In Paris, during the grey and wintry month of March, dazzling colours and geometric patterns on the famous glass and steel façade of the Centre Pompidou announced the Vasarely exhibition on the building’s top floor. But solidly ensconced on the ground floor another equally anticipated cultural event welcomed the world and its images for an exciting series of screenings, debates and encounters, in a festive cheerful, festive atmosphere.

Founded in 1978 by Jean-Michel Arnold and Jean Rouch with the aim of promoting the ethnographic, anthropological and sociological documentary, Cinéma du Réel has been evolving over the years, continually expanding its own boundaries.  After a period of uneven and nebulous programming, Cinéma du Réel has had to reinvent itself in recent years. In an increasingly competitive festival landscape, it stands somewhere between FIDMarseille, which pushes for a daring hybridisation of genres and formal rigour, and Les États généraux du Film Documentaire, located in the rural village of Lussas and characterised by a socio-political approach and demanding theoretical debates. In 2018, for her sole year as Artistic Director Andréa Picard presented a remarkable 40th anniversary of the festival, leaving a personal imprint with her significant commemorative book Qu’est-ce que le Réel?.

The 41st edition marked a turning point for the Cinéma du Réel, with the arrival of its new director Catherine Bizern, who took over from Picard.  Bizern, currently a teacher (Ateliers Varan) and documentary producer, was an early member of Addoc, the association of French documentary filmmakers, later a co-founder of the Rencontres du Cinéma Documentaire and the director of the prestigious festival Entrevues de Belfort. With this solid experience behind her and a vast knowledge of documentary cinema, she is ready to overturn the status quo and create the conditions for a new beginning.

“For me the core of documentary cinema is the story (récit), not to be confused with the narration”. explained Bizern in an interview she did with me.This is the notion I want to revive by putting forward the idea of storytelling as opposed to the truly formal aspect of the creative device (dispositif). Aesthetics are the trademark of a demiurge who imposes his personal filter on reality and observes that reality through it but, in my eyes, in order to be ‘cinema’, a film that favours the formal element must also really tell us about something!”.

Far from being an empty shell, or a self-referential aesthetic, the documentary, as a bearer of meaning through story, is a political act. Bizern’s two new non-competitive sections of the festival clearly reflected this notion. The sidebar, Popular Front(s), evoked the words of Georges Didi-Hubermann: “the disturbing power of images” and “the ability of images to disturb power”,1 with a selection of ten films that explored the documentary’s vocation to bear witness to historical-social reality and become an instrument for condemnation and vindication.  The section, The Making of Cinema, by contrast, investigated the enigma of creation with 20 thought-provoking works, including famous “making of” films, author portraits and the filmmakers’ recorded correspondence.

Another novelty in this year’s edition mirrored Bizern’s concern with revealing the essential power of creativity beyond formal categorisations. She decided to distill the different competitive sections of the festival into two blocks; the international and the national competition, which both included, for the first time, formats of varying lengths and debut films.  Furthermore a series of auteur-focused programs presented an important retrospective of American filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson’s work, a tribute to Robert Kramer, the world premiere of Le Village, the French documentary series by Claire Simon, and a special program of Yolande Zauberman’s documentary features, all in line with the inquisitive, demanding and committed spirit of the festival.

Whether transcribing mass movements of an entire society in revolt, peacefully observing groups of individuals in their daily lives or studying a single character, each filmmaker’s journey traced out a new story, exposing our living conditions and forcing the state of things to be questioned.

Filming the real world means telling a story. But what happens when reality is observed by more than one person? How much authenticity and truth can there be with multiple visions? What selection criteria should be used for a mass of material shot around the same event, and how should it be ordered? Presented in the section, Front(s) Populaires, Videograms of a Revolution (1992), the seminal work by Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică, emblematically tackles all these questions and examines the documentary’s capacity to become a tool for historical writing.  In his presentation to Cinéma du Réel’s audience, Andrei Ujică described the work as an essay, as well as an attempt to redefine the edited film. In fact, to reconstruct the Romanian revolution and fall of Ceaușescu, covering the events of 21 to 25 December, 1989, Farocki and Ujică were able to make use of about 125 hours of film footage from a variety of sources: amateur video sequences, official Romanian television images, images from a team of foreign reporters, and other images shot by Romanian professional operators who had joined in the revolt. In their exemplary editing, Farocki and Ujică tried to organise all these scattered shreds of reality into a chronological order using an off-screen voice to explain and comment on the various sequences. But they also intentionally added a series of disturbing elements – frozen images, incrustations, zooms, repetitions of the same scene from different points of view – which destabilised the narration and an univocal interpretation of the facts. As Antoine Prost notes in his treatise, Twelve Lessons about History:

It is not the accumulation of available images that make history, nor the state of their stock that organises a memory, but rather the questions raised by the documentary that seek out and resurrect some parts, reproduce them, compare and reinterpret them in a new light, enriched by recent discoveries and a set of problems that provide a structure. It is solely the question that constructs the historical object through an original découpage in the limitless universe of available facts and documents.2

In Videograms of a Revolution, Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică question historical events through the complexity of their editing. By creating a network of unprecedented associations, they bring into play a polyphony that invites us to reflect not only on the events themselves but also on the way they are represented and the possibility of representation itself.

Videograms of a Revolution (Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică, 1992)

At the opposite end of this spectrum, in Bewegungen eines nahen Bergs (Movements of a Nearby Mountain)winner of the Grand Prix du Réel – Sebastian Brameshuber builds his story by quietly observing a single man and his work. This man is Clifford, a robust, proud, self-confident Nigerian who, with tenacity and a good business sense, has managed to build a used car and spare parts business in Austria. He runs his enterprise in a huge hangar in an abandoned industrial area near Mount Erzberg, a 100 year-old mine that produced iron, the raw material used to make cars. Although anchored in the rough concreteness of a manual labour process, the film seems to move towards a dimension that is almost out of time, as much a part of the present in a reality dominated by globalisation as it is a part of the mountain’s archaic and legendary past. With great formal elegance, Brameshuber offers us a meditative film about how a man has achieved dignity through a passion for his work.

A sense of measure and respect defines Brameshuber’s relationship to Clifford. The director always films him from a certain distance – medium and wide shots dominate most of the film – and manages to be in tune with his character, transforming everything he observes into narrative material. In Clifford’s huge hangar-garage, the harshness of daily work takes on the majesty and sacredness of a ritual.  The cars that he is energetically working with are like living organisms: they are cared for, if they can still be used, or dismembered as animal carcasses would be, once they are “dead”. The engine, a heart that continues to beat, is extracted, cleaned and prepared for resale. There are moments when we see the man take a break and have a rest on a double car seat in the centre of the garage, like a sofa in the centre of a living room.

A solitary man of few words, Clifford seems to be economically self-supported. Without ever being forced to the foreground, the difficulty of living in a country so far from his homeland, the need to adapt to a different mentality, the loneliness and the gap between the first and third world, only appear as filigree in the film’s images but, in fact, this is the painful heart of it. Cliff’s hangar is implanted in a kind of limbo on the city’s extreme outskirts, and subtly pervaded by a nostalgia for a distant continent. The seasons flow by seamlessly, one after another, and seem to randomly blend together. The notion of time expands in the same way as the sound does and, shifting from one sequence to the next, this creates a constant sensation of dystopia.

Bewegungen eines nahen Bergs (Movements of a Nearby Mountain, Sebastian Brameshuber)

In the last surprising part of the film, shot in Nigeria, Clifford returns to sell his spare parts on the local market. The atmosphere is one of mystery. Once he has finished his business, he follows a winding path into the bush, and when night falls, we find him busy looking at his mobile phone on the edge of a road, in complete darkness. The sound of crickets fills the atmosphere. With a clean cut, we are back in Austria, in winter. While the sound of crickets, like an endless lament, persists over the images of the snowy landscape, we are overwhelmed by a poignant sense of loneliness and nostalgia, equal to Clifford’s.

The subject of Movements of a Nearby Mountain resonates clearly in Kevin Jerome Everson’s filmic universe, as seen in the festival’s extensive retrospective of his work. A visual artist, teacher and exceptional filmmaker, Kevin Jerome Everson has a unique ability to create a vast chronicle of the African-American community in the United States, filming everyday life with rigour and perseverance. The director’s presence at Cinéma du Réel was crucial to understanding his work and vision, and his insightful and subtly humorous masterclass was an unforgettable experience.  In an almost obsessive artistic practice – his filmography includes as many as 114 films of varying length, from one minute to eight hours – Everson finds constant inspiration in the ordinary deeds and gestures of his fellow citizens. Whether his subjects are involved in occasional activities or their working lives, the director approaches them with a participatory curiosity and unique aesthetic vision. When he is filming, he is always at eye level with his subjects.

Favouring the elegant austerity of black and white film, Everson shoots in both digital and celluloid. The real-time length of a 16mm magazine, about 11 minutes, often becomes the unit of measurement for a sequence shot. The essence of his inimitable style is the duration. His films are organised around a composition of sequence shots, each one dedicated to a single action. He films these often common, ordinary gestures in their full duration with all their repetitions, eventually achieving a level of abstraction that projects them beyond their mere factuality. A temporal or spatial gap often disconnects the image from the sound, creating a disruptive sensation. At times the soundtrack is interrupted by stretches of absolute silence, as if the film were holding its breath.

Based on a phenomenological practice, Everson’s cinema focuses on action; words are consigned to an acoustic background that only occasionally allows us to understand its meaning. In this essentially non-verbal universe, the director lets interspersed sequences of dialogue emerge; we are unexpectedly in the midst of a discussion between friends or surrounded by the chatter of work colleagues.

Calibrated in a kind of counterpoint, all these elements become part of a larger composition which moves forward through short narrative units, often revealing its ultimate meaning only in the final sequence. In this journey from the specific to the universal, and behind the portrait of every single African-American worker, the filmmaker reveals the set of economic and socio-political conditions that determine the existence of an entire community.

Quality Control (Kevin Jerome Everson, 2011)

In Quality Control (2011), he observes and records the entire process inside a big dry-cleaning company in Alabama. It is a fine example in this regard.  In a series of six sequences that extend throughout the film, Everson, with camera in hand, films various employees, each responsible for a specific aspect of the dry-cleaning process. All these tasks are performed with care and skill.

The often-repetitive movements are filmed in their full duration. Amidst the deafening noise of the various machines, a small radio plays a Barry White song, lightening the mood. There are many smiling faces. We can understand the looks of complicity and, despite the incessant rhythm of assembly line work, the atmosphere is relaxed. In the last key sequence of the film, a woman in charge of the final inspection of cleaned garments explains, not without pride, the countless details that make dry cleaning a quality job.

Neither heroes nor victims, nor curious exotic objects, in Kevin Jerome Everson’s films, black women and men are portrayed as ordinary citizens, going about their daily lives. Refusing to focus on African Americans as a group of oppressed, done wrong-by people, the director has set in motion a true Copernican revolution. The whole political scope of Everson’s work lies in this artistic vision.

Tonsler Park, filmed in 2017, is, in this sense, his most emblematic film. During the elections, the filmmaker went to four election offices in Tonsler Park, a predominantly African-American neighbourhood in Charlottesville, Virginia, to film local employees responsible for carrying out the various functions of the electoral process. The image is dense, tight, saturated with bodies: in the foreground we see citizens who have come to vote and who, passing by, occasionally knock the lens out of focus thus creating a flickering effect. At the centre of the frame, seated behind a table, the series of protagonists in the sequence shot take up the field of vision. The sound is disconnected from the person we are looking at. This device sharpens our power of observation. A gallery of intense and vibrant portraits unfolds before our eyes. In a span of 11 minutes, each face that passes in front of the lens ends up becoming familiar.

Tonsler Park (Kevin Jerome Everson, 2017)

The mimicry, the gazes, the gestures, the way each individual interacts with those around them, the care they takes in their appearance, all these details tell a concrete story that goes far beyond the flat surface of the image and speaks to us of social extraction, living conditions and aspirations. Dignity and self-worth shine through in the commitment, dedication and kindness with which these officials carry out their tasks. This kind of work, which is not particularly valued in the United States, is done mostly by African-American citizens, in other words, people who are still combatting prejudice and marginalisation, despite their increased visibility in mainstream US culture. By putting these employees at the centre of his observation, Everson not only makes them highly visible again but also points out the crucial importance of their work for the democratic functioning of the country. Tonsler Park is a silent but no less powerful accusation against a state that, even today, still permits discrimination towards a huge segment of its citizens.

Starting from the same anthropocentric point of view as Everson, Yolande Zauberman, a French filmmaker of Jewish origin, has created a singular and exciting opus over the years. The special program dedicated to her was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of this year’s Cinéma du Réel. The director’s extraordinary liveliness, generosity and passion when discussing her films electrified and deeply moved the festival’s audience.

“The discovery of neo-realism, when I was a girl, literally turned my world upside-down,” explained the director. “Watching all those films, I told myself: they went and filmed the cities in ruins. I’m going to go and film the psychological ruins, our memories, and superimpose a sweet beautiful image onto the unbearable one that is inside our heads.”

 Zauberman’s approach to her subjects is deeply committed and intensely personal. While keeping her characters’ stories in the foreground, she is never a detached and distant observer but puts herself into the field, body and soul, with no safety net. The ethical and political dimension of her films is based on this reciprocity.

Her main ally is the night. At night, the heroes of her films seem to rise from nothing, like epiphanies, illuminated by a timely light or only a flashlight beam. In the darkness, tongues loosen and recount life experiences, thoughts, traumas and outrages, doubts and hopes in a gesture that is a revelation and a salvation at the same time. Her camera moves in as close as possible to the bodies and faces but, rather than scrutinising them, seems to embrace them. The footage is sometimes fuzzy and unstable. Faces in the foreground are filmed sideways or partially cut off by the frame’s edge. But all of this takes nothing away from their intensity and truth. Filming her characters in a sensual way, the director reveals all of their pain but also their disarming humanity.

In Jew in the Water (2005) Zauberman inaugurates her nocturnal approach with a single character, the writer and journalist Selim Nassib, her collaborator and accomplice for years. This film, with a falsely improvised look, shot on a Jaffa terrace on a summer night with little light and an image that is often misty, portrays an uncommon storyteller. The story develops around the experiences of this man, with complex and multiple identities, who is witnessing a crucial moment in the history of the Middle East. His story, shot with him looking directly into the camera and told in a low persuasive voice, is like a confession and creates intimacy. Nassib’s words foreshadow all the basic subjects that run through Zauberman’s work: what does it mean to belong to a particular people, or race? What are the consequences? Is it possible to overcome these hurdles? How and at what price?

Yolande Zauberman probes all these questions during a long night ramble around Tel Aviv’s nightclubs and bars, asking everyone she meets point-blank: “Would you have sex with an Arab?”, a question that becomes the title of her 2012 documentary. Running on a razor’s edge, the director infiltrates every corner with impressive energy, challenging the dancing bodies and the ear-splitting music by shining a torch in the faces of those she is questioning in the darkness of the clubs. Her question is occasionally formulated in the opposite sense as well: “Would you have sex with an Israeli Jew?” By targeting the sphere of sexuality, here Zauberman pokes at the intimacy of the people interviewed, cruelly laying bare the deepest roots of the identity issue. The result is a polyphonic story in which the surprisingly revealing testimonials of each and every one make up the larger picture of the implications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Under the false guise of a wild reportage, Would You Have Sex with an Arab? is an incisive apology of tolerance.

All of these elements come together in an exemplary way in Zauberman’s latest feature film,  M (2018), which this year inaugurated the Cinéma du Réel. M is a film that cuts like a knife. The story follows the protagonist, Menahem Lang, during a long night journey through Bnei Barak, an ultra-Orthodox enclave of Tel Aviv.

M (Yolande Zauberman, 2018)

M begins at the story’s mid-point. Magnetic, intense, extroverted Menahem rises up, like a vision, on a deserted beach, singing psalms. His gaze pointed towards the camera he tells us his story: a victim, during his childhood, of sexual abuse by various members of his community, after 15 years of absence, he decides to return to Bnei Barak to seek justice but also to re-establish his bond with his parents, violently broken following his departure. Present but invisible, Zauberman is at his side throughout this adventure that also becomes hers to some extent, an unexpected opportunity to reconnect with the deep roots of her Jewish-Polish origins. “I penetrate the world of my ancestors through a wound, that of Menahem,” she says in Yiddish during the first sequence. Now a rare language, Yiddish is the talisman that allows Zauberman, following the path of Menahem, to enter this secluded world. Like Dante and Virgil in the circles of hell, during their nocturnal wanderings, Menahem and Yolande unexpectedly come across several men who are also wandering in the darkness, ready to share their experiences and their pain. The stories all proliferate around the same tragic starting point, the same secret, the same wound: rape suffered during childhood by one or more men of the community. Breaking the law of silence and liberating speech is the only way to heal the wounds of the victims, allowing them to rebuild and break the vicious circle in which they are prisoners, but this is only a first step: it is even more important that they become reconciled with themselves and the others.

Forgiving his torturers and renewing his ties with his family and community, Menahem is finally victorious as he leaves this confrontation with his past. The film closes with unbridled joy in the songs and dances of the hassidim in ecstasy, offering us a great lesson in humanity and hope.

“A film should change our lives – a bit, a lot, or fiercely, it doesn’t matter – but it must change our lives!” said Yolande Zauberman, in conclusion.

Cinéma du Réel
15-24 March, 2019
Festival website: http://www.cinemadureel.org

Endnotes:

  1. From “Quel pouvoir des images?”, Cinéma du Réel catalogue, p. 99, where Bizern quotes a piece Didi-Huberman published in Le monde des livres, ” Images-pouvoir ou images-désir”, 2 October 2018. Translation mine.
  2. Antoine Prost, Douze leçons sur l’histoire, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1996, p. 7. Translation mine.

About The Author

Maria Giovanna Vagenas is a curator and film critic based in Paris.

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