For the past twenty years, Marseille has been home to the largest urban development project in Europe, a redesign of the city’s aging and increasingly obsolete Mediterranean seaport infrastructure intended to attract foreign investment and tourists. At its centre is the J4 Esplanade, a former shipping pier now doing double-duty as a cruise ship dock and host to the new Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM) as well as an equally new structure dedicated to Mediterranean political cooperation. This year’s FID-Marseille took place in the J4’s new institutions, decamping from its habitual base on the opposite side of the city’s Old Port, the Théâtre de la Criée, closed for renovations. For seven days the experimental-documentary faithful braved Marseille’s notorious public transit system and the biting mistral wind along the city’s waterfront to attend a program of 134 feature-length and short films. By night, they gathered at the FID_Back, an ephemeral Club Med for festivalgoers on the Esplanade.
In the end, the J4 was an appropriate destination for this year’s FID, a mixed bag of a program that as usual took its attendees to different countries and cultures, but this time around seemed less consistent than recent editions in scope, approach and content. The frequently sustained attention paid to particular cinematic schools or innovators in the FID’s past, such as 2012’s Glauber Rocha retrospective or 2013’s focus on Pier Paolo Pasolini with room for a well-curated look at recent Filipino films, was lacking this year. Perhaps it was because the filmmaker granted retrospective status this time around was Marguerite Duras, a novelist known more for her formal innovations in literature. But it also felt evident that this year’s film selection paralleled the choices that led to the FID’s change in venue, a move towards a renovated waterfront esplanade increasingly frequented by tourists.
A primary case in point was Marie Voignier’s Tourisme International (International Tourism), consisting of images recorded by the filmmaker during her recent trip to North Korea, part of a new effort on the part of its notoriously secretive government to receive international visitors on guided tours. Voignier’s film is driven by its maker’s unsurprising observation that her approved hosts presented a carefully manicured vision of the country. Her primary formal intervention is the removal of all synchronous sound from footage that she shot in North Korea using a small digital camera and her post-production recomposition of the soundtrack’s ambient noise without the voices of the various guides, docents and interlocutors who appear on screen. After its first few scenes, Tourisme International is effectively subordinated to this conceptual gimmick, which, despite the clearly keen desire of its maker to speak to the situations of those living in an undemocratic state, ends up speaking more to her own relative distance from those whom she records. That distance, her film argues, was already in place when she arrived in the country for her tour. By over-emphasising and indeed isolating this fact, Voignier obscures and risks caricaturing those few human interlocutors with whom she was permitted to communicate.
Nicholas Boone’s Hillbrow consciously imitates Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989), an elliptical theme-and-repetition on the omnipresence of murderous violence in Northern Ireland, whose crumbling industrial landscapes Boone transplants to the mostly black Johannesburg neighbourhood of Hillbrow. The film consists of ten slick, Steadicam-filmed single-shot sequences depicting mostly violent incidents recounted to Boone by Hillbrow residents during a pre-production visit and re-enacted for the film. A well-dressed man strides down a block before being attacked and systematically divested of his valuables by a street gang, another group of young men rob a theatre filled with evening cinema-goers, a muscular man strides through a supermarket filling a duffel bag with canned goods before making a run for it, trailed by security guards who fail to catch him. As in Clarke’s film, the repetition of these incidents communicates something about life in a chaotic, dangerous place. But there’s a major difference between the two: Clarke is a formal minimalist and more than a bit of a brutalist; Boone’s obsession with his camera’s undeniably graceful sweeps and glides gradually overwhelms; the link between the film’s form and what it depicts is unclear. Such an approach is undeniably more common in conceptual art than it is in non-fiction or non-narrative film, but as works such as Boone’s and Voignier’s become standard fare in festivals, it’s worth remarking on their unique posture. Instead of sustaining an interested gaze into the ontological depth of their subjects, works such as these tend towards a superficial version of an anthropological site-specificity where technical tricks conceal a lack of concern with explanation.
Luísa Homem and Pedro Pinho’s As Cidades e As Trocas (Trading Cities) is a lengthy portrait of a community in Cape Verde caught (as the filmmakers depict it) between poverty and a massive wave of infrastructural development directed towards foreign tourists (and seemingly towards Cape Verdean emigrants returning home, but this possibility troubles the film’s primary dichotomy between poor locals and wealthy tourists and is thus less present). At this tension’s centre lies the struggle of local culture against the international cultural and political economy of tourism. Filmed in 16mm, As Cidades e As Trocas enjoys great proximity with its subjects, whether they be local road workers, the savvy female staff of a makeshift restaurant who serve them, or foreign tourists enjoying faux-African entertainment, sipping champagne, and otherwise lounging around poolside like pale-skinned beached whales. There is a tradition to this kind of depiction, notably in Stephanie Black’s 2001 film Life and Debt, where vulgar light-skinned tourists in Jamaica are depicted in all of their boozing self-indulgence. But Black’s film achieved a rare poetry in spite of its didactic insistence on attributing responsibility for the situation that it depicted to foreign economic agendas. For all of its En Construcción (Jose-Luis Guerín 2001)–like proximity, As Cidades e As Trocas seems more engaged with the aesthetic effect of the co-existence of two parallel worlds in the same physical space, and less with lived realities. As in Tourisme International and Hillbrow, the filmmakers privilege a certain technique while the people depicted on screen become mere ciphers, pieces on a cinematic chessboard. In the process, reality becomes a temporary invention of the auteur and less something ever-present in quest of representation.
A number of works at the FID proved capable of resisting superficial depiction. Joris Lachaise’s Ce qu’il reste de la folie (Remnants of Madness) accomplishes an elaborate dialogue between three West African intellectuals and their shared experiences with insanity and its treatment that not only binds them together but that links them with thousands of their compatriots. Lachaise’s sensitivity as a documentarian is apparent in his dual-exploration of the subjective experience of madness in contemporary urban Africa and in the specificities of different cures proposed in and around the Senegalese capital, Dakar. With no small dose of Foucauldian critique, Lachaise delves into the life of a single mental hospital in Dakar, particularly interested in its role during the colonial era in experimental treatments mixing “Western science” and local traditions. While poet Thierno Seydou Sall, artist Joe Ouakam, and the late filmmaker Khady Sylla discuss their personal experiences and perspectives, Lachaise cedes other sections of his film to sometimes-nameless interlocutors. These include hospital patients as well as the doctors and healers who use Muslim or Christian prayer or an elaborate procedure involving animal sacrifice to cure those suffering from mental, or simply intellectual, afflictions. Lachaise’s sinuous handheld camera binds together the film’s disparate sections, whether circling around or focusing on individual subjects’ physical states and pronouncements. At times whimsical or emotional, at others blankly hopeless, Ce qu’il reste de la folie is the work of a young filmmaker who remains equally faithful to his original vision and responsive to his subject’s complexity and humanity.
Eric Baudelaire is one of a select number of contemporary visual artists whose work consistently exhibits a knowledge and respect for cinema. His The Makes (2009) is a displacement of Michelangelo Antonioni’s unrealised screenplays that simultaneously functions as a tongue-in-cheek evaluation of contemporary film criticism. 2011’s The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images took Baudelaire’s engagement with films and their makers to a new level with his collaboration-at-a-distance with Masao Adachi, layering Super 8 images and sound recorded between Japan and Lebanon. Baudelaire’s contribution to this year’s FID, Letters to Max, represents a similarly long-distance investigation into the intertwined nature of personhood and politics. The film’s ostensible subject is the largely-unrecognised Republic of Abkhazia, which split from Georgia after a violent separatist war in 1992, as well as the title’s eponymous Maxim Gvinjia, Abkhazia’s former Minister for Foreign Affairs; the film’s other subject is Baudelaire’s wider questioning of national identity.
Recorded by Baudelaire’s camera, the film’s visuals depict landscapes that bear witness to decades of fractious rule, including ruined buildings and deserted tanks, but also signs of life, families at a beach, locals celebrating “Independence Day”; and frequently Max himself, occasionally acting, sometimes re-enacting, and otherwise simply existing in his country’s contested physical surroundings. The soundtrack is provided by ambient sounds and more importantly by Gvinjia’s voice responding to short letters sent to him by Baudelaire – seventy-four letters sent over seventy-four days according to the film’s press release. Baudelaire’s letters, which are sometimes heard being re-read by Gvinjia or read as text on the screen, begin as pithy koans (“What does a diplomat for a country that isn’t recognised do when he comes to the office in the morning?”) but gradually delve deeper (“What did becoming a state mean for you? What did you imagine?”). Gvinjia gamely responds, attempting to balance his personality with his role as external representative of his under-recognised country (Abkhazia is still officially recognised by fewer than a half-dozen other countries).
The tension increases when Baudelaire provokes a discussion of the Abkhazian war of independence and subsequent murders and ejection of ethnic Georgians from the territory. By this point, we’ve come to identify with Max as a fellow human being if not as a government official, and his partial justifications rankle even as he acknowledges that he genuinely feels pain for those innocents who suffered during Abkhazian secession. Baudelaire voicelessly follows Gvinjia’s justifications, confirming if not accepting the inevitable human and emotional costs of territorial rupture. More than an epistolary film (it sometimes calls to mind Chris Marker’s Letter from Siberia ), Letters to Max is based on series of oppositions beyond Gvinjia and Baudelaire’s question-and-response, namely the former’s narration of his young nation’s formative history including his own role within this chronology, and Baudelaire’s handheld-camera meanderings through Abkhazia’s physical spaces and Gvinjia’s personal places. Above all, Letters to Max is convincing in its formal composition, which takes great pains to adapt to its subject matter, while reminding viewers of its (and their) socio-geographic distance.
Where Lachaise’s response to the depth of the situation he depicts is to move ever closer to his subjects, Baudelaire holds himself at arm’s length. Both works come across as eminently honest in their respective postures – they may experiment, toy and play with visual (and aural) forms, but both resolutely allude to their own weaknesses, their own separations.
Back in Marseille, the FID’s two primary screening spaces on the J4 Esplanade have already become sites for moving-image experimentation during their relatively short existences. The MuCEM, ostensibly a contemporary history museum, makes use of artist-made video installations in its exhibitions, while the Villa Méditerranée has developed a different alternative approach to traditional exhibitions, which it terms “itineraries”, series of installations designed by documentary filmmakers. Both institutions seem to embody the kind of radical approach to image making and dissemination that the FID purports to promote. However, their role within Marseille’s growing tourist economy and related consequences on local residents (rising downtown rents, increasingly gentrified public spaces, police surveillance and control of informal activities) makes their innovative approach to exhibitions and installations occasionally seem one-sided, or elitist at worst. Similarly, a number of works at this year’s FID proved disappointing in terms of their cosmic positioning – their understanding of their own situation in the world. As visual art and cinema experience increasing cross-pollination, it seems important to point out that while not essentially different, makers hailing from one or the other side of this seemingly arbitrary border may need to spend more time considering their own backgrounds and situations before crossing over – without forgetting their own geographic origins either. Why do we desire to travel – virtually or physically? To understand, as Baudelaire’s and Lachaise’s works attempt to do? Or more simply, as others would seem to have it, and an expanding global tourist economy confirms, just to see?
FID-Marseille, Festival International de Cinéma
1-7 July 2014
Festival website: http://www.fidmarseille.org