for this week’s ‘Tribune’: FIDMarseille report, plus screening-log

As befits an event renowned as one of the more eclectic and adventurous on the film-festival circuit, the 23rd FIDMarseille featured among its 19 films in competition an audacious combination of fictional features, documentaries and experimental works (with numerous pictures often straddling all three categories), their running-times ranging from 20 minutes to two hours. As it happened, the Grand Prix went to the longest of the 19: Babylon, by a triumvirate of debutant Tunisian directors, Ala Eddine Slim, Youssef Chebbi, and the mono-monikered ‘Ismaël.’

In every regard bar one Babylon was among the more conventional offerings at this year’s ‘FID’, which ran from July 4th to 9th in France’s second city down on the Mediterranean coast. Shot in a temporary refugee camp erected in Tunisia to cope with the influx of refugees – most of them Bangladeshi labourers – fleeing last year’s violent upheavals in neighbouring Libya, it’s an intimately observant slice of behind-the-headlines vérité that chronicles the camp’s construction, quotidian goings-on and ultimate dismantlement. The level of access involved, the directors’ patient, sensitive and discerning approach to their material and their unobtrusively poetic eye for the telling detail ensures Babylon‘s status as a valuable historical document.

But what elevated it to the level of major talking-point in Marseille – and the USP that distinguishes it from the vast majority of works in the century-long history of documentary cinema – is that, as per the opening titles, “the directors have elected not to resort to subtitles.” This means that only the truly polyglot would be able to understand what is being said during a film which has no shortage of dialogue – in several languages – and forces the viewer to find comprehension through non-verbal impressions.

The prospect of two hours of chatter sans untertiteln is on paper a distinctly daunting one. But once the film is underway such concerns very quickly evaporate as we realise that the “minus” of subtitle-less-ness is comprehensively outweighed by plusses. We’re able to become absorbed in the flow of images without the impedence of text, which is of course no more than a convenient cinematic convention.

As their choice of title indicates – Babylon being another word for Babel, of enduring ‘tower’ fame – the directors are, among other things, fascinated by the anthropological oddity that is language-differentiation, and by eschewing subtitles they give equal weight to all tongues in a medium which has long emphasised and inadvertently perpetuated the dominance of English. Their choice here is thus no mere gimmick, rather a gamble that’s valid, audacious and ultimately successful.

The other stand-out in the Competition might have been presented with subtitles, but if anything was much more disorienting than Slim, Chebbi and Ismaël’s ruminative reportage. Honoured with the ‘Prix Georges de Beauregard International’, An Anthropological Television Myth (Un mito antropologico televisivo) was also, as it happened, the work of three directors – Maria Helene Bertino, Dario Castelli and Alessandro Gagliardo – though in this instance none of the trio was responsible for shooting a single frame of the footage on show (in contrast to Babylon where each of the directors also handled camera-operating duties.)

An Anthropological Television Myth is jagged, 56-minute collage of fragments culled from an Italian TV station’s output in the mid-90s – the period just before what we may now refer to, retrospectively, as the ‘Berlusconi era.’ But whereas the Milanese media mogul’s spells as president were notable for the wholescale degradation of his nation’s television output, with its bawdy game-shows earning much overseas derision, the small broadcaster showcased here evidently foregrounded and documented grass-roots political actions in Catania, the area of Sicily where it was based.

With no commentary or captions, the film plunges us into a lively day-before-yesterday epoch when the authorities’ battles with the Mafia produced an atmosphere akin to Civil War on the streets of Catania. And while certain key stories recur throughout the brisk running-time, the directors rely mainly on virtuouso editing to stitch together a dizzyingly wide range of sights and sounds that consistently fascinate and impress even if it’s not always possible to know what’s going on or how it all fits together.

‘FID’ and ‘FIDMarseille’, by the way, refer to what was for a long spell the event’s official title – Festival International du Documentaire Marseille, for a decade now run under the genially maverick guidance of artistic director Jean-Pierre Rehm. Rehm’s definition of ‘documentary’ has always been as catholic as the Vatican, and so it made sense when, in 2010, the event became the Festival Internationa du Cinema Marseille, although no-one has ever abbreviated this to ‘FICMarseille’ or ‘FIC.’

Rehm essentially programmes whatever takes his fancy, this being one of those admirable events which bears the strong imprint of its chief curator. It’s also one which takes a keen, evangelical interest in cinema history – including what has become an annual screening of a silent movie at the amphiteatric Theatre Sylvain, located in a valley-like hollow just a caillou‘s throw from one of Marseille’s rocky beaches.

This year’s selection proved a spectacular highlight of the 23rd FID: Tod Browning’s 62-minute The Unknown from 1927, starring the inimitable Lon Chaney (“the man of a thousand faces”) as an armless, but by no means harmless, circus knife-thrower dangerously besotted with a dusky temptress played by an unfeasibly youthful-looking Joan Crawford.

An enduringly vivid, perversely comic nightmare of a film – understandably popular with the surrealists of the time – The Unknown prefigures Browning’s better-known circus-set Freaks (1932) and still packs quite the punch eight decades later. One of the biggest movie-stars in the world until his tragically premature demise aged 47 in 1930, Chaney – whose self-devised make-up and prosthetics helped propel pictures like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – remains a magnetically full-blooded performer.

Indeed, his fit of hysterical fury at a particularly fraught juncture of The Unknown is so extreme one fears for the actor’s physical and mental health. Though these days mainly the preserve of early-cinema buffs, Chaney’s vibrations live on: French maverick Leos Carax, when questioned about the shapeshiftingly bizarre performance(s) of Denis Lavant in Cannes hit Holy Motors earlier this year, deadpanned that “If Denis had said no, I would have offered the part to Lon Chaney.”

Neil Young
31st July 2012
written for Tribune magazine

Screening-log (in order of preference)

21/28 (8/10) : The Unknown (Browning, USA 1927. seen at Théâtre Sylvain – outdoor, 8th July)
20/28 (7/10) : An Anthropological Television Myth (Un mito antropologico televisivo; Bertino, Castelli & Gagliardo, Ity 2011. video-library 7th)
19/28 (7/10) : Babylon (‘Ismaël’, Chebbi & Slim, Tun 2012. Criée 8th)
18/28 (7/10) : The Option (A Opção; Ribeiro Candeias, Brz 1981. Criée 7th)
17/28 (6/10) : Danube Hospital (Donauspital SMZ-Ost; Geyrhalter, Aut 2012. Variétés 8th)
17/28 (6/10) : The Devil-Doll (Browning, USA 1936. Variétés 9th)
17/28 (6/10) : The Ethnographer (El Etnógrafo; Rosell, Arg 2012; video 6th)
16/28 (6/10) : Being There (Être là; Sauder, Fra 2012. Variétés 6th)
15/28 (6/10) : Rich is the Wolf (La richesse du loup; Odoul, Fra 2012. Criée 7th)
14/28 (5/10) :
Barely a Shadow (À peine ombre; Djemaï, Fra 2012. Variétés 6th)
14/28 (5/10) : The Jury (El Jurado; García del Pino, Spn 2012.Variétés 6th)
13/28 (5/10) : I Am In Space (Ranga, Ger 2012. Criée 9th)
2/28 (1/10) : White Epilepsy (Grandrieux, Fra 2012. Variétés 13th)