The Grain of the Real

Always the champion of the most cutting-edge documentaries from Asia, the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) presented two remarkable films by young Chinese women, which, albeit quite different, were equally labours of love, patience and passion. A world premiere, Jill Li’s 179-minute debut film Mi hang (Lost Course, Hong Kong 2019), shot over six years, was an impressive illustration of the value of the “long form” documentary. It brought me back to another exciting discovery I had made in Vancouver in 1991, the original, 150 minute version of Liulang Beijing – Zuihou De Mengxlangzhe (The Last Dreamers – Bumming in Beijing, 1990), through which Wu Wenguang brought the existence of a nascent movement, The New Chinese Documentary, to international attention and inadvertently introduced his colleagues to the aesthetics of Frederick Wiseman1 A few years later, Wang Bing’s 9 hour-long Tie Xi Qu (West of the Tracks, 2003), hailed abroad for “its radical way [of] opening a new era in cinema,”2 also became a point of reference for Chinese documentary filmmakers in their desire to delve into the multiple contradictions, stages and layers of a social phenomenon: the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake (Du Haibin’s 1428, 2009); the investigation of a fire that devastated a school hall (Xu Xin’s Karamay, 2010); or the fate of petitioners spending years to seek justice (Zhao Liang’s Shangfang/Petition, 2009 and Ma Li’s Jing sheng/Born in Beijing, 2012). Recently the long form has continued to morph in the direction of socio-political protests in the field of human rights or labour rights – with production units located in Hong Kong. Directed by Wen Hai and produced by Zeng Jinyan, Xiong nian zhi pan (We the Workers, 2017) is an acute witness of the slow, difficult, violent rise of labour activism in China, ending in the first collective bargaining instance. A process film, recording the minute moments, the unsung heroes, the steadfast, humble courage of a long, arduous, dangerous struggle – it does not end in a triumphant mood.

Lost Course (Jill Li)

Similarly, by naming her own film Lost Course, Jill Li, an award-winning investigative journalist specialised in civil rights issues, gives the audience little hope for a “happy ending”. Even though the villagers “righteously” start their action “in the name of Communism”, this is no Maoist teleological Long March, but a conflicting journey in unchartered waters. Finding out that their fertile lands by the seaside had been illegally sold by corrupt local officials, the inhabitants of the small coastal town of Wukan in Guangdong Province (pop. 20,000) launched a protest. An initial commotion repressed by the police took place on 21 September, 2011, giving way to a mass protest, and four people were arrested. One of them, Councilman Bo, died in detention, of a “heart attack”, days later. The first part of the film, “The Protests”, espouses the twists and turns of the “movement”, followed by a number of representatives of the foreign press as well; Li shows, in particular, the Chinese photojournalist Du Bin, working for the New York Times, (who was later, in June and July 2013, taken into custody by the Chinese government for his reporting on Masanjia Labor Camp in Liaoning Province). In hindsight, with the unfolding of the Hong Kong political crisis, the declarations of Party officials make you shiver: “Don’t make trouble, don’t break the law. Show the government you’re reliable and you are unlikely to be reckless. Then I won’t call the Armed Police… they are expensive… You trust foreign garbage media, garbage papers, garbage website… They’re waiting for chaos, for the collapse of socialism.”

Li dwells on the private/political dilemmas of a few individuals, such as Wan, Bo’s daughter, who gets her first taste of local politics, and Cheng’s younger brother, Xing, who hesitates between his commitment to activism and his desire to be an artist. Old Lin is an equally complex figure. After a standoff in December 2011, he accepts a closed-door meeting with Party officials, and comes back as the voice of reason and negotiation: “Bo wasn’t tortured to death,” he announces publicly. The strategy seems to pay off. Hong, Chao and Cheng, the three men arrested at the same time as Bo, are released. Elections are organised for the Wukan Village Committee on 11 February, 2012. A chilly reminder on the loudspeaker: “After voting, please disperse.” (“Illegal assembly” is a punishable offense in the PRC). Yet the protesting villagers win all seats, with Old Lin as Village Director and Party Branch Secretary. The foreign press leaves, job well done.

“After the Protests” starts in September 2012 on the anniversary of the 9/21 incidents. Realising that they still have not been compensated for the illegal sale of their land, and that, moreover, the sale continues, villagers accuse the Village Committee of bribery, and demand new elections. Some take immediate action and demarcate pieces of land for themselves. Hong, who had been elected to the Committee, resigns, opens a teahouse, then clandestinely leaves the country on Chinese New Year. Lin is becoming more and more ambivalent about the conciliatory role he had played. Local democracy is a never-ending struggle – with so many conflicts of interest, the role played by clans in the election, the divide between generations… In 2016, the land issue was still not resolved, and a new real estate development began on the edge of the village. Lin was arrested on “corruption charges” in June, which triggered an 85-day protest, repressed by an assault by the riot police and the arrest of several dozens villagers. Activists were sentenced to two to ten years of prison, for charges of “bribery”, “illegal assembly” or “disrupting public order”. Hong lives in New York. Xing left Wukan to open a music bar…. In spite of its sombre, sobering ending, the very existence of this film, and the fact that a spontaneous protest movement did take place, can still give you a glimmer of hope.

Even though the Dragons & Tigers competition, once the crown jewel of the VIFF, is no more, and the Asian films are split into several sections, the festival remains a treasure trove for East Asian, especially Chinese, cinema. Since Alan Franey stepped down as Executive Director in 2013 (while remaining Director of International Programming), under Jacqueline Dupuis’s helmsmanship, the VIFF has navigated a sometimes uncertain course between cinephilia, VR “immersive” events and high-priced live performances: Public Enemy’s Chuck D celebrating the 30th anniversary of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989); comedians Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington bickering about the films they loved – or didn’t; live scoring for Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975) and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984); a feminist reading and live performance of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959); a Pop-Up Magazine “night of live storytelling, music, art and performance” (no mention of film here). As it was announced that Dupuis would leave the festival after the 2019 edition, Franey was honoured with the medal of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République française for his support of French cinema. Tables may be turning again – as the future of film festivals at the age of small electronic screens is, more than ever, in the balance.

Cinephilia was well represented by Zhu Shengze’s third feature, Wan mei jin xing shi (Present. Perfect., China/USA, 2019), that had won the Tiger Award in Rotterdam. In 2010, Zhu and her collaborator, Yang Zhengfan, co-founded a small company, Burn the Film. Both artists produce each other’s films, and Yang’s first feature, the experimental documentary Yanfang (Distant, 2013), was shown in a few international festivals, including the VIFF. Zhu followed suit with the premiere of Xu jiao (Out of Focus, 2014) at Paris Cinéma du Réel and the documentary You yi nian (Another Year, 2016, Best Film at Switzerland’s Visions du Réel). A little over two hours, Present. Perfect. is an original take on ideas that have been seminal in Chinese documentary in the age of the internet – from visual artist/filmmaker Ou Ning’s 2004 hope of an unprecedented “image democracy”3 to Jia Zhangke’s concept of “images that cannot be banned”,4 to Huang Weikai’s Xianshi Shi Guoqu de Weilai (Disorder, 2009), an “unauthorised” portrait of the city of Guangzhou made of footage shot by a dozen amateur videographers. Present Perfect has been compared with visual artist Xu Bing’s Qingting zhi yan (Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, also shown at the VIFF), an experimental narration crafted by assembling footage compiled from hundreds of surveillance cameras. Yet the parallel stops short – at the level of authorship: surveillance cameras evidence the gaze of authorities over our lives, while Zhu Shengze is invested in the “staged spontaneity”, the messiness, the chequered production values, the ever-fluid balance between documentary impulse and the narcissistic/masochistic/mercantile desire to bring one’s voice, one’s vision, one’s image to (digital) attention. It is, indeed, as Jia foresaw as early as in 1998, the “age of amateur filmmaking” 5. In turn, as she is addressing a global phenomenon, Zhu is drawing as much a portrait of (post-)millennials’ relationship to the Internet, as she does of contemporary China. Available to anybody with a cell phone, live streaming can potentially overflow official images – and, as Zhou discretely reminds us, the powers-that-be are expressing concerns and attempting to monitor it. She selected and montaged 800 segments collected over a period of a few months – segments that seem to be coming from nowhere and out of everywhere. Some are borderline annoying or even creepy, but something of the real is irreducibly captured in them.

Wan mei jin xing shi (Present. Perfect., Zhu Shengze)

A case in point. We have seen countless cinematic examples of young women working in factories in the Chinese Delta, in Mexican maquiladoras, or other unsavoury manufactures. They are exploited, usually silent in the drone of the machines, bent over their work, victims or signifiers. Chatting is forbidden, and could have dire consequences, as shown in one of the episodes of Jia Zhangke’s Tian Zhuding  (A Touch of Sin, 2013). Guo Xizhi in Factory Youth (2016) brought a discordant view: among the footage taken by four of his female students embedded in a Shenzhen factory, he selected scenes of young workers chatting, flirting, texting… all of this on the job.6 Taking it one step further, factory worker Jinjiang “anchors” her own “showroom” and engagingly chats while sewing men’s underwear in a machine. “I am a little slower in my work, because I am doing this show” she says smilingly. In a later occurrence, she is seen blogging with a bright little girl at her side. It’s her sister’s kid, and, her parents being busy, they just left her with auntie-working-at-the-factory. Multitasking is a Chinese concept.

Other segments extol the wondrous capabilities of the anchors, who are trying to sell their skills, or maybe their bodies (in a gender-fluid ambiguous sequence). Others yet reshuffle or at least question the boundaries of what is permissible, or comfortable to show. A man disfigured by a fire keeps showing close-ups of his face. Another, born with physical disabilities, cheerfully exposes his reduced limbs and his difficulties at moving through space. We wouldn’t show somebody in this plight, wouldn’t we? But what about people who decide to display their wounds, their limitations, their ridicules, to a potential audience of billions of netizens? Where does self-portrait end and where does exploitation, commodification begin? Is the gaze less predatory because it is your own?

The Grain of the Surreal

Since her first documentary, Laotou (Old Men, 1999), former dancer/actress Yang Lina has tirelessly renegotiated the boundaries between the showable and the unshowable, the self and the other. Granted, she never appeared in the visual fields of her documentaries – yet she was always present as a voice at the boarder of the image, as the off-screen addressee. And so, through a magic of her own, whether she was showing senior citizens (Lao An/The Love of Mr. An, 2008) or the inmates of an orphanage growing from boyhood to young adulthood (Yecao/Wild Grass, 2009), her films were collateral portraits of herself. This seductive tension gave birth to her first narrative feature, Chunmeng (Longing for the Rain, 2013), which boldly stages women’s erotic fantasies, while opening up towards an unknown, surreal territory. A middle-class woman, married and the mother of a child, has vivid illusions of being possessed by an invisible lover. The lover may be a phantom, but the outrage of the husband is real when the heroine is distracted to the point of losing sight of her little girl. Cast out of the family and seeking refuge in a monastery, she starts gazing at an attractive young monk…

With Chunchao (Spring Tide, 2019) she makes a cinematic giant step. Also feeding on aspects of her personal experience (“as a mother and as a daughter”, she says in the program notes), she offers an achingly accurate rendition of the emotional space between three generations of women. In the role of the main protagonist, Guo Jianpo, an independent single mother and investigative journalist, one recognises the talented Hao Lei (revealed in Lou Ye’s Summer Palace). Balancing passionate involvement in her work (she is seen fighting the police’s lack of cooperation when reporting a case of sexual abuse in high school) and an unconventional love life (a casual relationship, bordering on S&M, with a musician as independent as she is), she entrusts most of the care of her nine year-old daughter Wantig (Qu Junxi) to her mother (the splendid Taiwanese veteran actress Elaine Jin Yan-ling, who has appeared in several movies by Edward Yang, as well as Stanley Kwan and Li Yu). Yang weaves a suspenseful chemistry laced with a multi-layered tension between mother and daughter, who embody two different moments of the history of China (while Wantig, in the mysterious, poetic and liquid ending, may be hailing toward its future.) Persecuted for being a single mother during the Cultural Revolution, the grandmother married Jianbo’s father, yet remained a staunch communist for the rest of her life – while her daughter has adopted a more critical stance. History repeats itself, as Jianbo is also a single mother but, as she texts sassily to a potential husband her mother has introduced her to, she has “no idea who the father is”. In their cramped dwellings, mother and daughter argue about everything: was Jianbo’s father a horrible husband or a sweet man who loved and understood his daughter? Was Jianbo stopped from getting an abortion by her mother? Moderating the emotional violence is the elderly Zhou, who falls in love with the grandmother, even as she admits, in one of these precious moments when Yang touches unspoken elements of the female condition, that she has not had sex in decades.

Chunchao (Spring Tide, Yang Lina)

Yang crafts the film like a documentary, with fine realistic touches in which she elegantly inserts oneiric or tender moments: the one-shot monologue by Jianbo in the hospital where her mother is resting; the water flowing from the stage onto the street. From the bickering between the women emerges a strange mirror effect: they are more alike than they realise, the angry mother, once damaged by society, may try to prevent Jianbo from committing the same mistakes, and hatred is closer to love than it seems… Yang Lina orchestrates the final flooding as an allusion to the hidden strength of women – opening a space for Wantig and her Korean schoolmate to play gaily in the water, away from all this repressed sorrow. Woman is the future of man…

In the opening sequence of in Pema Tseden’s outstanding new opus, Qiqiu (Balloon, 2019), two mischievous little boys run around in the grassland of Qinghai, carrying white balloons. Except these are not balloons, but inflated condoms they found under their parents’ pillows. Their father, Dargye (Jinpa),7 is not amused and bursts the offensive bubbles while the grandfather has no idea about what these “toys” are. The most embarrassed is Dargye’s wife, Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo – who was the sassy waitress standing up to Jinpa in 2018). In love with her “ram” of a husband, but already the mother of three sons, she would like to enjoy sex without worrying about the next pregnancy. Unfortunately, in this remote part of the Tibetan plateaus, the sympathetic female doctor who firmly suggests Drolkar that she thinks in terms of “my body myself”, has only two condoms left; one she keeps for herself, the other she gives to her friend.

Meanwhile, Drolkar’s sister Drolma, a young Buddhist nun, on her way to visit her family, stops at a school to pick up her nephew, the sullen teenager Jamyang (Dudul). There she unexpectedly runs into a young bespectacled teacher; in the awkward meeting that ensues, we understand that they were once a couple, but what he calls “a misunderstanding” drove them apart (and obviously caused her to join the monastery); he asks her to wait, and then returns with a gift: the book he has written about their story… Tseden inserts discrete clues that point at the significance of the nun’s trajectory. Drolma is dressed in a traditional manner, and wears a hat hiding most of her face, designed, however, in a way that would grace a fashion runway. And what is behind this alluring attire? No less than the actress Yangshik Tso, who was playing femme fatale to Tharlo (2015). In that film, she exuded a powerful, yet inscrutable and duplicitous physicality. While foregrounding Drolkar’s healthy sexuality, Tseden alludes to the complexity of her sister’s desires. We know nothing of her spirituality as a nun, but she carries her body with a sort of ethereal grace, as she was no longer belonging to this world. She clings, however, to the book that has been given to her, and intends to read it – once alone. When Drolkar finds it, she throws it into the fire, angered at what she perceives as the teacher’s past misconduct toward her sister. Without fuss, without a beat, without a cry, Drolma plunges her hands into the fire to retrieve the now-partially singed book. She will never read it, though; Drolkar will confiscate it again, and return it to its author.

The story of the nun – stoic, smiling, almost silent – is at the core of the delicate balancing act Balloon crafts between the material and the spiritual world. Instead of making films about Tibetan culture, Tseden films from the point of view of Tibetan culture, with a grace as bubbly and humorous as the inflated “toys” the two little brats keep flying over the plateau. They steal and inflate the one condom their mother had managed to secure at the clinic, triggering the anger of one of their manly neighbours (the comedian Shide Nyima, who had played Tharlo): “My daughter was so upset that she didn’t finish her dinner and left the table.” When the grandfather dies, a ceremony is organised to insure the survival of his soul. Drolkar finds she is pregnant again, but for Dargye an abortion is out of the question, for the unborn child must be a reincarnation of his father. He finally buys real red balloons in the city, but the kids don’t manage to hold on to them, in a bittersweet coda proving that Tseden has seen a film or two, and that, for the endangered Tibetan community, life and dreams are as fragile as a bubble.

It is also fragility that touches us in Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven. Apart from a few witty piques (and inside jokes) against the commercialisation/misrepresentation of the Palestinian situation in Western media (Vincent Maraval, the founder of Wild Bunch, one of the co- producers the film, plays a French producer telling Suleiman his project is “not enough about Palestine”), Suleiman’s stance is more poetic than demonstrative. Again he plays his double, ES, the permanently displaced traveller who looks at the “invisible” condition of being-Palestinian through a string of vignettes hovering between literal and surreal interpretations – but the younger, angrier body has aged, become more aloof, more bemused and sceptical since Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996). He does not protest, does not even speak, when his neighbour in Nazareth keeps coming to his garden to water and harvest his lemon trees: a political metaphor? Or another absurd moment? Later, two bearded macho-looking youngish men, wearing crew cuts and black suits, Rolexes on their wrists and rings on their fingers (Ali Suliman and Faris Muqabaa), rudely complain to an extremely polite restaurant owner (noted Palestinian actor George Khleifi): their sister (Yasmine Haj, sitting silently between them), has found the chicken soup to be acid. “This must be because of the white wine.” “Are you saying that our sister drank wine?” “Your sister didn’t, but the chicken did, as it soaked in the wine before being put into the soup.” Is the tension due to fundamentalist sexist boorishness (O woman thou shall not drink alcohol, but whiskey will be mine if offered as a compensation by a man I bullied) or a tale à la Arabian Nights in which the powerless uses his gift of the gab and the offering of presents to respond to the powerful? (Both patrons and restaurant staff are played by Palestinian actors, which thickens the plot).

When he travels to Paris, then to New York, the metaphor becomes heavier, the humour more grating, and in a time of #MeToo, the foregrounding of Suleiman-the-traveller’s gaze onto Parisian beauties passing by the so picturesque side-walk cafés may not have been a wise move. Whether Suleiman is a genuine sexist, or does not care to be taken for one, or does this precisely to irritate people, is anybody’s guess. Sometimes I get tired of Suleiman’s stance – as I am intrigued by it. Yet I found many moments in Heaven moving or even endearing. The lightest touch involves ES trying to write on his computer in his hotel room and being distracted by a bird flowing through the window. Having recovered from its emotions, the bird can’t think of anything better than applying its little feet onto the keyboard, again and again, to the irritation of the writer (I thought, from experience, that only cats did this, so I was grateful to ES to show that birds can be annoying on a keyboard too, and was chagrined to read that the feathered creature was a digital creation. Still the moment is precious.)

Post #MeToo, post-digital, post-militarisation of everyday life (and no, the plastic bag thrown by dubious characters under a car in Paris will not explode. Sometimes a plastic bag is just a plastic bag), yet opening onto an ever-receding future. Was it in New York that ES consulted a tarot reader? “I don’t see a Palestinian state during your lifetime, or mine.”

It Must Be Heaven (Elia Suleiman)

Once all is done and said – or not done and left unsaid – what “remains”, is, to quote another man in exile, Patricio Guzmán, nostalgia for the light – the point when it all becomes a question of cinema. Beyond the lemon trees, or the chicken cooked in wine, or the house filled with memories of people who have gone, what brings ES back to Nazareth is the quality of the light. In a series of quiet shots, he turns into the spectator of a mysterious scene – a young woman in the countryside, carrying something, and then something else, bathed in the late afternoon sun filtered through the foliage… This must be heaven.

The Grain of Light

Suleiman meant it as a joke (like the title of Yadon ilaheyya/Divine Intervention, 2002) – yet in cinema concerns about heaven and light have migrated from religion to aesthetics and even technical considerations (the lens, the aperture, the light metre…). The French title of Arnaud Desplechin’s Roubaix, une lumière (literally Roubaix: A Light, or, if you prefer A Light in Roubaix),8 is a powerful montage between two extreme entities: Roubaix, the French Detroit, with the highest rate of unemployment in France – and an almost mystical vision of light, embodied in the personality of Commissaire Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), the chief of police in a particularly blighted section of the city, for his patient understanding of the most difficult cases he handles. “Roubaix is a city I keep filming, yet with a sense of guilt”, says Desplechin. I grew up there, in this hub of Maghrebi immigration, and I don’t speak a single word of Arabic. How lame! It is as if I hadn’t lived my life. My characters are facing this question, which I had avoided during my entire childhood”.9 Guilt, light, police procedure: the three lines of force in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (a source of inspiration for the film, as was Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man).

Desplechin’s international recognition rests mostly on his complex, masterful, semi-autobiographical or fictionally-autobiographical morality tales, such as Comment je me suis disputé… (ma vie sexuelle) (My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into an Argument, 1996), Rois et Reine (Kings and Queen, 2004), Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale, 2008) or Trois Souvenirs de ma jeunesse (My Golden Days, 2015). When he strayed away  – in particular with the English-speaking films Esther Kahn (2000) and Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (2013) – some critics seemed to lag a couple of steps behind him (even though the films’ importance has now been recognised). As US reviewers, in particular, are keen on confining new Chinese cinema to a realistic (or even oppositional) depiction of the country, they often assign the sphere of the sophisticated psychological chamber drama to French cinema. With Roubaix, une lumière, Desplechin steps once more out of the comfort zone of some reviewers, while signing what may be one of his most personal work.

Eleven years ago, he became “haunted” after seeing Roubaix, commissariat central, affaires courantes (2007) by veteran filmmaker Mosco Boucault, a TV documentary described as “an unknown masterpiece of the documentary genre”,10 that had deeply impressed viewers for its live recording of a hard-won confession on the part of the two murderers11 Boucault had followed six cases handled by the team of Commissaire Abdelkader Haroune, offering not only a detailed account of the minute work involved, but a vision of Roubaix from the other side of the tracks. At the same time, Desplechin was completing his first (and so far only) documentary, L’Aimée (2007), about the demolition of his father’s house in Roubaix.

Roubaix, une lumière (Oh, Mercy, Arnaud Desplechin)

What Desplechin found in Boucault’s narrative, was “a pre-existing text, bigger than me, so I [could] focus on my passion: mise en scène”.12 This is what he did with a 1905 short story by the British writer Arthur Symons for Esther Kahn and with Georges Devereux’s 1951 book, Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian for Jimmy P. In Roubaix, une lumière, he alters the order of the sequences, changes people’s names, but, for the confession, keeps the original lines of dialogue – as in verbatim theatre.13

After documenting police work in a few routine cases – a baker, once a shepherd in Africa, is robbed at gunpoint for the nth time for a few francs; a teenage girl is victim of a serial rapist in the subway… – the film gradually refocuses on two young women living in a derelict courtyard, a single mother Claude (Léa Seydoux) and her lover Marie (Sara Forrestier). Investigating arson, Daoud and his team discover the body of an 83 year-old woman. She was killed for a can of cat food, a bottle of dishwashing liquid, and her television. The poor are killing the poor, and, through his method of firm but compassionate questioning, as the two women (who were probably high at the time of the murder) slip in their testimony, and start implicating each other, Daoud obtains a double confession and stages a lengthy reconstruction of the facts.

Once a thriving metropolis due to the boom of the textile industry in the 19th century, Roubaix, on the border of Belgium, spiralled down into a recession when the mills closed in the 1970s. In spite of its declining population (about 1/5 in a century), it is still the third largest urban centre in France. 40% of its population is made of immigrants, half of them of Maghrebi origin. Police captain Daoud spent his childhood in Roubaix, where he has remained, alone, after his entire family returned to the Algerian bled (village). “The question is not why they left, he says, but why I stayed”. As in Costa’s film (see below), the question of why one “stays” in the former colonial metropolis remains unanswered.14

Equally unexplained is the reason for which Daoud’s nephew is in jail, furious, alienated, refusing to see his uncle. Snippets of Daoud’s early life emerge here and there without providing a full-blown narrative. Looking for a runaway teenager (white French mother, Maghrebi father), he pays a visit to her uncle, a kind man, yet unassuming and worn out by hard work and poverty. “Your uncle is a prince”, he says gently to the girl. “We used to hang out together when we were young. We’d try to get into nightclubs in Lille, and they wouldn’t let us in. So we’d try another one, miles away…” A beggar prince…

Neither beggar nor prince, actor/director Roschdy Zem, is the light, and Desplechin is fond of saying he wouldn’t have made the movie without him. Although his family is from Morocco (another former French colony), his biography intersects with that of Haroune. Born in a project on the outskirts of Paris, he was selling blue-jeans at a flea market before seduced by theatre, and getting his first film roles with André Téchiné and Xavier Beauvois; in 2006 he was one of the stars in Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigenes (Days of Glory, 2006) and turned to directing the same year.15

Graced by Zem’s incandescent, yet precise, sensitive and understated performance, Roubaix, une lumière addresses dysfunctional aspects of French contemporary society (poverty, lack of integration of the different ethnic/immigrant groups) while stubbornly, elegantly, “betting on the existence of the soul…  What is magnificent in documentary is that you see to which extent people are trapped in social determinations. What is magnificent in fiction is that you see to which extent people are free… The spark within the protagonists is not hidden by the documentary, but it is fiction that sets it ablaze.”16 This spark is what Desplechin is intent on tracking – in the Commissaire’s soul as well as in the pitiful perpetrators of the murder. To craft Daoud’s personality he was inspired by the concept of rahmah, which, in the Quran, means compassion and mercy. He even invents a luminous passion for him: a fondness for horses. Daoud eventually acquires a magnificent stallion, a pure bolt of energy that concludes the film.

Also a meditation on light, Pedro Costa’s repeated return to “the Fontainhas community” that became the locus of his last five features is more complex. A now-vanished neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon, Fontainhas functioned as a magnet/refuge/shabby dwelling for immigrants of the former Portuguese colonies. In Costa’s films, the burden of exile is carried by the Cap-Verdeans living in Portugal, not by him. There may be guilt (I am not sure Portugal has digested its colonial past better than France has) – but no childhood memories. Indeed, Costa’s career took a sharp turn in 1997, when he directed his third feature, Ossos (Bones), a narrative bordering on documentary, in Fontainhas. Then something shifted, as Costa understood that the lighting brought with the 35mm film equipment was wrong. He started to use only available light, magnifying and sculpting it (sometimes using mirrors as reflectors). He also eschewed 35mm, to shoot in a more intimate way with digital cameras. His next film, No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room, 2000), revolved around Vanda Duarte, a young (and very talkative) drug addict, met on the set of Ossos, where her character was fictionalised. In the room, we meet the “real” Vanda – at least as she is (re)constructed by Costa’s mise en scène. For “the real” is an abstraction, what is happening off-screen: the inexorable destruction of Fontainhas, which is nearly completed at the end of No Quarto da Vanda. Yet Costa remained faithful to Fontainhas, “so long as we agree that the name refers to a community as much as to a place”.17 He had found his territory, he has found his tribe, he has found his light. Or they found him. Vanda, Ventura (the main protagonist of Juventude em Marcha/Colossal Youth [2006] and Cavalo Dinheiro/Horse Money [2014]), their relatives, friends, neighbours and (imaginary?) sons, were de facto demanding to be shot with a certain light. As was Vitalena Varela, the titular protagonist of Costa’s latest opus.

The question of light is not innocent. In 1933, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki wrote: “even when identical equipment, chemicals and film are used, how much better our own photographic technology may have suited our complexion, our facial features, our climate, our land”.[18 Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, Leete’s Island Books, Stone Creek CT, 1977, p. 9.] African and African American filmmakers had to struggle to find the best lenses and the best film stocks to accurately render the tone of black and brown skins. In Hollywood, DPs used to ask black performers (usually extras or bit parts) to cover their faces with Vaseline – to be more “shiny” – unable as they were to capture what Michael Sicinski describes as a “luminous black frame”, (when talking about Ventura in Colossal Youth).18

So what is at stake is not an obsessive return, but allowing the tribe and the light that have chosen you to claim you back. An enigmatic episode related twice in the Bible,19 illustrated by numerous paintings (Rembrandt, Delacroix, Gauguin), and even staged with panache by Godard in Passion (1982), is that of “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”. Depending on the versions, Jacob fights all night with the angel of light, or with an unnamed man, or with god himself. This is as good a definition of art (or cinema) as could be: wrestling with the light that has descended upon you. It could take a lifetime, and include a few roadblocks on the way to Damascus,20 but Costa’s genius was to have embraced this light as early as in his third feature. The wrestling never stops; in Vitalina Varela Costa uses “lights, tripods”, and shoots partially in Vitalina’s house, partially in interiors reconstructed in a studio21 – a novel strategy influenced by the availability of a new digital camera22 and the disappearance of the old Fontainhas.

A minor character in Cavalo Dinheiro – one of the people haunting Ventura from his past – Vitalina had arrived to Fontainhas from Cap Verde to attend the funeral of her husband who had deserted her years ago. She is three days too late. Costa reconstructs the funeral procession, and then Vitalina’s descent from the plane. The rest of the film, crafted in collaboration with the heroine, is a minute depiction of Vitalina’s life in the ramshackle house that belonged to her husband. For unexplained reasons, instead of returning to Cap Verde – represented by scenes shot in daylight – she stays in the Portuguese shantytown, where her life in enshrouded in darkness. The majority of the film is shot in the shadows of claustrophobic interiors, or in narrow streets at dusk or night. Costa refines his aesthetics, amplifying here the wonderment we had experienced when seeing In Vanda’s Room. A similar awe must have struck the people who discovered the 14 Black Paintings made by Goya in the secrecy and seclusion of his house between 1819 and 1823. Apart from the most famous work of the series, Saturn Devouring His Son, stained with two streaks of blood, they offer a limited chromatic range of black, ochre, brown and grey (later to be the main colours of cubism) and many depict humble, mundane scenes, Men Reading, Two Old Men, Two Old Men Eating Soup, Women Laughing, with the sitters appearing in a dim, indirect light against an indeterminate dark background. With this series of works, Goya approached a limit in pictorial representation, revisited by Ad Reinhart’s own “black paintings” of the 1960s, through which he was aiming at “transcendence”: planes of black through which one could decipher shapes, patterns, dark hues of red or blue… a parallel for the reading we can make of some of Costa’s compositions.

Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

Is light born out of darkness? Toward the end of Vitalina Varela, a line refers to Christ on the Mount of Olives – half of his face plunged in darkness, the other generating light. Costa admits that there was no way to avoid including religion, for the subjects “are all believers”.23 He turns Ventura, now frail and aged, into the priest of a humble, dilapidated church. Catholic rituals include a three-day celebration of the Tenebrae (darkness) on Ash Wednesday, Maudy Thursday and Good Friday – that inspired the likes of Marc-Antoine Charpentier or Couperin to write pieces of religious music called Leçon de ténèbres (lessons of darkness). As in these compositions, in Vitalina Varela the search for the light that suffuses the darkness reaches an apex, and, not so strangely, becomes metaphysical.

Japanese culture has woven an intimate connection between light and darkness, and, world-premiered in Vancouver, Linda Hoaglund’s fifth documentary, Edo Avant-Garde addressed the grain of light, its pictorial materiality, in the most exquisite manner. Born in Japan from missionary parents, Hoaglund is fluent in both Japanese and English, has subtitled more than 250 Japanese films, and acted as a translator for a number of filmmakers from Kurosawa (both!) to Kore-Eda Hirokazu. In this new work, experimenting with 4K cinematography (in collaboration with award-winning DP Kasamatsu Norimichi), she examines more than two hundred paintings in museums and private collections throughout the US and Japan, dating from a crucial, yet still comparatively unknown, period in art history: the Edo era (1603-1868). Comparatively unknown, because the Tokugawa Shogunate sought to reduce the influence of the West, outlawed Christianity in 1638 and forced Japanese civilisation to develop in isolation (sakoku). Edo was largely an era of social peace. It is precisely because of this isolation and stability, Hoaglund contends, that there was a high demand in the country for innovative art. Patrons were no longer the nobility or the warlords you had to be afraid of, but a new class of merchants that wanted “art you wanted to spend time with.” So the question posed early in the film, “what is the viewer’s perspective supposed to be?” is of seminal importance to approach the art of Edo.

Edo Avant-Garde (Linda Hoaglund)

Over 250 years, painting evolved greatly, but something remained constant: this was an art to be seen in houses, in shrines, in alcoves, and it had to be congruent with the orchestration of light in Japanese architecture. Its “true beauty… was only revealed in half-light… The light from the garden steals in but dimly through paper-paneled doors… The scroll and the flowers serve not as ornament but rather to give depth to the shadows.”24. The gold leaf background or the silver wash of so many Edo works, “will pick up a distant glimmer from the garden, then suddenly send forth an ethereal glow, a faint golden light cast in the enveloping darkness… In no other setting is gold quite so exquisitely beautiful.” 25

When Edo was replaced by the Meiji era in 1868, works of art started to be acquired by Western collectors and museums. Their treatment of the light was influential for Van Gogh and the Impressionists. This also meant that they were no longer visible in their original setting (the intimacy of Japanese architecture), and part of Hoaglund’s filmic process is an attempt to restore the context in which they were originally created, through camera movements that emphasise “the perspective of the viewer”, as well as shots of the nature that had inspired the artists.

For these were not “paintings” (the way European art was developing at the time, with Rubens, Poussin, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Van Dick, or Velasquez), but screens with multiple panels that let the light go through, or scrolls to be hung in your reading room. As in a Japanese garden, the act of viewing evolved with the position of the observer, as Hoaglund makes clear when exposing us to the changing views offered by walking by (or tracking over) Waves at Matsushima (1630), a pair of six-fold screens by Tawaraya Sotatsu, in which matter becomes water, water becomes a plane of brush strokes, and strokes become light. So light was rendered in an incessant dialogue between the work itself, the room, and the observer. Sotatsu often collaborated with the craftsman/potter/lacquerer/calligrapher Hon’ami Kōetsu for scrolls such as Poem Scroll with Deer (1610), Poem card (1606) or Anthology with Crane Design (early 1600s). Executed with black ink over gold and silver wash, Kōetsu’s calligraphy creates zones of darkness and redistributes the way light is perceived, while opening up another dimension (poetry) into the painting. In a collaboration with another calligrapher, Karasumaru Mitsuhiro, he produced the two-panel work known as Bull Scrolls (1600s), using the tarashikomi (“dripping in”) technique of applying a second layer of paint before the first layer in dry, creating “dripping” effects. On the right panel, the bull is only sketched, a series of lines that seem to evaporate within the mist surrounding it, a dark animal swallowed by darkness. The text says, “bulls should be untethered.” I am reminded of the opening sequence of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Lung Boonmee Raluek Chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010) in which a buffalo, first tethered then breaking its rope, is lit by the faint glow of a dying fire: a black on black image, in which sound, movement and light are gradually emerging from the darkness.26 As in Weerasethakul’s work, Edo art keeps a balance between “reality and the dream world”, says one Japanese expert. Another adds: “some elements are “realistic, some abstract. The abstraction is there to invite the viewer into the narrative.” In the total absence of perspective to draw the spectators into their paintings, Edo artists found other ways to create layers into the image (as in the beautiful Landscape with Waterfall and Bird [1800] by Shibata Zeshin) and include the subjective feelings of viewers into the fluid continuum created between interior space, scrolls or screens and the dim light that engulfed them.

Apart from some flowers, and flamboyant autumn leaves, the colour red is not predominant in Edo paintings. Hence the moment of surprise when Hoaglund, toward the end of the film, shows us the red-and-black splashes of Sakuhin (1958) by Murakami Saburo. He was a member of the avant-garde collective Gutai, founded in 1954 (after the trauma of WWII, the defeat and the US occupation) by Shozo Shimamoto and Jiro Yoshihara, which remained active till Yoshihara’s death in 1972. While the angry young painters and performance artists in the group reclaimed the influence of Pollock – and eventually influenced Fluxus – Hoaglund makes the case against a purely Western filiation of Gutai – as they were also looking at the use of minimalism and abstraction in Edo. To our contemplation, she offers the haunting Untitled (1959) by Shiraga Kazuo, famous for painting with his feet and applying the tarashikomi technique with oil paint. East meets West, or Sotatsu meets Pollock, united in a light that we are still wrestling with.

Vancouver International Film Festival
6 September – 11 October 2019
Festival website: https://viff.org/Online/


  1. I am saying “inadvertently” because at the time Wu had not seen a single film by Wiseman. He was criticised for the length of Bumming, and eventually cut a shorter, 70-minute version of the film. As he travelled abroad to film festivals, he discovered Wiseman’s work (the latter had completed the 6-hour long Near Death in 1989, and the 3 hour-long Central Park in 1990), and organised workshops for documentarists, film scholars/critics and students to discuss his aesthetics. Wu continued to produce lengthy documentaries, with 1966, wo de Hongweibing shidai (1966, My Time in the Red Guards, 1993), Shihai weijia (At Home in the World, 1995), Jiang Hu (Jiang Hu: Life on the Road, 1999), and Fuck Cinema (2005).
  2. Alain Bergala, quoted in the MK2 (French) DVD release of the film (2004), originally published in Cahiers du cinéma. Translation mine.
  3. Ou Ning, “Digital Images and Civic Consciousness”, Argos Festival, Brussels, 2004, reproduced on Ou Ning’s website, 16 July 2010, www.alternativearchive.com/ouning/article.asp. The link is no longer active.
  4. Jia Zhangke, “Image that Cannot Be Banned – New Cinema in China from 1995” in Lee S. Y. Bobo, ed., All About the World of Jia Zhangke, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong, 2005, pp. 3-7.
  5. Jia Zhangke: This text first appeared as Yeyu dianying shidai jijiang zaici daolai in the Chinese weekly Southern Week-end (Nanfang Zhuomo) on November 13, 1998; it was shortened and translated into German and English in the Internationale Forum catalogue of the 2002 Berlinale (pp. 168-169). It was later published in Zhang Xianmin and Zhang Yaxuan, eds, One Person’s Impression: Complete Guidebook to DV (Yigeren de yingxiang: DV wanquan shouce), China Youth Publishing, Beijing, 2003. The distribution company dGenerate commissioned a new translation, “The Age of Amateur Cinema Will Return” that has appeared on their website: http://dgeneratefilms.com/academia/jia-zhangke-the-age-of-amateur-cinema-will-return/, accessed 31 July, 2011.
  6. See the review of the film in Nicholas Godfrey: “High Anxiety: The 41st Hong Kong International Film Festival”.
  7. He played the title role in Pema Tseden’s previous film, Zhuang si le yi zhi yang (Jinpa, 2018).
  8. I will not use the English-language title, Oh Mercy! (suggested, I was told, by a certain well-meaning but sarcastic US curator), which I find pretty ridiculous.
  9. Mathieu Macheret, “Interview with Arnaud Desplechin”, Le Monde, 21 August, 2019, accessed 11 December, 2019 (translation mine).
  10. François Ekchajzer, “A l’origine de Roubaix, une lumière, un chef-d’œuvre méconnu du genre documentaire”, Télérama, 21 August, 2019, accessed 20 December, 2019, translation mine.
  11. “Out of consideration for the two criminals and their families, Mosco Boucault’s film has not been rebroadcast since 2008.” Ibid.
  12. Desplechin quoted by Ekchajzer, Ibid.
  13. Verbatim theatre uses collages of pre-existing material (such as interviews, court transcripts…) as the script to be delivered by the actors, word for word. In film, Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (2010) is a remarkable instance of this technique.
  14. Further research reveals a fractured history. The original Commissaire Haroune came from a Harki family that had emigrated first to Marseille in 1962 at the moment of Algerian independence, then to Roubaix in 1964, where his father and older siblings worked in a textile factory. Harkis were Algerians (often Berbers) who sided with the French army during the Algerian war, and emigrated to France for fear of retaliation (it is estimated that between 30,000 to 150,000 Harkis were brutally massacred after the independence). However, the French government treated them shabbily, parking them in resettlement camps where they lived in extreme poverty. Roubaix became a major pole of attraction for the Harkis. Haroune’s family was divided, as his father chose France, and his uncle the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale, fighting for the independence of Algeria.) In contrast to Daoud, Haroune himself, one of eight children, is not a loner; several of his brothers entered the French police, and one is a judge. In 2010 (three years after the events depicted in Boucault’s documentary), he founded a national association to represent the children of Harkis.
  15. Zem has made three films with André Téchiné and three with Beauvois. He has worked with Patrice Chéreau, Laetitia Masson, Anne Fontaine, Pascale Ferran and the French-Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb, for whom he has made three films. He has also directed four films: Mauvaise foi (Bad Faith, 2006), Omar m’a tuer (Omar Killed Me, 2011), Bodybuilder (2014), and Chocolat (2016).
  16. Desplechin, quoted in Ekchajzer, op. cit.
  17. Cyril Neyrat: “Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy: Rooms for the Living and the Dead”, accessed 14 December, 2019.
  18. Michael Sicinski, “2006 Toronto International Film Festival”, accessed 19 December, 2019.
  19. Genesis (32:22–32) Hosea (12:4).
  20. On the way to Damascus, Saul was struck down by a light coming from heavens and fell from his horse. He remained blind for three days and became converted to Christianity as Paul, the future author of The Pauline Epistles. (see Acts 9:3–9, NIV.)
  21. Haden Guest and Mark Peranson: “I See a Darkness” – Pedro Costa on Vitalina Varela”, Cinema Scope, issue 80, fall 2019, p. 20.
  22. Ibid, p. 22.
  23. Ibid, p. 19.
  24. Tanizaki, op. cit., p. 13 and pp. 18-19.
  25. Ibid, p. 22.
  26. See my description of this sequence in http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/festival-reports/the-past-and-future-of-an-illusion-the-29th-vancouver-international-film-festival/.

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.

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