“One mustn’t forget that for a documentary film maker,
the ‘Réel’ of life is also – and above all – what people think, feel, desire and dream;
their doubts, their aspirations, their fright, anguish, their initiatives, their courage, their determination and their struggles.”
Although Cinéma du Réel may no longer bear the subhead “international festival of ethnographic and sociological films”, as it did in the beginning, it’s hard not to think in these terms when overlooking the program of this year’s edition. The interest in ethnography and sociology is evident in new films such as May El Hossamy’s Défense d’aimer (Censored love, 2012) about the love between a Muslim woman and a Christian man, Shelly Silver’s Touch (2012) in which a homosexual Chinese man describes his life in Chinatown, New York, or Massimo D'Anolfi’s and Martina Parenti’s Materia Oscura (Dark Matter, 2013) about two farmers living and working next to Europe’s biggest military test site. But today, these are interests in which the underlying politics have been vastly enhanced, and exposed.
The highlight of the festival was the retrospective of the oeuvre of Anand Patwardhan, programmed by Nicole Brenez. From his first short, 16 mm, black and white films, to his longer works on video, Patwardhan has been occupied with political, economic, religious and cultural oppression in India, but also with its resistance. In his thesis, written after the making of Kraanti Ki Tarangein (Waves of Revolution, 1974), Patwardhan (in an attack against Paul Rotha) writes: “Apart from the obvious elitism of this view which puts ‘aesthetics’ in opposition to the approximation of human reality, it presents the argument that ‘impressionistic’, ‘pure sound’ is aesthetically valid, but not the human voice and certainly not dialogue. In other words, listening to what people have to say, their opinions, is no concern of art. Once more this is the old argument which claims emotion but not reason as the domain of art”.2 These words could perhaps explain the evolution of Patwardhan’s cinema, the changes from his early agitational essays consisting of still and moving photography, drawings, interviews, songs, music, and voice-overs, to his later works in which he takes on an intervening role behind the camera, posing questions to those in front of it, seeking immediate responses, reactions and resistance; sometimes provoking the course of action, sometimes only observing it.
Two things are of great importance in this shift: Patwardhan’s usage of a multitude of different forms of expression did not decrease. The editing (for example) is as important in his later films as in his earlier, and he has continued to use a variety of different materials. He has, rather than dismissing one expression for another, merged the two into one. But the length of the films is not to be dismissed. They have gradually increased from his earliest films, under one hour, to the later films, often over two hours. It’s hard not to see this as a consequence not only of new and less expensive technology, but also of his idea of the importance of “listening to what people has to say”, although the people themselves sometimes have their doubts. In Hamara Shahar (Bombay Our City, 1985), a woman whose poor neighbourhood has been destroyed to make room for more profitable buildings says to the filmmaker: “You just want to earn a name taking photographs. What else can you do? The government has discarded us. You and I can’t do anything. So don’t take photographs of the poor”. This sequence was later discussed in Patwardhan’s master class, and the filmmaker said that if he didn’t think that his work could create change, he wouldn’t have the right to film such things.
The other grand retrospective of the festival was one memorialising the 40 years that has passed since the military-junta of Pinochet seized power in Chile. The series consists of films made between 1964 and 2007, the period before Salvador Allende’s victorious election up until today. From the ill- or untreated psychiatric patients who wander in eternal circles in Pedro Chaskel’s Testimonio (1969) or the oppressed women in Sergio and Patricio Castilla’s Mijita (1970) we witness, as time passes and as Allende’s reforms inures, gradual progress as in the newly restored Ahora te vamos a Llamar Hermano (1971) by Raúl Ruiz, in which a joyous group of Mapuches celebrates the official acknowledgment of their citizenship after years of brutal oppression and exploitation, but also the hardships of the shift from capitalism to socialism in a film like the collectively made Cuando despierta el pueblo (When the people awake, 1973).
Apart from offering glimpses of the history of Chile before, during and after Allende, this series is also a beautiful demonstration of internationalist cinema. The situation in Chile during this period seems to have concerned more filmmakers from around the world than most political events from the same period. Two great works in the vein of cinéma vérité, Joris Ivens Le Train de la Victoire (1964) and Bruno Muel’s, Théo Robichet’s and Valérie Mayoux’s Septembre Chilien (1973) offers us, respectively, an intimate look at Allende during the 1964 election, and the sadness, anger and confusion of the Chilean people shortly after the coup. Another masterpiece of cinéma vérité, Chris Marker’s L’Ambassade (1973) “depicts” a couple of days in an embassy in which political refugees follow the madness of the world outside the walls of the building at the time of the coup d’état. In ¿Cómo, Por Qué y Para Qué se Asesina a un General? (1971) Santiago Àlvarez uses his characteristically satirical montage of found footage to pose the question of why CIA thought it necessary to kidnap and assassinate Allende’s general, René Schneider. Instead of moving images Peter Nestler links the coup d’état with the more remote history of the country by way of drawings and photographs in his Chile (1974), a film originally intended to be broadcasted as a children’s program on Swedish TV, but like other films by Nestler, was cancelled in the last minute.
In the series “Chile: 1973-2013” we see a wide range of different cinematic modes and expressions, cinéma vérité, direct cinema, interviews, the cine-pamphlet, the essay film and even the docudrama. All these different ways of describing history mounts to a highly complex view of the historical account of Chile between the 60’s up until the present day, less because most of the 25 films covers different stories, different parts of history, than the fact that the stories are told in a variety of different modes, each and every one used to its full potential as, in the words of Rosin, “instruments of struggle against oblivion”.3
“Oblivion”is also the title of a film by Stephen Dwoskin, the experimental filmmaker who passed away last year and whom the festival honours with a series programmed by his producer Antoine Barraud along with several of Dwoskin’s collaborators. Perhaps it might seem strange to find Dwoskin’s name in a program for a documentary film festival of a rather explicit political nature, but Maria Bonsanti, the artistic director of the festival, reminds us in her forewords to the program that “the documentary’s wealth, beauty and creative inspiration lie in individual or collective resistance” [italics mine].4
Not solely focusing on the most obvious of Dwoskin’s struggles, the one concerning movement – treated in Oblivion (2005) – the program also includes the sometimes playful, sometimes uncomfortable struggle of representation in a film like Dyn amo (1972), but also a struggle against time. Dwoskin’s last film, Age is… (2012), is a detailed depiction of aging. Close-ups of hands – old, wrinkly, fragile and covered with liver spots touches and seems to be remembering all by themselves – are juxtaposed with images of nature, rain drops on windows, water flowing in a river, echoing the blood flowing in the veins of the aged, veins that time has made very visible. Age is… is marked by the experience of a dual temporality: the pace of the water in the rivers and that of the blood in the veins, but also the movements of the elders, a tender kiss or hands touching each other, bodily movements which seem to occur in spite of, or against, the movements of the world around them.
This question of passing time is also inscribed in the title of a section programmed by Bernard Eisenschitz, L’Art et la Crise: Du New Deal à Aujourd-hui (The Art and the Crisis: From The New Deal to Today) with King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934) as the cornerstone surrounded by news-reels and short documentaries of which many shows the real effects of the economic crisis of the great depression. Our Daily Bread begins there, a state not unlike the ones occurring in Europe at the moment, but Vidor takes it a step further, ending his self-produced film with a wet celebration not unlike the cream sequence in Eisenstein’s Staroye i novoye (Old and new, 1929). The water in Our Daily Bread does not symbolise time as in Age is… but rather action, or perhaps that action is required before a new time, a new age can begin.
The possibilities of another age, another society is the theme of another of the festivals series, Pays Rêves, Pays Réels (Imaginary Countries, Real Countries), with a mixture of both utopia and dystopia. In Imphy, Capitale de la France (1995), Luc Moullet starts out in a failed mission to look for a new capital of France since Paris has become too dirty and polluted. Jean-Marie Straub once likened Moullet to Jacques Tati: “Luc Moullet is undoubtedly the only heir of both Buñuel and Jacques Tati”. The difference between these two filmmakers is that Moullet would never build a Tativille, he works (no matter if what he is making is documentary or fiction) with what he’s got, be it a bottle of Coke, the turnstiles of the Paris Métro, a cash dispenser, or as in Imphy, an empty field and a scheme.
One of the most interesting of the new films screened during the festival was Harun Farocki’s Ein Neues Produkt (A New Product, 2012). A film made up of layouts of a society with frightening similarities with the horrendous city of Tati’s PlayTime (Playtime, 1967). With slogans such as “New Leadership”, “Holism” (instead of the no longer sufficient “Taylorism”) and “Corporate Culture” is the Quickborner Team shamelessly rebuilding modern offices in which the workers are fooled into painting fences and ordered to exercise in the corridors to remain in maximum working capacity (or “health”, as they call it) while the corporation makes startling infringements of the worker’s privacy. Farocki works with hilarious documentary footage of the team at work, desperately trying to adapt the milieu to the flexible employment forms, working hours- and places of our time, but also with the layouts and models of the enterprise. The surveillance footage that has been a major feature of Farocki’s later works is no longer necessary, since the “corporate culture” of Quickborner team already embodies a panoptical apparatus; the “holism” which the brains in the team proudly puts on display in this dystopic, despotic vision of the future.
Many have commented on this question of projection, which is central in the series Pays Rêves, Pays Réels and in a film like Farocki’s, and which has influenced the overall theme of the festival. Eduard de Laurot speaks of capturing “the latent potential of contemporary reality, and project it into the future”,5 Robert Kramer of “negat[ing] the present in order to build the future”,6 while Glauber Rocha says that “revolutionary art must be magic capable of bewitching man to such a degree that he can no longer stand to live in this absurd reality”,7 and Federico Rossin describes the Chilean films as “arms with which to change the future”.8
Edgar Morin, in his foreword to the second edition of Cinéma du Réel, wrote: “the documentary cinema hides its fiction and its imaginary behind the image reflecting the real”.9 Cinema does reflect the real at the same time as it’s creating another (fictional, imaginary) and it is the public’s work to fight towards that reality, to continue the struggle when the light of the projector has gone out. Perhaps this is what Walter Benjamin meant when he stated that: “To demonstrate the identity of the artistic and scientific uses of photography which heretofore usually were separated will be one of the revolutionary functions of the film”?10 That an ethnographic and sociological (and therefore scientific) film not only reflects but also “projects” (a word in which we also find the word “project”) and creates. Anand Patwardhan sums it up: “Whereas bourgeois cinema would try to resolve this conflict internally (within the film, through catharsis) and thus maintain the status-quo outside, the revolutionary cinema encourages the resolution of the conflict to take place outside the cinema”.11
1 Joris Ivens, ”Quelques notes autour du «Cinéma du Réel»”, Program for Cinéma du Réel, 1979 [my translation].
2 Anand Patwardhan, The guerilla film – Underground and in exile: a critique and a case study of Waves of Revolution, 1981, p. 19.
3 Federico Rossin, ”Memory Exersises”, Program for Cinéma du Réel, 2013, p. 72.
4 Maria Bonsanti, "Cinéma du Réel”, Program for Cinéma du Réel, 2013, p. 15.
5 As quoted in Nicole Brenez, "Eduard de Laurot: Engagement as prolepsis", Third Text, vol. 25, Issue 1, 2011, p. 57.
6 Ice (Robert Kramer, 1970).
7 Glauber Rocha, ”Aesthetic of dream”, speech given in 1971 http://www.tempoglauber.com.br/english/t_esteticasonho.html
8 Rossin, p. 72.
9 Edgar Morin, Foreword to the program of Cinéma du Réel, 1980, p. 3.
10 Walter Benjamin, ”The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Illuminations, 2007, p. 236.
11 Patwardhan, p. 15.