Visions du Réel 2020: Works at the festival's online edition exhibited a yearning for the social, symbolic of present crisis
Numerous works at the 51st edition of Visions du Réel, traditionally held in April in Nyons, Switzerland, unfold in self-contained worlds with no exit to external reality.
In addition to the historical upheavals it has already produced, it would seem that the COVID-19 pandemic has also forced us to renegotiate our understanding of the real and its many opposites. It’s then bitterly appropriate that the Visions du Réel film festival, which seeks to showcase newer perspectives in international documentary practice, is among the first film events to go completely online following the restrictions imposed by the outbreak.
The epochal nature of this shift cannot be overstated. Film festivals are spaces that do more than bring audiences in contact with films and filmmakers. They connect audiences to themselves, to the reality of the place around them, to its economic and social machinery. That Visions du Réel, which traditionally takes place every year in April in Nyons, Switzerland, is no more anchored to a geographical location, and is instead accessible to viewers from around the world, themselves severed from their immediate reality, is some kind of a metaphor for the times we live in.
This dialectic between indoors and outdoors isn’t new, it’s intrinsic to film experience. The darkened hall of the movie theatre is an escape from reality that promises a return to reality in newer forms. It’s a flight away from community that’s predicated on communal participation. Speaking of his dislike for watching films at home, the French critic Roland Barthes wrote, “not enough of a public, not enough anonymity”. As audience, we are trained to overlook this contradiction, to not even recognise it as such. The current confinement, on the other hand, obliges us to take note of it by forbidding our access to the social dimension of moviegoing.
Speaking to this historical moment, numerous works at the 51st edition of Visions du Réel exhibit a yearning for the social. Many unfold in self-contained worlds with no exit to external reality. Public spaces, random encounters and a desire for community pervade this year’s offering. It’s less that the films, made before the outbreak, were prescient, than that the ongoing crisis has alerted us to a fundamental loss, sharpening our sensitivity to these tendencies, which will only be strengthened in the coming months.
Among the finest films at the festival, the medium-length feature Pyrale, made by Roxanne Gaucherand, is the one that most resembles the prevalent state of the world. On a basic level, the film is an intimate documentary about a box tree moth infestation plaguing certain areas of the Drôme department in France. The way the filmmaker photographs these millions of butterflies, rife with sensual shadows and backlighting, imparts the work the texture of science fiction. Superimposed on this composite is a story of burgeoning desire, in which a teenage girl discovers her love for a friend just when two are bound to be separated. With great feeling for the region, Gaucherand paints a moody, melancholy picture evoking the end of the world, where romantic longing comes across as a force of redemption.
In Unusual Summer (Kamal Aljafari), the urge to reach out to others takes the form of CCTV tapes that the filmmaker’s father left behind after his death in 2015. The tapes are from the summer of 2006 and were used to record the parking spot outside his home to see who’s been breaking the car window. Despite the dramatic promises of the CCTV aesthetic and the location of the house in a crime-ridden area, what we get in this film are quotidian incidents, sightings of neighbours passing by. This transformation of private surveillance footage into a session of window-watching and people-spotting produces a sense of community and forges a relation of inheritance between the filmmaker and his father, the only two people to have seen these tapes.
A pressing feeling for connection equally runs under the placid surface of Intimate Distances (Phillip Warnell), an uneven but thought-provoking documentary about public spaces and the anonymous exchanges they facilitate. Casting director Martha Wollner walks up and down a block in Brooklyn looking for a young actor to play the role of a criminal. While we hear her conversations through the mic she wears, she and her interlocutors are filmed from such a distance that they are often dissolved into the urban landscape. What surprises us is the willingness with which the people Wollner speaks to open themselves up to her. In its contrapuntal construction, the film throws light on how the anonymity that cities enforce is also the source of potential intimacy.
The city, its design and its influence on its inhabitants is the subject of the erudite and formally-complex A Machine to Live In (Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke). The location in question is Brasilia, the artificially created capital of Brazil that was designed according to modernist principles in the 1950s. Machine sees this city as an otherworldly geography unfit for human life, but also allowing the possibilities of imagining utopias, catholic cultists, freemasons, biker gangs, and Esperanto evangelists all finding a home within Brasilia’s orbit. Employing diverse modes of exposition and crisp digital photography, the filmmakers develop a visually-striking portrait of a city that has come to resemble a religious monument in itself, demanding awestruck worship and constant maintenance by people who can’t afford to live here.
The notion of a city built from nothing is also invoked by Some Kind of Heaven (Lance Oppenheim), an exploration of life in 'The Villages', a massive retirement community in Florida planned in the eighties. We see how the elderly are able to reinvent themselves in this place and discover newer reservoirs of inspiration, and this prompts us to question the values of the culture they have moved away from. While the film opts for a less productive, human interest angle, the question of what constitutes a community remains on its periphery, inviting us to ponder on whether a group of people with no historical ties can live in isolation from the wider world without existential repercussions.
In The Marriage Project (Atieh Attarzadeh, Hesam Eslami), on the contrary, it’s the wider world that imposes itself on a secluded populace. The community in question is a psychiatric centre in Tehran, whose director has undertaken a radical project to allow certain patients to marry each other. He believes this can help address their social and sexual needs, without running against Islamic law—a proposal his subordinates object to. We see how the discourses of religion, mental health and love wrestle with each other to exert influence on the minds and bodies of the patients. The filmmaker frames this potent and moving examination through details of her private life, trying to make sense of her own failed marriage in the process.
Other films at the festival grapple with the wider world in more direct ways, prying open the anxieties fostered by modern political and social life. Among the most provocative works of the festival is the hour-long Purple Sea (Amel Alzakout, Khaled Abdulwahed), comprising of video footage the filmmaker made after the boat carrying her from Syria sank near the Hellenic coast. Overlaid on the barely legible images of bodies immersed in water is a dispassionate voiceover of the filmmaker’s thoughts that she had while trying to stay afloat. Purple Sea is something of a freak work of documentary, a near-death experience that asserts the existence of those we see here in fragments as more than statistics on immigration debates. It’s a film that’s easier to appreciate than to watch.
Days of Cannibalism (Teboho Edkins) and NA China (Marie Voignier) are complementary works that reflect on the frictions occasioned by global relocation of populations. Edkins’ film unfolds as a Western about immigrant Chinese traders setting up wholesale stores in rural Lesotho. The traders are successful, but their transactional relation to the cattle they are investing in goes against the sentiments of the predominantly agrarian local population, the latter embodying a much more relaxed attitude to money. Voignier’s film supplies a reverse shot, centring on African businesswomen trying to set up shop in Guangzhou. The women scour wholesale markets and pick out quality pieces that could be exported back home, their challenge to find something of value registering as an effort to live authentically. Both films are open-ended and invite the viewer to independently consider the questions they raise.
The clash of cultures manifests on a more personal scale in Sing Me a Song (Thomas Balmès) and Non Western (Laura Plancarte). In the former, a young boy ordained for monkhood at a monastery in rural Bhutan falls in love with an escort in Thimphu, thanks to the invasive power of the internet. Foregrounding its fictional mechanism, the film functions both as a cautionary tale about the dangers of modernity and a Buddhist parable about temptation. The stakes are much higher in Non Western where Nanci, a white woman, is torn between her modern self-image as an independent academic and her role as a wife to a conservative North Cheyenne patriarch, Thaddeus. Despite itself, the film tips our sympathy towards Nanci, with Thaddeus coming across as little more than a slacker hiding behind excuses of tradition and deracination. An intriguing if opaque look, nonetheless, at interpersonal relations being inflected by American’s primal historical trauma.
Many of the features at this year’s Vision du Réel share the conviction that films can make fruitful interventions into reality. All of them believe that they can help us better understand the world we live in. At a time when the virus is wreaking an epistemological havoc, undoing our certainties and forcing newer insights every day, this belief can perhaps serve as our lodestar in approaching films as viewers. We are all the richer, then, for the perspectives into reality these films have to offer.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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