Visions of Cinema

in 53rd Viennale – Vienna International Film Festival

by Ola Salwa

The fine line between creation and observation, art and notes on reality, was the interesting theme of the documentary films shown at 53rd Viennale.

This year the selection offered to the FIPRESCI jury consisted of 20 first and second films, both narrative and documentary. The films of the latter genre proved to be interesting and challenging, posing important questions on the definition of cinema. Does any given material register as a film? Is a person pushing the “record” button on the camera an artist by default? Does the external context transform the recorded material into art? The answers can be ambiguous, and the best example is the Canadian-Spanish Oncle Bernard – L’Anti-lecos d’economie. The work of director Richard Brouillette was basically inviting the famous economist Bernard Maris to sit in front of a 16 mm camera and changing the rolls of film. Oncle Bernard gives a fascinating lecture on global economy, but is he the protagonist of a film? And does the nature of the registered material change by Maris’s premature death during the Charlie Hebdo attacks? The Canadian director does not provide any answers, but the programmers of the Viennale do it on his behalf by including Oncle Bernard – L’Anti-lecos d’economie in the selection. Thus they’re also pointing out one of the most important roles of contemporary documentary film: capturing time, recording the fleeting events of social and political importance in raw form, before they become subjects of a political debate or quarrel.

This is also the case of an another Viennale document, Lampedusa in Winter directed by Jakob Brossmann, who walks with a camera among refugees from Africa, local fishermen who are on strike, and local authorities trying to manage the crisis. The artistic side of the film is bleak, but its content is compelling and important. It reflects on the complicated social and economic situation in Europe, showing that there are many groups of interests and a lack of procedures. A similar theme, but artistically processed by the director, can be traced in the FIPRESCI winner – the Syrian-Lebanese Coma, directed by Sarah Fattahi. Coma, a state in which the human body is still functioning and alive, but with no contact with the outside world and with no will of its own, serves as a brilliant metaphor for life in a war zone. The protagonists of the film are, in a way, imprisoned in their own homes, trying to keep up the delicate balance with daily rituals – brewing coffee, chatting, watching televistion – that create an alternative life for the comatosed family. The claustrophobia created by restrictive camera movements and a rigid point of view is extremely suggestive, so are the visual metaphors such as a merry-go-round apprearing and disappearing from the frame, like a ghost. Fattahi shows that the world can’t move beyond certain boundries, like a body paralized by coma. The country is still alive but motionless, dead in a way. The reality in Coma is transformed into artistic vision and interpreted by the director. Life became art.

Another documentary film in the FIPRESCI section, Wolfpack by Crystal Moselle, raised a follow-up question: how much can an artist manipulate the real material and what are the ethical implications of doing so. The author of the film literally bumped into her protagonist while walking in New York: she was hit by a running boy, followed by five very similar young men. They turned out to be the Angulo brothers, home schooled, rarely leaving their apartment, being subjected to their father’s despotism. Moselle came with the camera into the Angulo home, asked very personal questions, registered the quirks and daily routines of the family and put together a portrait of an eccentric family led by a tyrant and saved by fiction. The Angulo brothers are film buffs and amateur filmmakers, who make their own redintions of Quentin Tarantino and Christoper Nolan films. The director clearly manipulates the material, using slow motion shots of the father, selecting the archival material showing him in a negative light and editing information in a way that creates the impression that the Angulo paterfamilias is a villain. The manipulation becomes clear in the second part of the film in which Moselle gives more space to the protagonists, edits less and doesn’t try to direct the material too much. So the question remains: may the artist use the facts and faces of real people to tell their own story, even fictitious? And is it art or only a lie?

The interesting and diverse film program at the Viennale proved that cinema is not a stiff art form, but a source of inspiration and a vivid glance of the eye trying to grasp the ever more complicated nature of the world.

Edited by Yael Shuv