It might sound gloomy and dark, but the “theme” of Life and Death, detectable in some of the films in this year’s Nyon festival-at least if one was trying to look for a theme-was absolutely fascinating. Fascinating, because of the vastness of the subject matter (isn’t every documentary dealing with life and death and the meaning of life at some level?), and fascinating also because of the differences in filmic expression.

In the Regard Neuf section, two films-or rather film essays-from two young, talented Asian directors dealt with death and loss. Taiwanese director Chig-yi Wu reflects in “Farewell 1999” on the process of her mother’s dying and the director’s own feelings and reactions to her mother’s death. The film evokes emotions and moods in beautiful, associative images and sounds: a finger on a humid mirror, city lights at night and the humming sound of a ventilator. The director seems to trace her memories to remember her mother before she can let go and accept her death.

”Mum, mum, mum,” the director whispers with sorrow and longing. It’s emotional without turning sentimental or private. It’s a daughter’s mourning and reconciliation with death, expressing her thoughts and feelings through images and personal commentary:

”Everything fades, dear persons, familiar things,
Everything distant, persons’ dearness, things’ familiarity,
2003, I was searching for days in 1999 while mum’s still alive.
2003, those traces still lied in my memory.
2003, memory left me as well.
2003, mother’s image goes on forever in this film along with my sorrow.
2003, I do acknowledge 1999 has gone, and what about 2003? It’s fading.”

dsc00924-v1“Broken Blossom” by Naomi Matsuoka (Japan) echoes the mood of “Farewell 1999” with the same reflective approach and poetic vision. The director had a miscarriage, and the film, made in video-diary style, is her attempt to get over her sense of guilt and come to terms with her loss. In a personal off-screen voice, the director tells about her guilt of having lost her baby, “It’s not that the body is dumb, just strange.” In a little scene, she plays with small clay figures and a carrot in a window sill, allowing herself to imagine stories, this way letting the viewer in on her imagination. Matsuoka films her husband’s dying grandmother, making a link to a different death, the one of an old woman having lived a whole life. After the grandmother’s death, Naomi and her husband Hoshio travel to Chijo Island where she finds new hope for the future and winds up her film having gained new insight.

Playing God

A pick from the international competition would be the Audience Award winner “Frozen Angels” by Frauke Sandi and Eric Black. The film is more of a social than scientific exploration of the future of human reproductive technology and genetic engineering. “Frozen Angels” is the second collaboration between Sandig and Black following “After the Fall” (1999). To some people, having children is the very meaning to life, and they are ready to go far to make their dream come true.

In Los Angeles, the leading city for reproductive technology, it is possible to rent the womb of a surrogate mother, choose egg donors from a catalogue of healthy, white, good-looking young women or buy sperm from Nobel Prize laureates. California regulations and control are non-existent and the market of selling and buying eggs and sperm is developing into a lucrative business. It’s the “Wild West of medicine,” as Lori Andrews, a prominent lawyer and author of “The Clone Age” calls it. In fact, it is easier to set up a sperm bank in LA than open a pizzeria, according to Bill Handel, a radio host who is also the head of an artificial fertilization agency.

Sandig and Black delve into this dream world of reproductive technology evoking its far-reaching, ethical consequences. Inspired by films such as “Blade Runner” and “Alien”, the filmmakers use the setting of Los Angeles to create a universe based on the notion that technology has reached science-fictional heights in terms of the imaginable.

Instead of letting scientists and experts give us endless facts and figures (there are experts in the films: the lawyer working to get regulation in the area, as well as doctors), the filmmakers are after the stories of ordinary people. They interview a young egg donor who feels a bit like an angel, making it possible for couples who can’t have children to have one. And we meet a couple who have tried every possible solution to have a child and who have now elected to have a child by a surrogate mother. The price: USD 80,000. The mother is not a first-timer and claims she has no attachment to the children she brings into the world for others.

By interviewing these people for hours, the filmmakers admitted in a Q&A that they were aware of “wearing them out”, but this enabled the filmmakers to get honest, forthright answers. Yet it is these personal testimonies and what these people have to say about being donors that make the film really interesting.

The film ends with the surrogate mother giving birth to a child who is handed over to the happy ‘parents’. A thought-provoking film indeed, by filmmakers who prefer to spend time with their subjects to get their statements. They balance the spectacular, and often scary, scenarios presented in the film with humour and visual style.

Self-defence or Revenge?

Melodias” by Swiss director François Bovy

Another thought-provoking film that ends with a birthing scene is “Melodias” by Swiss director François Bovy. In countries like Colombia, lives are taken for money everyday and fatal hold-ups are a constant threat, especially for those working in the streets. Taxi driver Dario almost lost his own life in a kidnapping affair that has affected him and his son who witnessed it. “Melodias” is really about revenge and how to deal with and protect yourself from violence. Three characters-Dario the taxi driver, Edwin a cop and Jorge, a former contract killer-recount dramatic incidents from their lives when facing villains and maybe death. They tell their stories with great narrative skill and a wonderful sense of timing and drama while the filmmaker follows them around on their daily comings and goings.

A superb device from the filmmaker’s side is to let two musicians play the guitar in the age-old choral tradition, commenting ironically on the action with lyrics relating to the person’s story. The humour provided by the musicians and the self-irony of the characters themselves give distance to the personal tragedies transforming the film and its subject into a general look at the issue of revenge and self-defence.

During the film, the dividing line between good and evil becomes strangely blurred. When we learn that Dario ended up killing the men who kidnapped him with the help of his taxi-driver colleagues, our view of him changes – but not necessarily for the worse! Jorge, who can’t stop drinking once he starts, ends up in hospital one night after a fight in which he is stabbed. (The fight seemed to start while the filmmakers were filming-did they witness it?) The doctor at the hospital who patches up Jorge is also the one who delivers a baby at the end of the film. ”Life and death depend on such little things,” he says, describing the very backbone of the film.

After Nyon, the world seems larger, stranger and terrifying real.

Anette Olsen is a freelance journalist and writer, as well as a former editor of DOX.


Visions du réel 2005 Awards

Grand Prix
“Pipeline Next Door” by Nino Kirtadzé (France)

Prix SRG SSR idée suisse
“Massacre” by Monika Borgmann, Lokman Slim & Hermann Theissen (Germany, Lebanon, France)

Regard Neufs Award
“Farewell” by Ching-Yi Wu (Taiwan)
“The North Star! by Erkko Lyytinen (Finland)

Other Films Awarded
“Frozen Angles” by Eric Black & Frauke Sandig (Germany/USA)
“Jimmywork” by Simon Sauvé (Canada)
“Carnogica” by Martina Jacoma (Switzerland)
“Made in Italy” by Fabio Wuytack (Italy/Belgium)
“Melodias” by Francois Bovy (Switzerland)
“Brother Yusef” by Nicolas Humbert & Werner Penzel (Switzerland/Germany)
“Moskatchka” by Annett Schütze (Germany/Lithuania)
“A L’est de Walbrzych” by Max Hureau (France)
“Fata Morgana” by Anastasia Lapsui & Markku Lehmuskallio (Finland)
“Operation Spring” byAngelika Schuster et Tristan Sindelgruber (Austria)

Modern Times Review