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Humanity on the Screen at Cinéma du Réel

By Laura Almo

<em>Havana Mi Amour</em> by Uli Gaulke (Germany), winner of Cinéma du Réel's Joris Ivens Prize

If ever there was a film festival that reminds us of what it is to be human, it is the Cinéma du Réel festival of ethnographic and sociological films. As a meeting place for visions of how we see the world, the ten-day festival, held at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, shows documentary films from “all corners of the earth.” A common thread running through all of the films is the focus on the human element of life—where and how people live, how we resist, what we do under duress and how we move on.

Founded in 1979 by BPI, Bibliothèque Publique d’Information (the public library network), and presented by BPI and the National Center of Art & Culture at the Pompidou Centre, Cinéma du Réel is an independent entity, making all the selections and decisions about the festival.

An integral part of Cinéma du Réel is a retrospective paying homage to a single filmmaker or a specific region of the world. This year’s retrospective on Central Asia, featuring over 50 films from the five Central Asian Republics of Kazakstan, Kyrzystan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, was a highlight of the festival. Thanks to the efforts of festival director Suzette Glenadel, the retrospective gave audiences a chance to see films that are rarely shown outside of Central Asia and also provided the delegation of filmmakers from the independent republics an opportunity to talk with one another. A panel discussion on Central Asia brought up issues confronting the independent states.

Filmmakers from four of the five republics discussed what has changed since independence in 1991. Issues high on the list included the challenge to make films with less funding from the state, the production value of emerging films, issues of national identity, and the new openness to make films about subjects that were brushed aside during the Soviet era.

The retrospective included a range of documentary films from 1966 to the present, with a handful of fiction films sprinkled in. Many of the newer films grapple with issues of national identity, cultural traditions, the environment and the hardship of daily life. The majority of the films, as well as the Q&As and panel discussions on Central Asia, were not always translated into English, making it a challenge for those of us not exactly polished in our French and Russian. Many films were “sans dialogue,” so language was not as much of an issue, but most were in their “version originale,” with a simultaneous translation into French.

Polygon (1990) by Oraz Rymanov and Vladimir Roerikh of Kazakstan was a fascinating look at the nuclear arms race from the Russian perspective. This film shows the Soviet Army’s nuclear testing in Kazakstan and the harmful medical effects the decisions from Moscow had on the people in rural regions of the country.

Ersaïn Abrakhmanov’s Jana Arka (1991) is about a man who sells bread out of the window of a train in the Steppes region of Kazakstan. Depicting a very unromanticized view of the Steppes, this ten-minute black-and-white film is a very powerful illustration of the food shortages. Especially poignant is the last sequence, showing a woman desperately running alongside the train collecting a few extra loaves of bread.

Two films from Tajikistan dealt with cultural issues. Shabbat (1990) by Gulya Mirzoeva shows the last moments of family togetherness before part of the family emigrates to Israel. Farhod Abdullaev’s La Retour—The Return (2000) is about a man returning from Afghanistan to his home in Tajikistan after the five-year civil war. Returning to find his house destroyed, he rebuilds his home—and his life. From a brief conversation I had with the maker of The Return, it is evident that films which may not look controversial on the surface require considerable effort and personal sacrifice to get made.

With independent production companies cropping up in Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, the distribution of films is another challenge facing the independent republics. Filmmaker Mourat Moussine described the difficulties in Kazakstan between producers and Kazak TV over who should pay whom: Should producers pay Kazak TV to have programs shown, or should Kazak TV pay producers for their work? As the debate continues unresolved, one distributor from Kazakstan mentioned that she had recently been to the American Film Market, so while distribution is still difficult, opportunities are increasing in the Central Asian region.

Among the 27 films from 19 countries that screened in the International Competition was the Grand Prize-winner Gotteszell (Woman Prison) by Helga Reidemeister (Germany). A portrait of six women in a German prison, this film is not just another prison film, but a window into the human spirit. We begin to understand the irony of freedom when we hear one woman say, “My soul learned how to be free in prison.” This film allows us to see beyond the crimes to the humanity of the women and how they suffered in silence for too long.

The International Prix de la SCAM (Societe Civil des Auteurs Multimedia), given for the cinematographic qualities of the film, went to Adi Barash and Ruthie Schatz (Israel), for their film Diamonds and Rust—The Spirit of Namibia, which shows daily life in the close quarters of the Spirit of Namibia diamond mining ship off the coast of Namibia.

Havana Mi Amour by Uli Gaulke (Germany) was awarded the Joris Ivens prize for a young filmmaker. This high-energy film looks at personal relationships in Cuba through a set of characters who watch a Cuban telenovela on half-broken TV sets. Ironically, the daily struggles in Cuba are not so different from episodes of the telenovelas they watch on TV.

Svetlana Stasenko (Russia) won the Prix du Court Metrage for her film Petits Restes (Little Remainders). Without dialogue, the film shows young boys searching for food and eating other peoples’ leftovers on the streets of post-Soviet Russia.

The Prix des Bibliotheques (given by the librarians of BPI) went to the film Dan la Chambre de Vanda (Wanda’s Room) by Pedro Costa (Portugal). This film focuses on Vanda, a young heroin addict living on the outskirts of Lisbon. As we listen to Vanda’s hacking cough and watch her emaciated body consumed by drugs, we can’t help but think of the filmmaker’s role on the other side of the camera.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs awards the “Prix Louis Marcorelles” to a French-produced film. To help raise their visibility and role in the festival, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs purchases a film and helps with distribution abroad. This year the prize went to Sophie Bredier and Myriam Aziza for their film Separée (Separated) about Sophie, a young woman who returns to South Korea 25 years after being adopted.

One of the American entries making its world premiere was West 47th Street. Filmmakers Bill Lichtenstein and June Peoples spent over three years following four residents of Fountainhouse, a residence for people with mental disorders in New York City. Working with over 350 hours of footage, Lichtenstein and Peoples describe West 47th Street as a “radical return to cinéma vérité.”

Cinéma du Réel is a gem. With a treasure trove of documentaries from so many parts of the world, the festival leaves us with a greater understanding of the nuances, subtleties and idiosyncrasies of the world around us. The ability to see these worlds projected on the big screen is the joy of Cinéma du Réel. To feel that human connection reminds us what is so inspiring about documentary film. For more information on Cinéma du Réel, check the website at


Laura Almo is a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles where she is the Director of Documentary Programs at LAMEC-- the Los Angeles Media & Education Center. Other recent projects include Shooting War - the Combat Cameramen of WW II for Dreamworks television. Almo holds a Masters degree in documentary film from Stanford University and is very interested in working on international co-productions.