November 1, 2002

Marseille Fest Focuses on the Tragic Side of Reality

The Ruth Walk's <em>The Settlers</em>. Photo courtesy of Festival International du Documentaire.

The approach to the Festival International du Documentaire in Marseille was uplifting. It involved a harborside walk past luxury yachts with masts silhouetted against an azure Mediterranean sky. The National Theatre, in which all the events took place, was cool and welcoming. Screenings were in two auditoriums, starting at 9.30 a.m. and usually ending about midnight. Immediately after every show filmmakers answered questions, with everyone sitting in a curved area that naturally brought people together.

About 100 films were selected from 57 countries. As festival president Michel Tregan observed, “Quantity is not the focal point. This is rather of a moral and ethical nature. Whether from China, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Thailand, Japan, Sri Lanka or elsewhere, the films we select provide a glimpse of the ‘real’ in these societies.”

The festival was almost tragically successful in that aim, dealing in dying, suicide, a military hospital for the seriously wounded, the life of prisoners taken hostage, an institution for abused children and a home for runaway girls. By way of relief there were also a number of extremely interesting experimental films.

In Letter from a Yellow Cherry Blossom (Naomi Kawase. Japan), the director’s former teacher agrees to allow her to film him as he lies dying. Outside the hospital window the cherry blossom is in flower. Inside, a very sick man, sometimes coughing horribly, is gently questioned by the filmmaker about his life. She films so close to him that in one shot her hand is seen giving him water, while she continues filming. This brave documentary records fear and pain with a strange detachment, perhaps because the filmmaker needed to control her feelings.

Boogie Woogie Pappa (Erik Bafving. Sweden) is made up of photos discovered by Bafving after his father suddenly committed suicide. They record a young family growing up, with a Dad who was often abroad, but would return to fill the house with piano jazz. By focusing on the father, while asking exploratory questions like, “Why did he always stand apart in groups?” Bafking attempts to answer the question of who this man really was. “I hope one day you will like me again,” his father said the day he died. Such quotes, along with skilful framing, editing and the discrete use of jazz, made this an extremely moving document.

The Land of Silence (Vimukthi Jayasundara, Sri Lanka), looks at life in a military hospital, where dreadfully wounded victims of Sri Lanka’s civil war live. Jayasundara told me the word silence in the title alluded to his belief that these young men are forgotten by society. The authorities agreed to the film because they understood it would be about “heroes.” “I shot the film on a 1960s government-owned Mitchell camera, which I had first to repair,” Jayasundara recalled. “Finally there was a problem getting the film released for the festival, because it had not been past by the censors. However, I asked the French Embassy to intercede and they released it.”

Runaway (Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini UK/Iran) enters a home for runaway girls in Teheran. The intimate discussions between the inmates and the question of whether they may stay, and when parents and future husbands come to claim them are recorded with astonishing frankness. The film ends with a girl, already abused by an uncle, being cajoled into going home.

A most unsettling film was The Settlers (Ruth Walk, Israel). Seven Israeli families live in the Palestinian town of Hebron. “Our forefathers lived here 2,000 years ago, so this place belongs to us,” one of the family members state. Endlessly they pray and bid their children do the same, dolls and all. They talk about “the enemy” and the whole town suffers a curfew when there is a Jewish celebration. The most revealing moment is when Ruth asks a mother if her children are frightened when there is fighting. She points to bullet holes in her kitchen and says, “No. They go to the window to enjoy watching the tracer bullets like fireworks.” But the fear in her eyes betrays her.

A lone cheerful note was struck by Radio La Colifata (Chloe Ouvrard, Pierre Barougier, France). “We’re the only madmen to have a radio station,” declares a patient at the Borda psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires. Radio Colifata is run by the patients and broadcasts fortnightly. Programs involve messages to friends, poetry, astrology and song. The film ends with patients dancing tangos!

Other aspects of this festival included roundtable discussions on the importance of sound; the need for story form; and whether a documentary can ever provide a true record of history. For those preferring a break there was always the excellent canteen, with inexpensive food and drink, and large tables, which made it easy to join a group.

For further information, visit the Festival International du Documentaire website at


For over 30 years, Henry Lewes has researched, written and directed documentaries for the BBC, CBC, Film Australia and the United Nations.