Meeting the Sea
One, two, three, die is a short film by French artist Ana Maria Gomes showing eight- to twelve-year-olds pantomiming their own imaginary deaths against a white wall, tightly and uniformly framed by the angle of the shot. The white boys die of heart attacks, brain aneurisms, and of suicide by self-suffocation. Their bodies revolt against them. The non-white boys largely choose to die from gun violence. They are subject to external forces. Perhaps most shockingly, the girls slump into death—they slide down the wall, crumple into themselves. In many cases it is impossible to tell what they imagine as the cause of death. Yet the audience bubbles with laughter at the manifest joy these children take in playing before the camera. And I wince but am also overwhelmed at the beauty of their imaginative play at violence. In fact, they delight me.
Gomes’s work was one of many short films screened during the FID Festival International de Cinéma Marseille in parallel to the feature-length film competition. The festival was founded in 1989 as the Festival International du Documentaire and although it dropped the focus on traditional documentary in 2011, it retains the name and perhaps also the impulse to question how real life gets pictured in film. “If testifying is urgently required, we also know that courage, aptness, and even a cheerful conviction are likewise needed, in order to make audible and visible and to move ahead,” the FID organizers assert in their statement about the festival. They are committed to pluralism, in other words, and to cinema’s participation in a progressive narrative about global difference and understanding.
The festival manifests this commitment to pluralism at a very physical level as well, with screenings in large and small cinema halls scattered throughout the city. It is a long walk from the Cinema Les Varieties in the center of the city to the Villa Méditerranée screening hall and auditorium, which stands next to the Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM) and looks out toward the Frioul Archipelago. Google Maps suggests that it is a twenty-minute walk but that is an oversimplification. You have to walk to meet the sea to get from one cinema to another, along the old port full of pleasure boats, past the teenagers and tourists that coagulate on its wide promenade under the sun.
It is also a walk from one version of Marseille to another—from an un-renovated theater without air conditioning but with all the tattered charm of classic French cinephile culture to an enormous modernist glass slab cantilevered out over a basin of water, a building “penetrated by a piece of the sea,” according to its architect Stefano Boeri. One cinema seems to belong to a bygone Marseille: a mythically violent city run by the Corsican mob and funded informally by the international drug trade, which is also swamped periodically by waves of North African immigrants. The other belongs to aspirational Marseille.
It is not obvious what precipitated the rupture between the city’s images, however. Was it the arrival of the high-speed train—the TGV—to Marseille directly from Paris ten years ago that made the city accessible in a more immediate way to harried Parisians with disposal income? Or is it the fact that Marseille was the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2013, and thus had money to spend on development with a firm deadline? Is it the slow breakdown of an economy based around maritime industrial exports and its replacement by the traffic of enormous, city-sized luxury cruise ships? The MuCEM / Villa Méditerranée cultural complex is part of the Marseille-Euroméditerranée urban renewal and economic development project, whose aim is precisely to entice these traveling consumers to have lunch, go shopping, and see a Picasso show before climbing back onto their floating city. Marseille in 2016 feels poised over some historical chasm in any case, although whether this will kill the city by polishing it remains to be seen.
The 2016 FID Marseille program combined short films, contemporary art videos, feature films, and a retrospective of Korean director Hong Sang-soo. Like its venues, the festival’s program was scattered and the films uneven in their relationship either to the conventions of narrative cinema or to documentary aesthetic conventions that aspire to a more transparent representation of the ‘real’. If there is a deep populism lurking in the idea Marseille has of itself, in its recalcitrant allegiance to slow time on free public beaches and cheap pastis in old corner bars mid-afternoon, there is an analogous form of expansive humanism lurking in the FID’s programming, especially in the films selected for competition.
A film directed by Algerian filmmaker Djamel Kerkar and produced in France, Atal, won the First Film Prize and accrued several Honorable Mentions in other categories. The film portrays the village of Oulad Allal, which was destroyed by the military during the Algerian civil war in the fall of 1997. Kerkar’s portrait is constructed using intimate video interviews with several generations of its current male inhabitants. A man in his fifties clearing away dead fruit trees from the orchard that used to provide his livelihood. An old man injured in the war waving a stack of photographs of his life at the camera, of the village before, showing and telling in a tone that suggests he has told and shown often, that he is caught in the telling. A man in his late forties, who joins the village teenagers around a trash fire at night to listen to songs played from telephones and to chat; he has a wife and children elsewhere, he should go to them, but he cannot. He fought in the war, he watched babies smashed to their deaths, he participated in ways he is at an absolute loss to name. These facts of life have opened a blankness in him that cannot be superseded. And so the camera lingers, the better to manufacture empathy. To testify in some way to the unspeakable violence of the 1990s in Algeria.
There is an intimacy between Marseille and Algeria that makes Atal resonate especially deeply here, I think. Before the 1960s, the city was already a major hub for migrant laborers displaced from the Algerian countryside by years of drought. On the eve of Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, over a million French colonists along with both Jewish and Muslim Algerians immigrated to France over the span of one summer, most of whom moved through the port of Marseille. Former colonists and formerly colonized found themselves neighbors in a city whose climate and general tolerance for informality was—and remains—much more hospitable than the rest of metropolitan France.
For all its local resonance and documentary pathos, however, Atal crucially fails to integrate testimony into some larger narrative structure, some authorial position on the footage presented. It is clear that part of the point of allowing the material to remain fragmented is to mirror the ways in which the lives the film seeks to represent have been fragmented by war. In speaking, each man is trying to understand—as well as to communicate—his experience of the war and its economic and psychic aftermath. I left the screening room, however, with the distinct impression that Kerkar trusted the images to transparently express the loss these men had experienced; as though it were enough to ask people to describe what happened to them and then take a picture of them speaking. This is also the assumption of traditional documentary film, to be fair: just tell it like it is, the truth will come out. But there is so little about the Algerian Civil War that can be told as it was, and trauma often obscures the event that produces it. The film fit neatly into the organizers’ progressive mandate, but it left me thirsty for rhetorical complexity equal to the violence it purported to represent.
Not all the films screened during the FID about repressive political contexts in the Middle East and North Africa and the resulting economic depression met with the same level of approbation by the audience. Ghassan Salhab’s Chinese Ink, also competed at FID although it won no awards and in fact quite a few people walked out of the auditorium during its first screening. Shot on an iPhone as a series of images appropriated from the artist’s day-to-day life, the film has no coherent narrative structure. A storm breaking over a city at night as seen from a top-floor window. Footage of trash collection. Wires crossing chaotically against the city skyline at midday. A trace of pink light on a white wall. The moon appears in a crevice in the clouded night sky, followed by shaky footage of men walking in the gloom of dawn, out of focus, carrying weapons. The soundtrack runs lyrical and dark beneath the apparent banality of the video footage, a meditation on the violence of representation, or the activity that it is itself engaged in: “To lay hands on reality is to violate it, to make it one’s tool, to destroy it.” Salhab’s film is the intimate portrait of a crime scene in which neither the perpetrator nor the victim is discernable.
Another example of some more complex alternative to Atal’s transparency from the films shown on parallel screens, not as part of the actual competition, is Tunisian director Ismaïl Bahri’s short film Foyer (2016). “Foyer” is a French word for home, for the place where the hearth is. It is the place where conversations may happen at length, without formality, the result of propinquity rather than intention. Bahri’s film posits the camera as the device that creates this site of exchange between people. He sets up a video camera in public and then covers the lens with a sheet of white paper. The entire film is footage of this sheet of paper moving in the wind. The resulting image is a softly fluctuating off-white visual field accompanied by a soundtrack of conversations the filmmaker had with those who wanted to know what he was filming. Passersby who want to talk about the value of art. Policemen who want to defend Tunisia against the negative representations of it in ‘the media’. Teenagers who want to get the filmmaker stoned, distract him from the heavy business of witnessing to the state of representation in Tunisia post-Arab Spring.
Both Salhab and Bahri evince a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between the event of political violence and its representation. They also locate themselves explicitly as filmmakers in their own experiments in truth telling. There is no omniscient, neutral voice in either film. There is no journalist-hero
Interspersed throughout the programming were very short films by Columbian, Paris-based artist Iván Argote. One showed him asking passengers on the metro in Paris to take money—20-cent coins—from him, Another showed the silent reactions of people on the street in New York City to the artist’s loud, public declarations of love or admiration. Both videos were about responses to aggressive acts of public ‘kindness’; both provide a document of people’s deep suspicion of decontextualized generosity. “What will be asked of me if I acknowledge this ‘gift’,” each person seems to say with their eyes, their pursed lips. “What will I owe?”
This is the question that remains relevant both to the humanist undertones of the FID’s 2016 programming and the ‘cultural revitalization’ of Marseille that is currently underway. What is lost in seeking to represent the ‘human condition’ in an abstract, universal light? What is lost in seeking to reimagine Marseille as the destination for the consumption of a sanitized version of pan-Mediterranean culture? Both the FID and the city remain, in 2016, heterogeneous enough to picture both sides of the question. In order to see anything, you have to walk through the city, you have the cross and recross the chasm, and you have to meet the sea.