This year the international documentary festival in Nyon celebrated multiple anniversaries with a wide-ranging programme, large audiences, and a focus on poetic docs.

Alexandra Schneider
Alexandra Schneider is on the editorial board of the Swiss film yearbook CINEMA and teaches film studies at the University of Zurich.

The Nyon international documentary festival, founded by Moritz de Hadeln in 1969 and run by de Hadeln and his wife Erika for a quarter of a century, took place this year on the shores of Lake Geneva for the 30th time. It has been 5 years since Geneva journalist Jean Perret took over the well-reputed festival and gave it an ambitious new outlook and a new name. At the same time, French-Swiss TV’s “Temps présent” strand was also celebrating its 30th year. All three anniversaries were celebrated with Calvinist sobriety, which had a soothing effect at a time in which the symbolic meaning of dates seems to have reached highly superstitious proportions.

Nyon did not lack for imposing display in other ways, however: an impressive number of films could be discovered in the competition and sidebar programmes, and the special events featuring Lisl Ponger, Robert Frank and Jennifer Fox also contributed to the wide-ranging selection. At times one had the feeling it was almost a little too much. It was difficult for individual gems to shine among the multitude, and the exponential increase of the crowd on the weekend also stretched the limits of the festival’s infrastructure, staff and financial capacities. Nyon’s aim this year was shine a spotlight on the documentary genre from its poetic, experimental and ‘quiet’ margins. Among the films seen were the newest works by Volker Koepp (“Herr Zwilling and Frau Zuckerman”Victor Kossakovsky (“Pavel and Lyalya”), Sergei Dvortsevoy (“Highway”), Nikolaus Geyrhalter (“Pripyat”) and the team of Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi (“Su tutte le vette e pace – “all quiet on the peaks”). Each of these films was dominated by patience, humanity and a poetic vision; all were – more or less – lyrical in their rhetoric and their style. Many of the films in this year’s programme, including the ones mentioned above, dealt with the themes of death and love, aging and decline, and even brutal extermination and destruction.

One good example is “Su tutte le vette e pace”, a 70-minute archaeology of film images from the First World War, composed of nitrate material from Austrian and Italian archives which was processed, rearranged, and linked with a musical soundtrack. The horror of war is evoked in indirect images, in the small gestures of deadly strain and exhaustion. Seeming at times like science fiction from a distance galaxy, what emerges is the ghost of a war whose shadow still stretches over us today.

Found footage work was also contributed by Austrian photographer and filmmaker Lisl Ponger, who presented a selection of her films in Nyon, including the latest, “Déjà vu.” Screened in competition, Ponger’s second found footage film was compiled entirely from private amateur material. Like much of Ponger’s work, it is a film which interrogates its own images. On the visual level, the film is composed of shots of tourist trips to ‘exotic’ locations. The soundtrack combines, on the one hand, first-person narratives by various people, who all talk about escape, home, being foreign, and emigration, and, on the other hand, naturalistic sound effects added by Ponger to the found images. The result is a complex and multi-layered image-sound experience. Post-colonial desire is fed by sensuality and irritation, yearning and ambivalence – a desire that we all joyfully give in to on every trip, only to discover that it is a “déjà vu”.

One film which unfortunately was somewhat overshadowed by the abundance of names and events was “Divorce, Iranian Style” by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini. In a Teheran family court, the two filmmakers follow the cases of three women who attempt to get a divorce or obtain a verdict on their violent and unfaithful husbands. The result is an incredibly precise film about the centrifugal and centripetal forces in marriage and family and between the sexes. In addition, “Divorce Iranian Style” provides a contribution to mutual understanding, and dismantles prejudices about Islamic societies.

Now all that is left to wish for is that the festival audiences who watch these wonderful documentaries would help make it possible for others to see these films as well. For it seems odd that more people are watching films at festivals again (at least in Switzerland), but that increasingly fewer of these works also find their way to the cinema or television screens.

 

 

 


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