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Diverse Documentaries at the 76th Cannes Film Festival

10 min read

Images Courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival

Contrary to initial expectations, the kickoff for this year's was riddled with various radical long-form documentaries. Usually, in the opening grace-period of the French-Riviera festival, the programming is typically tame; in order to please the invited upper-class elite. This year, Fremaux and his team of programmers decided to curate a handful of unique projects for a change. From Cinéma Vérité to poetic forms of the great medium; documentaries from around the globe made a grandiose splash within the festival walls.

After a problematic opening night with Johnny Depp, the festival opened the red carpet the following afternoon with their first non-fiction screening at the Grand Theatre Lumière. Programmed in the Special Screenings sidebar, Palme D'Or winner was offered a lavish screening space for a one-time only screening of his latest 3D experiment. With Anselm, the German auteur tested the boundaries of 3D technology with gleeful ingenuity. Presented as a lullaby and homage to a great master, the film's expressionistic brushstrokes amplify the surreal recreations. As a result, a clear and beautiful visual symbiosis is tacked in-between Anselm Kiefer's artistic legacy and Wenders' jovial presentation. After all, this isn't his first non-fiction rodeo.

Occasionally, Wenders switches between different documentary traditions within the film's complex curation of Kiefer's life. In its most opportunistic and expressive state, Wenders embraces the surreal beauty of Kiefer's legacy with various creative risks. A switch to monochrome illustrates a new pathway for visual interpretation emulating the expansive emotional scope of Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark. Yet, perhaps the most bountiful and expressive aspect of Wenders' latest foyer into non-fiction filmmaking is his 3D-bound applications.

Embracing the dream-like state of Kiefer's expansive career, the 3D application simultaneously bends both time and space to forge an intimate environment with the viewer. The 3D transfer (which is less dependent on pop-effects) sharply utilises effective depth to generate distance between spectator and screen. In moments of creative turmoil, the literal depth on display is a perfect semiotic reminder of Kiefer's humanity. His subconscious and creative genius is vast and unpredictable; akin to the finite landscapes and installation-work portrayed in Wenders' documentary. The viewer is finally liberated with the film's transcendent finale; which blurs the line between fact and fiction. The result is an uncanny documentary experience — one that both celebrates the heart & mind of a great artist, without ever relying on shallow egotism for emotional effect. 

Anselm (Still Courtesy – Les Films Du Losange)

However, Anselm wasn't the biggest attraction for documentary enthusiasts on the Croisette this year. Many attendees and jury members were queued for a history-defining occasion. Documentaries are a rarity in the festival's coveted competition. The last non-fiction feature to compete for the Palme D'Or was Jean Luc Godard's radical essay film The Image Book. For the first time since 2008, two non-fiction features competed for the Palme D'Or at the 76th Cannes Film Festival. Jia Zhangke and Ari Folman are now dethroned by and — an unprecedented pairing that ruled the Croisette for its opening week of cinematic celebrations. 

In contrast with the overwhelmingly positive reception for the two aforementioned competition darlings, both Four Daughters and Youth (Spring) failed to engage on an emotional plane, within their maudlin picture-locks. Both films showcase a surface-level view of the possibilities and radicalised techniques found in their respective directorial attempts. In the case of Four Daughters, Ben Hania employs cheap theatrical tricks to emotionally manipulate her viewer. Whilst supplementing a soapy melodramatic temp-score; she continuously berates her audience with a familiar structure. In an attempt at deconstructing the overwhelming grief of a family and their absent siblings, Ben Hania relies on ineffective repetition for emotional catharsis. 

The pattern constantly repeats itself; each scene mimicking the same identical beats. The viewer is offered a brief scene with the subjects. They converse and dissect their trauma with professional actors; providing the film's gateway for superfluous commentary. Each chronological event concludes with a shoddy recreation built upon the subjects' re-working of their shared trauma. Wash, rinse, repeat. All subtlety is thrown out the window, where Ben Hania eradicates all semblance of subtext from her picture-edit. The recreations are in-service of additional cinematic punctuation; recreating her subjects' lives with excruciatingly obvious detail. Four Daughters is a project that is startlingly safe in presentation. The film comments on the dangers of radicalisation and the horrors of the patriarchy with minimal effectiveness. 

Ben Hania's milquetoast execution rarely elevates the material, even with her cinematic odes to Close Up (1990). The mix between reality and cross-referenced fiction is diaphanous. The basic rule of ‘show, not tell' is ignored in favour of preachy explanations. The repetitive structure only instigates a flimsy paradox between desired product and half-baked execution. It's a shame, since the subject-matter and the testimonies themselves are incredibly harrowing. There's just very little substance to the directorial methodology present within Ben Hania's meandering feature. Without the required subtext, tension, or quietude to complement the film's form; all intrigue, mystery, and emotional vibrancy is virtually absent from Ben Hania's unremarkable hybrid-feature. 

Still Courtesy – The Party Film Sales

With Wang Bing's Youth (Spring), the Chinese filmmaker's first attempt at competition glory is yet another incredibly dense project from the renowned auteur. With Youth (Spring) in particular, the film's subject matter is undeniably ambitious and alluring within its simplistic premise. However, Wang's insistent devotion towards observational traditions limit the scope of his three-hour and thirty-minute epic.

There's a beating heart and soul in various scenes of entrepreneurial hardship & economic turmoil in Wang's expansive documentary. The film's form is ultimately a reflection of its capitalist critique. A monotonous rhythm of self-contained medium-shots is never disrupted, as the viewer is slowly immersed into the mundane world of abused workers. The execution of its powerful premise is clear, albeit amateur. However, the project is undeniably questionable in its shooting ethics. One confounding scene depicts a woman in distress by the sight of Wang's camera; as the crew intrudes the woman's apartment without prior consent. 

The images surrounding Wang's feature are a head-scratching enigma a gaze symbolic of self-opportunistic wealth. As Wang offers the viewer a portal into the world and conditions of the young factory workers, there's always a questionable purpose to the editorial method on display. The curation of clips conducted over a five-year shooting period lacks distinct motive and structure; adjacent to Wang's lack of privacy awareness. Intent is critical with any documentary that deals with sensitive subject-matter, as the ambiguous methodology translates to eye-brow raising concern.

To provide credit where credit is due, Wang does occasionally hint at entering the psyche of the young workers through his occasionally deliberate mise-en-scène. In various moments of sweatshop labor, Wang ramps up the frame-rate subtly. The minuscule change emulates the intense focus behind the tasks on-screen; told in vicarious fashion. However, his medium-shot reliance undercuts the expansive weight of his camera's power. At the end of the day, the film is a faux attempt at expressing solidarity with blue-collar workers. Youth (Spring) is a testament to one man's pursuit to exploit and generate discussions within cultural spheres hosted by the upper European elite. The European-based funding sources and subsequent Cannes red carpet gala is another cause for concern, when dissecting Wang's working-class illustrations. Hypocrisy reigns at the Grand Theatre Lumière!

At its peak, Wang manages to find a compelling viewfinder into the insular lives of the young workers. A trip to an internet cafe is at the crux of the film's thematic peak — demonstrating a brief glimmer into the exhausted headspace of a young man seeking rest. There is a bleak contrast in the literal disconnect between the internet-savvy space and his hectic work-grounds. In moments of quietude, Wang excavates urgent subtext from his subject's routine. 

At its worst, Youth (Spring) is exploitative poverty porn.

Still Courtesy – Pyramide Distribution

Another lengthy documentary that was the talk of the town on the Croisette was 's four-hour observational doc entitled . Nearly half of the entire auditorium at the Debussy Theatre premiere walked out of McQueen's narration-reliant film. Fleeting attendance aside, McQueen's simple albeit affecting portrait of a city under siege is immaculately shot; with an expansive sonic-scape to accompany the restless images. One hypnotising sequence perfectly encapsulates the fear of globalised lockdown, as we are continuously berated with different stories, locations, and experiences in nearly every acre of Amsterdam's widespread municipality.

Every location has a story. Every building contains an ignored trauma. McQueen attempts to re-contextualise the depicted locations, by contrasting present-day images with the stories of old. The film works as both a sociological critique of our opaque understanding of the Holocaust; whilst utilising the new-found footage to generate an optimistic reclamation of our fearful present. 

McQueen's documentary isn't without its respective faults. The highly observational presentation is A-political to a concerning degree. Occupied City is occasionally consumed by a confusing clutter of half-baked ideas, when McQueen specifically depicts COVID-19 anti-mask protests. The images are presented at surface-level; infinitely interpretable by the viewer's own manic interpretation. As a result, there is some confusion in the film's politically-driven sequences. It also doesn't help that the lack of a formal structure also limits the geographical scope of McQueen's depicted locations. Unless the viewer is a local of Amsterdam themselves, McQueen's film often falls under the pitfalls of its self-contained cinematic medium. 

The solution? An even more radical approach to convert the footage into an interactive hybrid-project which allows viewers to understand the geography and timeline of Stigter's heavily-researched document. To present the identical footage in an interactive format would better illustrate the geographical proximities of the war crimes dictated by Melanie Hyams' absorbing narration. The heavily accented voice performance would further aid the film's non-fiction provocations; a timer constantly looming above the viewer's head, as they meander through the streets of Amsterdam with precarious choice. 

Occupied City (Still Courtesy – A24)

After the plentiful documentary dump that opened the doors to the festival's official selection, a mysterious frontrunner emerged from the closed Marché gates & caffeine-induced pavilions. As the official winner of this year's L'Oeil d'Or (which was tied with Ben Hania's Four Daughters), The Mother of All Lies premiered out of left field as a spontaneous Un Certain Regard awards-contender. The Moroccan documentary flirts with the conventions of fictional storytelling — structurally and even thematically analogous to Four Daughters. Both films focus on artistic self-expression; utilising their excavations of memory through engrossing performance art. With Four Daughters, acting and filmmaking are the key instigator for Ben Hania's testimonies. On the flip-side, The Mother of All Lies applies small-scaled miniatures and abstract recreations to bring together the victims of a violent dictatorship.

The style is never derivative of the work of Cambodian auteur Rithy Panh; a director who is best known for implementing a similar miniature-motif in his deconstructions of genocidal politics. The juvenility of the miniatures and small-scaled props in Panh's work is used as thematic contrast with his dense political text. His films also use miniatures to re-contextualise and provide new images to erased tragedies. In Asmae El Moudir's film, miniatures are used as therapy-objects — malleable tools for the subjects to physically interact with and provide clarification on their repressed history. 

There is also a pivotal and arguably refreshing twist to El Moudir's feature. The titular elderly matriarch is the film's critical devil's advocate; a proclaimed kill-joy who brings persistent repression to the project's healing process. The meta-text slowly disintegrates as a bi-product of the film's rogue conversations. There's an additional layer of subtext which grows from the rubble of the misguided actions. We begin to view the matriarch's words through a sociological lens; her thoughts cross-examined with the same fear tactics implemented by the Moroccan state. The grandmother is a victim of communal paranoia — the pressures of the patriarchy looming over her fears and protective tendencies. The same trauma is intergenerational; further examined through the connective lineage of a Moroccan working-class family. 

The Mother of All Lies (Still Courtesy – Autlook Film Sales)

The Mother of All Lies often relishes in its studio-set environment to an exorbitant degree; calling attention to the intimacy of the creative process with endless shots of meandering B-Roll. The reaffirming scenes delay the effectiveness of the powerful messaging in the process. Instead of focusing on the integral historical text; a deliberate withdrawal of information is traded for an ineffective twist. The first mention of the bread-riots is vocalised in the film's third act. The trade-off is unfortunately feeble. The effectiveness of withdrawing the bread riot information only achieves haphazard contrast with the circular opening act. Endless repetition is at fault, where the moving testimonies are the film's critical draw. 

Silence is a form of complicit violence. The guilt shared by the represented subjects begin to form in an isolated studio-space; to reconcile with the suppression of a country's forgotten truth. The camera is El Moudir's vital weapon; portraying the affected under an excruciatingly acerbic gaze. Art imitates life, by cleverly obfuscating the conventions of its documentary influences. The Mother of All Lies successfully provides a flawed, but integral viewfinder into the unified trauma shared by absent family, friends, and neighbours. There is always resistance in capturing the truth. The truth is a dogma impossible to properly dissect. In a lulled state of flickering montage, El Moudir's distraught voice perfectly encapsulates the unpredictability of memoric self-discovery: 

“I thought the change of walls would change them. I hoped to restore our memories. To free the words that had been hushed for years. I hoped to see them like this, reconciled. Happy, enthusiastic, laughing and enjoying life. But my grandmother is an expert killjoy.”

Whereas the documentaries selected to compete within the festival's competition underwhelmed; the majority of the heavy-hitting documentaries at the Cannes Film Festival were found in the isolated sidebars. There's a stimulating beauty in discovering new stories, as the documentaries at the 76th Cannes Film Festival showcased both the best and worst the medium has to offer. The human artefacts on display share their fair deal of hypocrisy and talent — an endless debate on the ethics of authorship that will certainly continue for decades to come. Now more than ever, there is an urgency to preserve non-fiction media; an attempt to rationalise our individualistic truths through the most dangerous medium imaginable. Cinema is lethal, but it can also bring forward glimmers of hope and systematic prosperity. The documentaries at this year's Cannes Film Festival were ultimately illuminating — for their restorative contexts and their occasionally destructive cinematic pursuits.

Image Courtesy – Mathilde Petit / FDC
The 76th Cannes Film Festival ran From May 16th to May 27th