Documentary Or Not: Cinéma du Réel

Cinéma du Réel

People began queuing thirty minutes before each film and the competition to get a seat for the best films was fierce. The Cinéma du Réel film festival is a risky one to attend. The challenge being to get into a screening and hope that it will be a good film. It is usually impossible to see everything and highly probable that you won’t see much at all.

Towards the end of the screening of a mostly silent short French film incorporating the occasional sounds of flutes, a gentle rhythmic sound filled the room. People looked at each other wondering whether the previously modest sound track had taken a new direction. I turned around to discover a woman in a deep sleep, lulled by the peacefulness. With five minutes remaining I gently prodded her with the program. She awoke with a terrified look and wide-eyed gaze and I left, onto the next scheduled film, only to discover it had already begun and there were no available seats. During last year’s festival, the staff of the Centre Pompidou went on strike, essentially closing down the festival. For an event organised by and at the Centre, it was certainly an unusual move, wasting a year of work and preparation as well as disappointing many filmmakers. Was it possible to get into the off-site locations? With difficulty.

By the end of the festival I discovered that it was possible to book an individual booth in the Centre’s library (BPI) and view the films on a small screen. Eight hours later, I had watched an eclectic selection of films including Fail to Appear (2017), the story of petty thief Eric Edwards, and Isolde, his caseworker. I was intrigued by what sounded like a strong story. The film is Toronto-based French director Antoine Bourges’ first feature film after East Hastings Pharmacy (2011). Like his previous film, he portrayed those who fall through the cracks and those who try to help them, providing a poignant reflection on the struggle of human connection across social levels. In an interview with Mubi, Bourges mentioned that he was initially interested in the subject after overhearing conversations in cafés between caseworkers and clients. The character of the caseworker was created to facilitate access to a certain world that Bourges was interested in representing. The premise is interesting but as Bourges himself states in response to the question about the difficulty of such a subject: “Which I suppose is why you chose to make the film a narrative as opposed to a documentary?” “Definitely”, responded Bourges “the film is mainly a fiction. I have an interest in these institutions that is documentary-like.” Documentary-like?

The BPI (Bibilotheque Publique d’Information) who organise the Cinéma du Réel have created La Cinémathèque du Documentaire to screen films all year round: “In tune with society, its hopes, its concerns and its dreams, documentary creation is experiencing an extraordinary vibrancy […] Exhibiting these films is nevertheless a major challenge and the overarching goal.” Documentary film has never been screened as much as now, thanks to digital networks, festivals (in 2017 there were at least 227 film festivals around the world screening documentaries ), television, and mainstream cinemas. So why, when the medium has had such success does a festival like Cinéma du Réel make documentary-watching so difficult?

I first attended the Cinéma du Réel festival in 1992, when Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson won the major prize for Black Harvest, the last film in their series known as the Highland-trilogy, filmed in Papua New Guinea. Catherine Humblot described it in the newspaper Le Monde as follows: “…Here we discover what makes up the base of humanity: Easy gains, jealousy, the taste of power.” All three films won the festival’s Grand Prix award between 1982 and 1992. The key to their success was “they avoided voyeurism in favour of highly intelligent use of real human stories to draw attention to much wider social and political issues.” (Hughes, 2002). One could pose the question whether the success of Connolly and Anderson’s films was due to the exoticness of them: The end of colonization in Papua New Guinea as tribal ways violently met modern-day commerce.

However before Robin Anderson died in 2002, the filmmakers went on to make two more urban documentaries together in Australia. Both films attained a similar success to their Leahy family trilogy, confirming their talent for presenting a story, but neither were screened at the Cinéma du Réel. Nor was Mrs Carey’s Concert, Connolly’s last film and one of the most successful Australian films ever made. Their work was the opposite of the films that are now classed as docu-fiction, that are appearing in documentary festivals. As Bob Connolly put it: “The ground rules are that you don’t interfere with what is going on so that there is never an expectation on the part of the people that you want something from them.”

There has been substantial change since the festival began under Jean Rouch’s guidance when the programme was influenced more by ethnology and sociology, rather than docu-fiction.

The goal of this anniversary is to pay homage to the festival’s history”, said the newly-arrived 2018 festival director Andréa Picard, while also infusing it with a contemporary spirit open to a wide-range of documentary forms.” I It is Jean Rouch, co-creator of the festival, who is best known as the instigator of the term cinéma-verité, the 1960s film movement that showed people in everyday situations with authentic dialogue and action: “Rather than following the usual technique of shooting sound and pictures together, the film maker first tapes actual conversations, interviews, and opinions.” Rouch’s practice was never content with simplistic notions of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ filming. Decades before post-modernism recognised that ethnography was a form of writing, he was always conscious that the observer was a defining part of that action and discovered that a filmmaker interferes with the event he registers. “It is true that an ethnographer in the field, even without a camera, disturbs the life he wants to catch in its natural form…A camera is always noticed.” Two outstanding examples of cinéma vérité are Jean Rouch’s 1961 Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer) and Chris Marker’s 1962 Le Joli Mai.

Moving on from Rouch’s cinema vérité or ethnofiction and Astruc’s camera-stylo are mockumentaries, films used to parody documentaries, also described as a documentary mocking a documentary. These are more and more common, with Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 film Borat being a classic example. Pseudo-documentaries are their dramatic equivalent followed by docudrama, a fictional genre in which dramatic techniques are combined with documentary elements to depict real events. Next is docufiction, different to docudrama, a genre in which documentaries are tainted with fictional elements. And finally, Mumblecore, a genre created by young(ish) independent filmmakers like brothers Jay and Mark Duplass who record themselves and their friends playing people like themselves and their friends in situations barely distinguishable from ordinary existence. The work produced feels and often is improvised and is usually a low-budget production.

The eclectic selection in the 2018 Cinéma du Réel – a diverse array of films to commemorate the forty-year anniversary of the festival – meant that it ranged from May 68, to the collective filmmaking of Shinsuke Ogawa, including the films of Tacita Dean, who was promoting film over digital filmmaking, as well as the usual eclectic range of short and feature films in competition. Both rich and chaotic, the programming meant it was impossible to see most of it or have a feeling of the styles of documentary-making over the past forty years.

There is a certain deception for a viewer who watches a documentary only to find at the end that in fact they were watching a film that is fiction. It is a question of trust: What do you believe? In literature there is a sharp demarcation between fiction and non-fiction and when fiction is disguised as non-fiction, there is a clear deception , which can end a writer’s career.

How is it then that a documentary festival like Cinéma du Réel can include a film that is simultaneously a fictionalisation and a reconstruction? Antoine Bourges is open about his film-making method: “I never really understood this notion of real in cinema. If a simple camera placement suggests an intention, a fragmentation, and ultimately a position taken in regards to the world, it is hard to imagine how this capturing of “vérité” is even remotely possible. It simply didn’t make sense to try to highlight this divide between “real” and “staged,” or jump back and forth between them in a noticeable way. » One of the world’s most reputable and watched film festivals is the Utah-based Sundance. Their submission regulations for documentary are very clear: Any non-fiction film not including entirely scripted or improvised fictionalizations of actual events. Charlotte Cook, Director of Programming at the Canadian International Documentary Festival Hot Docs says: “There is a broadening of the scope of what we think documentary is. I hope in my lifetime there will be no more ‘documentary’ film festivals. Documentary still isn’t seen on the level of ‘film’ … It’s as simple as storytelling and craft. Documentary is an art form, so I want to see high levels of craft and excellent filmmaking.”

According to Pille Runner, director of the Estonian World Film Festival, “Even though ethnographic films have the reputation of documentaries with no special artistic ambition, the films are actually very rich in language and range from stories of cultural value to experimental films.”

Runner’s experience has shown that ethnographic and anthropologic films have proven to be versatile and in-depth documentaries “that are not afraid to experiment and carry a key role in the development of the documentary field.” The annual ethnographic film festival in Paris has even changed its name to include Jean Rouch in the title. Could it be to create a separation from the festival he co-created that no longer resembles his work?

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An Australian who has spent most of her adult life in Paris, Louise is a sometime photographer, documentary-maker, writer, researcher, day-dreamer and interviewer, who prefers to start the day at the local cinema’s 9am session.