If the 2020 edition of True/False will go on record as the last of the larger film festivals to proceed as planned before the pandemic took hold, FIDMarseille may be remembered as the first that went ahead anyway. Occurring quietly in late July (just four months after SXSW, CPH:DOX, and numerous other events were forced to cancel their own gatherings), the long-running, well-regarded French festival screened films in venues with people present, just as festivals used to, and are, in some situations, now beginning to again. I wasn’t there. Nor were the filmmakers selected for the festival’s project development program, FIDLab, which was conducted online due to restrictions on cross-continental travel that prevented many of the festival’s usual international attendees from flying in. I instead took advantage of the festival’s international accreditation, which offered digital access to the lineup from a distance. I’ll refrain from assessment about what the festival is, was, or could be, in terms of access, organization, or experience, and instead focus on the element that should always be at the center of any festival: the films and the filmmakers.
FIDMarseille’s film selections tend to be known for their austerity, reflecting a refusal on the part of the programmers to make concessions towards received, commonplace notions of audience or accessibility. (Who defines and dictates these things, and for whose benefit, one might ask?) The festival makes no distinction between fiction and non-fiction, nor does it categorize films based on length, style, or format, only by “French” or “International.” The two best films that I watched, which took home the main prizes in the International Competition, both happened to come from Latin American countries, a region that was heavily represented in FIDMarseille this year.
Tatiana Mazú González’s Shady River (2020), which won the “Prix Georges du Beauregard,” was perhaps recognized by the jury for the creative approach that its director took to overcome a fairly serious obstacle. Intending to make a documentary about a mine in the Argentinian part of Patagonia from which women are forbidden from entering (for fear they will bring bad luck, or awaken a mythic witch found inside), the filmmaker was herself not granted a permit to film there. Instead, she gravitates around the mine, creating a distinctive, if somewhat slippery, portrait of the surrounding town (Río Turbio, translated literally for the film’s English title) that prioritizes the stories of the women who have made this antiquated, misogynistic place their home. Without ever actually showing the mine, she richly evokes it; using a variety of visual modes and aesthetic techniques that bring the setting to life in a way that many of the numerous other documentaries made about mining in recent years have failed to.
Principle amongst these techniques are her diagrams: attractive schematics drawn in white ink on a black background that illustrate parts of the mine and its machinery that her camera cannot reach, sourced from the filmmaker’s extensive archival research, and from conversations with her subjects. Also employed (in a film that places aesthetic considerations front and center) are black-and-white archival photos, scratchy radio recordings, and phone-call conversations or text message exchanges (rendered on-screen as handwriting, also white-on-black). A surreal score makes heavy use of static, noise, and distortion, effectively inscribing the research process directly upon the film's form: the degradations present in a living archive made a part of the audiovisual experience.
The verbal element which provides the film’s narrative is also blended, interweaving a plurality of voices to provide a townwide testimony of the widespread mistreatment and mistrust of women throughout history and now. Starting with stories from her aunt (which make up the text message element and offer a personal angle), González compiles an aesthetic document that acts to re-center the contribution that women have made to the town. She uses a tapestry-like approach to create a new record, one that offsets the patriarchal narratives that have prevailed unchecked here, as they often will in places where history’s writers have been permitted to act uncontested.
The “Grand Prix” went to Carolina Moscoso’s Night Shot (2019), an intimate, experimental debut feature from a young Chilean filmmaker—one of the more uncompromising films that you could imagine a festival jury agreeing upon. A survivor of sexual assault who was raped eight years prior to the making of this feature, Moscoso uses the film form as a therapeutic and creative tool for processing the incident. Understandably, this proves difficult; her multilayered, inventive film works through the various elements of her experience non-linearly. The film deals with both the immediate violation and her longer-lasting difficulties with the doctors, lawyers, and police officers appointed to deal with her; whilst also exploring the psychological damage of abuse (and, conversely, the creative opportunities that can occur as a part of recovery).
This latter part is handled in several ways. Much of her film deals with the problem of utilizing the footage she shot during (and after) the trip in which she was raped; of not permitting her abuser to stymie or silence her then-emerging creative voice. This material—which was mostly shot using the camera-feature referenced by the film’s title, used often during daylight to create an uncanny, hyper-saturated effect—is reworked and reawakened. Moscoso’s narration about the events and her life since are provided as on-screen text rather than spoken narration, a technique that, along with the eight-year time-gap, provides a remove that the subject matter seems to require, granting a contemplative distance that makes the viewer’s relation to her trauma feel less voyeuristic.
Other sequences include something closer to traditional forms of therapy. Some showcase Moscoso’s art-making, music production, and other explorative ventures. Others feature recorded conversations with her friends where the scene’s diegetic audio is re-contextualized by the on-screen text narration. In one late sequence intended to show how far she has come, Moscoso is heard speaking behind-the-camera as she revisits the site of her attack, talking openly about it to someone she meets. When described like this, much of the film sounds deeply uneasy—too intimate perhaps, too raw. It works very effectively though, the story shaped through a fragmented structure that replicates the fallibility of memory and the process of recontextualizing personal experience in a way that could enable rehabilitation. What does it mean to make diaristic work after experiencing a rupture that makes such a mode seem impossible? Returning to the footage captured closest to the attack, Moscoso is able to process the most painful aspects of her own personal archive, and regain her ability to make the sort of film she had always intended to, without leaving anything absent.
The film’s most uncomfortable elements are not those that deal with Moscoso’s assault or her methods of overcoming it though, but those that detail her interactions with the structures and systems she is forced to navigate as a result. Including medical documents, letters exchanged with lawyers, and police papers, she details the near-decade-long experience of trying to make her abuser face justice. She is blocked or blamed at every turn, facing disinterest or disbelief before eventually being told she lacks the necessary evidence. Her film then acts as a document of sorts, not of the incident itself, but instead the process of moving past it; a record of the person she has been since and of the one that this fracture will not be permitted to prevent her from becoming.
Recognized by a jury headed up by idiosyncratic Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiro Suwa, both films are a testament to the quality of a festival that centers filmmaking in and of itself, ignoring many of the trivialities that can often complicate programming and presentation and instead favoring a method that seems to ask simpler questions: is the film well made and is it interesting? That a pair of rigorously constructed, politically and formally complex films—made by young female filmmakers without significant profiles—were both included, and then awarded, perhaps speaks to the success of this approach.