Compared to other European documentary festivals, Visions du Réel keeps a comparatively low profile. Located in a small town just outside of Geneva, the festival may not boast the central setting of its Paris-based almost-namesake Cinema du Réel or the vast marketing budget of Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, but its program speaks for itself. A look at the Art of the Real lineup, for example, shows that the overlap between the prestigious Lincoln Center nonfiction showcase and the Swiss festival is considerable, and not just because they take place concurrently: Six of the titles that screened this year in New York premiered at this edition of Visions du Réel or the previous one, including the prize-winning Another Year and The Dazzling Light of Sunset. Bearing in mind that critical darling Homeland: Iraq Year Zero also started its festival career here back in 2015, it would appear that Visions du Réel is on a roll, with its strategy of charting a middle path between more conventional documentary fare and the category’s outer reaches paying obvious dividends.
It will be interesting to see whether this year’s prizewinning Taste of Cement can duplicate these recent successes. While the Lebanese-Syrian documentary has topicality in spades and a striking grasp of form, it still can’t control some of its more thudding, bombastic tendencies. Director Ziad Kalthoum’s second feature-length work is structured around the daily routine of the Syrian refugee workers employed at a Beirut construction site, which is presented in heavily stylized fashion. They emerge at dawn, ascend to the very top of the skyscraper in an open lift carriage, toil the day away in the sun above the city and sea, and reenter their underground shelter at dusk, passing the long night in the makeshift shelters set up in the vast concrete catacombs, with only television, cellphones, and unusually vivid dreams for company. With the bulk of the film formed by a couple of iterations of this routine, the other main connecting element is the voiceover by one of the workers, whose father helped rebuild Lebanon following its own civil war.
The stages of the routine, its settings, and the tasks carried out there offer ample opportunity for creating memorable images, which the excellent camerawork exploits at every turn: drone shots that capture the boundless expanse of the city below, the numerous framings of sea and sky through girders, windows, and half-built walls, the rays of sunlight that travel up through the building together with the lift, the cement mixer whose steady 360-degree rotation is taken up by a ravishing tracking shot through the streets of Beirut. Yet these moments of visual invention and the numerous others like them transmit so much atmosphere already that the plaintive accompanying music, penetrating sound design, and almost aggressively poetic voiceover frequently smothers them rather than helping them soar.
A similar heavy-handedness is felt on a thematic level. Though conveying everyday trauma and uncertainty via atmosphere and association or positing conflict and (re-)construction as two sides of the same coin represent smart, unusual ways of engaging with the refugee experience, these intelligent ideas are all too often marred by Kalthoum’s clumsy execution. The dominating impression of the workers’ underground abode is that provided by the well-worn device of a television set blaring oh-so-relevant news reports from the frontline, while a sequence that edits footage of a tank flattening a city into the construction site’s bangs and clashes also obliterates any subtlety derived from linking destruction and creation in the first place. With a slew of more generic documentaries exploring the aftermath of the Syrian War likely already on the way, Taste of Cement’s unconventional take on its subject matter is to be applauded, even if it ultimately proves that the obvious and the oblique make for uncomfortable bedfellows.
If there’s a criticism to be leveled at In Time to Come, it’s that Tan Pin Pin’s experimental doc is perhaps too oblique for its own good; its deliberate pace and lack of direct explanation or commentary will likely alienate some. Yet for those willing to pick out the key moments from the flow of hushed, well-framed, frequently mysterious images of today’s Singapore, a wealth of interesting ideas soon bubble to the surface about both the current state of the tiny nation and how slippery pinning down the present is in general. Two separate sets of images scattered across the film form the entry point here: those showing the production of a high-tech metal time capsule and those documenting a previous capsule being dug up and its objects archived.
While some of the sequences placed around these two threads reference them directly, such as the various shots of teenagers kayaking on the Singapore river that tally with the bottles of river water exhumed from the second capsule, the majority do not. But given that the shiny new capsule appears in both the first shot of the film and the last, all the images in between might equally represent its contents. If this is indeed the case, then those looking back at today’s Singapore will see a place where the modern has not yet quite thrown off the past: uniformed school children can just as easily wander down sleek, state-of-the art travellators as attend old-fashioned school assemblies; construction workers still take an afternoon snooze on blankets under the trees even as the cityscape they’ve built couldn’t be more contemporary; the half-full corporate events aimed at future investment carry the unmistakable tinge of the 1980s.
Yet many images also seem to have been infected by the future perspective inherent to all time capsules, as if we’re already seeing the aftereffects of some profound event yet to happen. The command to evacuate that echoes across a high-tech mall nearly devoid of people, the pristine, empty highway tunnel with a prominent SOS sign addressing entirely absent traffic, the billowing smoke that envelops a housing block whose inhabitants are nowhere to be seen—each of these eerily beautiful scenes could equally be documenting the remains of a Singapore no longer there. The same atmosphere pervades some of the shots still linked to the present, helped by the filmmaker’s habit of taking out the sound at key moments, turning, for example, a trashy foam party into an expression of a nostalgia yet to form. Much like Nikolaus Geyrhalters’s Homo Sapiens and Theo Anthony’s Rat Film, In Time to Come understands that often the most startling standpoint for examining present uncertainties is an imagined future.
The virtues of a more classical approach were in also evidence in the form of a set of six portraits by veteran French director Alain Cavalier, who was awarded the Visions du Réel festival’s highest accolade of Maître du Réel for his body of work. Despite his national treasure status in France, Cavalier has never really gained the same level of attention in the United States, though the quiet, unobtrusive precision on display in Six Portraits XL suggests it would be more than warranted. These portraits of six French people of varying degrees of ordinariness were shot over the last 20 years and all incorporate various time jumps as such; though they each hover around 50 minutes in length, were produced by a television company, and filmed by the director himself on some relatively rudimentary digital format, Cavalier insisted that their natural home is still the big screen, which is hard to argue with given the enthusiastic reactions at each of the screenings.
Cavalier’s deliberately varied set of subjects includes society’s most comfortable, such as the aging woman unable to part with her childhood home or the oily self-assured television personality, and those still finding their feet, such as the successful Parisian baker trying his luck in the provinces or the loquacious theater actor whose successful one-man show won’t cover the mortgage. The portrait of a reclusive, obsessive-compulsive former filmmaker addicted to scratch cards ensures that a view from the very margins is also on hand. Yet for all the diversity of his protagonists, Cavalier brings largely the same approach to bear on them in each case. Each portrait contains the same easy, organic back and forth between observation and conversation, with Cavalier adding the occasional nugget of extra information in voiceover, while his camerawork always seems to zero in on the same things regardless of who’s at the focus of attention, alighting on hands, textures, and patterns or teasing out revealing details of body language, salient objects, and the functions attached to individual spaces.
With France about to vote in the second round of an election which has laid bare the ambiguities of its national identity, it’s hard not to read Cavalier’s portraits as conflicting analogies of where the country’s been and where it’s heading. Whether the once-regal house clinging onto its dusty old objects to circumvent modernization, the blinkered, embarrassingly insular intellectual unaware of his own boorishness, or the much-loved artisanal concern realizing its time is up, everything here seems to be referencing France’s ambivalent multiple personalities. And the way in which Cavalier demarcates each story suggests this ambivalence is intended, as even the comparatively upbeat tale of the affable, competent baker ends before success is assured.
Each of Cavalier’s works is rooted in friendship, patience, and a genuine desire to engage, which are also the central tenets of Ann Carolin Renninger and René Frölke’s From a Year of Non-Events, which crafts a portrait of a nearly 90-year-old farmer named Willi living alone on his north German homestead with such tenderness and subtlety one could almost overlook its formalist underpinnings. Aside from these assets, the film is also exemplary in the position it takes on toward its subject: While countless films would try and pretend that everyday life is being shown “as is,” the filmmakers are careful to inscribe their own presence into the situation, turning their work into as much a portrayal of Willi’s daily reality as a record of how this portrayal was achieved. When Renninger and Frölke state in their notes on the film that they have no idea of what it’s like for Willi when he’s alone, their unusual awareness of the limits of documentary observation shine through.
As the title suggests, From a Year of Non-Events traces a year in Willi’s life, starting in late autumn and moving chronologically through the following seasons, with the biggest of events that take place including friends coming over for tea, the difficulty of passing through an overgrown hedge, shattering the layer of ice that has formed on the outside water trough, conversations with the filmmakers about crossing the River Po back in the 1940s, or Willi shouting again and again for his two cats to come in.
With no big, overarching narrative thus needing be captured, the camera is free to explore every nook and cranny of the homestead inside and out, cataloguing different surfaces, patterns, and textures as it does so: the lichen on an outhouse wall, footprints on fresh snow, glistening strawberries on a flan, the dots and zig-zags on Willi’s jumper, sunlight on dusty windows. The wonderful tactility of these snippets of life is further heightened by the grain of the film stock used to shoot them, which moves supplely between 8 and 16mm images, flecked with stretches of black leader. The intuitive, deeply sensual editing is anyway a marvel throughout, with many of the soundless passages showing the surrounding countryside approaching true reverie, while the segue into the film’s brief excursion to Italy and back again is handled so smoothly it feels no different from wandering into the next room.
Willi’s unhurried existence may not offer the same potential for extrapolation as Cavalier’s protagonists, yet the film still manages to transcend its immediate subject. The ceaseless cataloguing of surfaces and textures eventually makes clear that time affects each of them differently: Some are instantly transformed, others fade or break down gradually, and only a few remain as new, with a lifetime perhaps being defined by how one navigates these separate rates of change. And if all the impressions of what lies in a man’s field of view over a single year are combined with all the unseen ones alluded to by the pieces of black leader, the result is a perfect model of a single person’s life, or, extended across multiple years, of life itself.
Visions du Réel ran from April 13—21.