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Cinema du Reel 1999

By Sandrine Simonnot

Clockwise, top-left: 'It Will Be O.K.; Justice' and 'Mokarrameh, Memories and Dreams'.

Cinema du Reel was founded in 1978, just about the same time as the opening of the world's premiere art museum, Centre Georges Pompidou, where the film festival takes place (this year, 5-14 March). Dedicated to promoting documentary cinema's ethnographic and sociological impact (what is called "visual anthropology"), the 1999 Cinema du Reel was marked by a strong European presence, and a considerable num ber of woman filmmakers. Suzette Glenadel, the festival's General Delegate, viewed at least a thousand films from which 21 were chosen for the French section and 29 for the international competition, representing 21 different countries. Each year there is also a special retrospective dedicated to a single country, this time an exceptional array of Iranian films, of great interest not only to professionals but also to the general public.

Except for a few directors—such as Abbas Kiarostami, known for his films at the borderline of fiction—very little is known here about the Iran documentary. Some cinéastes clearly play on the boundary between reality and imagination, and this certainly seems a characteristic of documentary films in Iran. In those societies where depicting weaknesses is forbidden (or, at least discouraged), fiction becomes a useful tool to deal with sensitive issues. This is so true in countries other than the U.S.—almost all fiction directors have shot or still shoot documentaries, which further blurs the dividing line between the two genres. Even with Cinéma du Réel's commitment to nonfiction. Suzette Glenadel chose to open the festival with Natura Morte (Tabiat é bidjan, 89 min.), a theatrical feature by Sohrab Shahid-Saless, filmed in 1975. This film shows the daily routine of an old gate-keeper who receives sudden notice that he must retire fiom his job. With no plans for the future, he is replaced by a younger man and has to leave the house that for him and his wife has been home for the greater part of their lives. Shahid-Saless died last year in Chicago, at the age of 54. His political leanings to the left and his opposition to the Shah led him into exile, in Germany, where he directed most of his films. His work was not shown in Iran. In 1995, he left for the U.S. to begin a new career but wasn't able to attract the attention he deserved.

Glenadel uncovered four dozen films that revealed a wide range of Iranian subjects and cinematographic expressions. "Since the 1950s," she explained, "films were controlled by a government bureau. Then with the Islamic revolution, they were relegated to television. In Iran, there is no independent cinema. Only a few directors have been able to film on their own because of the arrival of video." The explosion of fiction films over the last decade has not seen the same development in documentary cinema. Many well-known Iranian directors began their careers in documentary film (people such as Parviz Kimiavi, Nasser Taghvai, Ebrahim Mokhtari), some of them making their reputations with excellent documentaries (Abbas Kiarostami, Amir Naderi). When moving into fiction, some directors have carried the social themes of their Suzette Glenadel, documentaries into their work (in particular General Delegare Mokhtari); others have simply used the social for Cinema du Reel background from documentary upon which to build a fiction. Mokhtari was part of the international competition with his film Mokarrameh, Khaterat Va Royaha (Mokarrameh, Memories and Dreams; 52 min.). Born in 1947, he graduated from the Iranian film school and is considered today one of the most important Iranian documentary filmmakers. His first fiction film, Zinat, premiered in 1994 at Cannes. His new film is a portrait of an old woman (Mokarameh) who owned a cow that she cherished. After her children secretly sold the animal, she deals with her grief by painting pictures on anything available—walls of houses, pumpkins, refrigerator doors... tirelessly she paints away, recounting her story, as well as that of her husband's other wives and the village women. The imagination of this woman combines with her reality in the paintings—an amazing woman whose work is eventually exhibited in a famous Teheran art gallery.

In the international competition, there was only one American film. James Rutenbeck 's Raise the Dead (55 min.) introduces us to Richard Hall, a 79 year old evangelist preacher who erects his marquee, starts preaching and lays his hands on those believers who show up to be healed. Inspired by the preacher, two of his flock try to galvanize their congregation into action but are unable to duplicate Hall 's success. (In a special screening section, there was another U.S. documentary, Sacrifice [50 min.] by Ellen Bruno. Already mentioned in these pages from its success at other festivals, Sacrifice presents the terrible story of thousands of girls recruited from Burnese villages to work in the brothels of Thailand.)

The jury for Cinema du Reel 1999 was composed of Andree Davanture (France), film editor; Jean Claude Luyat (France), film director; Monique Mbeka Phoba (Congo), film director; Daniele Segre (Italy), film director; and Kamran Shirdel (Iran), film director. Along with announcing their selections for the festival's prizes, the jury broke precedence and issued a general statement. From viewing the films submitted for their scrutiny, they felt that the requisites of television were clearly having a detrimental effect on films. They warned that shaping documentaries for the mass market of television audiences runs the risk of detracting from an expression of true cultural identity. Specifically, they felt that filmmakers covered the subjects in a monotonous way, without emotion, with no point of view, no authorial freedom.

Given the sentiments of the jury, the film selected for the festival 's grand prize-Prix du Cinema du Reel—was a very strong personal story. Syheryskja Lekcja (The Siberian Lesson), directed by Wojciech Staron (56 min., Poland), focused on Malgorzata, a young Polish girl who, at the end of her studies, travels by train across all of Russia to take up her new position in Siberia: for one year, she will be teaching Polish to the children of her exiled compatriots. She's accompanied by a young man with his camera, who recorded her experience as the subject for his first film. During these twelve months, Malgorzata becomes acquainted with the region along the shore of Lake Baikal, where the harshness is not only in the climate but in the economic conditions as well. Yet, the Polish community there offers her not only a warm, generous welcome, but also their deep friendship. The film is a sensitive portrait from a 25 year old director, able to captivate the audience with a tone of freshness in his filming.

The award for best short documentary (le Prix du Court metrage) went to Kor Och Människor (Cows and Men), by Christoph Michold (30 min., Sweden). In this piece, Svea and Gustav are the last farmers in a small village in northern Sweden. Their labors have become insignificant in the face of modem agriculture. On television there are promises of better times to come... but the film is a melancholic and poetic paean to a culture and a landscape that soon will disappear.

The Joris Ivens Prize, for a young filmmaker, went to Danis Tanovic for Budenje (It Will Be OK; 52 min., Belgium/Bosnia), who spent four years in Bosnia working for a humanitarian organization dispatching emergency aid during the war. Before returning to Denmark to resume his studies, he bids farewell to his newly made friends in a country that he has grown to love: many of his associates have lost everything, deeply scarred by their experience. Unlike the images broadcast by the news media, Budenje focuses on a life that is in progress, moving to a new chapter. 

A separate jury (des Bibliothèques et du Patrimoine) awarded the patrimony prize (le Prix du Patrimoine) to Sylviane Dampierre for Un Enclos (An Enclosure; 74 min.), about the women's penitentiary in Rennes. Special mention went to Juillet (July; 84 min.) by Didier Nion. Juillet is about vacation times—a camping site, the beach, July. Also recognized at the festival (honorable mention from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for le Prix Louis Marcorelles ) was Justice (58 min.), a French film directed by the young couple Olivier Ballande and Alice Mallet. Shot under very difficult conditions, Justice takes place in Madagascar, focusing on the daily routines of Joseph and Yictorien within the Malagasy legal system, beginning with their imprisonment. Joseph, 15 years old, has been awaiting judgment for two years after stealing a watch. For six months, Yictorien, aged 17, has been detained in the central adults' prison of Antanimora, a prison town with more than 4,000 detainees; he had stolen a shawl but was unable to prove that he was a minor. Some filmgoers present at the screening of Justice were from Madagascar, and they were shocked by the images and the story of these young men. Unaware of this situation (the film has not been shown in Madagascar), audience members urged the directors to show the film as much as possible so that word will get out, encouraging efforts to improve the legal system's treatment of children.

IDA member Sandrine Simonnot is a producer and a freelancer based in Paris.