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Docs on the Riviera: Nonfiction a Robust Presence at Cannes

By madelyn most

Cold winds and rainstorms dampened mind, spirit and bodies as audiences walked the red carpet at the Palais for the 65th edition of the Cannes Film Festival.  Of the 22 feature films selected in the Main Competition, not one was directed by a woman. Although the committee tried to defend themselves from loud protests claiming films are chosen for their quality alone, their excuses were as fake and shallow as (many of) the films we saw, which worsened the inclement conditions even further.

Having no place of their own at Cannes, documentaries appear within a specific strand such as Critic's Week, Director's Fortnight or Cannes Classics. The Film Market added a Doc Corner this year, with a digital library of over 150 nonfiction films that could be viewed by buyers and programmers. Politics play a key role in what gets positioned at Cannes and where, so bio-docs about famous men and friends of the festival sprouted up all over, while the more quirky, off- beat, independent, non-commissioned works in search of a distributor resided downstairs in the Marché.     

Included in the Opening Day fanfare, two Out of Competition docs, Woody Allen: A Documentary, from Robert Weide, and Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, by Laurent Bouzereau,   received a lot of attention--but only tepid responses from audiences, who had hoped for more than the "authorized biography" formula of archival clips and safe, easy  interviews that never revealed  anything new or original about these controversial auteurs.      

In a respectful and affectionate acknowledgement of his role as president of the festival for nearly 50 years, Gilles Jacobs was given a camera in 2007, and he interviewed his favorite director chums. He compiled his memories and favorite moments into a personal history about the Cannes festival in an anniversary film entitled A Special Day. Another documentary tribute, Emmanuel Barnault's Claude M Le Cinema, celebrates the life and work of one of France's great directors, Claude Miller, who died unexpectedly in April; the documentary preceded Miller's swan song, Thérèse Desqueyroux, the festival's Ceremonial Closing film.  

Cannes Classics offered a Special Screening of Me and My Dad, a tender family portrait by filmmaker John Boorman's younger daughter Katrine, while a more curious offering, Labra Marcado Parra Morrer/ Twenty Years Later, by veteran Brazilian director Edouardo Coutinho,  is a semi-documentary about the life of a peasant leader who was assassinated in 1962. The filming was abruptly halted because of a political coup, but resumed 17 years later with the people who worked in the original film. Accompanying this documentary was a loving musical celebration of the life and 40-year career of composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, who introduced Brazil and the world to bossa nova with "The Girl from Ipanema." Directed by Jobim's daughter Dora and 83-year-old Brazilian music legend Nelson Pereira Dos Santon, A Musica Segundo Tom Jobim has no narration or structure, just performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra, making it the feel-good hit of the festival.


Antonio Carlos Jobim, subject of A Musica Segundo Tom Jobim (Dirs.: Dora Jobim, Nelson Pereira Dos Santon)


Returning to the Black Sea village of his grandparents to complete scenes on another film, award-winning director Fatih Akin found the lush green tea plantations and prosperous fishing villages polluted and plundered by the placement of the largest garbage dump landfill site in northeastern Turkey. Politicians more interested in votes than their constituents' health are confronted by the townspeople, who fight back in Polluting Paradise, a film that took five years to make.

On Friday, May 25, while the massacre in Houla, Syria, was unfolding, journalist/philosopher/filmmaker Bernard-Henri Levy created a media frenzy at the Palais. He brought nine Libyan government officials and two Syrian rebels in exile to introduce his film  The Oath of Tobruk, which he dedicated to the martyred Syrians who continue to fight Bashar al-Assad's regime while the world looks on. Placing  himself at the center of every shot, with a soundtrack dominated by his continuous monologue instructing Libyans what to do and say, it appears Levy is directing not only the military, but the entire insurrection all by himself. One is left speechless, exasperated and stupefied, yet the story is ultimately rewarding and well worth watching. Somewhere buried under the weight of his narcissism are honorable intentions: It is not often you see a wealthy, famous, eccentric, Parisian bourgeois intellectual Jew demanding an end to the slaughter of Arabs by a tyrannical dictator. BHL declares himself a philosopher/writer/poet/filmmaker, but "not a political man."  A nagging question lingers: Is he really doing this for others, or is this just a self- promotional bid for the Nobel Peace Prize?  


From Bernard-Henri Levy's The Oath of Tabruk.


With a nod to the landmark documentary Manufacturing Consent, Ken Burns' latest documentary, The Central Park Five, could be re-titled Manufacturing Confessions. Made with his daughter Sarah Burns and son-in-law David McMahon, and produced by PBS for a 2013 broadcast, this thoroughly examined, exhaustively researched, and methodically assembled presentation is a classic study of racial profiling. French newspapers devoted ample space to both reviews of the film and analysis of the issues raises.

In 1989, amidst an escalating crime wave in a crack-ridden New York City, a white female jogger was assaulted, raped and left for dead in the heart of Central Park. Within days, five black and Latino teenage boys from Harlem were randomly rounded up, interrogated and arrested, and after 28 hours of forceful interrogation by homicide detectives, the teens confessed to a crime they knew nothing about. Despite the lack of material evidence linking them to the incident, they each spent between six and 13 years in prison.

The Central Park Five begins with the epilogue, so all the tension, suspense and rage an audience might normally experience is diffused from the outset. We hear the voice of a prison inmate claiming what he did that night had nothing to do with those kids. Charges against the five were vacated in 2002 and now there is a civil suit pending. There has been no apology, no admission of guilt or wrongdoing from the prosecution, New York City officials or the New York Police Department.  According to Burns, "This could happen today in the same way. Racism is always here and police intimidation methods are too... I hope this film is useful." The audiences, deeply moved by this experience, left the theater in silence.


From The Central Park Five (Dirs.: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon)


In the Un Certain Regard section, Journal de France starts off with on an old man driving his camping car through the French countryside; he stops in a village square, unpacks his tripod and plate camera, and waits patiently for the right instant to click the shutter. "Sometimes I need to just get away from everything ... I go off so I can think," says photographer /photojournalist/ documentary filmmaker Raymond Depardon. His life-partner and the film's co-author, Claudine Nougaret, digs through his archives for photographs and films buried in the cellar, which provide the material for the voyage back in time to his wildly adventurous life and times. As a young photographer, Depardon taught himself how to compose shots with a ciné camera to document revolutions and political hot spots around the world. Among them: Venezuela, the West Bank, Suez, Chile, Aden, Yemen, Biafra, Bokassa, Chad and Algeria.  Depardon's honest, uncompromising revelations made him troublesome to the French government and politicians but made his engagement all the more endearing.


From Raymond Depardon's Journal de France.


Trashed, by Candida Brady, is an ecological piece warning of the devastating effects of waste disposal, landfills, incineration and sea dumping to our soil, oceans, environment, our health and the entire food chain. On-camera narrator Jeremy Irons scales garbage heaps around the world to tell us of the earth's fragile eco-systems, as well as sustainable alternatives that give the film a much needed positive lift at the end.

The consistently excellent Critic's Week strand presented Ilian Metev's Sophia's Last Ambulance, about Bulgaria's crumbling health system. Thirteen ambulances are available in the country's capital, Sophia, with two million inhabitants, and our three unlikely heroes--a doctor, a nurse and an ambulance driver--work a 48-hour shift trying to save lives, with ever-present obstacles and no equipment and.    

Mentioning it only because Directors Fortnight included it, Rodney Ascher's Room 237 is an absurd assembly of far-fetched suppositions about Stanley Kubrick and some secret hidden meanings within his film The Shining. Anyone who knew or worked with the director would endorse the critic who said "some people have too much time on their hands."

In smaller theaters, other interesting docs were screened. Co-directed and produced by one of his grandsons and narrated by the 94-year-old South African icon himself, Mandela's Children  explores the life and loves of  Nelson Mandela, with his 21 grandchildren gathered round in a personal setting to interview him. Dheeraj Akolkar's Liv & Ingmar revisits the intriguing and long-lasting relationship between the Norwegian actress Liv Ullman and the great Swedish director Ingmar Berman. Inspired by her autobiographical book Changing, and illustrated with clips from his cinematic masterpieces, excerpts from their love letters, photos and archive footage, Liv & Ingmar is a moveable feast for romantic voyeurs.  Filmed during his recent world tour, Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis, from Gregg Barson, is an affectionate portrait of the over-talented, under-appreciated, multi-tasking genius, who puts his energies into  acting, writing, producing, composing, marketing, financing and charity work.

Based in Paris and London, Madelyn Grace Most develops independent feature films, writes about cinema and covers film festivals for European film magazines. She is a member of French Film Critics, Union of Cinema Journalists and the Foreign Press Association in Paris.