If you think that documentary is merely a photographic depiction of reality, the 35th edition the Cinéma du Réel Documentary Film Festival will have you reconsider. Offering discovery, transportation and new perspectives, the event held at the Centre Georges Pompidou presents roughly 200 films, its standouts taking the medium to new levels.
Examining the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, The Radiant by London-based art collective Otolith Group is most interested in experimenting with the documentary format itself; the interplay between image and sound. The film avoids simply reciting the facts, instead lending itself to a much more profound investigation into the lead up to the nuclear catastrophe, and its aftermath, through the use of fiction and editing techniques, as well as interviews with institutional film experts and shots filmed in the seismic centre of Tokyo.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Radiant is its fascination with science. This, from a film that almost dismisses the discipline as a source of evil; or if not the ‘source’, than at least the ‘means’, as suggested by a journalist interviewee who claims Japan is the ultimate experiment. She wonders if the country is not the most elaborate radiation lab on the planet, but while that’s a question no one can answer with certainty, what is clear is that experimentation is at least something to be encouraged in film making with The Radiant and François Daireaux’s Aires (‘Areas’) as examples.
The aforementioned artist has been developing art installations for 20 years, deciding to put one of them in the theatre, a world first at Cinéma du Réel. Here, the audience became a trial group for Daireaux, testing this latest art project camouflaged as a documentary. The film, and I use this term loosely, is a montage of mostly mundane, every day activities. From a chicken’s foot protruding from a steamer to a glimpse into the mirror of a woman accessorizing, the audience is left to identify these images and their context, as the thread that binds them all together. Fragments of reality, mostly coming from Eastern parts of the world, are edited with sharp cuts and fades to black, as a symbol of the fragmented nature of film itself. But as perplexing as Aires is, it also offers the novel experience of seeing how a film is constructed and, consequently, reality itself.
That’s where the practice of self-fiction cinema comes in, as the festival paid homage to the late experimental filmmaker, Stephen Dwoskin, with a rare screening of Before the Beginning. Co-director and long-time friend, Boris Lehman, was also present for a commentary on the film for “four hands”, where the creative partners would film and imitate one another with no script, trying (and failing) to communicate before trying again. The piece describes their attempts, aptly-titled Before the Beginning seeing it presents the process of making a film that, in the end, would never start. **