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The Docs at Cannes 2014: A Battalion of War Films

By madelyn most

This week the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches, but audiences at this year's Cannes Film Festival have already been immersed in reflections on war. So many films in and out of competition dropped us onto the battlefields and frontlines of Syria, Chechnya, Ukraine, Iraq, Russia, Mali, Sarajevo, Ivory Coast and Burkino Faso. The French newspaper Le Monde referred to the 67th edition of the festival as "Le Grand débarquement."

The festival's tone, mood and atmosphere felt different this year: the world projected on the screen inside the Palais mirrored more closely than ever before the world we faced outside.

A selection of no-nonsense films in the Main Competition was matched by an equally strong, and dedicated team of jury members, headed by filmmaker Jane Campion, the only person to have won both the short film Palme and feature film Palme, and the only woman to receive the Palme D'Or, in 1993 for The Piano. Equally satisfying were the films they awarded : intelligent, sensitive, poetic works that audiences really connected with.

Lines blurred between fiction and documentary, starting off in the Main Competition with Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako's powerful Timbuktu, which originated as a  documentary. At the press conference Sissako said it was rage and revulsion at the indifference of the public to such brutal events in Mali that drove him to make the film. Taking a few moments to regain his composure, he added, "I am crying for those who are not here to cry."

Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan's's Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait opens with fluidly abstract images photographed inside of raindrops on Paris window panes as Mohammed laments his exile with anguish and despair: "I've become a coward; I left Syria." Midway through the film, he uses footage sent to him by Bedirxan, a young Kurdish girl in Homs, to set us wandering through mountains of dust and rubble ruins of bombed-out buildings in what is left of the besieged city. The many close-ups of bloody body parts, open wounds, discarded limbs and charred corpses that line the streets are overwhelming. We see Syrian government soldiers gleefully waving banners that read "Bashar, or We Scorch the Country." We follow a small boy hopping through deserted streets to avoid sniper fire while picking wildflowers to put on his father's grave, which he visits each afternoon. Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait pulls at your heart; the abondonment of the the Syrian people by the international community is incomprehensible and unforgivable. 


From Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan's Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait.


For lovers of Russian history, politics and sport, Red Army, from Gabe Polsky, an American born to Ukrainian parents, is exciting, dynamic, action-packed, funny and informative. The film probes into the complicated, troubled lives of the Soviet Union's national ice hockey team while focusing on one of the greatest players who ever lived: "Slava" Fetisov, who eventually defected to the West and went from national hero to enemy of the state. He refused to let the government fleece him of 90 percent of his National Hockey League salary; today he is Russia's Minister of Sport. We see how ice hockey symbolized Russian  power, virility and supremacy in the KGB's  ideological propaganda war against the West and the harsh, Gulag-like constraints and captivity the star players endured. The clever fusion of art, science, technique, ballet, gymnastics and poetry made the Russian hockey team's brilliant strategy and performance on the ice a completely unpredictable counterpoint to the crude, "brute force and ignorance" tactics that characterized the Canadian and American professional teams.

Maidan, a work-in-progress by Serguei Loznitsa, is also the name of Kiev's Independence Square-"ground zero" for the protest movement that began in November 2013 and eventually forced President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia in mid-January. With locked-off wide shots that run far too long, from a camera planted right in the middle of (mostly peaceful) activity, accompanied by wild sound, we observe the days and nights punctuated by patriotic songs, inspirational speeches and poetry readings. Things gradually deteriorate into violent chaos as Ninja-like riot police beat up protesters, throw tear-gas canisters and bricks, and fire into the crowd, killing hundreds of people. There is no commentary; the spectator has to interpret what is going on around them. On May 19, the Ukranian Pavilion screened other Maidan documentary projects in progress, and despite a cold, blistering rain, the tiny tent was overflowing with enthusiastic supporters.


From Serguei Loznitsa's Maidan


Of Men and War is a rigorous document from French director Laurent Bécue-Renard (and executive- produced by Thierry Garrell, formerly one of the pillars of the French-German cultural television channel ARTE) that takes us inside Pathway Home, a Napa Valley, California treatment center for US veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. The film is raw, angry, hostile and uncomfortable to sit through, but necessary viewing to understand how permanent the psychological scarring is, with memories that cannot be forgotten and wounds that will never heal. While writing this, the scandal exposing the systemic flaws and dysfunction within the Veteran Administration's medical and health care infrastructure has broken.    

In the Cannes Classics section, festival director Thierry Fremaux presented the tiny, flaming-red-haired 86-year-old legend that is Marceline Loridan, widow of legendary Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens, to introduce  Regards sur la Révolution, the National Centre of Cinematography's (CNC) restoration of four of the 12 short documentaries the couple made in China from 1972 to 1976, at the end of Chairman Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. These landmark films were among the first subjective looks inside the program to transform and re-educate the Chinese population to socialism's collective values. A precious historical testimony,  Regards sur la Revolution serves as a time capsule for that period, filmed with intensity, sincerity and humanity. It was a privilege to sit before Holocaust survivor Marceline Loridan, a survivor of Birkenau-Auschwitz, whose story can be found in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's classic 1960 documentary Chronique d'un 'Été.,  


From Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan's Regards sur la Revolution


Overlapping screenings is always a problem at Cannes. I only saw half of Les Gens du Monde, a faithful tribute to one of the most respected newspapers in the world that this year celebrates its 70th birthday. Most of the team featured in Yves Jeuland's film watched themselves arguing over each word of the front page headlines or the paper's editorial stance. Today's preoccupation is how a printed newssheet stays relevant in a world of media consumers addicted to the Internet's blogs and tweets, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, Instagrams, and other brands of gossip/rumor/opinion that are indifferent to fact-checking.

Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy, from French director Stephanie Valloatto, is a wonderful, funny, but alarming portrait of 12 courageous artists who comment, with pen and ink, on corrupt politicians, military dictatorship, the Mafia, religion and economic and social injustices. Risking their own personal safety and working under police threats and government surveillance, the cartoonists sometimes live under house arrest or go underground. The film honors the work of these Tunisian, Palestinian, Russian, Algerian, Chinese, Mexican, Ivory Coastian, French, Burkino Fasoan and American cartoonists who took their places on the red carpet alongside "Plantu," renowned illustrator at Le Monde and L'Express for over 40 years. In 2006, Plantu created "Cartooning for Peace" with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to denounce intolerance after a cartoon depicting Mohammed that was published in a Danish newspaper set off violent protests throughout the Arab world, calling for the assassination of the artist and anyone else who draws this image.

Roger Ebert loved Cannes, where he was a fixture for over 20 years, and Cannes loved him. Scurrying along the Croisette with his wife, Chaz, in between screenings, he would politely respond to strangers who approached, asking for opinions or advice. Fremaux delivered a heartfelt tribute to his good friend at the Cannes Classics screening of Life Itself. The audience patiently waited for the digital projector, which had suddenly popped halfway throguh the screening, to be repaired while Chaz Ebert and director Steve James fielded questions  Very emotional for all, but the question remains: for societies that place such a high cultural value on film, where are the programs that discuss, debate, analyze and critique "the Seventh Art"? Who will carry on Roger Ebert's legacy?  

The Salt of the Earth was at once my most "boulevarsant" and my most uplifitng moment at Cannes. A spiritual journey through the life and art of renowned photographer Sebastiao Salgago, the film is sensitively assembled in a quiet narrative by Wim Wenders, the co-director with Sebastiao's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. We already know from his photo exhibitions and books that Salgado’s black-and-white imagery is truly miraculous, but the experience is even more powerful and life-changing when this document is projected on a large screen, with the greatest living photographer revealing his feelings and emotions as he tells the story of his life.


From Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado's The Salt of the Earth. Photo: Wim Wenders


In the Directors Fortnight category, Frederick Wiseman's three long hours of observation at London's National Gallery uses the painted treasures as a backdrop that absorbed the vacant stares and bewildered gazes of passers-by who stomp noisily across the wooden floors. Some next to me fell asleep until the very animated lectures delivered by enthusiastic art historians caught their attention. The behind-the-scenes jousting between the museum's administrative board and its chairman reveal a growing disconnect between the priorities of the educated, intellectual or upper-class in Britain and ordinary members of the public who assemble, demonstrate or sleep in tents outside the Trafalgar Square fortress. Wiseman uses the booming drone of chatter as a soundtrack, but there are a few moments where lines of dialogue have a particular significance, although brittle, posh accents will be lost on un-trained ears—and to those reading the subtitles, which this audience was. Erudite? Elitist ? Anachronistic ? Fred is a wise man, and he makes no comment. He leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions. 

On a mild Friday night, a little light relief came with the screening of Go- Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, by Hilla Medalia, after which Israeli first cousins Menahem Golan and wheelchair-bound Yoram Globus took to the stage of the Bunuel Theatre to reminisce about the period in the 1980s when this festival was referred to as the "Cannon Film Festival." In those days, the elegant hotel façades became one long garish billboard advertising Cannon's current and future production roster of B movies packed with machine guns, explosions and car crashes. The film offers a critical but sympathetic look at the indulgences and ultimate downfall of the contrasting personalities, but wounds appear to be healing as the moguls announced their new movie venture, soliciting financial investment from the audience.

Leaving a post-screening reception at the Plage de La Quinzaine, we watched a large orange moon hover over the bay, lighting up the sands, where hundreds were nestled in their beach chairs watching Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini's 8 ½ on an enormous screen that stands out in the water at Cinema de la Plage.

Most documentary makers at Cannes gravitate to the Doc Corner in the Marché du Film, where seminars, meetings, brunches, round tables, and pitching sessions take place daily. I attended a terrific roundtable hosted by Sunny Side of the Doc—"Navigating the New International Documentary Financing Scene," which was organized by Julie Bergeron and moderated by Nicole Guillemet of OffCenter Films. Panelists Isabel Arrate Fernandez, manager of IDFA Bertha Fund; Joslyn Barnes, producer at Louverture Films; Annie Lai of the Sundance Institute; Dorota Lech of Hot Docs; and producer Heidi Fleisher clearly and thoroughly explained to an international audience the many sources of funding from all over the world for cinema documentaries in the US and Europe and what specific information these agencies look for from potential candidates.  

Madelyn Grace Most is a member of French Film Critics, Union of Cinema Journalists, Foreign Press Association, Anglo-American Press Association, Reporters Sans Frontieres Paris and Frontline Club, London. She writes about film and develops documentaries and fiction films.