Layers of Reality By Grégory Valens

in 8th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Grégory Valens

Buenos Aires is now, under the direction of Fernando Peña, one of the few festivals that willingly offer a selection in which documentaries compete with fiction films. What was for a long time an unwritten rule of film festivals (not mixing together films which do not belong to the same form) might seem rather outdated two years after Michael Moore received the Palme d’Or in Cannes for Fahrenheit 9/11. But the high number of non-fiction films in the international selection (out of 18 films, 11 only can be considered of pure fiction without any doubt) certainly reflects something more than a mere wish to include docs in a competition.

7 films in the Buenos Aires competition share the fact that they can be related to the documentary – and that’s about all they share. The range of their relation to reality is extremely wide. Two of them are rather classical (though uncommonly poetic) documentaries: In the Pit (En el hoyo) by Juan Carlos Rulfo (Mexico, 2005) and Next to Be Gone (Los proximos pasados) by Lorena Muñoz (Argentina, 2006). Another is a pure mockumentary (the unsatisfying First on the Moon by Alexei Fedorchenko – Perviye na Lunye, Russia, 2005). Three are fiction films which involve unprofessional actors and improvised situations: Perry Odgen’s Pavee Lackeen, the Traveller Girl (Ireland, 2005), Denis Coté’s Drifting States (Les Etats nordiques, Canada, 2005) and in a lesser proportion Valeska Grisebach’s Longing (Sehnsucht, Germany, 2005). Finally, the most difficult to sort out is Isaki Lacuesta’s The Legend of Time (La leyenda del tiempo, Spain, 2005), which intermixes various documentary situations with the fictional reconstitution of a past.

Following the construction of Mexico City’s central highway overpass, a gigantic work which has already spread over several years and may take another decade to be completed, In the Pit focuses on some construction workers, looking at their role in the creation of this amazing project, and how it affects their lives. The parallel between the ambition of the construction and the modest, traditional everyday life of those who make it happen leads to a reflection on contemporary society: why does mankind choose to live in cities that end up absorbing our energy, our time, and our very breath? Thanks to a gift for human contact that allows him intimate access to the lives of the workers he films, Rulfo manages to capture the realistic dimension that makes a classical documentary worth seeing. Although his use of a complicated sound mix and time-lapse photography sometimes brings an artificial tone to this captivating human adventure, the final shot, a flight over the full ring road lasting several minutes, adds a truly poetic dimension to Rulfo’s talent for depicting reality.

Next to Be Gone, which received the FIPRESCI Prize, also subtly mixes poetry with a search for reality. Structured as a quest of a lost mural executed by the Mexican artist Siqueiros during his stay in Argentina (Natalio Botana, director of the newspaper Critica, had hired him to decorate the cellar of his villa), Next to Be Gone considers the many ways to reproduce a reality which fails to be caught. Mixing the reconstitution of the real (a group of contemporary artists build a replica of the cellar, and paint a copy of the mural based on photographic evidence) and a keen talent for investigation (on the paths of Lorena Muñoz’ precedent work, Yo no sé que me han echo tus ojos, co-directed with Sergio Wolf), Next to Be Gone ends with a very poetic sequence in which the mural is filmed in its current state of neglect, seeming to disappear before our eyes. Filming becomes a way to leave a trace for the future of what has been: going back to the raison d’être of filmed documents, Muñoz superbly manages to celebrate the power of cinema.

Other films deserve to be mentioned here (including some in the Argentinean competition, where the proportion is even bigger, 6 out of 10 films being totally or partly documentaries), but let’s end this survey with two films that deal with the concept of reality though many would consider them fiction. In Drifting States, Denis Côté narrates Christian’s journey from southern Quebec to Radisson, a community of 400 souls in the extreme north of the province. Côté baldly intermixes clear elements of fiction (as when the central character chooses to terminate the days of his dying mother) and sequences captured on the fly. Only Christian’s character is played by an actor: the inhabitants of Radisson play themselves, though their performances and characters have been shaped by the director. Several approaches to reality interact to create a strange sensation that one is actually witnessing the evolution of an entire community. In its own way, the film also questions the power of cinema, suggesting that the intrusion of a camera, an actor and a film crew into a closed world modifies the course of its calm existence.

Perry Odgen’s Pavee Lackeen, the Traveller Girl follows the life of a family living in a trailer house on the outskirts of Dublin. Focusing on Pavee, a teenager facing social problems at school, and her mother who feels abandoned and counts on the help of social services, the film presents a poignant portrait of abandoned human beings, who end up outcasts because they have chosen a marginal way of living. Pavee Lackeen is not a documentary, but the use of unprofessional actors adds to a sense of reality which many British and Irish directors know how to render. However the film does not follow the path of Ken Loach: there is no overt criticism of the society which created these exclusions, no political engagement in the presentation of these marginal figures, and no emotional exploitation in the sequence in which the family is expelled. More accurately, one could say that the situations themselves embody a political discourse, as well as a source of emotions. Perry Odgen manages to make real situations feel real while she is filming their reconstitution, which is a remarkable achievement.

If these directors have different ways of approaching reality, what they have in common is a knowledge of film history and a sense of what distinguishes fiction from documentary. They are the sons of the Lumiere and Vertov, of Rossellini and Rouch. They live in a world they feel needs to be represented, and they represent it through several different layers of reality. BAFICI’s selection not only reveals something about the state of the world, about the evolution of films, genres and formats. It also confirms that, if there are not enough quality fiction films in a year to fill the programs of the ever-increasing number of festivals, focusing on documentary is much more than a backup solution for festival directors.