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Festival Watch: Cinema du Réel 1996

By Sandrine Simonnot

A photo composition of a man smiling and holding a camera with a halo over his head, from Mark Wexler's 'Me and My Matchmaker.'

For 18 years, Cinema du Réel, the international festival of ethno­graphic and sociological films, has been revealing the world in all its diversity. Held this year from March 8 to 17 in Paris, the 18th Festival du Cinema du Réel had the same goals with the international competition as well as with a retrospective salute to African cinema. Indeed, African cinema is celebrating its fortieth year of existence as we Europeans are celebrating a century of cinema. The festival opened with a screening of Raymond Depardon last film, Africas: How Is It with the Pain?

The international jury, which evaluated films for 12 days, was com posed of producer/distributor Pascale Dauman (France); filmmaker Andre Delvaux (Belgium); UCLA film school professor Teshome Gabriel (U.S.), author of Third Cinema in the World: The Aesthetics of Liberation; Enno Patelas (Germany), writer and director of the Munich Cinematheque from 1973 to 1994; and filmmaker Moufida Hatli (Tunisia). The presence of American filmmakers was felt this year. Four American films were among the competitors, and one of them—Marion Marzinski's three-hour Shtetl—snagged the festival's grand prize of 50,000 francs, the Prix Cinema du Réel. Marzinski, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, retraces the steps of his friend Nathan's family, originally from Bransk, a small Polish town. By examining places and questioning witnesses, he attempts to rediscover the marks left by Bransk's Jewish past. The shtetl disappeared when 2,500 Jews were deported to Treblinka.

The other American offerings included Gaylen Ross's Dealers Among Dealers, about the world of New York City diamond merchants on "jeweler's row" near 47th Street. The trade is still basically run by Jewish dealers and has rituals and codes of honor dating back to the Middle Ages, handed down from father to son. Laura Harrison's Thurmond, West Virginia tells about a former mining town that has been gradually abandoned. Eighteen inhabitants, including the mayor, a Mrs. Wells, are still holding out and continue to live in this ghost town, now located in the middle of the nature park through which only a tourist train passes. Finally, Mark Wexler's Me and My Matchmaker is a very interesting film about the very alive Irene, a Jewish matchmaker in Chicago. Quite naturally, Wexler's future happiness does not escape her, and she under takes to find him a suitable companion.

The international award of 30,000 francs went to Dominique Gros (France) for Julie: Itinerary of a Child from The Century. Other prizes were for 15,000 francs each. The award for best short film went to Sergej Dvor­cevoj (Khazakhstan) for Scastje ("Paradise"), a few moments in the life of the nomads in Kazakhstan. The Joris Ivens Award for best young filmmaker was given to Arjanne Laan (Netherlands) for Velo Negro, about the border between the United States and Mexico, where patrol guards track down illegal immigrants attempting to cross into El Dorado—but is happiness really to be found just on the other side of the Rio Grande? For this category, a special mention was given also to Thomas Ciulei (Romania) for Gratian, about a human werewolf, according to popular belief. The award of patrimony went to Patrice Chagnard (France) for The Convoy, as did also the Louis Marcolles award, which gives money for acquisitions and for English subtitles.

Films representing Morocco, Argentina, and Mexico were screened out of competition. Daoud Aoulad's Al Qued recounts the story of a fisherman living on the banks of the Bouregreg, with scenes in black and white as well as in color, in 35mm film. This simple subject, treated with lots of creativity, allows the film to be on the border of fiction. Una Sola Voz by the Argentineans Carmen Guarini and Marcelo Cespedes tells us about an Indian community regrouping five

different tribes who have organized themselves for the first time according to Anglo law, in order to demand that territories in which they have always lived be restituted to the community. For the first time, they allowed one of those meetings to be filmed. The Mexican filmmakers Jose Buil and Marisa Sistach have been able to bring back to life the 1920s and 1930s in a small Mexican town with their film La Linea Paterna. lt is the resurgence of a forgotten past, which retires the threads of the family history thanks to film reels that were found.

As for the African retrospective that was proposed, it was in no way fully representative of the 53 countries bounded by arbitrarily drawn up borders. The chronological approach was, however, trying to convey the profound transformations that have impacted this continent from South Africa to the Sahara. Certain countries were more fully represented than others: for example, Senegal, which in the 1960s had the most flourishing production with Ousmane Sembene, or Burkina Faso, which, with the Fespaco, now has become the center of the French-speaking African cinema.

In the English-speaking countries, there has never been any real cinematographic development outside of television, and the true documentary works are yet to come. Through the impetus given by the changes in South Africa, a new pole of development is taking place in the austral region, and this year two films, one from Namibia and the other from Mozambique, were competing in the festival. A new generation of filmmakers with greater freedom are now at work, and their main concern will be to find the necessary financing and production infrastructure to enable them to document their culture.

Thanks to Cinema du Réel, which attracts not only documentary film specialists but a highly eclectic public, spectators can see films like Africa sur Seine. It is in fact the first African film, made in Paris in 1955 by a group led by Paulin Vieyra, while the first feature film to see light in Africa was La Noir de... by Ousmane Sembene in 1966.

As always, at the Festival du Cinema du Réel, a strong personal experi­ence is to be found in discovering films that restore a meaning to the words respect, solidarity, and fraternity.

Sandrine Simonnot is a producer in France.