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Visions du Réel 2023: Centering Creative Risks

By Carol Nahra

Screen of a welcome sign for Visions du Réel. Two men standing in front of the screen, one on left is 'Pianoforte' director, Jakub Piatek.

A chance conversation with a friend in London about how we missed attending documentary film festivals resulted—some weeks and intensive planning later—in my visiting a completely new country for me: Switzerland, to attend the celebrated Visions du Réel festival, which takes place annually in Nyon, a charming town just outside of Geneva.

Celebrating its 54th edition, Visions du Réel’s maturity as a festival was evident everywhere, from the ubiquitous branding throughout the town to the packed venues, which featured a healthy combination of locals and visiting filmmakers. Most people we met had been coming for years. Audiences were rapt and attentive, and the programmers who introduced each film were on message and charming. I have spent much time of late puzzling through the desires of commissioners and the demands of the streamers, wading through the seemingly endless true crime offerings and cookie-cutter British TV series, looking for gems and creative risks in the documentary realm. Coming to a place seemingly far removed from these Anglo-American dictates was a relief.

The opening night film, Love Is Not an Orange, set the pace for the creativity that followed and was the perfect anti-Netflix film. As director Otilia Babara explained in the post-screening Q&A, as a girl in Moldova after the collapse of the USSR, she used to be jealous of other girls who regularly received presents from their mothers. She soon came to understand that they never actually saw their mothers: they had migrated to the West to feed their families, working undocumented in menial jobs. 

As an adult migrant herself, Babara returned to this topic for Love Is Not an Orange. Looking into the trend of mothers leaving their families, she amassed a treasure trove of 100 hours of camcorder footage sent between separated families. The visual core of the film, this footage is interspersed with a poetic voiceover, reflecting the viewpoints of the mothers, who are otherwise absent from the film. As the years of separation grow, the connection between the mothers and children weakens. “It becomes easier to stay in touch, but there’s not much to say,” the voiceover muses. Babara explained that the topic is still taboo in a country of four million, which has now shrunk to two and a half million. It was a very moving way to kick off the festival, and its creative use of personal archives was also a feature of many other films in the program. 

Another shared thread to which I was drawn was the balancing of our digital and real lives. Natan Castay’s mid-length Human Not Human is an utterly engrossing foray into the internet of three years ago. Through a constructed alter ego named Otto, played by actor Harpo Guit, Castay explores the then-burgeoning phenomenon of Amazon Mechanical Turk’s AI training tasks. For the film, Castay assigned the actor actual tasks for a month, such as blurring out faces on Google Street View (which paid one cent per face), identifying swimming pools, and even—disturbingly—identifying cancerous tumors. At the same time, he interacts with a range of other Turkers that Castay had already befriended and explained the film’s construct to. The result is a snapshot of a particular moment in time, as everyone knows but can barely register that AI will replace them soon. According to Castay, with whom I spoke as we sat in deck chairs at the festival’s main hub, making the film introduced him to two new phenomena which now, a short time later, are commonplace and ubiquitous: working from home and AI. 

“At the time, working from home was something totally new,” he said. “And everyone was curious about that. And then, it became natural for a lot of people because of the pandemic. And it was the same thing with AI—when I was making my movie, people were curious but didn’t know anything about it. It’s now become such a major topic.”

Other standouts in the International Medium and Short Film Competition include Sensitive Content, which is peppered with eyewitness testimony. Director Narges Kalhor takes us via social media posts into the chaotic scenes on the streets of Iran as demonstrators protest the September 2022 killing of Mahsa Amini by the morality police. Paired in this screening was Incident, William Morrison’s stress-inducing immersion into a 2018 killing on the streets of Chicago, made with Forensic Architecture. A jittery police force surrounds a young Black man legally concealing a weapon, with a trainee officer gunning him down on the street. Thanks to an abundance of footage from cameras worn by the police officers, viewers see a composite montage of the unfolding incident. As we hear the growing cries of protests from bystanders, we also hear the police try to begin to justify their actions—before turning their cameras off. 

Ed Ou and Will N. Miller’s 12-minute, visually stunning Squid Fleet is a poetic depiction of the world’s largest fishing fleet, operated by China without policing, which has led to abundant environmental crimes and forced labor. The film combines Ou’s cinematography with a fictionalized narration based on reporting by the Outlaw Ocean Project

Another of my favorites from this competition was Guillaume Brac’s Un Pincement au Coeur, which came out of his filmmaking workshop at a school. The film tells the story of three 15-year-old French students in the last week of school before the summer holidays. Brac spent Wednesdays in the run-up to filming with a group of adolescents, working with them on how to express intimacy and sincerity about their lives. “Almost until the shoot, I didn’t know what I was going to do with them,” he told me in an interview at the deck chairs outside the festival bar. “I was supposed to film everybody, but in my head, I was focused on the two or three girls. Just before shooting, they told me they had a big clash. I asked them if they would be okay to play with their real situation and feelings at the time, but to stage them.” The teens were excited by Brac’s proposition and agreed. “At the beginning, it was artificial, but very quickly, it became real.” 

The winner of the Grand Jury Prize for the best medium-length film was Self-Portrait Along the Borderline. “In Georgia, my last name sounds like a mistake,” director Anna Dziapshipa says in a voiceover near the film's outset. “I remember every single person who pronounces it and writes it correctly.” The director, born to an Abkhazian father and a Georgian mother, creatively uses personal archives to probe identity and the ongoing pain of being caught between two warring countries. The jury awarded the prize for best short film to Losing Ground, a 12-minute film by an anonymous young Burmese activist looking back at the military junta that took over the country in 2021, turning everyone into prisoners. 

As a native Clevelander, I was particularly drawn to the film Chagrin Valley, which won the National Competition jury prize. The 62-minute film takes us inside the Lantern, an innovative dementia care facility not far from where I grew up. Director Nathalie Berger shot the film in the last months of 2019 after reading about the facility in a New Yorker article. Her empathetic lens introduces us to the more lucid residents, who reflect poignantly, if disjointedly, on their past and current lives. We’re also taken inside the lives of their compassionate young caregivers, who, unlike their charges, have big dreams for the future. 

The festival’s Burning Lights Competition is dedicated to “new, free, adventurous, and contemporary perspectives in cinema.” The Burning Lights Jury Award winner, Knit’s Island takes place entirely in DayZ, an online survival game. The three credited directors, Ekiem Barbier, Guilhem Causse, and Quentin L’helgoualc’h, spent nearly 1,000 hours in the game’s island setting, which encompasses a visually stunning 250 square (digital) kilometers. They recorded 200 hours of rushes. The film follows their journey of discovery as they travel vast swathes of the land, coming across small groups of players, from peace-loving vegans to a nihilistic band of oddballs killing for kicks. Gradually the narrative builds up more layers, with lead inquisitor Barbier engaging with the players by probing into their offline lives. 

After the screening, the filmmakers told me that one of the most surreal aspects of making the film was how long it took to record action—they sometimes had to “walk” for hours to reach other players. Barbier interacted with and interviewed other players, L’helgoualc’h served as primary camera, and Causse was second camera and “technician,” a role which included ensuring the group could stay in the game by procuring virtual food. Like We Met in Virtual Reality (2022), this film brings genuinely documentary moments into an entirely constructed virtual space to tell very human stories. I particularly enjoyed the process of Barbier securing the rights to use their voices from gun-wielding, masked avatars before asking them about the rumor the filmmakers had heard about their cannibalistic tendencies. 

In Caiti Blues, also screening in Burning Lights, director Justine Harbonnier slowly and elegantly builds a nuanced portrait of a young adult feeling stuck in her life. Protagonist Caiti has ambitions from an early age to be an actress and singer but finds herself stuck in the passing-through town of Madrid, New Mexico, working as a bartender and waitress. She finds some creative outlet in a DJ gig for the local radio station, where she vents about her mounting debt. She’s an articulate and self-assured contributor that viewers very quickly root for. 

Less successful in this strand was An Owl, a Garden & the Writer, director Sara Dolatabadi’s reverential portrait of her father, the Iranian novelist Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. Dolatabadi largely removes herself from the portrait, filming long stretches of her young daughter’s interactions with her grandfather in his Tehran garden. But for those like me who are unfamiliar with the novelist, I emerged none the wiser about his influence on Iranian culture and underwhelmed by the narrative. It was the only screening in the festival where I saw people get their phones out to scroll. 

I was more engrossed in the other Iranian feature I caught at the festival, My Worst Enemy, which premiered at the Berlinale and played here in the best of fests Highlights strand. The construct was at first risibly implausible to me: exiled director Mehran Tamadon speculates that if he is arrested with footage of humiliating interrogation techniques while trying to enter Iran, he will be able to open up a dialogue with his imprisoners. But thanks to his interactions with actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who fully inhabits her role of interrogator from deeply personal experience, the film successfully sheds light on dark tactics usually perpetuated in secret. 

The festival’s International Feature Competition is its most prestigious. The International Feature Grand Jury prize went to Peter Mettler’s While the Green Grass Grows. The festival screened two chapters of the auteur’s upcoming seven-part (totaling an anticipated 12 hours) audiovisual diary. The free-flowing film traces his recent relationship with his parents, who, in declining health, relocate from Switzerland to Ontario. The striking In Ukraine received a special mention, in which filmmakers Piotr Pawlus and Tomasz Wolski demonstrate the surreal juxtaposition of normal life and warfare on the streets of Ukraine through a series of still frames shot from a distance. My Father’s Prison was a taut debut narrative by Iván Andrés Simonovis Pertíñez recounting the extraordinary imprisonment of his father, Ivan. Once the head of security for the Venezuelan government, Ivan became Chavez’s fall guy in the wake of the gunning down of protestors in 2002. Like many films of this festival, the director movingly employs his personal memories and archive to move back and forth in time in an unapologetically subjective approach. Sonia Ben Slama’s Mashtat is an engrossing verité film following a family of Tunisian wedding singers who juggle their extraordinary professional duties while dealing with a family crisis. 

In its Wide Angle strand, the festival featured some standouts from the festival circuit, including Lea Glob’s wonderful Apolonia, Apolonia (2022). The film follows the painter Apolonia Sokol’s maturation from a teenager to a young adult over 13 years. The film also tells the story of the late Ukrainian artist Oksana Shachko, a close friend of Apolonia and a co-founder of the radical feminist performance art group Femen. “It’s a mirror of the young artist,” Glob said in the post-screening Q&A. “It’s a film on the destinies of women.” One of those destinies is Glob’s own, whose story becomes more central in the film's last act. 

Without a doubt, the most enjoyable screening I went to was Pianoforte, which premiered at Sundance—a film I was not alone in loving as it took the Audience Grand Jury Prize. Director Jakub Piątek’s debut feature documentary (his dramatic feature debut, Prime Time, can be viewed on Netflix) follows a half dozen talented young competitors through the rigors of Warsaw’s renowned and long-running International Chopin Piano Competition. Without exception, the contributors are fascinating to watch, from the young Chinese pianist with 120,000 fans waiting online to see how he has fared to 17-year-old Eva, who navigates a constant flow of corrections from her demanding tutor without complaint. But the mounting pressure is notable. “I’d like to have their problems,” Eva says wistfully to her mother as they pass by some young children. The film will screen in late 2023 on Max and BBC Storyville.

This year, Visions du Réel also featured retrospectives on two women filmmakers, Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel and Italian auteur Alice Rohrwacher, as well as a workshop with Swiss director Jean-Stéphane Bron. The festival notes described the three as filmmakers who “demonstrate unconstrained freedom when it comes to the relationship between reality and fiction, to the free-spirited interweaving of film genres and styles and formal, narrative and technical exploration.” It’s clear that the festival also has this creative approach as the central ethos of all of its programming. I’ll certainly be back.

Carol Nahra is a London-based documentary journalist, producer, and lecturer. She has written extensively about the UK documentary landscape for industry publications and her Docs on Screens blog. She hosts the Bertha DocHouse podcast, DocHouse Conversations, and is the lead trainer for the Grierson DocLab.