by Max Borg
The 52nd edition of the Swiss documentary-focused festival reflected reality on-screen and off. However, for Max Borg, that was also good news for the program content and all its nuances, focusing on the present while also briefly taking a look backwards, with all the intriguing and delightful elements that only an excellent festival delivers.
While it may have celebrated its official landmark edition in 2019, with a 50th anniversary marked by the visit of one Werner Herzog, who gave a Master Class for the ages, it was arguably this year’s Visions du Réel – International Film Festival Nyon that will leave a lasting impression, not least as the event marked the return of in-person festivals, at least as far as the Swiss cultural scene is currently (and guardedly) concerned.
The festival has always set out to reflect all the nuances of the real world: Moritz de Hadeln, who founded the event in 1969 and ran it until 1979 (his wife Erika took over when he was appointed as the director of the Berlinale), went out of his way to showcase films from the Eastern Bloc, which were largely unavailable to Western audiences.
The festival, initially known as the Nyon International Documentary Film Festival, received its current moniker – focusing on the notion of the real rather than the documentary categorization – in 1995, when film journalist Jean Perret took over from Erika de Hadeln. He remained in charge until 2010, before handing over the reins to Luciano Barisone. Since 2018, Emilie Bujès has served as the event’s artistic director. Most notably, she introduced the Burning Lights section, a competitive strand that focuses on films which go off the beaten track in stylistic terms.
In 2020, the vision of reality featured at the festival was inexorably a bleak one: little over a month before the scheduled start, all cultural events were shut down in Switzerland, forcing the team to come up with a radical solution – an entirely virtual edition, with some caveats (the National Competition was not available abroad, to preserve the films’ world premiere status). It helped keep the industry side active, in addition to drawing new crowds, and overall, most rights holders adjusted to the situation: as Bujès stated at the time, only two of the selected films had to be withdrawn from the online edition, one of them due to pandemic-induced post-production issues.
Cut to a year later and, much like the world in general, Visions du Réel has managed to reconcile a desire for normalcy and the restrictions that are still in place in most countries: while most of the program was online, select physical screenings were held for press and professionals and, when the Swiss government unexpectedly allowed the reopening of cinemas the day before the inaugural ceremony, for regular audience members as well (in all cases, capacity was limited to 50 people per screening).
From the intimate to the universal, all facets of the spectrum of the real were covered, acknowledging the present situation while also looking forward to moving on. During his conversation with the audience, Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello proudly claimed his status as an outsider, choosing to think small within an increasingly bloated industry. Stressing the importance of keeping movie theaters alive, his opinion on streaming platforms boiled down to one sentence: “I haven’t been approached by any of them, and hopefully I’ll never have to work with them.”
The 2021 edition was perhaps best embodied by two programming choices. The first was the decision to invite French writer Emmanuel Carrère as this year’s Guest of Honor (formerly the Maître du Réel). One of the most celebrated authors of non-fiction, which in turn has frequently become fiction on the silver screen, Carrère delighted festivalgoers with an on-site Master Class and a selection of films that are personally meaningful to him, most notably Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). It was an ideal bridge between past and present.
On the flipside, the Grand Angle section, aimed at a more mainstream audience, showcased the world premiere of Michele Aiello’s My Place Is Here (Io resto, 2021), which was filmed over a period of thirty days between March and April 2020 in an Italian hospital. It was, at the same time, a stark reminder of the early days of the pandemic in Europe and a hope-filled invitation to look ahead, the original title (“I’m staying”, in Italian) being partly inspired by the patients who put up a fight against this insidious, invisible foe. Past, present and future converged to create that most unexpected of things: an entertaining non-fiction portrait of the pandemic, within the framework of a festival capturing all the nuances of reality.
© FIPRESCI 2021
Edited by Steven Yates