleifi (born in Nazareth and based in New York), journey through Israel from south to north along the virtual line that follows the borders outlined in Resolution 181, adopted by the United Nations on 29 November 1947, partitioning Palestine into two states. They film the inhabitants of the areas; Israelis, Palestinians, civilians and soldiers, young and old, in their everyday life. The Israelis more often than not express harsh and uncompromising hostility towards the Palestinians, whose testimonies in turn focus on the humiliating oppression by the Israelis. More moderate views are also expressed, but the main issue of the film seems to be to zoom in on the most radical views that separate the two sides of the conflict, and that describe the kind of reality that exists in Israel today.

Unhampered Critics 

In the International Competition programme, two films with a different resonance and style were both banned from public screenings in their native countries because they are critical of the society they depict. The winner of the international jury’s Grand Prix Clean Thursday, by Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Rastorguev, can be interpreted as a reflection on the war in Chechnya wrapped in lyrical images. Black-and-white footage mixed with softly-lit colour sequences create surprisingly poetic imagery that contrasts with voice-overs of Russian soldiers recounting the horrific experiences of the war in Chechnya and the extremely violent acts they have witnessed and committed. Mixing colour with black-and-white footage was the result of a shortage of colour film and not an aesthetic choice, although the filmmaker made the most of this to benefit the film.

The filmmaker focuses on the weekly shower day and films the soldiers – mostly adolescents – cleaning, shaving and eating a meal before returning to the front. Everything takes place in specially fitted train wagons equipped with showers and dining areas.

The filmmaker was represented by a colleague from the production who explained that Rastorguev wanted to shoot scenes of ‘everyday life’ from a war zone, instead of the usual shooting dramas that take place at the front. Even so, the war is chillingly present in the voice-overs memorizing the cruelty of the war. The Biblical title is in fact intended to be a metaphor for the soldiers’ washing off their sins of war.

The Iranian film Dream of Silk is also banned in Iran. The filmmaker Nahid Rezaei returns to the high school she herself attended as a young woman twenty years ago and talks to young female students. She asks them about their hopes for the future and their view of an ideal life, and they candidly speak their minds about the oppression and hardships they have to endure as women. The conversations with the filmmaker express not only their personal ideas but also serve as a commentary on present-day Iranian society.

All of the girls have wanted to attend university and all of them express regret and anger at having to accept various forms of oppression from their family who decide for them from the day they are born till the day they die. One of the girls says that life is simply meaningless to her. She feels she has absolutely nothing to hope for.

The film would be unbearably depressing if it wasn’t for the modesty and gaiety they express while explaining how they circumvent the school’s severe rules against hand mirrors, football magazines or shaping eyebrows.

La vie est un jeu de cartes, a Belgian-French co-production by Philippe de Pierpont, portrays six former street kids from Bujumbura, Burundi, who are now grown-ups, yet still struggling to earn a decent living. The filmmaker met them in 1991 when they were only kids and teenagers, and they persuaded him to make a film about them telling him where and what to film. He returned years later to do another film on them this time based on interviews. The filmmaker wanted to give a voice to the six who are all living in precarious situations with no jobs, without any means to get married or start a family. They explain how they try to get by, what they dream of what they expect the future to be like. Many of their friends have already died from drugs, but as the filmmaker said himself, “I have a splendid cast, and I have decided to make a film about them from time to time, until we all grow old.”

French Visions

The French selection included a number of films that were either self-produced without any financing from major television channels or were funded solely by cable channels. Quite a few were made by first-time directors, which often coincided with the films that lacked television funding, but there were few television-financed docs.

De l’autre côté de l’eau, by Thierry Compain, stood out as a fine document and a charming film on the lives of Breton seamen who served in the French merchant marine in the ’50s and ’60s.

Many of Compain’s films revolve around the same Breton community. In this film he meets the families either in one-to-one interviews or in pairs, and their testimonies have wonderful moments of storytelling and emotion.

The seamen’s wives describe their isolated lives when their husbands were gone on long trips to the other side of the globe. While the men could have fun at brothels abroad, the women stayed at home. Going to a dance in town was out of the question. But honeymooning filled the air when the men returned. Until the daily grind started, of course. The seamen’s sons and daughters reveal how they couldn’t relate to their ever-absent father when he returned: they had become alienated from each another. The father and husband simply didn’t fit in after month-long absences.

The interview segments are interspersed with home movies and archive material, mostly filmed by amateurs, reviving the past in entertaining little sequences, and the characters’ touching testimonies make the film a warm-hearted tale of a bygone era.

Another French production from Les Films d’Ici, ARTE, Odyssée, Dites à mes amis que je suis mort, by Georgian filmmaker Nino Kirtadze, deals with funeral customs in Georgia in an almost burlesqued way.

Death is not taboo in Georgia, and the dead are still somehow present in family life. When a family member dies, he is dressed in his best clothes so that he can ‘receive’ the family in style. Before closing the coffin, the family goes shopping to buy things like a toothbrush and perfume for the dead.

In cinéma vérité style, the film follows a family and its loss of a husband and father through the whole period of mourning until the burial. By the end of the film, another family is introduced – a rather odd choice – but the filmmaker apparently didn’t want to miss the extraordinary mourning scene that she witnesses: a mother, sobbing over her son’s suit spread out on the floor with the shoes placed neatly at the end and topped by a portrait of the deceased as the ‘head’. To conclude the picture, a young woman dressed in a black dress and high heels sings – in a powerful voice reminiscent of Mireille Mathieu – a French tune in a show-like manner as if she was on stage. This whole scene is strangely tragicomic but terribly moving in all its extravagant drama.

Aliénations, by Malek Bensmail, is a documentary on “the illnesses that afflict Algerians today as they attempt to deal with religious, political, economical and family turmoil,” as the filmmaker puts it in the synopsis.

At the psychiatric hospital in Constantine, Bensmail films the therapy sessions where the patients reveal their anxieties. In spite of a repetitive structure and a constant flow of voice-over and dialogue, the film manages to link the mental illnesses to the illness of a disrupting society.

Next year’s Cinéma du Réel will have a new festival director. Suzette Glenadal is stepping down after 17 years as the director of a festival that gives space to the works of independent artists. Hopefully, the festival will continue in this independent spirit and resist pressure that may jeopardize it’s raison d’être.