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Social Dimensions and Political Prisms: The Mediterranean Film Festival, Montpellier, France 22-30 October 2010

By Larry Portis.

The Mediterranean film festival held in Montpellier during the last nine days of October saw the projection of more than 250 films, selected from the more than 800 received. The films came from all parts of the Mediterranean basin, this year including 23 countries along its shores or oriented towards them. They are classified into categories – feature films, short films, documentaries, experimental films­ – each having its quota of competitive entries, and films contributing to retrospective showings. Because of the geopolitical sensitivity of this region, each film derived from it can be seen as having some sort of political content in its treatment of social and cultural themes.

However, the Mediterranean film festival is not politically or socially partisan, at least not in any observable way, lest it be in maintaining a rather “consensual” orientation designed to avoid the impression of having compromising biases. Such an orientation can be frustrating to those whose political commitments and social criticisms are less restrained. But it is perhaps for the best in that a genuine concern to present all “progressive” points of view in the festival programming provides rich material for reflection about current social and political problems and debates.

The year 2010 was an agitated one in France. The attempts, largely successful, of the current right-wing government to make drastic cuts in social programs and to privatize industry aroused increasing opposition that led to massive strikes and social mobilization already raging when the festival opened. There were continued demonstrations in the streets and squares of Montpellier while films played in the five projection theatres in constant operation on the festival site, located in the historic city center.

A good number of the new French films presented in prerelease showings, in production over the past two years, reflected these social concerns by often including open references to the now detested Sarkozy government. For example, the films opening and closing the festival, respectively Pierre Salvadori’s Real Lies (De Vrais Mensonges, 2009) and François Ozon’s Housewife (Potiche, 2010) are comedies that more than infringe upon current preoccupations.

In spite of their lack of programmatic political intentions, these films present situations in which characters representing different social classes or ethnic groups cohabit naturally, apparently free of the veiled xenophobic interrogations about “national identity” that president Nicolas Sarkozy has raised in attempts to divert attention from his reactionary policies. Salvadori’s film features Sami Bouajila as an intellectual in a romantic triangle with Nathalie Baye and Audrey Tautou (both in attendance at the festival) without any reference whatsoever to his North African ancestry. The real barriers are those of social class. In Ozon’s Housewife, a story situated in 1977 about an industrialist’s wife (Catherine Deneuve) who takes over the family factory from her reactionary husband (Fabrice Lucini) and manages the firm with assistance from the local Communist mayor (Gerard Depardieu), certain of Sarkozy’s more revealing statements are incorporated into the script, invariably arousing howls of laughter from the viewers. “Of course the workers must work more if they wish to be paid more,” says the factory owner, thus referring to Sarkozy infamous theme – “work more for more pay”.

It is possible that such new films represent a turning point within French society itself. During more than three decades of political demobilization – caused as much by ideological and strategic compromises of the French Socialist Party reinforced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, as by social changes – a certain confusion took hold that expressed what we might call a “collective depression”. It was also a generational reaction. What use, it was asked, was all that political commitment and activism of the previous generation? Job and career must be the individual’s first priority.

If current events and new films are any indication, this mentality is changing rapidly. It is difficult to imagine, for example, making Michel Leclerc’s new film Le nom des gens (2010) in previous years. This comedy stars Sara Forestier (who was featured in Abdellatif Kechiche’s highly considered and successful Games of Love and Chance [L’Esquive], 2004) as, Bahia, a politically committed young woman who undertakes the political conversion of conservatives and reactionaries by having sex with them. It is a form of political action on the grass-roots level, it might be said, fully within her capacities and, according to her, yielding positive results. By liberating men of their frustrations and complexes she is able to influence their perceptions and turn them from socially reprehensible professions and attitudes. Again, the fact that Bahia is the product of a “mixed” marriage (French mother and Algerian father) suggests that the question of “identity” is a false problem. Michel Leclerc’s message is that identity is something, or at least should be, more related to social class than to ethnicity.

This idea is also expressed in Audrey Estrougo’s film You, Me and the Others (Toi, moi, les autres, 2010). This is a musical comedy – a rarity in our time – in which an amorous encounter between a rich and somewhat jaded young man, Gad (played by Benjamin Siksou) and Leila (Leila Bekhti) a lower-class but dynamic young woman of North African ancestry is, once again, seen through the prism of political controversy and social class relations. Although ethnic differences are displayed clearly, ethnicity is in fact relegated to a secondary role. This is the case although the truly dramatic action in this film is the tracking down and arrest of illegal immigrants for purposes of deportation. It just so happens that those arrested in the film are Leila’s African friends and that the head of the police is Gad’s father. Nothing could be more political than this issue when the current government of Nicolas Sarkozy, the “president of the rich”, is using the presence of immigrants without residency permits to divert attention from the failings and social consequences of his policies. By creating a new, French version of West Side Story, Audrey Estrougo brilliantly offers a fairy-tale forum for political commentary on contemporary French society.

Unfortunately, space limitations prohibit speaking of every new French film presented in Montpellier revealing greater attention to social and political issues. However, I must mention my favourite: it is Philippe Le Guay’s The Women on the Sixth Floor (Les Femmes du 6e étage, 2010), starring Fabrice Luchini, Carmen Maura, Sandrine Kiberlain, Natalia Verbeke among others.

The film is situated in Paris at the beginning of the 1960s. A wealthy stockbroker and his wife living in a swanky building decide to fire their long-time housekeeper and nanny. Following the advice of her bourgeois friends, the wife hires a young Spanish woman without a residence permit as replacement. All this coincides with the husband’s (and the wife’s) mid-life crisis. The husband falls for the young Spanish maid living on the sixth floor in a chambre de bonne in the midst of several other Spanish maids in similar situations. The husband walks out and, unbeknownst to his wife, moves into yet another room on the sixth floor. The importance of all this is that the Spanish were, during these years, the “Arabs” of France, subject to the same racist discrimination and official persecution as the “Roma” (Romanian gypsies and others) at the present time. The end of the film represents a liberation of sorts. The stockbroker played by Luchini leaves both the bourgeois family and his company. Haunted by his experience, three years later he travels to Spain to find his friends – the maids – who have returned to their own families. It is a happy end. He also finds the young woman who, like him, has not entered into a new amorous relationship. Together, the reformed capitalist and his proletarian comrades form a new family. This excellent film is, once again, about contemporary social and political reality in France. The real divisions in society are shown to be of a social-class nature, not of ethnicity. The message is that such divisions can be overcome with class-consciousness and the establishment of democratic, egalitarian, social relationships.

Two other notable films presented in pre-showings are Fix Me (France/Liban/Palestine, 2010) by the Palestinian director Raed Andoni, and The Human Resources Manager (Israel, 2010) by the Israeli Eran Riklis (who has also made The Syrian Marriage (2004) and Lemon Tree (2008). Andoni’s film is unusual in that it refers to the situation of occupied Palestine through the lens of his personal psychotherapy. It is a personal excursion into the mind of a Palestinian intellectual who, in the end, doesn’t take himself all that seriously. Riklis, on the other hand, uses the story of an Israeli personal manager in Jerusalem to gain objective perspective on his society and the situation of its immigrant workers. In both cases, nationalism and religion are shown to be only secondary considerations in understanding the foundations of existential dilemmas.

The social and political dimension of the Montpellier festival in 2010 can also be gauged by the prominence of female directors. As the director of the festival, Jean-François Bourgeot, announced, “The condition of women in society is a measure of its health”. By this criterion, the festival clearly played a progressive role in featuring films made by women and in which women play determining parts. Most prominently, the weeklong presence of Carmen Maura (as “Godmother” to the festival) and of Hiam Abbass and Ronit Elkabetz (who are both equally directors and actresses), plus others a bit less known, gave spectators and journalists an unequaled opportunity to interact with some of the most talented women in film art.

A retrospective of 18 films either made by Abbass and Elkabetz or in which they acted was offered at the festival, including recent films such as (for Abbass) Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor (United States, 2007), Eran Riklis’ Lemon Tree (France/Israel/Germany, 2008), Cherien Dabis’ Amreeka (United States/Canada/Koweit, 2009), Dima El-Horr’s Everyday Is a Holiday (Chaque jour est une fête, France/Germany/Lebanon, 2009) and Julian Schnabel’s Miral (Palestine, 2010). For Elkabetz were included her and Shlomi Elkabetz’ The Seven Days (Shiva, France/Israel, 2007, Kalat Hayam’s Jaffa (France/Israel/Germany, 2009), Pascal Elbé’s Tête de turc (France, 2029) and Brigitte Sy’s Les mains libres (France, 2010).

There were many excellent new films among the ten in competition this year. Particularly notable are Susa by Rusudan Pirveli (Georgia, 2010), a neo-neorealist study of a poor working-class family living on the outskirts of Tbilisi, and reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Srdjan Kolijevic’s The Woman With A Broken Nose (Ena sa slomljenim nosen, Serbia, 2010) and Paulo Virzi’s The First Beautiful Thing (La Prima Cosa Bella, Italy, 2010).

If Virzi’s film is a particular vision of working-class existence in Italy, Pirveli’s and Kolijevic’s are well-structured commentaries on the difficulties of emerging from the drab world of Soviet-style socialism and the new type of insecurity engendered by the transition to an unbridled capitalism. On the one hand, there are new capitalists on every scale amassing wealth by any and all means and, on the other, are the miserable masses whose exploitation and oppression is simply the reverse side of the coin minted by the triumph of “neo-liberalism”.

Lest there be nostalgia about the “socialistic” parenthesis – lasting 44 years – experienced by such countries, an excellent antidote is certainly the viewing of, Oxygen (Oxygin, Romania, 2010) a short film (30mn) by Adina-Elena Pintilie. By filming in black and white and constructing a story using flashbacks, this young filmmaker (born in 1980) shows expressionistically the horror of living in a “workers’ paradise”. She juxtaposes scenes of solitude and alienation, with desperately ingenious attempts to escape the country to the West and propagandistic, staged interviews with a woman who did escape and then, supposedly, elected to return. For those who wish to grasp the complexity of contemporary social analysis, it is recommended they view Pintilie’s film along side that of Rusudan Pirveli (see above). The transition from Soviet-style state “socialism”, as in Romania, to “capitalist free-market democracy”, as in Georgia, leaves little room for improvement for most people.

The boundary between fiction and documentary is, of course, difficult and sometimes impossible to define. Increasingly, this fact is recognized and has contributed to the creation of documentaries that equal and sometimes go beyond the limits established by conventional feature films.

The documentaries projected this year in Montpellier often surpassed fiction films in their demonstration of creative imagination. The program was generally excellent, but certain films stood out. The starting point of Calle de la Pietà by Mario Brenta and Karine de Villers (Italy, 2010) is the last day of the Venetian renaissance painter Titian’s life. But the film is an extraordinary fresco of the timeless historic and contemporary city, a veritable work of art itself in its use of composition, lighting, images fondues and literary text. It is a masterpiece that bridges the divide between painting and cinema. Upon seeing it, we can only sigh.

Italy Ends Here by Gilles Coton (Ici finit l’Italie, Belgium, 2010) is another film made with exceptional artistic sensibility. It retraces Pier Paolo Pasolini’s trip along the coasts of Italy, from Rome to Trieste. The narration of Pasolini’s poetic text describing the journey lends an ethereal quality to this profound study of Italian culture and society. There is a premonitory atmosphere exuded here, one enhanced by Pasolini’s eventual death on the beach at Ostia, a place referred to in his text and visited in the film. Today, in the Italy of Berlusconi, Pasolini’s demise, shrouded in controversial mystery, remains a political issue. Thirty-five years after, Italy still founders in a malaise created by the infamous “strategy of tension” to which Pasolini’s murder may be related. This film is more than a documentary: it is a social and aesthetic document.

Neighbors by Tahani Rached (Giran) traces the political evolution of contemporary Egypt through a study of Cairo’s exclusive Garden City neighborhood. With deft use of rare footage from Egyptian feature films juxtaposed with recent images taken from the same angle at the same locations, Rached takes us into the transitions that change implies. Here is history in all its dimensions, going far beyond and more deeply than any linear description or analysis is capable. It is a critical history focused on the continuity of imperialist control over Egypt.

What Happened? by De Gaulle Eid (Chou Sar?, France/Lebanon/Palestine), is an astonishing investigation of a massacre – that of the director’s own family in 1980. It is a story that goes to the heart of the divisions within Lebanese society, which are not necessarily those focused upon in the news media. Because of a key event occurring during the shooting of What Happened?, it is certainly one of the most powerful documentaries ever made. Viewing this film is essential for understanding the Lebanese civil war and the conflicts that continue to rage in that country.

Blood Relation by Noa Ben Hagaï (Kirvat Dam, Israel, 2009) is another investigation centered on a family drama related to a country’s history. In the background here is the ethnic cleansing pursued by Israel since its creation as a Jewish State. At the age of 14, Noa Ben Hagaï’s great aunt married a Muslim in the wake of the 1948 war, lived in a refugee camp and was disowned by her family. When Ben Hagaï discovered this deceased relative’s letters to the family, she undertook a search for her Palestinian relatives. The film is about the difficult, and failed, reunion she undertook between the Israeli and Palestinian branches of the family.

Blood Relation won the only prize awarded to the 15 documentary films in competition, and the festival organizers should ponder upon this fact. There is a glaring contradiction between the numbers and the quality of the films and the recompense they can receive. It is not that Kirvat Dam is unworthy of its prize, but there is an injustice implicit in a situation where a three-member jury must decide in relation to so many deserving films.

The situation is quite different for the short films in competition. Here the selection is rich, but the number of prizes (six) is greater than for the documentaries. There were 25 short films in competition and another 15 out of competition. The winners this year were Aya Somech’s Eva is Leaving (Eva Ozevet, Israel, 2010, 15mn) that won two of the prizes, Elite Zexer’s Tasnim (Israel, 2010, 11mn), Abdenour Zahzah’s Garagouz (Algeria, 2010, 25mn), Walid Mattar’s Condamnations (Tendid, 2010, 15mn), and Inès Sedan’s The Man Who Slept (L’Homme qui dort, France, 2009, 12mn).

In 2010 the Mediterranean Film Festival once again lived up to its reputation for providing the most comprehensive and inspired selection of new and classic films from the region.

For more information consult the festival site.

Larry Portis is the author of books on France including Georges Sorel, Les classes sociales en Franceand French Frenzies: A Social History of Pop Music in France.

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