New Caledonia may be far from the glitz and glamour of Cannes, Sundance, Venice and the rest, but that is exactly what makes the festival Ânûû-rû Âboro so special. Named for the Paicî expression for cinema that translates as shadows of man, Ânûû-rû Âboro bills itself as a “documentary film festival” in English, but more precisely in French as a “festival international du cinéma des peuples” – an international festival of peoples’ cinema. This year’s 11th edition included “shadows” from five continents and 28 countries, which were projected in 30 tribal villages, as well as cultural centres, a hotel and a prison.
Upon first glance, Ânûû-rû Âboro appears like a shadow of more famous festivals, projected onto an island in the South Pacific. Films are organised into local (New Caledonia), regional (Pacific) and international competitions, juried by distinguished guests. But scratch the surface and you see something truly exceptional, unique in the world of cinema. For example, while Ânûû-rû Âboro’s opening and closing ceremonies serve the usual functions – to thank overworked staff, allow politicians and sponsors to share the limelight, and award prizes – they also serve as potlatch-like ceremonies between filmmakers and hosting tribes: an exchange of gifts, words and intentions that locals call the coutûme. Two directors who speak un français accenté represented our international tribe of cineastes in the opening coutûme: the Argentine Alejandro Moujan and myself, Charles Fairbanks, an American who resides in Mexico. We thanked the tribes for inviting us onto the land of their ancestors; we declared that ours is not a cinema of Hollywood, nor of Bollywood, but a cinema of resistance: a cinema that strives to approach human experience, witness oppression, and resist injustice. Local chiefs responded on behalf of their tribes, affirming that indeed “we are resisting – not only through Ânûû-rû Âboro, but also in our effort to build a Kanak nation,” Kanak being the term for all native inhabitants of New Caledonia.
As at many festivals, mealtimes here are convivial: filmmakers break bread with tribespeople and the wider public, as they get to know each others’ respective customs and cultures. But Ânûû-rû Âboro does not hire catering; meals are provided by hosting tribes who receive cash (from the public) or tickets (from visiting filmmakers) they can exchange for cash. The food is often delicious and always interesting; the best are French-inspired recipes made with local ingredients, such as taro and plantain au gratîn, snail salade, and deer daube. Enterprising locals sell fresh coconuts to drink, for which they gladly accepted our bottled water tickets, valued at 100 Pacific Francs (about 1 dollar). In this way, meals nourish guests as well as the local economy: for tribal chefs, this is a rare opportunity to earn some dough. Otherwise, tourism is scarce in this region; the biggest cash crop – marijuana – is illegal; the only consistent work available to rural Kanak people is in the nickel mine.
Nickel accounts for 75% of New Caledonia’s exports and a big chunk of GDP; it’s the only major industry in the rural Northern Province, where Ânûû-rû Âboro is centred. The festival is financed almost entirely by the Northern Province government – which is to say, by nickel mining – so it, too, is vulnerable to the whims of commodity prices. When the price of nickel goes down (and it’s been in decline since America’s subprime mortgage bubble burst in 2007, spawning a global financial crisis and the Great Recession) the festival budget takes a hit, as do the miners and their families back in the villages. It’s unsurprising then that mining is a consistent subject among selected documentaries.
Martin Chouracki’s Le taureau et l’igname (The Bull and the Yam) documents the final stages of transition to democracy in a New Caledonian mining town, where the balance of power is swinging from loyalists of France’s colonial regime, to separatists and Kanak nationalists. Despite the anticolonial fervour of some, Kanak youth are disaffected in the face of foreign control of the local mine: “they take our land” – literally, as the unrefined, nickel-rich soil is hoisted onto Japanese ships – “and we get nothing”.
The Panguna Syndrome (d. Alexandre Berman & Olivier Pollet) documents the struggle of another native population in the Pacific – this one on the island of Bouganville – to develop economically and democratically when rich and powerful nations are invested in their minerals. Until the late 20th century, Bouganville society was matriarchal: women owned all property until their Australian governers – and a calculating army of mining companies – undermined this custom. As illustrated by an extraordinary montage of archival footage, Bouganville men were seduced by bribes and enslaved by materialism. Years later, the mine’s effluvia included vast amounts of inequality, corruption and pollution, which eventually catalysed a brutal civil war. Now that Bouganville is approaching an independence referendum, foreign mining interests and local politicians have conspired to re-open the mine, this time with protection from a 500-page mining law bankrolled by Australian Aid, and drafted by Canberra University law professors with the London-based neoliberal consultancy Adam Smith International. Passed quietly into Bouganvillian law, the Mining Act imposes draconian punishments for any action that interrupts or interrogates the mining company’s production – including alluvial mining, which is how most Pangunans eke out a living. But the film’s charismatic hero, Dr Ruth Saovana-Spriggs, is on a mission to educate her fellow Bouganvillians about this Machiavellian law, and what’s really at stake in the upcoming vote for independence.
Hotel Coolgardie (d. Pete Gleeson) is an ethnography of libidinal masculinity, boozing and cussing in an Australian mining town. The film focuses on Finnish girls who take a bartending job at the eponymous hotel, whose patrons see the girls’ stint as an excuse for competitive flirting and bad pick-up lines. Presenting Coolgardie in a tribal screening at the end of the festival, Gleeson preempted his film with an apology: “I’ve screened in the USA, Australia and Europe, but here – after experiencing your tremendous warmth and kindness – its crass language and subject matter feel out of place.” But the tribal audience thoroughly enjoyed Coolgardie, likely because many have brothers, sons and uncles who work and live in mostly-male mining towns.
This was Hotel Coolgardie’s first non-English language festival, probably because its deeply accented, profanity-laced, back country jargon is a bear to translate. This work was done by Ânûû-rû Aboro’s one full-time staff member, the indefatigable Thaïs Dumas, who personally translated and subtitled six films for the 2017 festival.
Subtitles are key to the success of Ânûû-rû Âboro, as New Caledonian natives speak 40 different languages and multiple dialects of each. Colonisation made French the lingua franca between tribes, and literacy hovers around 98%, which makes it uniquely possible for this polyglot region to collectively host, understand and discuss films from all over the world. In 2017, selected films spoke at least 27 languages from 28 countries – all of which were presented with French subtitles.
Because Ânûû-rû Âboro is not pitched at the film industry, and because spectators bring different worldviews to the screenings, post-film discussions were often revealing and always fascinating. The festival’s unflappable translator, Olivier Roth, masterfully translated spectators’ diatribes and digressions, which allowed filmmakers from around the world to engage with the multicultural francophone audience. Indeed, one of the many delights of screening at Ânûû-rû Âboro is to discover how one’s work is apprehended by local populations. My own film provoked remarkably divergent reactions.
The Modern Jungle (Charles Fairbanks & Saul Kak, 2016), is a portrait of globalisation focused on a Mexican shaman, don Juan, who falls under the spell of a pyramid-scheme-marketed nutritional supplement. His neighbour Carmen lives in harmony with the land her martyred husband paid for with his life. Filmed in the Zoque region of Chiapas, an early scene shows Carmen gathering and preparing snails, which drew excited commentary from a tribal audience: “What a great recipe! We have snails like that too – I’ll prepare them like this!” The Modern Jungle also becomes a meditation on the documentary encounter when Juan demands that I pay for his entry into the pyramid scheme. These negotiations have proven consistently provocative, and French expatriates were deeply unsettled. Kanak spectators, however, were unperturbed: they defended these scenes against the expat critics since they make class difference – between the documentary director and his subjects – visible in the film itself.
While The Modern Jungle deals primarily with the cultural effects of rapacious global capitalism, Dusk Chorus and Be Jam Be deal with its environmental consequences. Dusk Chorus (d. Alessandro D’Emilia & Nika Saravanja) beautifully documents an acoustic ecologist’s work in the Amazon, where the effects of global warming are inscribed in the soundscape. According to David Monacchi, animals in a healthy ecosystem will occupy the entire spectrum of sound. But the now-ubiquitous oil wells and pipelines create a constant rumble, which mutes, confuses, and ultimately threatens animals that sing in that range. The resultant extinction of frogs, bats, birds and insects heralds an ecosystem out of whack.
Be Jam Be (d. Caroline Parietti & Cyprien Ponson) is an extraordinary portrait of Penan people in the Sarawak region of Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. The filmmakers follow a grassroots resistance movement against the companies that are cutting the forests, polluting the rivers, and devastating the Penan’s nomadic way of life. Be Jam Be opens with a monologue to the camera, in the dark, with a flashlight: “You say ‘make a film.’ In penan we say ‘shadows’. Here’s a shadow. It can be big or small. You can play with it, like this. You like the shadow of the Penan? Our shadow is beautiful.” Here and throughout the film, Penan testimony consists of poetic parables and ritual chants that are recited at once for the filmmakers, for the future, and for the world:
This is not a song about happiness. This is a song about our forests and rivers. They were our lives and now they are ravaged by the companies. This is the only time when our voice can carry and be heard; then it will vanish if no one out there hears, and we will die because of the companies. This is why we tell this, so our voice may reach you. After this song we will be killed, the companies will come and slit our throats.
Be Jam Be lasts 87 minutes by one measure, but it’s also timeless: in the words of the filmmakers, it’s a song with no end.
Deeply moved by such a wide range of films, I began to speculate how this “festival of peoples’ cinema” defines itself in practice, and a few criteria came into focus. To start with, many selected films from faraway lands resonate with local experience. While the New Caledonian doc Le retour d’Ataï (The Return of Ataï, d. Mehdi Lallaoui) follows the French restitution of a Kanak chief’s skull 136 years after he was killed for leading an insurrection, an Argentinian film Damiana Kryygi (Alejandro Fernandez Mouján, 2015) documents the repatriation of a young girl’s remains to the Aché community in Paraguay, from which she was kidnapped by marauding white settlers in 1896. Her story – which can stand for so many others – gives dark insight into the ways anthropology and medical science helped justify race-based slavery, exploitation and policies of extermination. Also echoing local histories and colonial relationships, Solitary Land (d. Tiziana Panizza) compiles – and blurs the boundaries between – anthropological, medical, mythological and promotional films made on Easter Island, as it documents Chilean exploitation, international fetishisation and the native Rapa Nui people’s struggle for rights and autonomy.
Another conceptual thread of the program appears to be personal and poetic takes on current events. Christmas Island is no holiday for refugees seeking asylum on this Australian territory; The Island (d. Gabrielle Brady) bears witness to their stories, and to the irony of a prison psychologist paid to listen, while the state – her employer – refuses to grant asylum hearings. Italian theatre director Pippo Delbono also filmed refugees in a detention centre, though Vangelo (2016) punctuates their testimony with reenactments of The Last Supper, and other pungently resonant biblical scenes. Tatiana Huezo expertly intertwines the testimonies of two women – a customs agent and a circus clown – in a devastating portrait of Mexican lawlessness, impunity, and corruption in Tempestad. Dugma (The Button, Paul Salahadin Refsdal, 2016) is a searching, deeply human and occasionally funny portrait of Al Qaeda soldiers in Syria, as they wait for their numbers to come up in the long waitlist for suicide missions. A Norwegian veteran-cum-journalist, Refsdal took his Muslim name Salahadin when he converted while held hostage by the Taliban. His extraordinary rapport with these would-be combatants / terrorists drew extensive praise and criticism from French expats in the Q&A, but the truest – and least partisan – assessment came from a Kanak spectator, who praised the film for its humanity.
Finally, many selected films deal with universal themes: topics that are eminently relatable, despite the distance and difference of the cultures depicted. Such films include: Boli Bana (d. Simon Coulibaly Gillard), a gorgeously cinematic portrait of youth in a nomadic tribe from Burkina Faso; Oh Brother Octopus (d. Florian Kunert), a short from Indonesia that documents the belief in octopus brothers to evince connections between spiritual alienation and materialism, urbanisation and environmental degradation; Close Ties (Zofia Kowalewska, 2016), a Polish short focused on a recently-crippled husband’s bumbling attempts to make amends for a lifetime of womanising; and Communion (Anna Zamecka, 2016), also from Poland, which follows a remarkably resilient teenage girl, Ola, who cares for her severely autistic brother since their mother abandoned them with their alcoholic father. While Ola yearns to be carefree like her teenage peers, the protagonists of The Grown-Ups (Maite Alberde, 2016) long for adult responsibilities. Set in a Chilean school for people with down syndrome, Alberde brilliantly dramatises the desires and frustrations of 50 year-old “students” learning to be “conscious adults” in a society that won’t grant them full rights and privileges – like marriage or bearing children – even if they manage to live on their own.
By now you may wonder – as I did – how such a remarkable festival came into being. Ânûû-rû Âboro was founded in 2007 by its current director René Boutin, who also watches every submitted film (2,400 in 2017), leads programming decisions, designs the poster and website (unique for each edition) and produces the festival with a one-person staff. A child of both French and Kanak heritage, Boutin grew up in the rural regions of Xârâcùù and Moindou. His earliest memory is of seeing Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963) when he was two. By six this precocious cinephile earned his admission to the open-air screenings by climbing niaouli trees to help hang the projection screen. As a young artist in the 1980s, Boutin was drawn to video as a way to “challenge the image, cinema, and television”. Meanwhile, New Caledonia was in the throes of political crisis, as Kanaky cultural and political nationalists began to resist French colonial rule, most notoriously in “the Events”, an episodic civil war that lasted from 1984 to ’88. By 2005, Boutin was at a crossroads in his art practice: he wanted to “escape the gallery, make meaning instead of objects, and organise encounters between people.” More than that he yearned to “produce an artwork through which [he] – as the author / artist – could disappear.” When the Northern Province of New Caledonia decided to create a festival, Boutin saw his chance “to make meaningful artistic and human encounters, develop citizenship, and fight against all kinds of discrimination and prejudice.”
After a week of excellent films, tribal screenings and deep conversations – not to mention hikes, waterfalls and snorkelling off a deserted island – we reluctantly made our way to the closing ceremony. Jury president Thierry Garrel (who, by the way, is a knighted member of the French Order of Arts and Letters for his work in documentary) awarded the competition prizes: handsomely carved New Caledonian sculptures, each one unique. After a reverent coutûme and further expressions of gratitude between our tribe of filmmakers and the Kanak people, Garrel accorded one more recognition. There was no trophy or prize money, but its presentation was most reverent: “I’ve been to countless festivals, but there really is none like this. I’d sincerely like to present René Boutin with the award for Best Film Festival Director!” Visitors and villagers burst into applause. Hearts bursting with emotion and bellies full of wine, we tucked into the feast prepared by our hosting tribes: pit-roasted wild boar, countless fish, plantains, taro, and so much more. Together for one last night, our tribes feasted, chatted and danced until dawn.
Festival international du cinéma des peuples Ânûû-rû Âboro
13-21 October 2017
Festival website: http://www.anuuruaboro.com