The Cinéma du Réel in Paris has acquired a largely deserved reputation for operating outside of a non-fiction cinematic mainstream. Some of the works screened during its 35th edition, however, left it unclear whether or not the gesture of filming and transmitting reality is enough to make a non-fiction film provocative or cinematically interesting. As the original cinematic form, documentary film has been around long enough to have developed various sub-genres, most of which were on view at this year’s Réel. But a more pressing question that arose during the festival was not whether a given essay film or diary piece or verité-style portrait was good or bad, but rather how committed filmmakers were to their respective approaches. Some works advocated on the part of their subjects, but did not seem to care very much about them, while others transmitted a vision of day-to-day life, eschewing any interpretive role. Thirty-five years after its founding, I submit that uninterpreted reality might not always be enough for this world-renowned documentary festival predicated on the “real” as a unifying concept. In the following, I highlight works screened at this year’s Cinéma du Réel that not only engage viewers on the level of style as well as content but also reliably supply both a window on and mirror of the world.

31st Haul

31st Haul

31st Haul, a first effort by Denis Klebleev, is the uncompromising portrait of three families in a Siberian town that emphasises their isolation from the world and moments that make them seem anything but alone. The film is imperfect and incomplete, but Klebleev establishes intimate contact with his subjects without erasing his presence from the opposite side of the camera.

Alejo Hoijman’s El Ojo del Tuberon (The Shark’s Eye) is somewhat similar in form, but more invested in treading a path between social-historical investigation and coming-of-age story. The film oscillates between a narrative of two young boys learning the dying trade of shark fishing from their father and a collection of more ephemeral yet powerful images of everyday life in a Nicaraguan village. One such moment at the end of the film where a young flirting couple mutually acknowledge the presence of filmmakers in their midst is undermined by the successive appearance of a shot the couple mentions: it’s understandable that the makers, having sprung for a helicopter rental, would want to include this expensive aerial footage but if they had paid more attention to the people they were filming they would have realised that it had just been rendered superfluous.

The Shark’s Eye

The Shark’s Eye

Adrien Lecouturier’s Fiebres is an intriguing attempt at creating a detached and occasionally moody observation piece that bears some hallmarks of cinema verité. The narrative of a rural doctor who has clearly styled himself after Che Guevara (in one shot the bearded doctor sits on a log in the forest smoking a regrettably unironic cigar), Fiebres never goes anywhere in particular, which would not be a problem if its primary subject did. Instead, the doctor seems either self-conscious or smug most of the time – he might be hiding something, but the camera can’t or won’t tell us what lies beyond his implacable gaze or its beautifully shot, crisp, high definition images.

A New Product

A New Product

It’s hard to make a film about a political event that acknowledges its experiential context (Patricio Guzmán has tried), but it is likewise difficult to extract or isolate the political tenor of everyday interactions without becoming didactic. Harun Farocki’s career has been largely concerned with the latter problematic. While his earlier work was unabashedly dogmatic, he has more recently turned to a verité-style presentation in his films, in addition to a more diverse array of experimental approaches in his installation work. His latest, Ein Neues Produkt (A New Product), possesses a subtle brilliance in its unapologetic directness. It’s clear that businessmen we initially encounter envision their latest product as providing a new framework for human interaction and work. But the time it takes them to contextualise their aims makes their commercial goals seem downright metaphysical as the consultants wax poetic about formulas and statistics. Capitalism, the film tells us, is totalising; not that we didn’t know that but this look into the minds of people frequently identified as engineers of social alienation reveals them as equally subjected to a single framework as those they seek to subject.

The Radiant

The Radiant

The Otolith Group’s The Radiant is deeply influenced by some of Farocki’s work but confuses its desire to convey a political critique with an over-polished high definition delivery system. (That its digital cinema package [DCP] noticeably malfunctioned throughout the screening did not help its case.) In essence, The Radiant’s makers envision linking the Fukushima nuclear disaster to a wider critique of global capitalism. A central motif wherein a woman meticulously deconstructs a DSLR camera with handheld tools is meant to be a sly jab at the industrialised quality of contemporary video making, but in the process the nuclear disaster is pushed to the background, where it becomes a cipher. Intended as a direct political statement, The Radiant frequently loses direction in its editing, a metaphor for an overall missing link between theoretical convictions and recorded material. In contrast to Farocki’s work, which has become less explicitly didactic and more focused on transient yet vital details, The Otolith Group never seems quite sure who or what their subject is.

Materia Oscura

Materia Oscura

Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti’s Materia Oscura (Dark Matter) makes a radical choice in pushing its human subjects to the periphery, preferring to establish a connection between a sick, malformed calf and the neighbouring weapons test site in Sardinia that – it seems – is responsible for the young cow’s illness.  Eschewing a narrative or a pseudo-narrative like that in The Radiant, Materia Oscura puts nature and technology in close proximity, complicating their opposition. As the young cow, cared for by an elderly farmer, refuses to eat and becomes unable to stand up on its own, next door, missiles continue to launch and explosions rip across the arid valley.  Nothing, it seems, is being done to stop these tests, nor is it clear what D’Anolfi and Parenti hope to accomplish through their film, which is perhaps why instead of ending with a bang, it fades out and away through a long tracking shot down an empty country road.

A more discursive clash between aesthetics and politics occupied the stage of a non-cinematic event at the Réel this year. Nicholas Rey, filmmaker (autrement, la Molussie) and member of the Paris-based film lab collective, l’Abominable, coordinated a two-part panel focused on contemporary film- and video-making in France, more specifically, on the current monopolisation of cinemas by high-definition projection at the cost of older 16mm and 35mm film projectors. The majority of the discussants emphasised the political significance of industry-driven governmental initiatives to convert the majority of France’s cinemas to proprietary DCPs. While a number of interlocutors, including Rey, cautioned against a reverse fetishisation of film in opposition to digital video, others vaunted the medium’s significance as a political end in itself. (Indeed, the auditorium erupted in applause upon hearing that a representative from the Kodak-Eastman Corporation was in attendance.) I found this imbalanced emphasis on quality over content troubling in the context of a non-fiction film festival. When form trumps content or vice versa, as opposed to existing relationally, a cinematic experience can be only partial at best. As Rey rightly cautioned, there is a danger in limiting participation in the cinematic enterprise to users of a materially limited form.

Two works screened in the international short film competition incidentally addressed the question that should have been asked during the film vs. video panel: when is it appropriate to use one medium over another? To call these works small “gems” would be to reduce them to a rarified quality that their essential simplicity rejects. For its part, Sergei Loznitsa’s Letter could only have been recorded on film. This is part of its appeal, but also one level of its implicit commentary. Filmed on seemingly outdated black-and-white 8mm stock, it looms through its dated emulsion like a flickering shadow-memory from the past. That the people working on what seems to be a communal farm are actually patients at a rural mental hospital (also the subject of Loznitsa’s Settlement, produced in 2000) matters less than does the respectful remove at which Loznitsa films his subjects. As in other works of his (such as 2005’s Blockade), sound occasionally moves us closer to the blurry figures on the screen, while never giving too much away. Dialogue is rendered deliberately unintelligible – a squeaking sound might be a man or woman’s voice or birds tweeting. There is never any indication that the cloudy images are meant to describe the mental situation of beings on the screen. Rather, the lack of clarity intimates the variable distance that extends between spectator and subject. Loznitsa’s ability to interrogate subjective encounters in such compressed size (8mm) and time (20 minutes) effectively applies cinematic and filmic form towards ends that are already present in the original film stock and in the bodies and spaces in motion imprinted on its frames. An allusion to early cinema in its use of illusory motifs, Loznitsa’s Letter is a note, a memory, a collection of mental images inscribed on emulsion.

The Questioning

The Questioning

Zhu Rikun’s Cha Fang (The Questioning) could only have been recorded on digital video, but this necessity is determined less by authorial desire than a more pressing precarity that emerges over the course of its 20-minute length. Recently arrived in the west central Chinese city of Xinyu to record a human rights activist, Rikun is followed by local police who knock on the door of his hotel room. Before opening the door, Rikun switches his digital video camera on and records the ensuing Kafkaesque interaction. While on one level the uncut video depicts the alternately bumbling and gravely serious representatives of state repression, its sense of immediacy is deepened by Rikun’s performance, seemingly directed both at the police agents and at the camera on the table behind him, which is silently imprinting the encounter on its digital memory card. Recognising the absurdity of this encounter but cognisant of its inherent dangers, Rikun refuses to act out the role of the submissive citizen humbled in front of state security agents. Having already turned over his Chinese passport for verification, he refuses to state his nationality, repeating, “It’s written there.” Flustered and with mounting anger, the police seem on the verge of exploding or laughing out loud as Rikun unravels the arbitrary nature of their demand and thus of their power over him as a citizen and subject. When, at the end of the video, he suddenly capitulates and claims his Chinese nationality, the viewer (as well as the police, and presumably Rikun) breathes a sigh of relief. Cha Fang challenges the bounds of documentation and critique, revealing how these can be one and the same in the hands (or in this case, behind the back of) a skilled political artist.

Neither Letter nor Cha Fang are extraordinary; their merits and their appeal come from the circumstances and technical conditions of their production and post-production (or in Cha Fang’s case regarding the post-, lack thereof). Both films possess an energy, a tempo, that is as much their makers’ as it is self-contained. They also cause their viewers to interrogate their own perspectives, questioning the act of seeing and hearing along with the quality of what they are seeing and hearing in the cinema. A few other films at the Réel came close to this temperamental equilibrium. Dominique Cambrera’s Ô Heureux Jours (Oh Happy Days) explores her family’s co-existence and origins in colonial Algeria to discern why she can’t sleep at night – although perhaps her past is not as responsible for her insomnia as is her obsessive determination to film her way out of it. Salomé Lamas’ Terra De Ninguém (No Man’s Land) could be a simple long-form interview film with an extravagantly provocative subject – a former mercenary – but it aspires to a complex and occasionally tense dialogue between filmmaker and subject reminiscent of a scene in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) where an interviewee takes the 16mm camera out of a journalist’s hands and turns it on him: “Your questions reveal more about yourself,” he says, “than my answers would reveal about me.” Lamas obscures her own questions between numerical title cards, but these merely operate as stand-ins for the distance between her authorial yearnings and the reality of her successive interviews. In her program notes, Lamas wonders, “The work of memory…isn’t it a process of desire?” The acknowledgment of desires (sometimes hidden, sometimes apparent) is a driving element in these films that interrogate where others merely depict.

Cinéma du Réel
21-31 March 2013
Festival website: http://www.cinemadureel.org/en