AGAINST THE PRESENT
by Leo Goldsmith
Selections from FID Marseille 2014
Much of this year's 25th anniversary edition of FID Marseille took place at the city's new MuCEM, the Museum for European and Mediterranean Cultures, situated right on the sea itself—such that filmgoers jumped from dark theater to theater, with bouts of blinding sunlight and beautiful breezes in between. In contrast to its European holiday surroundings, FID is not summertime Cannes; there's no red carpet, no interminable lines, few press conferences, and little by way of corporate sponsorship. Instead FID is a premiere-driven festival of the unknown and the exploratory, with a growing reputation as a place of discovery for daring and expansive non-fiction cinema.
In Letters to Max, the new film by Eric Baudelaire, the subject is in a very literal sense unknown, even non-existent: it is about a country officially unrecognized by all but a handful of nations, that has persisted in a sort of quasi-fictional autonomy since its ethnically fueled war with neighboring Georgia in the early 1990s. Baudelaire enters Abkhazia, in one sense, via the titular correspondence with Maxim Gvinjia, the country's erstwhile minister of foreign affairs, airmailing him brief letters—"Are you there?" "What should I film?" "Are you done with politics?"—to which Max responds in meandering voiceover. The images that accompany Max's responses at first seem similarly aimless, capturing odd moments and architectural curios, ruins, leisure sites, and local activities, but soon these images accumulate into something more than the merely touristic. But Baudelaire, as in many of his films, performs a subtle pirouette, using the collision of sound and image to prompt a set of more probing questions about Abkhazia's frozen conflict, its collective memory and its collective amnesia. "Are we making a film that goes backward in time? [...] Are we making a film about the future?"
Similar quandaries of history and forgetting are at play in Sanaz Azari's I Comme Iran, a medium-length work in which the Belgian-based filmmaker learns to read and write in Persian, her native language. "I am like a house without a roof," she says of her partial knowledge of the language, but her film subtly draws upon the rich pedagogical tradition in Iranian cinema (as in Kiarostami's early works, Homework and First Case, Second Case) as a means of struggling with memory and national identity. Azari is aided by a basic primer decades old, with images of both Khomeini and the Shah, but still in use today and a charismatic tutor, himself an Iranian exile, standing at the blackboard, and the two work in consort: the books crude yet vividly colored icons of families and flags and bread and tea pots, seem plainly, telegraphically legible, but soon become murkier, as Azaris tutor integrates them into a lesson about Iran before and after the revolution. There is nostalgia for the wine of Shiraz and the early days of the revolution, but more importantly there are the lessons which follow from a seamless morphology. An image of bread suggests its lack, a lack of work, humiliation; an image of a tree suggests hanging, execution. Images become words, words become script, script becomes historiography. But Azaris linguistic naïveté, her beginning again from scratch, holds other possibilities, too. Words shift and signify in different directions, themselves inscribed with new meanings, echoes, futures.
Exile and nationhood, history and the future, are urgent concerns in the many films at FID that addressed the fallout of the Arab Spring. At least two made bold first stabs at a historiography of the ongoing unrest in Syria: Liwaa Yazji's Haunted and Mohammad Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi's Our Terrible Country. Awarded a Special Mention in the festival's First Film category, Yazji's film is harrowing but affectionate, struggling to maintain contact on those who remain in their homes amid bombings, depletion of supplies, and mounting and uncertainty and dread. Through Skype conversations and owner-led tours of damaged homes, the film constructs an almost metonymic nostalgia for a lost homeland, invested in devastated apartments and salvaged heirlooms.
The winner of the festival's International Competition, Our Terrible Country, begins with its co-director Ziad Homsi, a journalist, quite literally putting down camera to pick up a weapon—to aid the Free Syrian Army in liberating in Douma from Assad's regime. But the film's real focus is Homsi's friend and mentor, the writer and political dissonant Yassin al-Haj Saleh, whom we first meet helping neighbors to clear rubble from the streets of his city. For al-Haj Saleh, Douma is "a place where life and death are in close proximity": citizens grow vegetables next to refrigerators holding the bodies of martyrs. It is a place of deep precarity, and soon he must leave, accompanied by Homsi and camera across the Syrian desert, fleeing ISIS and Ba'athists alike, and then, on his brother's passport, to Turkey. Amid constant peril—especially for his wife Samira , who remained behind in Douma and was abducted in late 2013—al-Haj Saleh mourns not only physical destruction, but cultural ones as well. It is strange, perhaps, to hear an exile mourn the loss of books, but after all "the disaster is inside us."
In their immediacy, both of these films suggest an emerging history of the present, built upon the fractured aesthetic of video-chat windows and buildings reduced to rubble, placeless images and landscapes slowly evacuated of recognizable features. Burn the Sea follows a notably longer trajectory, one that retraces the path of Maki Berchache, who directed the film with Nathalie Nambot, from his home in Tunisia to Paris. This journey is reconstructed evocatively rather than literally, through slow pans and poetic flashes of coarse-grained Super 8 images that suggest a refugee's voyage via boat to Lampedusa, then to Rome, Marseille, and points north by train. And in their gradual accretion they amount to the collective story of those unknown to history: the harragas, or clandestine migrants, whose identity is summarized in a shots of banlieue apartment blocks, common stories of police harassment and discrimination, or a litany of documents (references, certifications, prescriptions) needed to secure a residency status, if not personhood. Here again, the migrant image and its accompanying testimony map borders both national and interpersonal, external and internal—"The revolution is like not talking for 23 years … then everyone starts talking all at once." And here again, it testifies to a persistence and hope that is itself precarious and unsustainable: "One day we must also burn the dream."
As Cidades e as Trocas is also a film about the elision of borders: those made permeable by the torrents and trickles of global capitalism. On the surface an ethnographic investigation of Cape Verde, Luísa Homem and Pedro Pinho's observational documentary, which draws its title from Calvino's Invisible Cities, actually gestures to something more intangible: transnational economic flows and tributaries, which suggest much about the island nation's relation to the rest of the world. It's a remarkable investigation into the relation between the local and the global: beginning on a ship in a Lisbon port, As Cidades is in many ways an oceanbound work, cataloguing the many ships that pass through Porto Novo full of cattle, machine-parts, and endless streams of anonymous shipping containers. And, of course, tourists: early on, we see builders at work on massive cinder-block constructions, but it's not until somewhat later that we realize they're probably building resorts for American and European tourists. These we see wandering around tourist sites in droves, touring the dunes on ATVs, and grooving to kora music, covers of "Redemption Song," and a kind of ersatz rendition of The Lion King, and in this sense the film joins Pegi Vail's recent film Gringo Trails as another important ethnography of international tourism. New resorts pop up, mimicking West African architecture with stucco and potted palms, but it's clear that the filmmakers are more interested in the more modest homes and enclaves, where Cabo Verdeans drink, play music, hang out, play football (and foosball), and prepare for carnival. Perhaps these images, too, are touristic, but they offer a larger canvas, like the frescoes of Armando Spencer Pinheiro, a local painter. His work, all massive, vibrant landscapes filled with animals and people hanging from trees and cruise-ships and bikini-clad dancers, is featured in an extended sequence late in the film, the works painted on the outsides of houses, others on bedroom walls, others on the backs of vinyl records.
"Love, baby, love." That's Antoine Yates's response to a reporter asking him why he kept a 500-pound tiger and a seven-foot-long alligator named "Al" in his five-bedroom Harlem apartment for five years, seemingly unnoticed. Offering a rather different species of spatial and temporal ambiguity, Phillip Warnell's Ming of Harlem: Twenty-One Storeys in the Air is a dual portrait of Yates and his unusual feline roommate Ming, with whom he seems to have had a curiously harmonious companionship. According to Yates, the two would while away their time watching movies and boxing together or taking in the view the apartment complex's roof, while Yates would spray Ming with perfume for "intellectual stimulation" and feed him massive quantities of raw chicken purchased at the local supermarket. (He confesses to having a less intimate relationship with Al.) Eschewing the usual docudramatic narrative structure and psychologizing backstories, the film opts for a three-part structure in which casual and strangely patchwork interviews with Yates, filmed as he tours his old neighborhood in the back of a livery cab, bookend a lengthy sequence that uncannily simulates Ming's everyday life in the apartment. This extended middle chapter, comprising long static shots that observe the animal sniffing, lounging, and peeing in the eerily empty rooms, falls somewhere between a zoo's tiger-cam live feed and the final scene of 2001. For part of this sequence, a voiceover text written by the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and read by the Icelandic musician Hildur Gudnadottir ruminates on the animal's "pure, cruel innocence." But this element seems a superfluous accompaniment to the images, which succinctly conveys the contrast between wild physicality and urban structuralism, and Yates's own's musings, almost unnervingly equivocal and often bordering on the mystical.
Another time, another apartment: Luis López Carrasco's El Futuro is also a film about finding the proper form of expression for what lies both behind and ahead. Its press notes describe it as "a film full of noise. About the format, the image and sound." Both are, at first, seemingly narrow in scope: the film takes place entirely on a single evening in the wake of Spanish Socialist Workers' Party's 1982 electoral victory (the apparent final nail in the coffin of the Franco years), and comprises only the indistinct images and sounds of kids hanging out at a late-night house party. But this mix of maximalist sensory material and minimalist abstraction is more than enough: this is Carrasco's first solo feature (along with Javier Fernández Vázquez and Natalia Marin Sancho has been making films as the collective Los Hijos since 2008), and it's remarkably, viscerally assured, shot in a splotchily colored, rough-handled 16mm that is itself redolent of a remote elsewhere. We come to know the indistinct characters not through their conversations (about drinking, about sex, about ETA), but these are drunken and indistinct, barely audible over the nonstop din of Spanish New Wave pop records and background clamor. Instead, we know them through gestures, faces, dancing, making out. Context and history drop out, and we are left with bodies out of time, present only in the immediate image and sound of the cinema.
LEO GOLDSMITH is one of the film editors at the Brooklyn Rail.