Monday, 04 May 2020 11:41

Challenging and politically-minded: the Visions du Réel documentary film festival

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Claire Denis
Claire Denis

Phil Hobbins-White reports on the Visions du Réel documentary festival

Switzerland’s Visions du Réel is one of the country’s oldest film festivals, yet this year, like many other film festivals, it needed to move online in order to happen at all. Featuring films from all over the world, Visions is one of the most respected documentary festivals, not only because it has been running for 51 years, but also due to its commitment to challenging and politically-minded cinema.

During an online video conference during the festival, led by a range of programmers and directors from various European film festivals, Visions’ artistic director Emilie Bujès recalled how they found success by getting agreements from the rights-holders of films, by saying “the reaction was great and grateful”. Ultimately Visions received the agreement to show 82 out of its 84 scheduled films, demonstrating a unity between festival and filmmakers which other festivals - such as South By Southwest in the U.S. - have struggled to create. Bujès reflected that “what's happened is both sad and joyous. The fact is, we found a solution, and along with it a new energy”.

Godard Image Book

Godard Image Book

Along with film screenings and discussions Visions also features additional events such as exhibitions and retrospectives; one such event this year was a new exhibition by Jean-Luc Godard, which features his latest work, Le livre d’image (2018), and is to be held at the nearby Chateau de Nyon. In typical Godardian form, the exhibition, entitled Sentiments, signes, passions – à propos du livre d’image, breaks down and fragments his film, seeking to create (further) distance between the audience and text, aiming to forge new meanings and experiences in the process.

Every year the festival invites three filmmakers who are showcased by masterclasses, with this year’s spotlight falling on the radical and political filmmaker Claire Denis, a retrospective of the films of Petra Costa, and also the work of filmmaker and essayists Peter Mettler. The three-hour masterclass with Denis was one of the highlights of the festival, who reflected on many of the films in her substantial filmography, which has seen her work on six documentaries and ground-breaking features such as Beau Travail (1999) and White Material (2009), both of which explore the role that France’s colonialist past plays in contemporary Africa. Born in Paris but raised in various African countries, Denis reflected on wanting her films to tell certain stories by saying that American landscapes “didn’t belong to me” and “I realised that the landscapes that did mean something to me were those of North Cameroon”.

Claire Denis

Claire Denis masterclass

The fact that Visions’ masterclass with Denis (as well as those with Costa and Mettler) could still go ahead is a testament to the festival’s proactivity and desire to not be beaten by the current circumstances. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the festival’s decision to open up the screening possibilities by making all films free of charge, therefore democratising the festival. In some ways the festival got lucky in the sense they had neither a printed catalogue or fixed screening times cemented in place. Yet due to the positive approach of the festival’s team they were able to quickly revise the structure of the festival to create new thematic ‘pathways’ such as ‘State of the World’, ‘Revolt and Resistance’ and ‘Parallel Worlds and Confinement’. The latter theme refers to social and political confinement, rather than the current pandemic-enforced social restrictions. One such film in this section was An Unusual Summer, from Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari, which uses found-footage to explore an act of vandalism.

One More Jump

One More Jump

The festival also allowed for other Palestinian stories to be told, with One More Jump (2019) depicting the ambitions of a group of young men who practice parkour in the Gaza Strip. Made by Italian filmmaker Emanuele Gerosa, One More Jump documents the lives of the group who feel a sense of freedom engaging with the sport, yet this is still against a backdrop of persecution and the threat of war. By juxtaposing the stories of Jehad and his friends in the Gaza Strip, with that of Abdallah who left his homeland to seek political refuge in Italy, One More Jump not only captures some breathtaking images of athleticism in the destruction of Gaza, but also raises questions around immigration, identity, loyalty and destiny.

Arab cinema had strong representation at this year’s Visions festival, with two memorable films from Algeria - one concerned with history, Leur Algérie, and the other with the current, Nardjes A. Lina Soualem’s Leur Algérie is a poignant study of relationships and the changes that can occur over time, delving into the identities of her grandparents, who emigrated to France in the 1960s, but have recently separated from each other after decades of marriage. In her carte blanche introductory message, Soualem said that the filmmaking process ensured she became closer to her family and heritage, sending her to Algeria to “reclaim her history”. Utilising much more contemporary footage was Karim Aïnouz’s Nardjes A., whose camera follows a young political activist throughout the day of a non-violent protest against the re-election of President Bouteflika. The film creates such a visceral sense as the camera never leaves Nardjes’s side, depicting the chanting and singing of a united people at a protest, and ultimately gives the audience hope through Nardjes’s energy and positivity.

Nardjes A min

Nardjes A.

Of course, there were many engrossing documentaries at this year’s Visions du Réel, sadly not all can be covered here. Just some of the other films at the festival which caught the eye included We Are Russia (depicting the protests of an anti-Putin group in Moscow), Purple Sea (a Syrian/German film describing the co-director’s experience escaping from Syria) and Nemesis (an experimental Swiss documentary about a new prison, which will house 70% foreign prisoners). All 82 films which participated in the festival told personal and important stories which deserve to be told. Thankfully, for both the filmmakers and audiences alike, they were still able to.

Read 170 times Last modified on Monday, 04 May 2020 12:08
Phil Hobbins-White

Phil is a Film Studies lecturer and writer, specialising in film festivals, film exhibition, and gender in horror films.