What is a Film of the South?

in 18th Fribourg International Film Festival

by Kamel Ben Ouanes

The Fribourg International Film Festival’s intended purpose is to contribute to the promotion of cinema from the South, as well as to the “Crossroads” section favored by some filmmakers from the North.

The 18th edition of the festival was no exception to this rule. Better still, it consolidated it by a greater openness to experiments characterized either by their aesthetic daring or by their pertinent exploration of certain subjects.

For this reason, it seems that, throughout the programming of the festival, one important question preoccupied more than one critic: What is a film of the South? What are the main characteristics?

Upon closer examination, if only of the films included in the official competition of the Fribourg Festival, it becomes obvious that at least three main features distinguish films from the South.

First, there is a clearly stated commitment to describe reality through the changes the world is currently experiencing. Thus, this new ideology highlighting the mechanisms of human relationships — an ideology not of power but of knowledge — and one whose substance is essentially ethical, can be seen in the Argentinean film by Paul Perrone “The Wick” (La Mèche), a work of rare sobriety which shows us a radioscopy of local society though the tired and yet tender neutral gaze of an old person.

Second, there is a desire to set oneself apart from the consecrated and codified models of commercial cinema, in particular those of Hollywood, through a careful search, the basic principle of which is the refusal to assert oneself as an actor.

Indeed, in accordance with the status of the narrator in the nouveau roman, it is of little importance to Southern filmmakers whether they seduce or satisfy their public, either through classical and linear narrative material or with a voyeuristic trompe-l’œil of gratuitous violence. Films like “Dias de Santiago” by Josue Mendez (Peru) or “A Thousand Months” (Alf chahr) by Faouzi Bensaidi (Morocco) are more concerned with adopting a fragmentary narrative structure in which each scene must echo other scenes and each sequence must have its own autonomy and internal coherence, while establishing an indirect and underground link with other sequences.

The use of such methods means that the cinematic material is not merely presented to the public in order to be “consumed” passively. Instead, it requires the active participation of that public, for the links between the narrative fragments, as well as their meaning, depend essentially on the effort made by the spectator-receiver.

Finally, in what can be called the third distinguishing feature of Southern cinema, it is important to consider the variety of styles favored by this type of cinematography. As it is based on the self and on the specificity of different local cultures, Southern films would appear to be privileged instruments for combating uniform models and too-obvious writing.

The film-theory “Memory of a Plunder” (Memoria del saqueo) by Fernando E. Solanas (Argentina) is therefore not only a violent indictment of the corruption of the country’s ruling class and of its relation to the new rules of globalization, but also a fine lesson in cinema: how does one film a theory? How is the discourse of an indictment to be constructed? Solanas is careful not to lock himself into a single style and applies himself with infallible rigor to changing the tone each time he changes his angle of attack. Whether Solanas uses nervous, rhythmical or emphatic shots, his writing simultaneously reveals and proves suspense, the narration (relating the facts) and the arguments… It is also what Prasanna Vithanage has attempted to do in his film “August Sun” (Ira Madiyama) (Sri Lanka) though in a different form, through the expedient of parallel montage, across the interconnected destinies of three characters. By following the investigation carried out by a woman in search of her vanished husband, the emotions of a boy, whose family has been forced to flee, or a young man during his return to the fold, Vithanaga does not express the tragic effects of the civil war in his country in a frontal or exhibitionist manner, but rather through metonymy and with a simple and moving detour: civil war spares no-one, neither people nor animals, feelings nor ideas, nor the dangerous devouring which it conceals in people’s reactions. Thus, to film is also to reflect on the modalities of a new cinematic writing.