Get Real

Leo Goldsmith on the fortieth edition of “Cinéma du Réel” at the Centre Pompidou

John Bruce and Paweł Wojtasik, End of Life, 2017, color, sound, 91 minutes.

LAUNCHED BY THE FRENCH FILMMAKER AND ANTHROPOLOGIST JEAN ROUCH with Jean-Michel Arnold in 1978, and hosted by the Centre Pompidou for the past four decades, “Cinéma du Réel” is an ideal vantage point from which to survey the landscape of contemporary documentary. Even amid the intensified skepticism about audiovisual media’s relationship to the real, and the proliferation of what is defined as “documentary,” this showcase for nonfiction film—broadly conceived—sustains the form’s disciplinary roots in ethnography and sociology even as it explores its outer limits in experimental film and contemporary art.

For the fortieth anniversary edition, the festival enlisted the artistic direction of Andréa Picard, who has been the chief curator of the Toronto International Film Festival’s experimental and installation section “Wavelengths” since 2006. In the accompanying catalogue, Picard declares her intent “not to look back nostalgically over the festival’s impressive chronology, lineage, and legacy [but] to attempt to confront the distortion of our times.” Of course, there was plenty of retrospective gazing, even if not entirely of the wistful variety, such as an emphatically global series of programs dedicated to the cinema of May 1968, and a mini-retrospective dedicated to the Japanese radical filmmaker Shinsuke Ogawa. Nevertheless, the focus of this “Cinéma du Réel” was squarely on the future of documentary’s many forms and strategies—from works of patient observation to those that seek to bridge distances via direct participation with their subjects.

As the festival was held in the Pompidou’s lower level, the question of cinema’s relationship with the gallery—particularly along the lines of exhibition and projection—was a persistent one. This edition featured not only installations by the American artist Lyle Ashton Harris and the Canadian avant-garde filmmaker Michael Snow but also a rare theatrical screening of Tacita Dean’s films. While Dean’s moving-image works are typically shown as installations, they clearly address both cinema’s technologies, given the artist’s insistence on using 35-mm film, and its histories, from Lumière to Warhol to Rohmer. Her exquisite portraits of people and places—fellow artists, natural and built environments—are also explorations of the dynamics of celluloid stock, emulsion, and development processes, as well as the vicissitudes of light. Considering celluloid’s scarcity, Dean’s work necessarily becomes a project of capture, one that attempts to affix her fleeting subjects in a medium that also appropriately holds an image of them in a state of flux. Relocating moments of change to the cinema might be seen as an extension of that process of circulation.

James Benning, L. Cohen, 2017, color, sound, 45 minutes.

Another artist known to trace paths between the white cube and the black box, James Benning was awarded the top prize in the festival’s main competition for his forty-five-minute film L. Cohen (2017). Presenting for the entirety of its duration a single locked-down shot of the 2017 total solar eclipse as it descends on an Oregon landscape, L. Cohen shares a certain affinity with Dean’s The Green Ray (2001), which also traces ephemerality through a precise, durational engagement with nature. But Benning’s film is narrative, complete with a very satisfying payoff in tribute to the film’s namesake. I’d last seen it installed as part of the most recent Berlinale’s “Forum Expanded” section, a context that did the work no favors, given the randomness of access to viewing and deficits of audience attention. Sometimes time, trajectory, and form demand the context of a theatrical viewing, and the filmmaker’s own project of capturing transience—at least in this case—calls for a certain limitation.

A similar, if more obviously humanist, kind of attentiveness was in evidence in the Portuguese filmmaker Leonor Teles’s debut feature, Terra Franca (Ashore) (2018), which follows a year in the life of Albertino, a Tom Selleck–mustached fisherman in a small town at the mouth of the Tagus, near Lisbon. Driven by economic uncertainty to a vocation of extralegal clamming, Albertino is pitched between the gray solitude of the river and the more variegated world of his family and town. Teles’s sly, elliptical editing reveals sudden twists of fate, as the initial gentleness of the film subtly gives way to uncover the protagonist’s low-level anxiety and loneliness. With his livelihood threatened, he’s forced to remain grounded, and the picture’s precise, uncanny framing locates these tensions precisely in the character’s physicality. No longer defined by the dignity of his labor, Albertino stares forlornly off into space or complains about television programs, while his physical form becomes the only collateral against mounting precarity: “I can always pay with my body.”

Leonor Teles, Terra Franca (Ashore), 2018, color, sound, 82 minutes.

Patience and persistence seemed to be themes of the main competition, which also featured works that go to extreme lengths. Unas Preguntas (One or Two Questions) (2018), a remarkable four-hour film by the Swiss filmmaker Kristina Konrad, draws on hours of interviews conducted by two journalists, María Barhoum and Graciela Salsamendi, around Uruguay between 1987 and 1989. These years saw the lead-up to a fateful referendum in the nation’s history: a popular vote to uphold or overturn a 1986 law that guaranteed amnesty to members of the military junta that had ruled the country since 1975. Edited by the German documentary filmmaker René Frölke, Unas Preguntas unfolds in long, largely unedited sequences as Uruguayans mull over the pros and cons of the referendum, expressing frustration, anger, and fear—usually over the false opposition between “peace” and “justice” stoked by propagandistic TV ads and news reports. What emerges is not a televisual mishmash of stock images and sound bites, but the rare archival film that actually trusts its material, a work with the most profound respect for those who become, in varying degrees of complicity, the subject of media images. It is an eminently diligent, honorable attempt to let the people speak—even if it is too late—and not a second of it is superfluous.

A similar durational generosity structures Gustavo Vinagre’s Lembro mais dos Corvos (I Remember the Crows) (2018), which was awarded a prize for the best first feature. (I was a member of the jury for this section.) Vinagre’s earlier short work—which includes the riotous dystopian hard-core gay porno Nova Dubai (2014)—is characterized by a certain bravado, but the concept for this film is deceptively restrained, even minimalist: a film seemingly shot in a single night in the apartment of Julia Katharine, a Japanese Brazilian trans actress who has appeared in Vinagre’s previous films. Julia appears in every frame, as the director poses gentle questions to her about her life, her loves, and her work in cinema. One might justifiably call the film a complement to Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967). (In this case, rosé is the plentifully supplied libation of choice.) But the film inverts the usual trajectory of such portraits, front-loading the traumatic events of Julia’s childhood—which she tells in an offhand manner that she’s not totally satisfied with—before imperceptibly transforming her over the course of the film into nothing less than a star. It is a positively Warholian metamorphosis from shrinking violet to veritable diva, an artful seduction of the camera, the director, and the audience alike. By the end—culminating in one of the most precise and moving final shots of any film I’ve seen—she has taken control, not simply of the film, but of the world around her, expanding the tiny confines of her apartment into an entire universe whose center is her.

End of Life (2017), by John Bruce and Paweł Wojtasik, approaches its subject, a half-dozen people as they near death, with a lack of sentimentality. The film is viscerally intense, both in its emotion and its intellectual rigor, immediately bracing the viewer for what’s to come with an opening four-and-a-half-minute sequence of black screen accompanied by a logorrheic voice-over by the artist Matt Freedman, followed by nearly nine minutes of staring into the silent face of the spiritual teacher Ram Dass as he gazes back intently at the camera. From there, the film is supported by a backbone of only a handful of long takes in which the filmmakers become not merely observers but caregivers—embedded, and in one scene literally in bed, with their subjects. In this way, the End of Life subtly breaches the boundaries between documentary modes, the real and the fantastic, with a style that alternates (and sometimes collapses) the immediacy of the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s films with a cosmic, even comic surrealism. The film is certainly not without its share of heartbreaking moments—I, for one, can no longer apply lotion without weeping—but the film, as Bruce noted in the post-screening Q&A, is not really about death but about “life in proximity to death.” It struck me that this, too, might be an adequate strategy for cinema, alongside capture, attention, and correspondence: documentary as a proximity to life.

The fortieth edition of “Cinéma du Réel” ran from March 23 to April 1, 2018.