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Festival International du Documentaire de Marseille, July 7-12, 2010

By Philip Cartelli.

“Everything is burning. The universe is burning. I am burning.” So repeats the main character in Reason, Discussion and a Story (Jukti Takko Aar Gappo, 1974), one in a retrospective of films by the idiosyncratic Indian-Bangladeshi filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976) at this year’s Festival International du Documentaire de Marseille (FID). It is significant that Ghatak plays the main role in this, his last film, a role somewhat modelled upon himself as a kind of failed intellectual-alcoholic seer, and also significant because the kind of doomsday proclamation he issues was an undertone in many of the other films at the FID.

Ghatak’s work – primarily fiction films – demonstrates a highly unique aesthetic perspective combined with a dedicated political discourse, although this radical intensity was diminished towards the end of his career. One of the best scenes in Reason, Discussion and a Story occurs near the end: Ghatak’s boozy intellectual dialogue with a Marxist militant, in which he attempts to convince the young man – who strokes a rifle held between his legs throughout – of the futility of any kind of organized politics. Individual desperation – manifested as personal alcoholism – is the only truth, a depressing vision.

Fatalism also pertains in Bai Budan’s Miners (Kuanggong Suxie, 2010), a compelling if occasionally unfocused investigation of state-run mines in China. Bai directly queries miners about their salaries, their motivations (mining pays more than farm-work), their vague desires to do something else (if they can save up enough money), and the dangers and lack of regulations in Chinese coal mining. The second section centres on a long monologue by a survivor of a notorious 1966 coal-mining accident that the Chinese government has only recently acknowledged. Later, Bai investigates how families deal with the strain of constant migration (state mines close frequently and sometimes immediately following accidents) and dangerous work. At one point he films a domestic scene where children play while a husband and wife eat their midday meal, pausing to feed the family dog. Breaking a moment of seeming tranquillity, the man of the family suddenly snaps at the camera, “Stop filming us! There’s nothing interesting here! Go film in Shanghai!” Bai cuts directly to a coal barge plying a waterway in front of Shanghai’s skyscrapers, an appropriate ending for a documentary that has been directed as much by some of its stronger subjects as by its purported maker.

“Something is rotten in France” could be the subtitle of Sylvain George’s Strange Fruit (Qu’ils reposent en révolte: Des figures de guerres, 2010), which takes its time depicting and deconstructing the precariousness of illegal migrants living and eventually forcibly expelled from an informal camp in north-western France. A hefty 150-minute running time allows the filmmaker ample opportunity for visual play with notions of bodies and borders. The first section switches between police officers chasing young migrants in an urban park and camp dwellers bathing near a river. For the next ten minutes George forces us to look on as anonymous men alternately use a shaving razor or a red-hot screw to disfigure their fingertips, erasing their fingerprints, rendering them unidentifiable. One man explains to George that the migrants are responding to European Union’s tactics by creating their own. The last part of the film follows the forced evacuation of the camp. It is another painful scene to watch, but also telling for its depiction of those with agency (journalists, police, and French activists) and the migrants who have none, and who remain mostly silent during the proceedings. A powerful and deeply aesthetic work, Strange Fruit depicts a situation without delving too deeply into its background or consequences.

One of documentary filmmaking’s scandals of the past year is Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009), which is not a documentary, although it is filmed on VHS and deliberately imitates the poor quality of a home video. Trash Humpers won the DOX award at the 2009 Copenhagen International Documentary Festival, and was inflicted upon FID viewers as part of an “Anthropofolies” program including two provocative short works by Chicago-based video artist Ben Russell. It would be objectionable enough to sit for an hour and a half watching people in masks fornicate with trash bins, but for Korine to claim (as he has) that the film strives for some kind of aesthetic value is willfully perverse, in line with the director’s preferred self-image.

Waiting for Abu Zayd (Fi Itizar Abou Zayd, 2010), was one of the FID’s highlights and justifiably took home two awards. Mohammad Ali Atassi, a former student of well-known Egyptian philosopher and theologian Abu Zayd, made the film over six years. Its subject is transfixing – Abu Zayd is a naturally gentle, respectful man, but he is keen to engage with critics (in 1995 an Egyptian sharia court declared him an apostate and invalidated his marriage, effectively sending him into exile where he spent the rest of his life) and upbraid those who criticize his work without examining its particularities. A major figure in the intellectual battle against radical Islam, Abu Zayd is a humanist and also quite simply human – whether speaking of and with his wife, addressing the camera (and Atassi), or interacting with Lebanese students after a lecture in Beirut. Anyone with a digital video camera could have made a film about such a voluble, personable man, but few would have inserted their own directorial subjectivity with as much finesse as Atassi. From half-filming his own reflection in a glass revolving door as we wait for Abu Zayd to appear, to a final scene in which Atassi confronts his subject about the latter’s wish to remain in The Netherlands where he has a research position, there is a trance-like intensity between the filmmaker’s camera and his subject. This immediacy of this sentiment was deepened when Atassi, introducing the film’s premiere, told the audience that Abu Zayd had passed away from a viral infection three days before the FID screening.

Another highlight was a locally made film that screened out of competition. Till Roeskens’ Plan de Situation: Joliette (2010) investigates a zone in central Marseille that has been targeted for a redevelopment project known as “EuroMéditerannée.” Roeskens’ withdrawn style consists of various long shots of building or demolition sites mixed with images of different denizens of the Joliette neighbourhood, some more recent than others. In a slightly jarring choice, the voiceover narration by Roeskens’ various interlocutors frequently accompanies unsynchronized images of the same people looking at the camera or going about their daily activities in a street or office. Such a tactic heightens the displacement between the different agents and non-agents in the development scheme and allows the films’ subjects to appear representative of others in similar situations.

Plan de Situation’s final sequence is its most moving, artful and well constructed. First we see an elderly couple preparing to move out of their apartment that they’ve sold to one of EuroMed’s subsidiary agencies. Inexplicably – since they know the building is to be demolished – they painstakingly mop the red-tiled floors for one last time and carefully close the outdoor shutters before leaving. Next, an indoor demolition crew goes about its work in the same apartment, swinging sledgehammers through glass panes and smashing cabinet doors off their moorings. It’s a violent, yet melancholy scene, followed by an even sadder one, the night-time demolition of the entire building. While the viewer watches, as helpless to stop the damage as when we watch the migrants in George’s film mutilate their hands, a machine with a serrated metal beak that lends it the air of a futuristic metal dinosaur, methodically gnaws apart the concrete supports of the building, block by block. Afterwards, the demolition crew enjoys a McDonald’s feast in a trailer. For a film that has strived to depict the vibrancy of a historic neighbourhood faced with annihilation while simultaneously expressing the counterviews that corporate development will aid its pre-existing population, such an ending is hopeless – in the face of such destruction, any parallel concept of construction seems hypocritical and two-faced.

Among other films outside of the main competitions (some of which were not part of FID programs but were available for individual viewings in a “videothèque”), Françoise Alquier’s understated view into the interior life of a downtown Marseille bar (Nous Allons Sombres Sous La Nuit Solitaire, 2008) stood out, as did American artist Zoe Beloff’s well-curated compilation of inventive avant-garde shorts made between 1926 and 1972 by a group of Freud enthusiasts (Dream Films, The Amateur Coney Island Psychoanalytic Society, 2009). Despite occasional inconsistencies, FID 2010’s program strove for a careful balance between different creative strains in global documentary film and video. Some of its more modest offerings, like Alquier’s, gave a glimpse of what hopefully lies in the future, or in Beloff’s case, of undiscovered gems of the past.

Philip Cartelli is a freelance writer, filmmaker and teacher. He is currently a doctoral student in visual anthropology at Harvard University.

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