An immediate glance at the International Selection of 2021’s Cinéma du Réel identifies familiar films from IDFA, International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Berlinale’s recent editions. The festival offers a smaller scale however, with International and French Selections fitting succinctly on to one page respectively. As such, recent festival highlights including Marta Popivoda’s Landscapes of Resistance, Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance and Daïcho Saïto’s earthearthearth sat in close proximity with emergent offerings from Kevin Jerome Everson, Jessica Sarah Rinland and Rosine Mbakam. That made for a strong International selection with little filler, though the festival’s French selection was more disparate, with more determined titles standing out more prominently than others.
This year’s edition was simultaneous with lockdown measures in many European countries surpassing a year. Works that engage with elements of the pandemic are beginning to enter the festival circuit, and fortunately those that Cinéma du Réel selected are delicate and focused in approach rather than advantageous. Eva Giolo’s Flowers Blooming in Our Throats considers the hidden machinations of abuse in the homes we now frequently occupy. The short features a fabric of domesticated images thrown into instability with the recurring motif of a red filter passed in front of the 16mm camera’s lens. Hands suffuse the film’s visual strata in a series of tableaus; a person holding a knife, a woman pulling against her hair, vegetables being cut, a palm basking in the sunlight. Giolo’s film is a haptic reminder that a gesture might be benign or have the ability to evolve into or signify something more sinister. An elastic band snapping against the wrist could denote a fairly innocent compulsive movement or an exercise from cognitive behavioural therapy for example, and that kind of indeterminable threshold haunts the duration of the film.
Shengze Zhu turns her eye to the Yangtze River in Wuhan with A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces, with the pandemic making its mark early on as the landscapes along it become ever vacant. The film’s wide cinematography and steady pace invites small, distant figures to catch incidental attention à la Barthes’ notion of the punctum. Letters written to Zhu’s father from the United States intermittently occupy the subtitle space, expressing regret about not seeing him since 2017. The evocation of both distance and loss leaves the film with a heavy weight and reveals a personal interpretation of the many bridges along the river. Befitting for a film so directly linked to a body of water, it often feels like the viewer is given time to sink into the images.
The reactions to George Floyd’s murder in police custody are focused on in a captivating way in one of Kevin Jerome Everson’s recent shorts, The I and S of Lives. Everson focuses on an inconspicuous and calming moment from protests in Washington D.C.: a lone roller-skater listening to music and flowing over letters from the bright yellow mural on Black Lives Matter Plaza. Though the short directly links to activisms in response to Floyd’s passing, it also taps into a universal element from protests around the globe; the presence of individual figures whose auras attract attention not in a loud way, but in a way that feels almost calming. Everson captures the man’s movements in a cyclical fashion, showcasing his knack for capturing subjects with the care that makes many entries in his filmography feel like personal dialogues.
In the festival’s French Selection, Virgil Vernier’s Kindertotenlieder focuses on protests responding to the death of two teenagers chased by police in 2005, occurring in the Clichy-sous-Bois near Paris. Trawling archival footage from French television coverage, the film witnesses the codification of France’s lower class and migrant communities on air, with much of the footage favouring the presentation of representatives from official bodies and citizens with a certain affluence or perceived innocence. In many ways, the images are an extension of the same system that caused tensions to evolve into violent protests. The protesters are barely interviewed, and the pacing of Vernier’s short gives enough space for that absence to become apparent. It’s also a film that doesn’t make a stern delineation on whether violent protests are right or wrong, and instead pieces together the elements that made them both occur and continue.
Caroline Pitzen also resists the temptation to underline viewpoints in FREIZEIT or: The Opposite of Doing Nothing, wherein a group of left-leaning teenage Berliners discuss their political views. Instead of painting the cohort’s opinions as absolute, Pitzen gives them space to just be politically inclined individuals with developing thoughts; allowing them to talk in pairs and groups or read and respond to texts. Too often, films about activists fall into the trap of either painting their subjects in too one-sided and godly a light or play into sensational news cycles too heavily, often brushing away flaws and leaving interjecting dialogues unspoken. In reality, people’s opinions develop and become challenged over time, and Pitzen’s film lays that thought process open, creating a refreshing portrait of the teenagers. It sits nicely alongside Ephraim Asili’s New York Film Festival hit The Inheritance, where the filmmaker re-enacts scenes from his time in a Black activist collective’s house in Philadelphia, mixing house disagreements with the wider legacy of Black Marxist groups such as the MOVE organisation. In both films, political thoughts are acknowledged as being part of long-term and malleable practices that have kinks that need ironing out, without reducing their radical potential.
Other works at the festival attempt to make sense of the often-hidden nature of harassment, abuse and gender dynamics, much like Flowers Blooming in Our Throats. Clara Claus uses the mode of diary to explore the experience of discovering that her boss’s neighbour is looking through the house’s windows at night in Nightvision. Claus’s boss thinks little of the discovery, but her position as a woman staying there alone gives the film a claustrophobic air, with the night-vision CCTV images turning the neighbour into a haunting figure comprised of slowly refreshing digital pixels. The filmmaker’s reflections on the scenario heighten the discomfort of not knowing the neighbour’s motives and how the situation might develop, but also her dilemma about confronting him and whether the possibility of closure outweighs the unstable safety of turning a blind eye. Like Giolo’s short, the threshold at which movements becomes dangerous lingers over the film.
Tim Leyendekker’s Feast turns to re-construction and a myriad of formal methods in order to make sense of a public case that concerns inherently private activities. The film retraces the 2007 Groningen HIV case where three men drugged and knowingly infected sexual partners with HIV. A long durational shot of paraphernalia inventoried by a policewoman and a re-enactment of an early sex party all build tension. It’s the most direct engagements that are the most stirring, however. An audio testimonial where a man is uncomfortably interviewed about a sexual experience that became rape is fused with obfuscated and tightly zoomed images from footage where skin and walls morph into an uneasy dance of foreground and background, as if the film itself is a body reliving repressing trauma. The differing approaches that Leyendekker employs throughout the film highlight how making sense of cases such as these is an incredibly fragmented exercise.
Testimonies themselves are an invaluable way of sharing experiences of abuse, requiring a great deal of trust and empathy between the victim and the person listening. Rosine Mbakam’s friend Delphine allows the director to film her sharing her story about the circumstances that led to her migrate from Cameroon to Belgium in Les Prières de Delphine. Mbakam’s presence behind the camera is felt throughout, and the film invites the viewer into the empathetic space shared by the two women. That trust is key given that Delphine’s story involves rape, prostitution work, strenuous relationships with her father and the instability of her current living situation and employment prospects in Belgium. It’s a direct piece of cinema that transmits Delphine’s testimonies through a series of long durational shots, and ultimately inclines Mbakam to reflect on the pair’s shared experiences and meeting as Cameroonian expats in Belgium. The film also highlights the nature of migrant labour in Belgium, course correcting a sense that the wider experiences that led to their living there are too often left unspoken.
Historic events relating to globalisation and imperialism can also be obfuscated, making documentary filmmaking a value tool for making the hidden visible. Riar Rizaldi’s Tellurian Drama tells the story of the Radio Malabar radio tower in Indonesia, established by the Dutch but built by indigenous workers who were required to work within the then unfamiliar Western dogmas of time and labour value. Interviews, archival footage, texts, a musical performance, scans of Dutch documents overlayed with the landscape, and a pulsating score all contribute to this multi-layered portrait. Most importantly, these elements are a way of dealing with the gaps in the historical ledger of the Dutch, who only saw it as a positive pursuit and eventually left the location in ruin. Notions of legacy become complicated when the film mentions that the local Indonesian government would like to turn the now overgrown site into a tourist attraction, and the complexity of these interjecting points are what makes Rizaldi’s distancing from a conventional architectural mode rewarding.
Other histories can be found deep in the soil, requiring excavation to visualise them. Sol de Campina, the latest conservation focused film from Jessica Sarah Rinland, forms a delicate and tactile inquiry into an archaeological site sharing the film’s name in Brazil. As workers move between lab and field work, Rinland’s intimate 16mm cinematography homes in on the nuances of individual processes, all of which build towards a collective picture. As a 3D visualisation of the centuries old site forms, so does Rinland’s portrait of the current iteration, taking in local language, food and music. Similarly, and also shot on 16mm film, Luke Fowler’s Patrick builds a portrait through microcosms, tracing the legacy of Patrick Cowley, a prominent musician in disco music whose practice burgeoned in San Francisco. Old synthesiser parts are showcased, giving added tactility to the stories one of Cowley’s friends recites about their contributions to disco music, whilst prominent queer nightclub EndUp is profiled delicately amidst San Francisco’s broader green areas. The musical score builds from slow ambient pieces to more upbeat tempos, matching the film’s momentum of knowledge building.
MiniDV tape is used to capture the Odoriko strip theatre dancers in Japan in Yoichiro Okutani’s Odoriko. The low fidelity nature of the format often causes venue lights to bloom and spread softly over the image, giving the documentary a haziness that reinforces both the increasing rarity of the dancers, as well as the clubs’ societal status as an often-hidden part of cities carrying shameful connotations. The film’s proximate and respectful nature comes with a host of memorable fly-on-the-wall moments including one of the dancers discussing how she inherited the tradition from another, and a delicately filmed sequence where a suspended dancer learns moves against a black backdrop. The irony of a practice that’s becoming less and less visible existing within a space hidden from conventional view is not lost on Okutani, who builds a portrait of the women free from talking heads and outsider opinions.
Museums too are often a tumultuous site of visibility, exploring national identities and largely perpetuating unsustainable and expensive divisions in the art industry. But what does it mean for a museum to exist within a contested territory, on occupied land? In Feodora, Judith Abensour explores the unusual circumstances surrounding the opening of the Palestinian Bir Zeit museum in Ramallah. Amidst a landscape of rapid modernisation, the museum transforms from a hastily opened and empty building to holding a hurried exhibition about Jerusalem, with low-income workers picking up the slack from the wealthy curators. The museum exists on complicated ground both physically and metaphysically, and the film’s pacing gives voice to multiple viewpoints, whether its security guards who speak of the rejuvenated area’s vacantness, a Canadian-Palestinian activist who disagrees with the State as a concept, or the museum’s Director on his motivations and the fragmented nature of Palestinian art. Though the museum hopes to become a beacon of Palestinian identity, it still falls into the institutional pitfalls of the art world and the perpetuation of class divisions. Ultimately, there’s a sense that the menial workers are truly running the museum, patching together elements of incomplete artworks and enduring backseat driving from the affluent and oblivious curators. Abensour’s film stands as witness to how these established institutional difficulties are transplanted on top of the already volatile tensions between Palestine and Israel.
One of the aforementioned benefits of Cinéma du Réel’s 2021 edition was the close-knit feel of its International and French selections. Whilst other online festivals continue to group works in often-confusingly named and loosely formed strands, it can often meander towards exhausting ways of consuming new work. Amidst all the challenges of the pandemic, the landscape of viewing and consuming film has dramatically changed, and it is easy to view the increased access to content as a plus. But with too much on offer in a short window, viewing experiences can become muddy and tiring, permeating a sense of constantly trying to keep up with everything that presents itself as a click away. And that problem exists on top of the foggy sense of malaise many of us are feeling during these times. Succinct and tight programs feel more digestible, whilst still giving the viewer enough to ponder. At Cinéma du Réel this year, the films had a bit more malleability around each other, allowing connective threads to blossom a bit more naturally, something which I have hopefully demonstrated in this round up.
Cinéma du Réel
12-21 March 2021
Festival website: https://www.cinemadureel.org/