In “C’est Notre Histoire,” the filmmaker Frank Wimart retraces the trajectory of his absentee father’s life, beginning from the younger Wimart’s 30th year to the moment his father, Jean-Pierre literally sailed away from the family 25 years before. As Wimart unwravels his father’s convoluted past, he begins to discover if not to understand, the injuries that plagued Jean-Pierre and made him capable of abandoning his wife and young child.
Election night coverage back in the UK in 1997 was so delightfully British. Whatever side of the political fence you were on, anyone who stayed up late to watch the results couldn’t have failed to be amused. Amongst the other candidates a seven foot transvestite candidate, “Miss Money Penny’s Glamorous One Party”, towered over the others as the returning officer announced the results. She/he wasn’t the only quirky candidate that night, there were others represented up and down the country.
So when I was invited by an American to go to a U.S election watching party in Geneva on Tuesday night, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would there be anything equally surreal, would it be momentous, would it be serious, who would be there?
Another Visions du Réel festival is over, the red signs will soon be taken down and the "film tape" all over Nyon pavement this last week has already begun to fade.
But the images and sounds left behind after watching a good documentary do not fade so fast. They may have been just small or fleeting ones, but they remain. The joy of a Baghdadi film student arriving in Europe for the first time, being given the chance to work on an American film set in Operation Filmmaker. The despair in his face as he later struggles to adapt to the reality of it all. The image of the lumberjack working on immense trees in a Nigerian forest in Les Hommes de la foret 21. The awesome, thunderous noise as the timber cracks, then falls.
Then there was the moment at the end of the short film "Time is Now," where an 83-year-old woman caresses the hand of a man she met though Internet dating. Her contented look, captured on camera, of "I’ve found a man," was just sublime. The scene of ecstatic crowds in Tapei, Taiwan going almost pop star mad crazy for the members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on their Trip to Asia. The garish, gaudy colours of advertising signs in Lahore in The Road to Mecca.
So many films, so many impressions. Then there were the films that got away, the ones you didn’t see but where you heard from others that you had missed a masterpiece, such as "Citizen Havel" (read the review in l’Hebdo’) or the much praised and festival award-winning "La Mere".
Another successful festival. Attendance was up by 20% this year. From awards for new filmmakers, to prizes for established ones in the international competition, it cannot have been an easy task for the juries to choose the winners. As always, there was some very good work out there. There is bound to be next year, too, so mark the dates down in your diary: 20-23 April 2009.
Film Review: "The Road to Mecca"
Photo: Reproduced with permission, Visions du Réel, Nyon.
The scheduling of the "The Road to Mecca" (late Saturday night) and "Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains" (same cinema, early Sunday morning) made for an interesting film-going experience as both covered a similar theme. Whether this was coincidental or not, this almost back-to-back showing was a happy coincidence.
Both documentaries focused on the story of a man and his quest for peace and understanding, with one on Islam, the other on Palestine. Both films centred around a book each had written and the impact the book has made on society. In the case of Jimmy Carter and "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid", the book is easy to obtain and the man is very much around to explain his message. The "The Road to Mecca" by Mohammad Asad is a book that until recently was hard to get hold of: some translations are now out of print and he died in 1992, so we cannot hear him express his point of view.
Despite this, director Georg Misch manages in the course of 90 minutes to portray a fascinating man, one who left behind a written legacy in his English translation of the Koran, "The Road to Mecca," as well as respect from people he met during his life.
Mohammed Asad was born Leopold Weiss in a Jewish family in the Ukraine in 1900 but changed his name when he converted to Islam after visiting Palestine as a young man. Asad made a pilgrimage to Mecca and then continued on to follow an extraordinary career path. He met and became friends with the king in Saudi Arabia, he worked for the United Nations in New York and helped with the framework on the founding of Pakistan.
This film retraces his life in the countries he lived in by taking us on a superb sound and cinematographic journey. We see the colours and chaos on the streets of Lahore in Pakistan. The deep ochre of the sand dunes in the Middle East, the mass of white robes worn by pilgrims going to Mecca. The camera also goes past the World Trade Center in New York on a Sept 11 remembrance day service and to a poor Bedouin living in Palestine, reminding us of current political Islamic issues.
In the dedication at the start of his book Asad writes, "To those who think" and The Asadian Society of Pakistan, a group of intellectuals, meet to do just that. They discuss the finer points of the various translations of Asad’s book. So do Saudi Arabian writers traveling on a train as it moves through the desert. Men sitting cross-legged in a Bedouin tent reflect on his words and genteel Spanish ladies sit around an elegant table, recounting the time when they knew him.
Asad was well-known during his lifetime for his "Road to Mecca" and for his quest to promote a greater understanding of Islam in the West which makes it all the more poignant to learn that despite this he died alone in Spain and his grave is untended and barely visited. This film goes some way to redress this and we learn that a public square has recently been named after him in Vienna, Austria.
The debates after films at the Nyon festival often produce interesting discussions. A suprise was in store when a member of the audience spoke up and said that he had known Asad, who lived in Switzerland for a while, and he felt that the director had portrayed him well. Along with the long and loud applause at the end of the film this is surely what any director wants to hear, a justification that the four years Misch had taken to make the film had produced a true portrait.
Film Review: "Lie of the Land". News update: This film won a prestigious BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Awards) in the UK last night (20 April) for Single Documentary. It is also in the international competition section of Visions du Réel.
Photo: courtesy of the Visions du Réel festival, Nyon, Switzerland
Note that the programming for this film in Nyon has been changed. It is now being shown Wednesday 23 April at 17:00 in Capitole 1 (not on 21 April at 16:00 in Capitole 2).
"It’s what it is all about, isn’t it? Life and death. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," said the farmer surveying his fields in "Lie of the Land." The farmer was referring to the natural order of things – we are born, and then eventually we die. He could, however, have been talking about the death of farming in the UK. Forced by market prices to kill healthy animals which are no longer in vogue, forced by government requirements to fill out endless forms, and forced by the supermarkets to reduce costs drastically, this film showed us the British Farmer’s anger and frustration at the demise of his industry.
"Lie of the Land" by Molly Dineen is a timely film. The farmers she interviewed despaired as they saw more and more imported food products being brought into Britain. In a week when countries around the world are recognizing the need for food security, when riots have started to emerge over the price of basic foodstuffs, the issue as to whether a country can feed its own people is very topical. It hasn’t been that paramount in the last 30 years, but in the last 30 days it has.
The documentary, featuring the lives of three farmers, includes scenes of calves being shot and the skinning of an animal. They are graphic but Dineen quite rightly did not shirk from showing them. The point the farmers were trying to get across is that farming and the production of meat involves harsh realities, and the problem with modern society is that we are now divorced from those realities.
The farmers questioned modern-day thinking as to why the British public get upset about the rights of a fox, but seem to be indifferent about other country issues. The message was that we have a romanticized view of rural life. We never see a butcher walk through a village delivering meat with a carcass on his back. We like our meat to be in neat sanitized, plasticized containers and most importantly at a cheap price. That cheapness has come at the expense of the farmers.
Dineen didn’t set off to make a film about the state of British farming. Her original subject was the banning of fox hunting by Parliament in the UK. The issue took over 700 hours of parliamentary debate and brought 400,000 people from Britain out in force to demonstrate on a Countryside March in London.
The opening shots of the pro- and anti-hunting lobbies marching in Trafalgar Square showed some of the usual pro-hunting sterotypes: the tweed-suited squires, the Barbour-jacketed women and the shaven-headed (or dreadlocked) anti-hunting protester. Yet amongst these were thousands of ordinary workers, farmers and British citizens from rural areas who were so frustrated with many other government countryside policies that they had made the effort to come to London to show their anger. Dineen thus felt compelled to investigate this anger further.
A measure of the success of a good documentary is that the subject matter should create debate and raise questions, and the beauty of this festival is that the director is often on hand afterwards to answer them. Dineen was in Nyon on Saturday and did this, not only on the technological side of making the documentary but on the impact the film has had since it was shown.
Documentaries should also feed our imagination. "Lie of the Land" does all of this superbly. It also asks that we question where the source of our food comes from.
Geneva Lunch will be reviewing films and providing Visions du Réel festival news throughout the week.
Nyon documentary film festival reviews, 14 April 2008
- "Playing between Elephants" Friday 18 April 16:00 ( Capitole 2 Fellini), repeated Tuesday 22 April 11:00 (Salle Communale)
- "Megumi" Friday 18 April 14:00 (Salle Communale), repeated Sunday 20 April 16:00 (Cinema Capitole 2 Fellini)
- "Driving Men" Saturday 19 April 14:00 ( Salle communale), repeated Monday 21 April 20:00 ( Cinema Capitole Fellini)
The poster for the forthcoming Visions du Réel film festival in Nyon shows a chaotic shop interior. The shop, crammed full and selling all manner of items, is a perfect metaphor for this week-long event. There is always something of interest, whether it is a film rebuilding a Tsunami struck village, or a humorous documentary on one woman’s relationship with men. If you have never thought about attending a festival like this, and assume it’s just for film professionals, then think again.
"Playing between Elephants " takes us from Vaud to the heart of village life in Aceh in Indonesia after the Tsunami. The title reflects an Indonesian saying that when elephants are locked in a fight, the mouse-deer dies in the middle. In this case the mouse-deer (the village chief) doesn’t die, he lives to tell the tale and what a tale it is.
The chief is stuck in the middle of a battle between what his villagers want when rebuilding their village, and what a UN agency want. This film provides a small but fascinating insight into the work of the international aid industry and all the complexities that such a project entails. It is worth seeing not just for the film-going public but for those involved in such work themselves.
Although the film focuses on the village chief, we also see the issues that both sides have to deal with, and through their respective cultural values. The organizational headaches involved in such a project are shown and these are not without humour. There are a few heart-in-mouth moments, one of them the sight of very heavy trucks driving building materials over a rickety, precarious river bridge to the village. The creaking of the structure, the nuts and bolts loosening up every time the vehicles drive over, convinces you the bridge is going to collapse at any moment and tragedy will ensue. Miraculously it doesn’t and it, like the village chief with all his worries, lives to see another day. There are some wonderful touches in this film: the village chief lying down defeated by a problem wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a roaring tiger, the foreman giving out instructions, the translator unwilling to translate them, villagers being called to work by a megaphone.
The more sombre film "Megumi " deals with the kidnapping of an 11-year-old girl (Megumi) who disappeared in 1977 when walking home from school. Set in Japan, it tells the story of North Korean authorities kidnapping her. The film focuses on the girl’s parents and her brothers who are constantly campaigning to find out where she is. The documentary recreates the scene the day she was taken and films the parents struggling with quiet dignity to find an answer, ever hopeful that she will return home to them. This film leaves a lot of unanswered questions, in particular why the North Koreans kidnapped Megumi and other children. It is a topical subject as there are still ongoing disputes between the two countries on these and other abductions. Filmed on the streets of Japan, on the train and in the lives of the people involved, with strange, sad background music, this documentary brings a small corner of Japanese life onto Nyon screens.
The film is a complete contrast to "Driving Men" by Susan Mogul. It centres around the men in this American filmmaker’s life who have driven her around in their cars. In the opening shot of her two feet on the dashboard of a car,it is revealed why Mogul is usually the passenger and not the driver. Through time we see different men at the wheel with Mogul constantly filming them while they talk.
Personalities are uncovered in conversation and through car interiors, from the smooth purr of expensive, automatic, immaculate saloon cars, to the gear changes, loud engines and grubby windscreens of others. You can only raise a wry smile when the men reminisce on their relationships with Mogul, platonic or otherwise. Some of them have a completely different recollection of past shared events. This film is quite self-indulgent and veers a little off course at times, yet the use of rock music and laid-back Los Angeles jazz reflects the mood of each relationship and makes this documentary entertaining viewing.
These films are just three of over 150 on offer at the festival which opens Thursday 17 April. The full programme, available in English is on the Visions du Réel website and includes a map of where each film is being shown. Tickets can be bought 30 minutes in advance of screenings. A printed brochure can also be found at Nyon’s cinema, tourist office and other venues.