Crisis unites homes. If the pandemic has forced us to reassess the terms of our relationships, it has also perhaps sharpened our sensibility to the frailties of the body and the mind. That is, at least, the impression one gets from the recently concluded Visions du Réel documentary festival in Nyons. Several works that premiered at the event find expatriate filmmakers returning home, often obliged by aging and ailing parents, to capture less-than-flattering aspects of family life, elevating them into subjects worthy of cinematic consideration.

To be sure, there is nothing sordid about My Old Man, in which director Stephen Vit accompanies his successful salesman dad, Rudi, on his last business trip to China. Rudi works at a large multinational firm and is about to retire after 43 years of service. A Canadian by birth, he lives with his wife in a lush corner of Switzerland that one of his clients calls “paradise.” As a young man, though, he was a perennial globetrotter who always came home “smelling of airplanes and hotel rooms.” His retirement thus offers Stephen a chance to understand the remote figure of his childhood.

Rudi’s retired life, which his son documents on his yearly trips home, is the stuff of middle-class dreams: health, affluence, real estate, recreation. There is obviously some restlessness and boredom stemming from Rudi’s sudden loss of purpose and some discord with his wife born of his mean streak. There is also a degree of malaise in the couple’s (re)adjustment to life under a single roof after decades of virtual singledom. But the existential crisis and marital breakdown that Stephen forebodes, almost hopes for, never materializes. Yet, as his father watches old home movies on VHS tapes, something like the regret of lost years traverses his teary face. Rudi has become old.

When Peter Entell began documenting his father Max in Getting Old Stinks, the latter was already over seventy-five. An American settled in Switzerland, Peter filmed his father on his annual stateside trips over fifteen years until the old man’s death in the early 2000s. But the filmmaker didn’t revisit the footage until 2021, when he was sixty-seven years old himself, the age that senior Entell had his first cardiac arrest. For Peter, then, the film is something of a meditation on his own aging, and its title appears to reflect his feeling about the process.

The filmmaker assembles his material chronologically in a repeating structure. In each variation, we see Peter and his three elder siblings travel from all over the world to visit their father at an assisted living facility in California. The occasion is Max’s birthday and the family goes to lunch at a Chinese restaurant, gathering at the same table and ordering with the same waiter. They all wish the old man, read fortune cookie predictions and make jokes about it. After a few cordial hours back at the old-age home, they bid farewell. These variations are bridged together by old family photographs, with voiceover by Peter addressing the film to their absent mother who never had the chance to grow old.

Over the course of fifteen years, we see Max deteriorate from a sharp super-senior who trots out songs from memory to a frail figure who is hard put to recall his wife’s name. A favourite poem that he recites turns from a token of his charm to a test of his memory. The children, too, grow old, yet the jokes on the lunch table remain the same, becoming quainter with each passing year. A longitudinal study of the Entell family’s annual ritual, Getting Old Stinks is a poignant document about the ravages of time on human bonds.

When Humaira Bilkis, the director of Things I Could Never Tell My Mother, returned home to Dhaka after her studies in India, she found her once-liberal mother Khaleda transformed into a devout woman after a pilgrimage to Mecca. Where young Khaleda wanted her daughter to grow up to be a painter, she now repudiates images. She laments the fact that her daughter makes films, collects old photographs, stays out late and, most importantly, refuses to get married. It is left to the viewer’s imagination how she would react if she learnt that Humaira has a Hindu boyfriend in Calcutta with whom she has trysts in a friend’s apartment.

Khaleda’s constant sense of disappointment and maternal failure weighs heavily on Humaira. When the pandemic hits, the filmmaker is obliged to take care of her ailing parents, forced to live with all this corrosive emotional furniture. Her response? To film her life, to turn the overly familiar into something akin to a “text” that could afford her the necessary distance. It is telling that the relationship between mother and daughter is at its most cordial when Humaira is away on work in Japan and makes video calls to Khaleda, telling her of the freedom women that enjoy there.

All through, Humaira imagines her romance in terms of the love poems her mother wrote as a young woman. In turn, she narrativizes her mother’s life through the images of her film. In Things I Could Never Tell My Mother, art becomes a mediator in family life, the crutch using which individuals tolerate one another.

Filmmaker Wenqian Zhang’s mother is worried about her daughter’s future too in A Long Journey Home. Like Humaira, Wenqian has completed her film studies abroad and has now returned home to mainland China. Her mother’s worries and appeals notwithstanding, she doesn’t yet want to get married to her boyfriend (and co-producer), Yue Huang. She says she doesn’t believe all that much in marriage.

For good reason, since her own parents are an irreparably damaged couple. After a series of failed business ventures across the country, Wenqian’s father Bo is now a stay-at-home husband mistreated by pretty much everyone around. His wife belittles him at every opportunity, even hitting him at one point. His brother-in-law insults him for owing money. Even his parents-in-law, who live in the same house, use him to run errands. A pitiful figure, Bo seems the quintessential product of patriarchal pressures on men. The most tender scenes of the film feature Wenqian lending a sympathetic ear to the broken man, who is in turn more understanding of her feelings and aspirations than her excessively pragmatic mother.

Wenqian composes the film as a series of static shots, all of which are interesting in their studied composition and some of which are downright dazzling in their use of off-screen space. This formalist reserve allows her to describe the domestic space with fluency and provide us a glimpse into the relative affluence of the Zhangs.

Located at the farther end of the class spectrum, the family of Elvis A-Liang Lu, director of A Holy Family, is something you might imagine having seen in a Tsai Ming-Liang film. Laconic to a fault, his father is an incurable gambler who cannot keep away from the numbers racket even when he is dying of cancer. His mother is a perpetual sufferer who walks up and down the stairs to maintain the home shrine. His brother fashions himself as a spiritual medium, relaying concerns of paying customers to a pantheon of gods. On the side, he grows cash crops on a small patch of land subject to the vagaries of weather. The whole family seems to have surrendered its future to faith and luck, which are at times indistinguishable.

It is perhaps not surprising then that A-Liang left for Taiwan as a young man to determine his own life. His mother calls him home at the beginning of the film, broaching the subject of her death, audibly making him uncomfortable. Over the course of A Holy Family, A-Liang changes from a seemingly indifferent son to someone with pangs of guilt over ‘abandoning’ his family. Like with Humaira Bilkis, filmmaking here serves as an instrument of reconciliation with the family. A-Liang’s lot is unhappy in its own way, but his film is bracing in the way it transforms this unhappiness into a graceful portrait of a modest family playing with the cards it has been dealt.

[First published in News9]

In the Romanian film Graduation (2016), a doctor helps a local politician jump the queue for a liver transplant in exchange for fixing his daughter’s test scores. The moral corruption of an entire society is refracted through cheating in exams also in Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s Rehana Maryam Noor (2021), which screened in the New Directors/New Films programme at the Museum of Modern Art in April. Assistant professor Rehana (Azmeri Haque Badhon) is a medical professional too, but unlike the compromised physician of Graduation, she is an idealist acutely sensitive to wrongful conduct. Saad’s film describes the price that she has to pay for staying upright in a world that is forever willing to bend.

Shortly after she expels a student for cheating in an exam, Rehana becomes witness to what she perceives to be a sexual assault by Arefin (Kazi Sami Hassan), one of her colleagues at the medical college. The victim is a student who had, just earlier, spoken out against Rehana’s expulsion of her friend at the exam hall. Rehana’s conviction that the injustice needs to be exposed is at loggerheads with the victim’s desire to stay low and let it pass. Worse, her simmering anger at her colleague’s action comes up against the fact that she hasn’t actually seen the incident and the creeping doubt that there may have been extenuating circumstances.

Saad’s film puts Rehana in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, letting her resentment come to a boiling point. Set entirely within the premises of a medical college — the architecture of which is never clear — Rehana refuses to go outdoors even when its protagonist is in perennial interaction with the world outside. Even at work, Rehana is constantly on the phone, now asking her ne’er-do-well brother to pick her daughter up from school, now talking with the school principal over a disciplinary action or admonishing her mother. A single mom supporting an extended family, she needs to keep her job, a dependency that Arefin and the college dean exploit to keep her silent.

Badhon, who carries the film from start to finish, plays Rehana not just as a morally sensitive person, but as a thorough sceptic with a chip on her shoulder. The zealousness with which she guilt-trips Arefin in passive-aggressive (and sometimes plain aggressive) encounters reflects a moralist who has personal stakes in the matter. At one point, she even assumes the role of the victim to lodge a false harassment complaint — a grey area that the film uses solely to take the plot forward. Moving briskly in and out of the frame, Badhon’s Rehana has little time for either rest or idle chatter — an attitude established by her contemptuous scowl after she receives an unwanted touch early in the film.

Rehana’s vehemence is, however, understandable. After all, she has a young daughter who has been asked to apologize at school for no mistake of hers. Moreover, the film is set in 2015, that is before the explosion of the #MeToo movement, and as such, it appears to articulate the conspiracy of silence that surrounds the subject in Bangladesh, a country that is believed to have been, by and large, indifferent or at least a latecomer to the movement.

Rehana is made in the intense, muscular style that is the malaise of so much of post-Dardennes art cinema: handheld cinematography, shallow focus, realist sound design and an absence of musical score. The camera never stops moving, oscillating to impart some tension even when it is supposed to be still. It follows the protagonist from up close, observing her from over the shoulder and making the viewer intimate with her experience of her surroundings. This results in a spate of profile shots, including a long passage where Rehana repeatedly splashes water on her face to telegraph her angst. In her confrontation with authorities, in contrast, she is filmed from behind, often decentred and made vulnerable.

The decision to never leave the hospital lends the film its claustrophobic keynote, just as the dull choice of soaking the film in shades of steely blues offers no visual relief. These pre-formed ideas produce the intended effect, but at the cost of sucking all air out of the project. Too tightly bound to its script for its own good, Rehana has no more space for its audience than its protagonist. The film directs our attention at every moment, cruising like a well-oiled vehicle on autopilot, with director Saad betraying very little by way of personality or character.

The filmmaker’s personality is right at the centre of Humaira Bilkis’ Things I Could Never Tell My Mother (2022), a poignant home movie from Bangladesh that premiered at the Visions du Réel in Nyons. A portrait of familial reciprocity through art, the film inhabits the space between Humaira and her mother Khaleda. Once a liberal woman who gave her surname to her daughter and who wrote playful, longing love poems in the Hindu manner, Khaleda became a devout Muslim after a journey to Mecca, swapping her evocative Bengali verse for prayers in broken Arabic. Where she once wanted Humaira to become a painter, she now disapproves of her daughter’s vocation, declaring that, to Allah, “photos are worthless.”

Humaira’s faith, in contrast, resides in images. A collector and conserver of photographs, the filmmaker views them as ramparts against death. “You can’t see the soul,” she replies to her mother’s warning against images, “but you can see the body.” She is unmarried, a fact that gives her mother great grief. But Humaira can’t possibly tell her pious mother that she has a Hindu boyfriend in Calcutta. The filmmaker formalizes the opposition between her mother’s faith and her love affair by interweaving her interviews with mother with shots of her sneaking away to meet her boyfriend, the latter passages charmingly accompanied by Humaira reading her mother’s love poems.

Khaleda’s religiosity, it must be said, isn’t as intransigent for all that and her beliefs take a rest from time to time. She has no qualms watching cricket or television serials, and even the veil comes down when prayer is not on the mind. The filmmaker asks her mother what is it that troubles her about her daughter’s life. Khaleda thinks that her daughter is living in sin and sees it as a reflection of bad parentage; she hopes to help Humaira mend her ways by taking her on hajj. The daughter acquiesces, seeing in the pilgrimage a good opportunity to tell her mother about her romantic entanglement.

Alas, the pandemic strikes, ruling out the journey to Mecca, but also producing other kinds of stress. The filmmaker’s father is diagnosed with tumour and he loses his memory to the point of not recognizing his daughter. Mother slips into a depression and begins to lose weight rapidly. Humaira’s own relationship dissolves and she finds herself taking care of her ailing parents. The most touching passages of the film involve Humaira playing a caregiver to her father, a counsellor to her mother. She struggles to find a language to encourage her mother, drawing despite herself from the Prophet’s messages. Palliating her mother’s fear at outliving her husband, Humaira offers her own single life as a model, but it only accentuates her mother’s sense of failure.

Through all this, Humaira keeps filming, as though capturing these difficult episodes of family life were in some way a means to gain control over them. Like Chantal Akerman in No Home Movie (2015), the filmmaker holds on to images of her mother as a way of warding off her physical disappearance. In a process of filial reciprocation, she offers documentary images in return for her mother’s poems, which had so far provided commentary to her life. “May this film give a new dimension to our togetherness,” she muses, “the same way my mother’s poems give a new meaning to my life.”

 

[First published in News9]

In addition to the historical upheavals it has already produced, it would seem that the COVID-19 pandemic has also forced us to renegotiate our understanding of the real and its many opposites. It’s then bitterly appropriate that the Visions du Réel film festival, which seeks to showcase newer perspectives in international documentary practice, is among the first film events to go completely online following the restrictions imposed by the outbreak.

The epochal nature of this shift cannot be overstated. Film festivals are spaces that do more than bring audiences in contact with films and filmmakers. They connect audiences to themselves, to the reality of the place around them, to its economic and social machinery. That Visions du Réel, which traditionally takes place every year in April in Nyons, Switzerland, is no more anchored to a geographical location, and is instead accessible to viewers from around the world, themselves severed from their immediate reality, is some kind of a metaphor for the times we live in.

This dialectic between indoors and outdoors isn’t new, it’s intrinsic to film experience. The darkened hall of the movie theatre is an escape from reality that promises a return to reality in newer forms. It’s a flight away from community that’s predicated on communal participation. Speaking of his dislike for watching films at home, the French critic Roland Barthes wrote, “not enough of a public, not enough anonymity”. As audience, we are trained to overlook this contradiction, to not even recognize it as such. The current confinement, on the other hand, obliges us to take note of it by forbidding our access to the social dimension of moviegoing.

Speaking to this historical moment, numerous works at the 51st edition of Visions du Réel exhibit a yearning for the social. Many unfold in self-contained worlds with no exit to external reality. Public spaces, random encounters and a desire for community pervade this year’s offering. It’s less that the films, made before the outbreak, were prescient, than that the ongoing crisis has alerted us to a fundamental loss, sharpening our sensitivity to these tendencies, which will only be strengthened in the coming months.

 

Among the finest films at the festival, the medium-length feature Pyrale, made by Roxanne Gaucherand, is the one that most resembles the prevalent state of the world. On a basic level, the film is an intimate documentary about a box tree moth infestation plaguing certain areas of the Drôme department in France. The way the filmmaker photographs these millions of butterflies, rife with sensual shadows and backlighting, imparts the work the texture of science fiction. Superimposed on this composite is a story of burgeoning desire, in which a teenage girl discovers her love for a friend just when two are bound to be separated. With great feeling for the region, Gaucherand paints a moody, melancholy picture evoking the end of the world, where romantic longing comes across as a force of redemption.

In Unusual Summer (Kamal Aljafari), the urge to reach out to others takes the form of CCTV tapes that the filmmaker’s father left behind after his death in 2015. The tapes are from the summer of 2006 and were used record the parking spot outside his home to see who’s been breaking the car window. Despite the dramatic promises of the CCTV aesthetic and the location of the house in a crime-ridden area, what we get in this film are quotidian incidents, sightings of neighbours passing by. This transformation of private surveillance footage into a session of window-watching and people-spotting produces a sense of community and forges a relation of inheritance between the filmmaker and his father, the only two people to have seen these tapes.

A pressing feeling for connection equally runs under the placid surface of Intimate Distances (Phillip Warnell), an uneven but thought-provoking documentary about public spaces and the anonymous exchanges they facilitate. Casting director Martha Wollner walks up and down a block in Brooklyn looking for a young actor to play the role of a criminal. While we hear her conversations through mic she wears, she and her interlocutors are filmed from such a distance that they are often dissolved into the urban landscape. What surprises us is the willingness with which the people Wollner speaks to open themselves up to her. In its contrapuntal construction, the film throws light on how the anonymity that cities enforce is also the source of potential intimacy.

The city, its design and its influence on its inhabitants is the subject of the erudite and formally-complex A Machine to Live In (Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke). The location in question is Brasilia, the artificially created capital of Brazil that was designed according to modernist principles in the 1950s. Machine sees this city as an otherworldly geography unfit for human life, but also allowing the possibilities of imagining utopias, catholic cultists, freemasons, biker gangs, and Esperanto evangelists all finding a home within Brasilia’s orbit. Employing diverse modes of exposition and crisp digital photography, the filmmakers develop a visually-striking portrait of a city that has come to resemble a religious monument in itself, demanding awestruck worship and constant maintenance by people who can’t afford to live here.

The notion of a city built from nothing is also invoked by Some Kind of Heaven (Lance Oppenheim), an exploration of life in The Villages, a massive retirement community in Florida planned in the eighties. We see how the elderly are able to reinvent themselves in this place and discover newer reservoirs of inspiration, and this prompts us to question the values of the culture they have moved away from. While the film opts for a less productive, human interest angle, the question of what constitutes a community remains on its periphery, inviting us to ponder on whether a group of people with no historical ties can live in isolation from the wider world without existential repercussions.

In The Marriage Project (Atieh Attarzadeh, Hesam Eslami), on the contrary, it’s the wider world that imposes itself on a secluded populace. The community in question is a psychiatric centre in Tehran, whose director has undertaken a radical project to allow certain patients to marry each other. He believes this can help address their social and sexual needs, without running against Islamic law—a proposal his subordinates object to. We see how the discourses of religion, mental health and love wrestle with each other to exert influence on the minds and bodies of the patients. The filmmaker frames this potent and moving examination through details of her private life, trying to make sense of her own failed marriage in the process.

 

Other films at the festival grapple with the wider world in more direct ways, prying open the anxieties fostered by modern political and social life. Among the most provocative works of the festival is the hour-long Purple Sea (Amel Alzakout, Khaled Abdulwahed), comprising of video footage the filmmaker made after the boat carrying her from Syria sank near the Hellenic coast. Overlaid on the barely legible images of bodies immersed in water is a dispassionate voiceover of the filmmaker’s thoughts that she had while trying to stay afloat. Purple Sea is something of a freak work of documentary, a near-death experience that asserts the existence of those we see here in fragments as more than statistics on immigration debates. It’s a film that’s easier to appreciate than to watch.

Days of Cannibalism (Teboho Edkins) and NA China (Marie Voignier) are complementary works that reflect on the frictions occasioned by global relocation of populations. Edkins’ film unfolds as a Western about immigrant Chinese traders setting up wholesale stores in rural Lesotho. The traders are successful, but their transactional relation to the cattle they are investing in goes against the sentiments of the predominantly agrarian local population, the latter embodying a much more relaxed attitude to money. Voignier’s film supplies a reverse shot, centring on African businesswomen trying to set up shop in Guangzhou. The women scour wholesale markets and pick out quality pieces that could be exported back home, their challenge to find something of value registering as an effort to live authentically. Both films are open-ended and invite the viewer to independently consider the questions they raise.

The clash of cultures manifests on a more personal scale in Sing Me a Song (Thomas Balmès) and Non Western (Laura Plancarte). In the former, a young boy ordained for monkhood at a monastery in rural Bhutan falls in love with an escort in Thimphu, thanks to the invasive power of the internet. Foregrounding its fictional mechanism, the film functions both as a cautionary tale about the dangers of modernity and a Buddhist parable about temptation. The stakes are much higher in Non Western where Nanci, a white woman, is torn between her modern self-image as an independent academic and her role as a wife to a conservative North Cheyenne patriarch, Thaddeus. Despite itself, the film tips our sympathy towards Nanci, with Thaddeus coming across as little more than a slacker hiding behind excuses of tradition and deracination. An intriguing if opaque look, nonetheless, at interpersonal relations being inflected by American’s primal historical trauma.

 

Many of the features at this year’s Vision du Réel share the conviction that films can make fruitful interventions into reality. All of them believe that they can help us better understand the world we live in. At a time when the virus is wreaking an epistemological havoc, undoing our certainties and forcing newer insights every day, this belief can perhaps serve as our lodestar in approaching films as viewers. We are all the richer, then, for the perspectives into reality these films have to offer.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]