A Blurred Sense of Reality By Ruth Pombo

in 43rd Gijón International Film Festival

by Ruth Pombo

One of the major common points that develop through some of the most remarkable films seen at the Gijón International Film Festival is the difference that they establish between fiction and documentary.

Most of them draw a very thin line: they choose hybrid forms in the cinematographic language for the purposes of creating a portrait of today”s societies, from a global or an individual point of view. This form also seems to be unavoidably connected in these films to the stabbing search for identity. It is significant that it always comes distilled from personal and interior emotions, or from the relationship between different sorts of individuals as they confront the common needs of work, love or survival.

The results are, in most of cases, hopeless. The tone of these films, at their most positive, is bittersweet. Reality turns into a shady and blurred scale of faint white and grey lights, or becomes the contrast between the brightness of the sun and the obscureness of the smallest of living quaters. None of them seems to hold hopes of a good future. All the approaches to reality that these films contain, however, are brilliantly constructed. They question things and give open itineraries for their audiences to follow.

In many different ways, the space surrounding human beings in these films is the best and common of mirrors to search for answers, from where they live to where they work. Finding the other, confronting it, requires for very different kinds of filmmakers the need to shoot the space between bodies and objects, with an aim to register the ephemeral sense of things. Sometimes the use of genre cinema conventions, from horror movies to slapstick comedy, also gives the best of clues to their positioning.

The most notable example of this confrontation fiction-documentary is Chain, an urban melancholy photo collage portrait of homogeneous mall landscapes that took visual creator, photographer and music video director Jem Cohen 7 years to create, by shooting almost alone with a 16mm camera in various cities across the United States, France, Germany, Poland, Australia and Canada. His desolate limbo that could be anywhere and everywhere also contains a challenging surprise that comes in the form of the story of 2 young women. Both are wanderers, and both are isolated characters, though of very different kind, that must be neither totally real nor completely invented. A Japanese executive, who travels in order to inform her company about the most suitable locations for a future chain of thematic amusement parks, and an American misfit that stopped running away from home and ended up staying nearby a shopping mall. The two of them chain their interior monologues, the story of their everyday lives, to the reality of impersonal public complexes as buildings, offices, hotels, highways, airports and shops. “20 or 30 years ago”, Jem Cohen says, “Chain would have looked like a nightmare movie. Today it looks so much like a documentary that some audiences assume it is one”. A bricoleur by intuition and with political conviction, by evoking philosopher Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, works of Chris Marker, and the tone of JG Ballard’s stories, Cohen has accomplished an essay on globalisation, but also on confusion, alienation and sadness that seems to emanate from the most common parts of our surrounding reality.

More confusion and silence, shot in 16mm and Super 8, that in this case, turns into horror and insanity: Sugar, a gritty black-and-white and colour tale of, again, a young woman alone, this time at one-room box apartment and surrounded by loads of domestic objects that beome part of her nightmares in this cubicle with no views. All under the watchful eye of a former tenant who seems to be living on the other side of the walls, making noises like a trapped animal that accompany the uneasy and spectral music score. While eschewing traditional narrative Sugar succeeds at evoking the chilling sensation of horror and eeriness. A psychological thriller in the grand tradition of the genre, Sugar sparks obvious comparisons with the films of Polanski, Hitchcock and Lynch. But it is more than just homage: it explores and does not want to decide if it is meant to be a darkly surreal reflection of alienation, a cheesy horror movie, or a piece of modern art. Directors Patrick Jolley and Reynold Reynolds, with the essential collaboration of Samara Golden, the only human performer in Sugar, try to go beyond his previous art installations and short films with the same kind of extreme approach to the realities of the mind.

The difference between fiction and reality is still one of the formal keys in another pair of films that can be confronted: Pavee Lackeen, the Traveller Girl and Workingman’s Death, a German grandiloquent though exceptional essay on the precariousness of industrial and manual work at 6 different parts of the world of today. The first one, a low-budget film shot on mini DV and the debut by Irish fashion photographer Perry Ogden, gives the audience the regular life of a 10-year-old Irish girl and her dysfunctional family on the outskirts of Dublin. The second one, directed by Michael Glawogger with a lot of technical means and music by the great John Zorn, pretends to impact on the audience with incredible and sophisticated cinematic constructions around the extreme situations of miners in Ukraine and Indonesia, Nigerian livestock slaughters and Chinese and Pakistani steel workers.

Both films play the game of transforming reality with bits of fiction to be more effective. Pavee Lackeen has a strong narrative trajectory and makes its real characters overplay themselves and their world. Its sequences seem to be casual, though, as if framing them hasn’t been important at all. Workingman’s Death uses formal classical narration to contain its terrible realities. These two films also have their best qualities in relating who their protagonists are to the spaces they are immersed in: it doesn’t matter if they are such different as a tiny caravan or a gigantic factory. Once again, space defines light, action, sequences and montage and it is an irreplaceable reference for identity.

Cohen, Jolley and Reynolds (and Golden), Ogden and Glawogger: almost all of these filmmakers are newcomers, generally young ones. Some of them have previous careers in other kind of arts. As José Luis Cienfuegos, Gijón International Film Festival’s director, points out, “They gather the latest blows to orthodoxy, perhaps because the line between fiction and reality is getting narrower and narrower and the documentary and semi-documentary format has become a powerful and exceptional new way of cinematic expression.” But it seems to be not only a tendency in programming from this festival’s team, as all of these films have already been presented at different film festivals around the world such as Edinborough, Toronto, Sundance, London and Rotterdam amongst others. And they are to be seen in still more.