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by Ejla Kovačević
After three months of lockdown and gradual release from confinement as certain public places began re-opening (most notably restaurants and cafés), the French government at last announced the re-opening of cinemas in the first days of summer, much to the delight of countless cinephiles. At that point, Jean-Pierre Rehm, long-standing director of the influential Marseille International Film Festival, decided to host a physical festival and abandon the online edition (which had been the plan up until that moment), thus becoming one of the first film festivals in Europe (and the world?) to take place after quarantine.
Given the extraordinary circumstances under which the festival was held, with numerous precautionary measures imposed throughout festival (limited number of seats in cinemas, obligatory mask wearing and online reservation of tickets) – as well as the drastically reduced number of local and international guests present at the festival – this year’s 31st edition resembled a more intimate, close-circled gathering of ardent cinephiles than the hyped international film industry event that FIDMarseille is known to be. Since its first installment in 1989, the festival has held a strong dedication to the discovery and promotion of emerging talents in documentary filmmaking, especially those who audaciously challenge the conventional codes of the genre and offer innovative forms of representing inner and outer realities. This rigorous curatorial approach of often privileging highly cerebral and conceptual works, granted the festival a certain prestigious aura and soon established itself as one of the most renowned documentary film festivals in France and Europe.
This year’s edition gathered 50 films in the four sections of the competition (International Competition, French Competition, First Film Competition and newly added Flash Competition for short films), together with special screenings paying homage to quintessential figure of French film culture, actor Michel Piccoli who recently passed away, and a retrospective of last year’s Silver Bear winner Angela Schanelec, who was this year handed the FID Honorary Grand Prix. This edition was marked by a strong female presence, as the official selection included an equal number of female and male directors – a full parity that, according to organizers, the festival saw for the first time in its long history. Furthermore, the festival introduced the Alice Guy Prize for best French female director, an independent award created by journalist Véronique Le Bris and named after the French pioneer filmmaker and producer, whose staggering contributions to film art (she directed more than 1000 films and was the first female owner of a highly successful production studio Solax in the United States) were for decades swept under rug. Recently though she has started to gain more attention thanks to numerous female journalists dedicated to the promotion and screenings of her surviving oeuvre.
This silencing and subjugation of women turned out to be, incidentally or not, a major subject of several films shown at the festival. Among them is a powerful first feature and Grand Prix winner Night Shot (Visión Nocturna) by Chilean filmmaker Carolina Moscoso, which bravely confronts the silence surrounding rape culture through an intimate portrayal of the director’s own grueling experience and the repercussions she endured as a rape victim during the last eight years since the crime occurred. Opting for a fragmented narrative that juxtaposes footage from her daily life with a strenuous legal proceeding, Moscoso gives a singular insight into her emotional turmoil, struggles with shame, fear and depression, as well as the rampant stigmatisation and misogyny faced during traumatic medical and police examinations. It is an urgent and alarming testimony that joins countless other female voices around the world who recently decided to speak up and shed light onto widespread sexual violence and the patriarchal repression that cultivates the trivialization of sexual assaults and victim blaming.
Another wake-up call was sent by Río Turbio (Shady River), an experimental documentary whose title refers to a mining town in Argentine Patagonia also known as “town of men”. It is a place marked by a strong machismo culture and ancient mythologies that see women as witches guilty of the city’s misfortunes. These superstitions apparently serve as a justification for blatant sexism that only allows women to appear in public spaces as servants, secretaries or beauty contestants. The mine is the ultimate patriarchal symbol, the location that women are strictly forbidden to visit because it is believed to be a woman who is “jealous” of other women who enter it. Director Tatiana Mazú González steadily builds a personal and political narrative around her own memories of the place as a child and sober testimonies of local female activists involved in a daily fight for dignity and equality in the male dominated community. The director’s somewhat aloof and resigned cinematic approach, punctuated by long, static captions of cold, bleak and overall eerie landscape, doesn’t leave much hope for any change to happen soon.
On the other hand, Mathilde Girarde’s fantastic debut short Les Episodes – Printemps 2018 (Episodes – Spring 2018) explores how women can gain more control and power over hurtful or emotionally confusing experiences through the invention of self-narratives. The director captures the ongoing monologues and conversations between two female university students, which bring millennial vulnerabilities and struggles to the surface; a certain vigilance for the emotional turbulence that the young women continuously seek to bury and rationalize with their intellectual discourse and exclusive interest in “facts”. This obsessive self-reflection and emotional detachment goes hand-in-hand with manic swiping culture, characterized by endless quests for exciting, non-committal sexual relations that for some are yet another coping mechanism for unhealed wounds. So is the case for Charlotte, who saw her engagement in countless one night stands as a radically feminist and self-empowering gesture, one that enabled her to free her body from patriarchal control and the violence she endured as an adolescent. Meanwhile Marta sees her daydreaming habits as a sign of weakness; at one point she describes her day in a library saying she really wanted to read Schopenhauer but couldn’t concentrate because she knew that a her friend for whom she had romantic feelings was also there. These seemingly banal ruminations reveal a striking amount of internalized patriarchal discourse that celebrate values and behaviours we typically associate with the masculine culture – rationality, objectivity and self-control – all while deprecating those associated with feminine culture – sensitivity, subjectivity, fragility. The complex ambiguities of female experience the filmmaker manages to capture in a mere 30 minutes is a remarkable achievement on its own. It is a worthy contribution to anthropological cinema and an honourable heir to classics such as Summer Chronicle (J. Rouch, E. Morin, 1961), which the director herself mentioned as one of the film’s greatest influences.
The pleasure of inventing narratives was also a subject of the brilliant video essay Forensickness made by French filmmaker and scholar Chloé Galibert-Laîné. The author takes footage from Watching the Detectives (Chris Kennedy, 2018) as a starting point for her own detective study, pondering humanity’s insatiable obsession with finding patterns and logic in everything, as exemplified in the case of the Boston Marathon Bombing, which saw countless Internet users engage in intense scrutinizing of crime scene images in the hopes of revealing potential suspects. In a comical twist, the director herself gradually slumps into a sort of exhilarated state, compulsively printing, pinning and connecting her various academic and cinematic references while seeking to understand the motives behind this massive detective inquiry on reddit. This immensely intelligent, entertaining and visually attractive study on the pleasures of production and the relativity of knowledge, composed entirely on the computer screen, proved once again the tremendous talent and wit of its young French director, who is rightly considered one of the most exciting authors working in the field of desktop documentary.
Another promising young female voice that deserves a mention is Paula Rodríguez Polanco, a French-Columbian director whose short Super 8 film Heliconia exploits the stunning beauty and sensuality of film grain. It takes us on a fantastic voyage in an unknown Colombian region – a sugary paradise dressed in blurry landscapes, shiny rivers and pink rocks – with three carefree adolescents spending their time watching cockfights, dancing, riding bikes and climbing mango trees. This gorgeous nostalgic fairy-tale celebrating lightness, playfulness and adolescent purity was a refreshing counterpoint to largely grim and tedious selection.
Lech Kowalski, a legendary underground filmmaker whose sincere portrayals of underdogs and punks earned him a cult following, snatched the French Grand Prix for his newest film This is Paris Too – and rightly so.The empathy and respect with which Kowalski documents the confessions of his Native American trans hero Ken and the conversations with Afghan immigrants encountered while drifting on the Parisian periphery, gives the film a profoundly humane and joyful spark, something that most of the films in the competition lacked. Maybe the magic lies in Kowalski’s outspoken honesty, true admiration for life as well as people he chooses to film, the kind of passion and punk spirit he emanates not only as a filmmaker but also as a person in front of his audience. While writing this piece I kept coming back to an interview Kowalski recently gave for FID Marseille. One part especially stuck with me and came to be a perfect closing pamphlet, a reminder on the essence of cinema :
It is about capturing an energy. That’s really all that I care about. The honesty and the directness and the size of the energy. It can also be quiet energy. But it must be energy. The world if full of shots and scenes and people with too little energy. Or worse FAKE ENERGY. It makes me sick.
The stills above are taken from 1) Heliconia, 2) Río Turbio, 3) This is Paris Too and 4) Visión Nocturna