By Philip Cartelli.
Near the end of Philippe Grandrieux’s hyperbolic It May Be That Beauty Has Reinforced Our Resolve – Masao Adachi (Il se peut que la beauté ait renforcé notre resolution – Masao Adachi, 2011), screened in the international competition at this year’s FID, director Masao Adachi looks into the camera, languidly puffing on a cigarette, and says, first in Japanese, then in French, “It’s over, Philippe.” The camera remains on him momentarily before slowly swiveling to focus on Grandrieux, sound recorder in hand, crouched on the floor in front of Adachi, looking confused, then understanding. Such a near-final shot, representing in equal parts a degree of incomprehension and reflexivity, exemplified the content of many of the films at this year’s FID, and was also reflective of the festival’s selection, which seemed to be even more erratic than in the past. Also of note, the “FID” is no longer the “FID,” although that title (pronounced “feed”) is still in vernacular use throughout the festival and in its logo. Rather than the Festival International du Documentaire, this year’s edition was known as the Festival International du Cinéma, reflecting a desire on the part of its programmers, led by Jean-Pierre Rehm, to respond to currents that have stretched the limits of reality, perceptions of self, and questions of accessibility.
Yatasto (2011), a first effort by young Argentine filmmaker Hermes Paralluelo, presented an unaffected view into the life of a family living on the outskirts of Cordoba, Argentina. While Paralluelo maintains a slight distance from the cartoneros (collectors of cardboard boxes, glass bottles, and other leftovers) he follows, a continued focus on one young boy, Ricardo, evokes the everyday dramas and banalities of their lives. Ricardo is alternately baleful, joyous, or angry, like many boys of his age. Eschewing the melodramatic for a story that ultimately leads nowhere in particular, Paralluelo demonstrates care for his recorded images and the people he films. A particular example of both is a repeated long shot, where the camera is placed on the front of a donkey cart, behind the donkey, facing the cart’s drivers, most frequently Ricardo and a family member or friend. Such a position’s seeming limitation belies a transcendent perspective where we see and hear not only the cartoneros, but the cityscape behind and around them consisting of fast-moving cars and trucks, busy intersections and wealthy neighborhoods, to which the cartoneros pay scant attention—unless there is a stack of paper or box of bottles on the street nearby. Paralluelo reminds us of the world around his subjects, which may be our own. Or, perhaps, he is reminding them.
Sven Augustijnen’s moving Specters (Spèctres, 2011) posits itself as the portrait of a single man, but from the beginning we have the sensation that Sir Jacques Brassines (introduced to us via opening shots showing him interacting with other titled Belgians at a countryside estate), is more intent on leading the camera and us on an investigation that has increasingly eerie undertones. Brassines initially appears to manifest a scholar’s intensity and a peripheral personal interest in his study, but we eventually begin to discern that this is part of a mission meant to absolve himself of responsibility in a legendary crime, namely the 1961 assassination of the former Prime Minister of the newly independent Congo, Patrice Lumumba. Augustijnen’s camera moves fluidly around a manor house, memorial services for the deceased Belgian King Baudouin and former Congolese separatist leader Moïse Tshombe, and eventually to the Democratic Republic of the Congo where Brassines meets with Lumumba’s widow (giving her a signed copy of a book based on his doctoral research into the last fifty days of her husband’s life) and children, then traveling to Katanga, the former breakaway province where Lumumba was murdered. (In order to aid those with minimal knowledge of Cold War-era Central African politics, occasional scrolling titles help contextualize different sections of the film.) In a final sequence, Brassines wanders around the Congolese jungle in vain, looking for the tree against which Lumumba and his deputies were shot, before running into a group of locals who confess that they had recently cut it down for charcoal. Later that night, Brassines returns to the forest, and Augustijnen records what Lumumba’s last vision might have been like: the bright glare of a jeep’s headlights and deep-green grass swaying gently in the breeze. Brassines takes the opportunity to remind his recordist and audience of the precise facts of the event, again adding that while Belgians may have been aware of the assassinations, they had no direct role in the event. The final credits inform us that Brassines himself was an aid to the Katanga secessionist government before and after Lumumba’s death and underline his inability to finally confront what we assume is his own obsessive guilt—or complete lack thereof—about his and his country’s tacit involvement in the crime.
Adam Kossoff’s Moscow Diary (2010) was not in the festival competition, though it received its world premiere at the FID and was consistently more inventive and compelling than many of the other films on view. It is a video recorded entirely on a portable camera phone, retracing the steps of German cultural theorist and historian Walter Benjamin in his own account of the same name, written during a visit to the city in 1926-7. While a voiceover narrates passages from Benjamin’s text, the images function as occasional counterparts to the experiences being described, posing visual, sentimental and political rejoinders to the writer’s views. In order to appreciate the video’s aesthetic, one needs to accept Kossoff’s implicit claim that the camera phone both allows him to replicate the experience of “being” in the city in a nonintrusive manner and represents a progression of some of Benjamin’s own thinking on the development of art and technology. This is not always a simple task, but some of Kossoff’s more poetic images—smoke emanating from a power plant and dissolving into pixilated blocks—do appear to work in this regard. A relation between irony and clarity that is reflective of some of Benjamin’s alternating relations between physical and emotional distance and proximity seems to be further reflected in Moscow Diary’s chosen mode and audiovisual aesthetic. Ultimately, Kossoff’s work is a kind of social and technological experiment that his subject and muse might have appreciated, and not the herald of a soon-to-come era when film festivals are viewed on individual devices in the comfort of one’s home, which comes as a kind of uneasy relief.
Other films of note included Renaud Victor’s By Day As By Night (De jour comme de nuit, 1991), recorded over two years by its late maker in the Baumettes prison on the outskirts of Marseille. Largely composed of interview sequences, By Day As By Night benefits from a near-total access to the prison complex, including guard stations, individual cells, visiting rooms, etc. It is particularly relevant in light of recent revelations in France concerning the mistreatment of certain disabled prisoners at Baumettes. The film was screened to inaugurate a new prize entitled the Prix Renaud Victor, awarded by a jury composed of Baumettes inmates. The film they selected, The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Les trois disparitions de Soad Hosni, 2011) is a collage of clips from VHS tapes assembled by Lebanese filmmaker Rania Stephan to function as a kind of anti-narrative narrative of the life of Egyptian cinema star Soad Hosni who committed suicide in London in 2001 after starring in nearly one hundred films. In its format, The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni is somewhat reminiscent of Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), but without the benefit of a narrator, which makes it equally challenging and amusing to follow and comments positively on the discretion of this unique new prize’s jury.
The FID continues to avoid playing it safe in terms of competition selections and parallel series. It also continues to act in counterpoint to other major French and European documentary festivals, which works to its advantage, although this is occasionally overly demanding of its viewers’ patience. It is not immediately clear why jury members and festival goers were expected to sit through Lech Kowalski’s The End of the World Begins With One Lie (2011), a bombastic mash-up of internet videos about the 2010 BP oil leak with sequences from Robert Flaherty’s Standard Oil-produced Louisiana Story (1948), or, similarly, exactly what the choice of Arnaud des Pallières’ American Dust (Poussières d’Amérique, 2011), a similar mix of half-serious stereotypes and downright repetitive sequences, as the opening night projection was meant to say about the current state of cinema, documentary or otherwise. After this recent edition, however, it could not be said that a FID attendee does not know what s/he is getting him/herself into, and Rehm’s selections contribute to a lively conversation within contemporary cinematic discourse.
Philip Cartelli is a filmmaker and doctoral candidate in visual anthropology at Harvard University where he is also on the editorial board of Sensate, a new journal for experiments in critical media practice.