The Festival du Nouveau Cinema has barely started and I already feel behind. Press screenings have been going on for over a week, and I missed many due to work. It doesn’t help that the first I show up to, a screening of Jauja, was cancelled due to a problem with the digital file. I have already been torn between films I want to see that screen simultaneously, the catch-up game begins with films like El Ardor, Tokyo Tribe and Lisbon Revisited still left unseen. Will I be able to fit them all in? Doubtful. Film Festivals encourage the worst cinephile habits. Whereas normally I value each viewing and allow time and space to work through my thoughts and feelings on a given movie, festivals inspire an obsessive spirit of collectionism. As exhilarating as the experience is, I struggle with consequences and wonder if this is the best way to exercise my love for cinema.
Bright and early my first screening of the festival is a 9 am screening of Pedro Costa’s Horse Money. Costa’s cinema is dense and challenging, he does not allow the audience to coast along through either narrative or character charm. Horse Money in particular has a rather elusive structure, seemingly drifting through different time periods and different levels of consciousness as it tackles the failed promise of Portugal’s 1974 Carnation revolution. At the centre of the story is Ventura, the Cape Verdean lead from Colossal Youth, an ageing man faced with a society that has neglected to include him.
Shot in stunning digital, the film embraces a painterly style evoking the chiaroscuro works of Caravaggio. The film often takes on the nuance of a living painting, as Costa often embraces ‘Tableaux vivant’ aesthetics, particular in montage sequences. The darkness that surrounds the character’s is almost rapturous, an enveloping cloud that threatens to gobble them whole. There is something perverse about the meeting of world’s in this film, the contrast between the ancient and crumbling walls of older sections of Lisbon with white and modern facilities is jarring. It is as if the past were shameful, a crushing weight on the present. In North America we are often faced with the cultural problem of erasure, a need to forget or transform the past; whereas in Europe they cannot seem to escape the actions of their ancestors.
This becomes particularly difficult for immigrant populations that are at best ignored by the people who have long called this land home. Can revolution ever truly work in such an ancient land? The question is particularly pertinent to society’s outcasts, the immigrants, the impoverished and the iconoclasts. These are the people Pedro Costa is most interested in investigating and his films seem loaded with social anger. This matches the denseness of the film’s trajectory, as his style forces the audience to pay attention, as they attempt to unravel meaning and intention. Costa uses elements of slow cinema, music and poetic realism in order to grab our attention. As always, Pedro Costa’s style blends the line between reality and fiction: truth matters more than facts in Pedro Costa’s work. Its a beautiful object that has ugly things to say about who we are. Horse Money is a film that almost demands a second viewing and likely works best in context of Costa’s other work.
Up next was the documentary Scheherazade’s Diary, recipient of the Human Rights Award. Directed by therapist and filmmaker, Zeina Daccache, the film explores an initiative in drama therapy launched at a woman’s prison in North Beirut, Lebanon. The film uses an intimate style and allows the subjects to help shape the filmic narrative. Though there is initially some confusion about the meaning of the play is, and how it is formed, as the film continues the pieces fall into place. The initiative of putting on this play allows the women to feel empowered, to explore their histories and to share them with the audiences. Shot in a ten month span, we see the evolution of certain women from guarded to open about their experiences and desire to share them.
It is unsurprising that the film picked up a Human Rights award, as the film deftly points out that the majority of women have not been treated to a speedy trial (over 50% of prisoners have not been sentenced, several have been waiting for upwards of four years) and the real issue of their imprisonment comes from systematic violence. Up until the date of the film’s screening, there were no domestic abuse laws in Lebanon. Many of the women faced verbal, sexual and physical violence on a regular basis. Their crimes ranging from drug abuse, adultery to violence can often be linked back to the source of their crimes. Some of the women have come to prefer life in the prison, far away from the husbands, brothers and fathers who abused them.
The process of the play allows the women to communicate to the outside world the circumstances that led to their imprisonment, but it also has the effect of allowing the women to take back control over their bodies. I think it is crucial that the artform used as therapy is one of performance. Unlike painting, or writing or even music, it is the woman’s bodies that become the tool for their art. This recontextualization is essential in their recovery and suggests the failures of a society that treats women as objects. The film is propelled by the strong personalities and voices of its subjects. It is an integral watch for feminists, social workers and documentary fans.
The final film for the first day of the festival was the Austrian documentary, In the Basement. Harkening in a way to the habits of collection I touch on in regards to viewings in the festival, the movie explores a wide range of basements and their inhabitants. The basement takes on the resonance as a private space, one often wrought with secrecy and even shame. The highlighted basements feature a wide range of sexual fetishists, weird collections, islamophobes and even a collector of Nazi paraphernalia. The film’s structure is loose, focusing on a few choice basements, while featuring others as bookmarks between scenes.
The film certainly has a point of interest and is complex in so much as it allows ambiguity to shed some discomfort on the proceedings. Yet the strength that the ambiguity brings to the film, similarly is the source of its most glaring faults. In the Basement brings to the screen a stylistic sheen reminiscent of Herzog’s documentary and a Wes Anderson film. The filmmakers amp up the awkwardness by asking their subjects to remain still, in forward facing tableaus held for extended periods of time. As much as this inspires the sense of the absurd, it also has a mocking tone.
The film enters uncomfortable territory of documentary ethics and while it is easy to assume that many, if not most, of the subjects are happy with their depictions the film maintains an edge of doubt. Several of the most disturbing sequences, in which characters espouse a romanticism about the Third Reich or the evils of Islam, it is quite apparent that the subjects are quite drunk. While this does not absolve them of hateful speech, it does contribute to the ethical problem of documentary filmmaking in regards to the implied trust between subject and maker. There is perhaps a push for detachment non-judgement in the filmmaking, which is supported by the film’s lack of empathy, but mostly it just leaves a dissatisfying discomfort. The sense of voyeurism, in spite of subjects often addressing camera directly, often feels exploitative rather than illuminating. While I do think the film has much to offer and will certainly find an audience, I only hope people will reflect on the questions that lie in the film’s journey beyond what we see on screen.
The next few days of the festival will be a little all over the place. As usual, the festival is scheduled during Canadian thanksgiving. I work as well. Still, the promise of a new film from Quentin Dupieux, documentaries about Cambodian Rock and Roll and Tsai-Ming Ling on the big screen are enough to force me to overextend myself: This is festival life.