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Awakening New Ways of Perception: The Visions Du Réel Film Festival

By Henry Lewes

Dee Dee Ramone, from Lech Kowalski's 'Hey, is Dee Dee Home?' Courtesy of Visions du Réel.

The Visions du Réel Festival (, held in Nyon, Switzerland, last spring, is stunningly located beside a lake with snow-topped mountains in the distance. The short walk between the two festival sites is up a lilac-covered lane. And if these were not advantages enough, a break between films offers a sunny câfé terrace where it is easy to make new friends.

Festival Director Jean Perret believes that "people need to be awakened. The way they perceive things needs to be turned upside down." And his selection of about 100 films, from some 1,500 submissions, supported his creed. There were seven sections, among which included First Films, Inquiries in Depth, Experimental and the International Competition. Notable themes among the films were war and its consequences, as in Anand Patwardan's War and Peace, which studies the growing religious fundamentalism in India and Pakistan and how it is harnessed to increasing militarism. Also, people's day-to-day struggles for survival are documented in such films as Joakim Demmer's Tarifa Traffic, which deals with illegal immigrants attempting the highly risky sea crossing from Africa to Europe.

Notable among the American filmmakers at Nyon was Jennifer Dworkin, who was one of the five members of the International Jury. "I'm the beginner," she said in an interview. "My reputation rests on one film." And that film is the 155-minute Love & Diane, a three-generation study of a New York family surviving poverty, drug abuse and depression, which has enjoyed an acclaimed run since its world premiere at the New York Film Festival last fall.

The six American films that screened at Nyon ranged from documentaries to experimental works. Charlotte Harvey's Talking about the Moon in Broad Daylight is a silent black-and-white enigma that runs just four minutes. A series of 8mm shots she took in the streets of 1980s Paris are accompanied by subtitles, such as: "Andre loves Christine."..."Christine is married to Robert."..."Robert is having an affair with Genevieve."...Harvey explained that the mysterious title is a quote from a Renoir film. When asked what she wanted her film to say to the audience, she responded, "I don't think about that. I try to make something that means something to me. It's more like poetry."

In 1991 Lech Kowalski shot interview footage of Dee Dee Ramone, the legendary bass player with the punk rock group The Ramones. When he died, from an overdose of drugs in 2001, Kowalski decided to make Hey, Is Dee Dee Home?. The interview is central to the film with Ramone reviewing his life by referring to his many tattoos, each of which is linked to an event in his past. By this means we see excerpts from concerts and images of the group throughout its career. Kowalski summarized this moving portrait: "It's a story about not being able to grow up—fighting the forces of growing grey, but not knowing how to fight them."

Not For Sale was made by Yael Bitton, who lives in the Lower East Side of New York City, where she shot the film. Her neighborhood, once a stronghold of the Puerto Rican community, is being gradually taken over by real estate speculators. We see a boarded-up garden square that was created by local people, and a once friendly cycle repair shop, now an abandoned wasteland of wheels, handlebars and saddles. "I am really intrigued by the notion of hierarchy and privilege," Bitton explained. "Here was this story unfolding on my block that was answering a lot of my questions about American social organization."

Another US film deserving mention for its originality was Deborah Stratmen's In Order Not To Be Here. Shot entirely at night, the film opens with infrared shots of what seems to be a manhunt, seen from a police helicopter, and continues with endless, beautifully composed static shots of deserted streets and darkened houses in a well-kept suburb. The atmosphere of uncertainty becomes both sinister and disturbing. Stratman's film appears to be about the way in which money can provide security at the price of spiritual emptiness.

At 5:30 every day there was the Forum, where the previous day's films were debated, usually in the presence of their directors, since the festival is generous in the number of filmmakers it subsidises to attend. Also daily were the brunches, open to commissioning editors, producers and filmmakers to discuss each other's needs. For those looking to purchase, there was the Film Market, with comfortable video screening arrangements. Finally, there was Doc Outlook, where more than 100 broadcasters debated the future fate of documentary, at which it seemed confirmed that TV channels are becoming increasingly attached to current events and investigative journalism, to the exclusion of personal statements. Just as well, then, that Visions du Réel is there to remind the big sponsors that truth and originality can still fill theaters.


Henry Lewes has, for over 30 years, researched, written and directed documentaries for the BBC, CBC, Film Australia and the United Nations.