Monday, March 29, 2010

FIFDH: Simon Cowell syndrome

Simon Cowell syndrome

One problem with film festivals is that they make you want to escape the films. I can understand the reporters who chase after starlets, photo ops, side shows, receptions and behind-the-scenes stories at Cannes and the like. Anything to escape the barrage of images and sounds chosen for you. After a few sessions in the darkened cinema, none of it seems real. A film festival on human rights can feel like being trapped in the Guardian editorial pages — all very worthy but more sermonising than your average Joe can stand outside Holy Days.

In my case, the escape from the 8th Geneva International Festival of Film and Human Rights was to school debates and university panels on the themes of FIFDH (its French acronym). It still wasn't enough. In front of standard documentaries such as Main basse sur le riz/Dirty hands on the rice trade and La Bataille des droits humains/The Battle for Human Rights, my attention was diverted from the content to the style. Where the film was an exemplary piece of film-making (Sale Paradis/Dirty Paradise), the story was so affecting it was hard not to put that at the front of the report to the detriment of an appreciation of its aesthetic qualities. And that would be a mistake (see below).

The closest analogy I can find is with church art. A trashy sculpture or painting can serve its religious purpose very well, as any cathedral in Italy demonstrates. The horrendous jostles with the sublime. After a while (depending on your powers of resistance) it requires a effort of will to push into the gloomy interiors and take the tour. Or you become impossibly demanding (I do, anyway), thrusting your way past the slow crowds towards the masterpieces and then immediately out the door. You become a culture-vulture version of the tourist who misses all the sights in order to photograph the scenery. If you force yourself to see it all, you become like Simon Cowell at American Idol: doggedly fixed on speaking the truth, no matter how hurtful to the audience. In contrast to him, though, you don't take home the big bucks for doing it.

Being forced to consider the "aesthetic" qualities of a masterpiece, however, doesn't do it justice, either. A Caravaggio is not just about chiaroscuro. It challenges conventional ideas about Bible stories by making them contemporary, not just enlivening them but also questioning the credibility of the religious ideas imported into the scenes.

The same applies to documentaries, which are a similar form of fictionalizing. The standard documentary is made in a form digestible to inattentive or somnolent audiences, in a pattern that is easy to digest so that viewers can concentrate on the content and not be distracted by fancy footwork and breathtaking spins (Chris Marker is unbeatable at these kinds of pyrotechnics). But, of course, "investigative" documentaries perform their own sleight of hand, as my reports on Main basse and Bataille document, and I am sure the film-makers themselves realize.

At least it has been obvious to me in all the videos I have produced, and the reasons have been equally obvious: shortage of time, need to keep up the cutting pace, obscurities I wasn't able to clear up, keeping the message simple, etc.

Sometimes I have been helped by my camera operators, whose interest in the subject being filmed led them to put on video the full story rather than the few scenes I was after. On other occasions, I have argued with the editors about keeping the text in sync with the images so that no-one could be misled.

But this still takes you away from appreciating the film as a whole. Dirty Paradise found a good audience of high school students to debate its "content" with the subjects of the film, the Wayana people who came to Geneva to see the UN. Main basse sur le riz did not have an audience, and Bataille's first student showing staged no debate because the director was delayed (she appeared for the second showing that was too late for me to attend). A pity, because this might have restored a sense of the subject and its content going together in the eyes of non-specialists (in either filming, the UN or human rights).

This is certainly what the film-makers were aiming for. Even Daniel Schweizer, the prize-winning director of Sale Paradis, did not seem particularly interested in hearing praise for his film-making skills. But it was hard not to get deflected off-target by seeing one film after another. In the end, I had to give up in order to step back from the occasion and concentrate on the films themselves.

The best idea I heard on how to solve this dilemma came from a journalist friend and film-maker himself. He suggested that every other film festival should agree to show one (presumably relevant) film on human rights at their big do's. Now that's an idea for FIFDH to pursue.

Sale paradis/Dirty Paradise

It might seem pretty buzzword-fixated to link up the blockbuster extravaganza with a film about an indigenous tribe suffering from outside exploitation of the natural resources in the paradisical territory where the group has made their home, but the contrast highlights the differences between Hollywood's approach to "original peoples" and the people themselves. In Hollywoodland they are nearly all versions of commercial Native Americans, noble creatures who "just don't get it".

Even when directors try for something more, like Clint Eastwood in Flags of Our Fathers, the story conventions overwhelm the reality of the individual experience in a way a written narrative usually does not (just compare any Hollywood version of events with those recorded).

Sale Paradis tries the difficult task of showing us the Wayana people as they want us to understand them. There's no effort to convince us of their nobility. We do get the chance to hear something of their wry sense of humor. And we feel their frustration in dealing with an indifferent bureaucracy.

But their description of their plight and the scenes of their daily life could have come from U.S. suburbia rather than Pandora. The kids run home from school. The father goes out shooting with his son (but all he gets in the denuded and off-limits forest – barred to them by armed goldpanners – is a scrawny bird). The pirogues with outboard motors clatter past the village on the poisoned river,. A mother explains why she feeds her babies mercury-loaded fish: it's food they can digest without teeth.

These people are well aware of the challenges they face and the ways in which to deal with them through official channels  –  except that the channels lead nowhere. Which is pretty much the history of the real Native Americans, i.e. those who didn't make it onto the screen. And as with real Native Americans, there is no plea for pity or charity, just a sad acknowledgement that the attempts to claim what they need to survive fell on the President's deaf ears as well as incapable authorities, civilian and military.

You couldn't have a more sympathetic figure than the soldier who came to ask them about the illegal gold panners and their guns before leading a raiding party upriver. The Wayana knew the raid would find only an empty camp because somehow the gold seekers were always warned. One Wayana described the raids as "a joke. There's no follow-up."

I am not trying to rehash their story here. You can find it in the reports on the film festival. What interests me here is the process of film-making.

It took Daniel Schweizer six years to complete filming of the Wayana, even after being given the framework of the film by his childhood memories of the best-selling picture book Parana the Little Indian, and learning of their plight from the photographer Dominique Darbois, whose photo portrait of the village inspired thousands of children in the 1950s. In fact, the Wayana did not want another sob-story. They asked him to show people how they live.

Schweizer, a Geneva film-maker now 51, played fair by showing to the Wayana in the evenings any film he had shot (the wonders of digital tape). Their input became crucial to the feeling of the film. These are not Flaherty primitives leading a doomed religion-bound existence (and we know now that Flaherty's natives were restaging at his request a life that had already vanished). What we see is a society in continual flux facing changes that threaten to destroy them and the environment that sustains them.

At the same time, we hear a variety of other voices about the Wayana: Schweizer himself on what he remembers and what he found, a health worker, outsiders like the military and the bureaucrat whose attitudes to the Wayana tell us something about them, and the gold panners themselves.

Schweizer has made something of a reputation for taking on difficult, even potentially dangerous, assignments if you don't get the people you are filming to trust you: neo-Nazis in Sweden, skinheads. With the Wayana and the gold panners, he managed to put on film beautifully photographed scenes and interviews with astonishing sound quality.

"I treated them like stars," he told me. "They got the full crew: cameras and equipment."

As a result, everything comes across without a hint of condescension, in a rhythm that reflects the progress of their days rather than a conventional narrative: nothing begins, except for Schweizer when he picks up Pirana the Little Indian and decides to start film, and nothing ends just because the tape stops rolling.

Schweizer has kept to this open-ended commitment, helping organize the trip by the Wayana to Geneva to see officials at the International Labour Organization. Having made a film with these principles, we were hardly surprized. But it remains an exception in the film world. Once the lights come up, most directors would see that as the end of their responsibility.

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