The taxi driver that brought me to Pamplona Airport first took a detour through the suburbs. For free. His alternative route led us through concrete and cement, far from the picturesque fortified streets, winding through the old town in Medieval maze. I don’t know why the honour was conferred on me. Perhaps he chose me as his witness because my view was already widened by the many films I had seen at the Punto de Vista Documentary Film Festival the days before. But how could he know? Maybe because he recognised I already had an eye for what he wanted me to see: the many half-completed and before now deserted properties that, as he said, had botched his city. That, at least, became clear in our mishmash conversation in Spanish and French.

“It’s all about corruption,” he said. Immediately I had to think about the neorealist classic Le mani sulla citta (Hands over the City, Francesco Rossi, 1963), in which a ruthless Neapolitan real estate developer abuses his political power for personal gain. Not exactly the kind of film one usually discusses with cabbies. But of course he’d seen it. It was there. Before his eyes.

The Punto de Vista Festival takes its name from the film À propos de Nice (On the Subject of Nice) by Jean Vigo (1905-34), a condensed little city sonata from 1930 that Vigo himself called a “point de vue documenté” (“a documented point of view”). In this film Vigo shows himself to be a kindred soul to Dziga Vertov’s “Kino Eye” (Vertov’s brother Boris Kaufman, whom Vigo had befriended the year before, shot the film, most of it candidly, with the camera hidden in his lap, while Vigo pushed him around in a wheelchair on the Promenade des Anglais), even if unfortunately only two-thirds of the original kaleidoscopic montage film survives in existing print.

In an introduction to a screening of À propos de Nice before the Groupement des Spectateurs d’Avant-Garde in 1930 Vigo described the “point of view documentary” as a “social documentary”, but distinct from the sorts of films that we have come to know as documentaries, in the way its creator establishes his own point of view. In Vigo’s own words:

In this film, by showing certain basic aspects of a city, a way of life is put on trial. In fact, as soon as the atmosphere of Nice and the kind of life lived there – and not only there, unfortunately – has been suggested, the film develops into a commercialised view of the vulgar pleasures that come under the sign of the grotesque, and the flesh, and death. These pleasures are the last gasps of a society so lost in its escapisms that it sickens you and makes you sympathetic to a revolutionary solution.

Words that echo in my mind.

Not many film festivals allow themselves to be so resolutely inspired and guided by one single film in particular and the tiny, yet grand oeuvre of a filmmaker in general. Besides À propos de Nice Vigo made three other films, of which L’Atalante (1934) is probably the best known. Vigo’s daughter, film critic, programmer and teacher Luce, is patroness of the festival, which was founded in 2005 by Carlos Mugiro and Ana Herrera and is now under the artistic direction of Josetxo Cerdán. The close ties between Luce Vigo and the festival resulted in the creation of the Prix Jean Vigo for Best Director, a Spanish variation on the French Prix Jean Vigo that has been awarded to Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Bruno Dumont and in recent years Serge Bozon, Emmanuel Finiel and co-directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau. This year’s Prix Jean Vigo for Best Director in Pamplona went to the filmmaking collective Los hijos (Javier Fernández, Luis López and Natalia Marín) for their eerie reflections in Los materiales (The Materials) on the relocation of the Leonese town Riaño, which was flooded in the 1980s during the construction of a dam and water reservoir.

The Punto de Vista Festival takes a well-considered telescopic focus on the wide universe of documentary filmmaking. It does not aim for the so called journalistic objectivity that has restricted much documentary filmmaking to the sort of well-made reportages that are flooding the bigger doc fests around the world, nor does it limit itself to the other vice: non-fiction films that subject themselves to the traditional imperative ways of storytelling. The essential concentration on the point of view of the filmmaker, the political-personal commitment with the many faceted realities surrounding us, however, turns out to give the greatest programmatic freedom possible.

There was a program of classics (in the “Vigo Affinities” anything from Germaine Dulac’s Disque 957 [1928] to Mannus Franken’s Jardins de Luxembourg [1927] or Boris Kaufman’s Les Halles Centrales [1927] could be seen). A thematic program called “The Central Region” presented some best of the fests examples of nowadays’ innovative avant-garde (with James Benning’s Ruhr, Liu Ya Yin’s Oxhide II, or C.W. Winter’s and Anders Edström’s Locarno-winner The Anchorage). And there was of course the extensive retrospective devoted to most of Jem Cohen’s film works (anyhow the last to be curtailed to unequivocal classifications of his works), accompanied by the first (bilingual) publication on his works: the “liber amicorum” Signal Fires. El cine de Jem Cohen/The Cinema of Jem Cohen. A fine collection of the most personal of essays.

This year the Official Selection of the Punto de Vista Festival consisted of 14 features and 7 shorts of a highly specific gravity, representing the cutting edge of experimental and independent cinema. Most of them not only question the documentary point of view, but are equally interested in expanding the documentary form(s) and exploring its traditions. Which is of course the big advantage of a festival that doesn’t have to compete manically in the usual festival rat race for (world) premieres, but is able to concentrate on a way of programming that comes closer to curatorship: to bring together, to unite, to offer context, to interpret and create black holes in the cinema-dark for the spectator to associate freely and creatively. Think the Viennale or IndieLisboa. Think old-school Rotterdam.

The main reason to cherish and support these kinds of film festivals is not the program, so far as it breaks down into individual titles. As said, the majority of the films had already premiered at other festivals. The big winner of Pamplona, Let Each One Go Where He May (Ben Russell, 2009) came straight from Rotterdam where it was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize of the international film critics, but was deemed too controversial to steal away one of the three Tiger Awards from the main jury. A revealing differentiation. So much for that. Of course there were premieres; in fact most of the competition was shown for the first time in Spain and Euskal Herria (the Basque Country and Navarra). But once again: what matters in Pamplona is the way these individual titles engage in a conversation, rhyme and resonate with one another. And that is only possible if the selection, as it did, gives away the hand of courageous and clear-cut programmers and curators.

Those are the hands over the city of film.

Back to the cab. Meanwhile the driver didn’t bother about my ponderings. He was by now busy singing along with the battle songs from the French Revolution that he played on the car radio. French songs. Not Basque.

It was, to put it briefly, one of those days in which film and life merge perfectly. One of those days in which, Vigo in mind, documentary and surrealism are each other’s ally.

The last film that I had seen that morning was Demolition (2008) from the American anthropologist and filmmaker Paul Sniadecki, who portrays a group of casual labourers in the capital Chengdu of the Chinese province of Sichuan (also the setting for Jia Zhang-ke’s Sanxia haoren [Still Life, 2006]). Just like in that film we observe the workers in their Sisyphian occupation: breaking-building-breaking-building, an endless cycle of demolition and deconstruction, up to the point where we no longer know whether they are pulling the buildings down or up. What makes Demolition such a useful complement to Jia’s films is the fact that Sniadecki (a student of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, whose film Sweetgrass was also selected for the competition, and awarded the Audience Award) slowly shifts his interest from the distant study of the worker’s practice, the formal outline of the worksite, to the social interactions between the men.

As a filmmaker Sniadecki is anything but invisible in his film. He is no Boris Kaufman with his camera hidden in a box. He asks questions and never cuts out the scenes in which the migrant workers comment on his presence in their realm. But since he never imposes himself between the camera and his protagonists (or even worse: between his characters and the audience), he easily disappears from our awareness again to allow his observations to take over once more.

That field of tension between the private (“personal”) and the detached (not to use the journalistically-compromised “objective” too often) characterised most of the program. It was to be found in Jay Rosenblatt’s found-footage collage The Darkness of Day, a highly daring and subjective (as most of Rosenblatt’s recent works are) exploration of the suicide of a friend’s brother. And it appeared in The Marina Experiment by Marina Lutz, a sometimes embarrassingly honest investigation into her childhood years, meticulously recorded on film, photograph and audio by her father, who might or might not have had a sexual interest in his daughter. Both filmmakers put themselves at stake, without crossing the line to the sort of sensationalist confessional filmmaking that ruined the respectable genre of the ego-document. Still they throw the spectator back to his own moral resources. That has to do with the vulnerable subject matter of both films. But also with their stylistic policy (found footage, home video and dialectic voiceovers). In these cases, the filmmakers’ point of view demands of an audience to evaluate their own.

That applies even more so to the problematical strategy of the Canadian RIP in Pieces America by Dominic Gagnon, who ripped so-called flagged confessional YouTube-clips from American right-wing extremists and remixed them into a highly disturbing litany. Part preservation (Gagnon ripped the footage before it was made unavailable by the site hosts because other users flagged its content as inappropriate, which of course it is), part contextualisation (he grouped them together in a thematic order), it is hard to discover Gagnon’s perspective on the material. There is definitely a difference between detachment and indifference. At worst RIP in Pieces is an accumulation of abject opinions, legitimated by the fact that is now exists as a collection. Educated audiences will ask themselves questions about freedom of speech, but that’s like preaching to the converted, an approach that doesn’t seem to have a real surplus value. Also the suggestion that the outsider Gagnon unearths an “invisible” America sounds kind of naïve. These are the kind of stories invisible only to those who either do not look, or enjoy being provoked in the safety of their lazy laissez-faire lives.

Time to get out of the cab. And into the air. And dive through the clouds of my thoughts back into the meandering roads and crooked crossings of Pamplona. The back roads and underground alleyways. The spiralling intersections that bring you back to your point of departure. But whether it’s from up there or down here, I can’t recall many cities that refused so persistently to give away their schemes and plans. Also in that perspective it’s quite radical to name a festival after a way of perceiving the world, and not after the city it takes place in. For those who have been to Pamplona, in the winter, in the snow that revealed and then covered their footprints like in a fairy-forest, with almost no signs of Ernest Hemingway and bulls, but even more so of the need to determine their own viewpoint, they will know that Pamplona equals the need to be decisive. To choose, even if that means to be distracted and sidetracked. Pamplona = the point of view.

Just walk around. And get lost.

In the mountains around Riaño. In the traces of Javier, Luis and Natalia, who walked these hills for a whole year in the process of the making Los materiales. A “guilty landscape” as the Dutch painter and poet Armando once called the landscapes that witnessed the atrocities of World War II. The landscapes that still bloom and flourish as if nothing ever happened. No evictions, no floods, no deaths. The old town of Riaño must have been quite similar to the Medieval Pamplona. But wherever they walk, and search and seek and explore, all that is left is a road that suddenly dead ends in a lake. A disastrous sight. Los materiales presents its story as a crime scene investigation. Night shots cast a shadow over our sight. And while our eyes take the risk of being taken astray by our associations of the imagery, an intriguing duality is created by the filmmakers discussing their “material” in inaudible dialogues in the subtitles, that thus create a second layer of dialectics. It reminded me a bit of the short I saw at the Oberhausen Kurzfilmtage last year:  Domenica 6 aprile ore 11:42 (Sunday, 6th April, 11:42 am, 2008) by the Italian filmmaking collective Flatform which explored the (“innocence” of the “guilty”) landscape in a similar way as a system of movement and connections between people and places.

Another walk. One through the buried histories of my mother country. Seeing Ben Russell’s Let Each One Go Where He May in Pamplona again was a pleasure. In Rotterdam the debate couldn’t escape the tendentious arguments pro and con long takes. Half of the audience declared itself to be bored. The other half felt obliged to a contrarian defence. I would have expected this reflection on nature, colonialism, labour, migrants and slavery in the former Dutch plantation colony Suriname to raise some other discussions. Especially since Russell’s politics are so elegantly evoked by his aesthetics. The thirteen ten-minute 16mm steady cam takes play hide and seek (but who is following who, and who is hunter and who is prey, isn’t the audience equally captivating and escaping this game of looking and showing?) with the two brothers Benjen and Monie Pansa, who are tracked from the outer parts of Paramaribo along forest paths, illegal goldmines and a Maroon village in the jungle. On a metaphysical level the film enrols as a journey about the nomadic destiny of man.

The extremes of observational cinema were equally explored in films like Amanar Tamasheq (by Lluís Escartín, Prize for Best Short Film) and the extraordinary La mort de la gazelle (The Death of the Gazelle, Jérémie Reichenbach), two films that offer absolutely no distraction from the desert grounds where they were shot. Amanar Tamasheq (“amanar” is a Tamasheq – the language of the Tuareg – word for the star Orion, “the warrior of the desert”) focuses on the encounter between the filmmaker and the Tuareg during a trip to the city. He is asked to record their history, even if he does not understand what he is documenting. Which is a strong statement for the concept of cinema as an art that has an expressive intelligence of its own.

While we were nearing the end of our trip in the oftentimes disorienting, but more so often endlessly promising prospecting cinema-dark, filmmaker Jem Cohen was out there, shooting two Vigonian city portraits in the streets of Pamplona. As if to emphasise this, Opus luminis et hominis (The Works of Light and Man) commences with images of a projectionist in a cinema booth. Then Cohen invites his audience to follow him outside, on the street, into the labyrinth of roads and roundabouts that once drew Pamplona’s map. Crossing Paths with Luce Vigo is a sweet little portrait of the festival’s guardian angel Luce Vigo, which seems to capture most of her essence as an engaged and outspoken, but soft-toned woman, with some witty little references to her father’s Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct, 1933). Luce Vigo worked as a teacher herself, and the children filmed in the Pamplonese streets seem to be, in their own gentle ways, the echoes of “the little devils” that rebelled in so many classrooms, if only in Zéro de conduite. Reflecting on its own shortness the film reminds us how most of the (film) history she witnessed gets lost in its brevity: fragments of a program of her father’s contemporaries (the “Vigo Affinities”) are filmed from the projection booth. Both films were shown at the closing ceremony, giving the audience a chance to see what they had been missing out in the streets that past week.

Even more than an homage to Vigo’s À propos de Nice (the exhibition of the giant puppets and doll’s masks that parade during the San Fermin fiesta recalls the opening of that film, but even more so of the doll doctor’s shop in Agnès Varda’s L’opera mouffe [1958] with it’s sign saying: “On remplace les mauvauises têtes” (“we replace bad heads”) Opus luminis et hominis is an affirmative meditation on labour. The cooperative (and conspirative) work of the filmmaker and the spectator alike.

Jem Cohen has a keen eye for strange perspectives and the oblique light on a winter’s day, meanwhile filming passers-by without nicking their representation. Thus he is unearthing without searching; he knows how to recover the world. Reality forms before the lens of his (camera) eye. In seemingly transitory images he unravels the secret history of the city: governed by Opus Dei, full of worn-out devotional pictures on condemned houses and religious spells in the street scene. Although the Vigonian times are definitely over. Vigo’s endeavour to film the unobserved, to switch the camera of the moment the people became aware they were filmed, has become seemingly impossible in these media-aware times. Often a passer-by casts a stealthy glance back to Cohen’s camera, merely “pretending” he is not seeing it, and therefore displaying the fact that he has been acting his role as an unaware walker even before he knew he was being filmed. Just like Vigo in À propos de Nice he displays to broach.

To reverberate Vigo’s words again: “The last gasps of a society so lost in its escapisms that it sickens you and makes you sympathetic to a revolutionary solution.”

The real light, the reel light, the cinematic illumination (and salvation) is found in his beloved sunsets and sunrises, in the quiet hours between day and night and midnight and dawn. That’s where bricklayers, road workers and pavers, garbage collectors, street sweepers and carpenters work on another master plan: the Brechtian “the city belongs to those who build it.” And film it.

Punto de Vista
5-15 February 2010
Festival website: http://www.puntodevista.navarra.es

About The Author

Dana Linssen is a film critic for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and editor of the Dutch independent film magazine de Filmkrant. She is currently co-writing the screenplay for the Rotterdam city symphony “NN” (“John Doe”) with film director Ineke Smits.