By Ela Bittencourt
Commemorating 15 years of É Tudo Verdade (It’s All True), the festival’s founder and director Amir Labaki remarked in the introduction to his book, É Tudo Cinema (It’s All Cinema), that he never believed in the facile distinction between feature and documentary films. Now in its seventeenth edition, the festival remains true to its founder’s ethos: among documentaries that treat historical and sociopolitical themes in more traditional expository formats, there’s a slew of ambitious films whose very aims seem to be testing and expanding cinematic genres.
Among these, Noise (Raash), by Israeli filmmakers Dan and Noit Geva, stood out for its whimsical, at times maddeningly impressionistic treatment of the sounds that permeate, night and day, their neighborhood in Tel-Aviv. Dan Geva is both the co-creator and the subject of the film: his ultrasensitive hearing leads him to pester loud neighbors and passersby. It doesn’t help that his historical house brings tourists to his doorstep; his manic need for silence prompts at least one guide to call him “loco.” As his obsession grows, Dan is brought into conflict with his wife who, from behind the camera, narrates acerbically her husband’s war on noise. The film is only in part about hearing. Noit locates in her husband’s actions an urgent need for control, confirmed when Dan installs video cameras on his street and chastises “noise intruders” over the speakerphone. His destruction of noisy security systems sends him to jail. Most of the film is done in the spirit of serious joking, including visits to noise experts and the gathering of soothing nature sounds in America’s national parks. It spills into fantasy as Dan imagines digging his own grave (and digs one for the benefit of the camera). The overall effect is somewhere between Kafka and Gogol, leading some audience members to ask during the post-screening Q&A if the filmmaker wasn’t perhaps exaggerating. He wasn’t, he insists; his real-life problem is graver. All the same, he sees his documentary as art, with scenes deliberately constructed to amplify the audience’s perception—as in numerous tight close-ups, the camera shaking, while he runs down the poorly lit streets—rather than to advance the narrative.
Along a similar line of experimentation is Carrière 250 Meters, a portrait of writer and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière by Mexican director Juan Carlos Rulfo. From the start, the ever-present voiceover evokes the austerity of literary adaptations, with metaphorical and poetic oomph (“I tell myself I ever wanted to be that wind”). Carrière strolls in rural France: born 250 meters from a village cemetery, where he hopes his remains will be buried, his life has taken him far—to Paris, where he collaborated with Luis Buñuel and Peter Brook, and to New York, where he mingled with such luminaries as filmmaker Milos Forman and photographer Mary Ellen Mark. Much of the film is a freewheeling journey down the memory lane: Carrière feels the pull of his parents’ Spaniard soil—“something that’s always there”—but proclaims himself a citizen of the world, revisiting sites he encountered with Buñuel, the café frequented by Catherine Deneuve, the Parisian theater that became his second home. The narrative becomes even more decentralized, sometimes confusingly so, as Carrière travels to ancient Mexican sites, India’s markets and temples, and Tehran, weaving a tale that is part his life, part mythical adventure. The results are at times delightful, as when Carrière retells the ancient Indian legend about a monkey whose tail cannot be lifted, imparting lessons on time’s immutability (both Carrière and Brook were avid readers of ancient texts, a passion that fueled their theatrical classic The Mahabharata). At other times, the film feels surprisingly myopic: isn’t the world marvelously universal, it seems to ask, from a cultured, Euro-centric perspective? For all its flaws, occasional pomposity not excluded, Rulfo’s film conveys his subject’s insatiable hunger for stories: large or small, cultivated on remote locations, or in one’s own garden.
The experimental impulse is most apparent in ¡Vivan las Antipodas! by Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky. While Rulfo’s vision may aspire to literature, Kossakovsky’s is purely cinematic. With the exception of two farmers in Balsa San Justo, Argentina, who serve as custodians of a small bridge—at times submerged and mostly untraveled, bringing in next to no income—there is almost no conventional narrative in the film, the main conceit of which relies on picking antipodal locations (i.e., spots situated on opposite sides of the earth). Argentina is matched with China’s Shanghai; Patagonia with Lake Baikal in Russia; Kubu, Botswana with volcanically active Kilea, Hawaii, and Spain’s Miraflores with New Zealand. The director seems to have taken the idea that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world may cause a hurricane in another rather literally, and mixed it with Alice in Wonderland (quoted in the film). The images tilt or flip upside-down; one “antipode” shot merging into another, like mirror images: in one sequence, a rock in Botswana echoes the shape of a giant whale, whose dead body washes up in New Zealand. Beyond the visual playfulness and the linguistic bravado of the two Argentines, the film requires its audience to succumb to it frame by frame, letting time slow down. Not all the locations feel equally charged: Shanghai, by far, gets the shortest shrift, its presence a vaguely demonic metaphor for everything wrong with the industrialized world (noise, pollution, extreme congestion, architectural hideousness, to name a few), whereas the remote Baikal is clearly represented as bliss-inducing. Lovers of films like Koyaanisqatsi may discover treasures; while others may be put off by the heavily metaphysical approach, whose references seem to lie between Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (think dinosaurs and cosmos) and television nature channels.
The most (quietly) audacious in the lineup of this year’s experiments has been Blows of the Axe (Hachazos) by Argentine Andrés di Tella, who was given a special festival retrospective. Blows of the Axe, di Tella’s latest project, could be called a “portrait” only if we ask, whose portrait? On some level, di Tella pays homage to another Argentine filmmaker, Claudio Caldini. Caldini’s experimental films, shot in the seventies with a video camera attached to a string that gyrated, were seen by a very small audience. As the political situation worsened, Caldini fled Argentina. The two filmmakers didn’t reconnect until 2004, when the shooting of Blows began. The result of their re-encounter is di Tella’s attempt at a reconstruction, both of Caldini the man, and of the filmmaker he captures with his camera’s viewfinder. But which of these two is the “real” Caldini, and which a dramatic persona? As in di Tella’s earlier films, no single “truth” emerges. Caldini believes that di Tella can only find what he seeks: the act of filming shapes the story, and reinvents it. Upon his return to Argentina, Caldini lacks geographic or psychological bearing. He returns to filming reluctantly; when we finally see his new footage, flashing on three screens simultaneously from three projectors, Caldini’s shadowy figure hovers before di Tella’s camera lens, like a phantom. Rather than offering a cohesive portrait, the documentary seems consumed by chimeras, and fantastical projections of self, drawing power from obscurity and darkness: partial views of Caldini’s face, distant figures bordered by a doorframe, muffled voices. There are tales of a mysterious suitcase, in which Caldini may or may not have carried his films; and of his penchant for burning his old clothes, his typewriter, and then the suitcase itself. Di Tella’s own take on Caldini is that he tries “to hide behind the story he’s telling.”
Hanging over the film is the question of what happened to Caldini when he left Argentina for India. By most accounts, he seems to have suffered a hallucinatory breakdown. His footage from India, particularly of a man in a trance, seems somewhat prophetic. There’s an unaccounted gap in Caldini’s memory, which di Tella doesn’t attempt to fill in. Rather, he conveys the sense of almost Cubist fragmentation: the biographical elements may all be present, but they resist being fitted back into a naturalistic whole. In a Sebaldian manner, di Tella gives us a Caldini haunted by the traces of the past: espying in material objects and in the landscape the very proof of his own displacement. Displacement as both a physical and a metaphysical condition—these are the cognitive limits towards which di Tella seems to be working. In the context of the festival, he is the clearest example of Labaki’s theory that fiction and nonfiction, particularly in the more subjective first-person films, may not be so easily parsed.