Credit: CaSk Films
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Cinéma du Réel 2024: You Burn Me, Breathless, DIRECT ACTION

April 3, 2024

You Burn Me

Matías Piñeiro is best known for loosely adapting Shakespearean texts via small-scaled, interpersonal dramas: Twelfth Night in Viola; Measure for Measure in Isabella; Love’s Labour’s Lost in The Princess of France; The Tempest in Sycorax. Of course, these are not straightforward adaptations, and Piñeiro uses these plays instead as loose frameworks to hang his own explorations of romance and drama on, allowing his creations to intermingle with and embody the texts in various ways. He’s an artist navigating a tricky territory between classicism and modernity, indebted as much to Rivette as to Shakespeare. You Burn Me is a fascinating creation, a fragmented, essayistic medium-length work that is, formally and conceptually, about its own making. By eschewing typical narrative and dramatic stakes and emphasizing the material aspects of writing and directing, the film proves simultaneously challenging in its experimentations and straightforward in its intentions.

Adapted from a chapter in Cesare Pavese’s Dialoghi con Leucò, titled “Sea Foam” (which details a meeting between the Greek poet Sappho and the nymph Britomartis), You Burn Me chronicles the process of translating this text into a script, and then into a film that might visualize this fanciful meeting. The film proper begins with a series of title cards intercut with recurring shots of a building and hands pressing buttons, each image repeated several times and blurring like a film frame getting stuck in a projector. Voiceover narration reads aloud from Pavese’s text, while close-up shots depict a hand underlining words and phrases from an annotated copy of the book. Actresses from other Piñeiro films make up the cast here — Gabi Saidón, María Villar, and Agustina Muñoz — although they are mostly heard via the soundtrack, or filmed from oblique angles and quickly cut away from. There are plenty of other digressions, as well; there is an abbreviated account of Sappho’s poetry, almost all of which was lost to time until an ancient manuscript was discovered (we see some documentary footage of the parchment on display). Some time is spent too on Pavese’s death: the author committed suicide, which is mirrored in the fates of Sappho and Britomartis, driven to the sea and banished for love.

This brief description indicates a linear quality that isn’t really there in the film; it’s more fragmented, as Piñeiro favors repetitions and short, decontextualized images that suggest more than they inform. The footage looks like 16mm film (or a remarkable digital facsimile) that morphs into something like a home video, full of jittery, handheld movements, unmotivated pans, close-ups of trees and plants, and many shots of rocky seashore cliffs and a calm, placid ocean. It’s all very handmade; the film’s credits are a series of typed or handwritten papers placed one by one in front of the camera, and occasionally a paintbrush will add dashes of color to a frame. At one point, we watch someone sketch out a small drawing that begins as simple linework but becomes denser as more images and finally watercolors are added to it. It’s a kind of synecdoche for the film itself, a sketch that becomes fuller and richer as incidental details are provided. Think of it as a lovely bricolage, various odds and ends that gradually coalesce into a treatise on love and regret, but also the act of adaptation itself. You Burn Me is a dense, occasionally opaque work, but one that’s also playful and full of life.  DANIEL GORMAN

Credit: James Benning


James Benning’s 2021 film The United States of America works through 50 landscapes, one from each state in alphabetical order, only to end its credits with a list of the locations where these were shot — all in California. That film’s punchline is the loudest example of a challenge to the fiction-nonfiction distinction that Benning has mounted throughout his career. His latest film, Breathless, continues this explicit focus on metatextual games. Named after Godard’s seminal New Wave film and matching its runtime exactly, Breathless comes with an intriguing description about the artist going to film a tree when “stuff happened,” and he was “attacked from the air.”

These lines are typical of Benning’s understated humor, but they’re also important to reading the work. It consists of a single fixed camera shot, showing a utility crew trimming some trees along a road and then moving out of frame where we can hear but not see them. This distinction between what’s on or off screen — what’s in the film vs. what the audience brings to it — is the structuring concept of the film. The utility crew grabs attention initially, but with time and distance, other aspects of this compositional strategy become clear. Power lines point across, up, and out of the square frame. The sky is never shown directly, but its effects are constantly seen and heard. Light and shadows drift slowly down the road as time passes, and later, the unseen space above announces itself in the form of passing airplanes.

Those wondering what any of this has to do with Godard’s film are asking the right question. Arguably, nothing; except that by naming and describing his film as he does, Benning manipulates the audience’s attention and relationship to what we see and hear. Like The United States of America, Breathless ends with something of a joke, as an exaggeratedly noirish piano piece plays for the last half minute or so. The subject of the work is as much the impressionable path charted through it as anything that’s projected on screen. 

The problem is that this has always been true of Benning’s films, and by stripping away most of the other elements of interest, he arguably gains little beyond clarifying what was already there. Breathless largely misses both the meditative beauty and the political sophistication of better recent works like ALLENSWORTH (2022) and From Bakersfield to Mojave (2021), and ultimately feels like a minor instance of a game Benning has been playing for half a century. ALEX FIELDS


DIRECT ACTION, co-directed by Guillaume Cailleau & Ben Russell, traces the outer contours and inner lives of the persons within the ZAD de Notre-Dame-des-Landes (the Zone to Defend). The area in Western France has been home to an autonomous zone in opposition to planned construction of an airport, with both local farmers and environmental activists taking part in defying attempts to evict them. The first occupation was in 2007, and over a decade of work and pressure resulted in the airport project being abandoned in 2018. Cailleau and Russell pick up in 2022-2023, where a very different challenge is being posed to the community. Eviction has been a looming threat since 2018, and some in the zone have tried to pursue a legalization process while others want nothing to do with the French government. 

The documentary opens on footage captured by the group of previous encounters with the police — bulldozers, tear gas, and protest chants echo as clip after clip demonstrates the enormity of the challenge before them. The rest of the documentary departs radically from this mode, luxuriating in long takes (averaging about five minutes) and questioning audience conceptions of what “activism” means — children celebrate a birthday party, a man kneads flour into dough, comrades screen-print signs. Cailleau and Russell embrace the apparent mundanity of the zone and the day-to-day work it takes to sustain such a large-scale and decades-long effort to live communally and in opposition to one’s government. Much of the film operates between patient still-lifes and political messaging: a woman reads from a book about police interrogation techniques, a horse roams a field, young people dance at a leftist punk concert, a cow wanders down the road. In many ways, it seems most reminiscent of a Straub-Huillet film, especially in its dazzling super 16mm landscapes, though the film feels distinctly like its own in its long silences and durational aspirations. 

A major formal breakthrough for the film occurs around the halfway point, when the audience is privy to an aerial survey of the zone. At first, it’s a dance with the sky — something like an image from Benning’s Ten Skies vis-a-vis a Michael Bay drone-shot. The camera swirls over, around, and through cotton-wisp clouds, choreographed with a dexterity that feels like a decided break from the largely still-camera approach of the film thus far. Narratively, the biggest breakthrough seems to occur just before the third hour, when the audience is suddenly thrust into action again. A parade of tractors blocks traffic on a highway, police fire tear gas at protestors marching a float, and in the film’s most impactful moments, comrades grab each others’ arms to help another out of a ditch. Police launch attacks and protestors attack back. In a scene where habitants of the zone throw stones at what are presumably police vehicles, a woman yells at the camera: “This isn’t what you should be filming! This isn’t…” And perhaps for a moment, the audience must consider what they wanted or expected to see in this documentary. In the film’s only real show of force against the government, it breaks the fourth wall to tell on itself: this isn’t what it should be filming. 

In the end, Cailleau and Russell return to the community. A man inspects farmland, another man plays the piano, and finally, the community debriefs. In DIRECT ACTION’s final moments, the community reflects on what their project means. There are questions of shock in the community after the most recent clashes with police, wherein many members of the ZAD and those outside their community were arrested. The zone refuses intimidation, leading others to take a stand: “The important thing is not the shock, but how people rise up collectively to continue what has already begun.”  JOSHUA PEINADO

Credit: Levo Films


Republics, as it were, are spaces of contradiction — the citizens’ collective supreme authority refracted through the figures of their representatives — whose political legitimacy remains perpetually contestable; democratic republics find themselves afflicted by indecision and chaos, while more authoritarian ones risk subsuming the people’s will under hollow categories of representation. In virtually all its blueprints, however, lies the vision of a utopian order bolstered by realizations of certain ideals: freedom, justice, equality, among others. These ideals attempt to resolve the aforementioned contradictions regarding power and sovereignty, and while they sometimes come close, most end up masking them. Americans, for example, don’t necessarily believe in the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation of “certain inalienable Rights” in practice, but they act and speak as if theory still held true, if it ever did.

Republic, Jin Jiang’s documentary situated across the pond in the bustle of Beijing, examines contradictions of a somewhat different sort, although the fundamental tension between theory and practice persists. Beijing, a capital of 22 million stretching over 6,300 square miles, finds its microcosm in six square meters of hippie territory occupied by one Li Eryang, self-styled leader of the film’s titular commune. To the extent that Li can be said to lead, it’s in his ostensible ownership of the cramped space — likely within an apartment complex, sans personal toilet — and his attempts at revolutionary charisma. This charisma, though, isn’t steeped in political rebellion; Li praises the ideological socialism espoused by China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and decries (initially, at least) the tendency for artists to shun its strictures in favor of hedonistic individualism. But it serves as a personal justification nonetheless, insofar as ideological socialism has manifested uneasily alongside practical cut-throat capitalism for him and his peers.

The response of the Republic’s denizens to capitalism’s demands on them forms the crux of Jin’s observational work: shot on handheld and revealing virtually all sides of this cramped corner of the world, Republic quickly unravels the blind and fiery idealism of its pseudo-socialists who, while living hand-to-mouth in a repudiation of consumerist desire, nonetheless depend heavily on the system at large for survival. Debt-ridden from deferred credit payments and eking out a living, possibly through online gambling, Li and co. discuss drugs, Bob Dylan, and the drudgery of the mainstream nine-to-five whilst cooped up together, cooking impromptu meals and zoning out to the light guitar riffs of a more optimistic countercultural era. Their views waver and change over time; what is, at turns, a “Subculture Hub” and “Trashie Center” becomes, through the film’s runtime, a place of dormant cynicism. Conscious of the unsustainability of their lifestyle, not to mention the aimlessness of their endeavors soon made apparent, the groupies wander in and out of their muted state of affairs, neither too passionate to precipitate a shift towards activism nor desperate enough to renounce their membership point-blank. Through the liminal proceedings of this microcosm, Republic offers an intimate portrait of anxiety nested within ennui. MORRIS YANG

Où sont tous mes amants?

Master French experimental filmmaker Jean-Claude Rousseau plays with pop music in Où sont tous mes amants?, a title borrowed from a 1935 tune that translates to Where Are My Lovers? The singer in question is the mononymous Fréhel, a chanson best known to cinephiles for her supporting roles in two French classics: Sacha Guitry’s Story of a Cheat (1936) and Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937). Cinéma du Réel’s page for Rousseau’s film inaccurately claims that Fréhel’s songs were “last heard on screen in the films of Jean Eustache,” but the titular song only appears in Où sont… in a cover version: Rousseau himself whistling it.

Rousseau is summoning associations of the 1930s “poetic realism” that defines Fréhel and the classical movies she lent her voice to in order to twist it into abstraction, but Larry Gottheim’s early classic of experimental film Harmonica (1971) is what Rousseau’s final product resembles: a homemade musical, with a still camera’s subject affected by the elements. Gottheim’s film found a friend using both his own whistling and the wind blowing past a moving car window to create a lively improvisation on the harmonica over the course of a 10-minute reel of 16mm film, while Rousseau goes for stasis and permits himself the occasional edit. He walks out of a clearing where the camera is fixed and is swallowed up by the woods that surround it, whistling Fréhel all the while. (The title of his most famous film, The Enclosed Valley, could be used as a descriptor for this location’s isolated appearance.) Gravel underfoot adds a steady rhythm, birds provide a call-and-response of sorts, and the song’s volume fluctuates as Rousseau seems to disappear into the void of the trees and then returns. His tune carries us into a fade to black before dissolving back into the scene, and the whistling concludes as we stare into the darkening, vacant woods — perhaps the fade to black hasn’t quite worn off. A final fade and return transitions us into the curious finale: a slightly different angle on the same scene, with Rousseau reappearing. There is no more musical accompaniment, but sounds of people offscreen can be faintly heard. If playing someone else’s pop tune could attract people, we’d all be sirens, and Rousseau’s miniature shivers with the anticipation and longing of such a fantasy. ANDREW REICHEL

Credit: Courtesy

Credit: Courtesy of the artist/Vitamin Creative Space

The Periphery of the Base

Mixed media artist Zhou Tao’s new film, The Periphery of the Base, playing now at Cinéma du Réel and totalling just 53 minutes across a series of long takes, functions in phases. In the early going, the camera’s operation, which is credited to Zhou (as is the film’s editing), feels alternately mechanical and organic. Movement, zoom, and focus all shift, and whether with the broad actions of automation or the palpable twitch of human touch, there is an overwhelming precision. As this oscillation occurs, there is another one in subject. Sometimes, the camera’s aim seems attached to the people around the titular base, a nebulous infrastructure project, but at other times, it feels more attuned to the landscape, or even entirely aimless. These two alternations have an intrinsic connection — for one, each has humanism as one of its poles — but their phases are out of shift, resulting in a fascinating interference pattern. When the subject of the frame is human, this means Zhou flits between the recognizable aesthetics of surveillance and voyeurism. But with these two unsynced waves of the film’s first movement, he is able to explore not only the interval between these two aesthetics, but a largely unfamiliar plane constructed from interval’s orthogonal. These hints of identification serve only to further defamiliarize the alien terrain Zhou explores both literally and aesthetically.

The same effect takes place with the film’s dialogue, which seems to have been captured at a distance, perhaps by a shotgun mic, and is thus obstructed by passing trucks, just as the image is. The film’s longest dialogue sequence takes place across a single shot of two men on a meal break, and though their grousing about an inept and unproductive manager is imminently recognizable, a story one of the men tells involving a baby goose that seems to emerge dead several times from its egg is rendered fable-like by the visual/aural interruptions.

In the film’s second half, Zhou embraces abstraction. As a sandstorm seems to necessitate adjustment of exposure, contrast, and color temperature, he also pushes the zoom and focus to their extremes. The oscillation is now elementally visual; at one point a series of red lights rendered as broad discs flash on and off, their phases, again, out of sync. As the film’s figures — humans, animals, machines, the land and the sky — are rendered more and more indistinguishable, mere forms, it becomes more and more enchanting. The recognizable aesthetic, which the film still exists more around than within, is no longer surveillance or voyeurism but the abstract avant-garde. The infrastructure project the film takes as its top-level subject is inconceivable; the press notes make no attempt to describe or determine it. Neither description nor determination is the film’s project either. Faced with an unrepresentable subject, Zhou chooses to represent unrepresentability. JESSE CATHERINE WEBBER

The Garden Cadences

Dane Komljen’s previous film, Afterwater (2022), is a triptych exploring the boundaries of humanity’s relationship with gender and the environment. It begins with an observational segment quietly following a couple who work in a lab and then go out to a lake, then freely adapts the text of a Spanish novel, and ends with an abstract science fiction sequence which imagines a future where the binaries of gender and civilization-nature are dissolved.

The Garden Cadences is, in a sense, an answer to the speculative question posed by the final section of that earlier film. Technically a documentary, it shows the lives and environment of a queer feminist collective called the Mollies, living communally in a trailer park on the outskirts of Berlin. They’ve been there a decade, and it’s the final summer before they’re evicted to make way for a new aquarium. Construction has already begun. At a glance, the film resembles some of the works from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab in its borrowing from slow cinema, the avant-garde, and varied camera equipment to immersively document its subject. But where the SEL films seek to expand the vocabulary of documentary filmmaking into the experiential, Komljen makes little or no distinction between documentary and fiction, narrative and abstraction, using all of these as tools to explore his ideas. 

Indeed, the constructed and temporal nature of such boundaries of identity is one such theme, and The Garden Cadences suggests their dissolution. The human subjects are mostly not named, and we learn little about them. Several shots are of bodies intertwined and interacting, others emphasize the flowers and other plants that cover the physical environment. What little dialogue is featured concerns the influence of nature on human life through astrology, or the fluidity and transience of place as people move about with no permanent home. The film’s most memorable sequence is a series of mostly out-of-focus close shots of flowers, the camera pushing slowly through bushes in an abstract evolution of shape and color.

Unlike the future imagined by Afterwater, the reality shown here is doomed to end. Cranes and the sounds of construction loom over almost every scene, never in focus but always threatening to disrupt this fragile utopia. The Mollies have tried to carve out a space that imagines a better world, but the logic of capitalism permits no exceptions. ALEX FIELDS

Credit: Kevin Jerome Everson/Trilobite Arts DAC/Picture Palace Pictures

Marbled Golden Eyes

Kevin Jerome Everson sprays out films like a machine gunner, but he’s got a sniper’s aim. Marbled Golden Eyes, his latest documentary portrait about an everyday African American, is of the zoologist Maya Perry, who currently works with amphibians such as the Puerto Rican crested toad at the Detroit Zoo after a 30-year career. Her words on the soundtrack neatly provide the story of her career path — she didn’t like chemistry and became a zoologist rather than a veterinarian; she currently works with amphibians because she’s gotten older and it’s easier to deal with slower-moving species — and daily quirks, such as how she feeds the animals and which ones draw the biggest crowds. One could say she takes center stage, but the camera generally doesn’t see the need to focus on her. Everson’s use of black-and-white and a handheld camera with a long lens means that Perry and her workspace are turned into a blur of reflections produced by glass tanks filled with inky water, and the pure glow of office lights shining down from above. We get a better look at her glasses and her gloved hands than her face: she’s observing and working, doing the behind-the-scenes, day-by-day operations to help the animals and, we learn, restoring the crested toads to the wild by the tens of thousands.

The movie bookends itself with people enjoying the sight of silly-looking giraffes in the open air: the fun side of going to the zoo, while workers like Perry do their jobs in the shadows to keep the less cinematic animals around. (The Puerto Rican crested toad’s tadpoles are just barely visible, looking more like dirt on the tank’s walls than anything dynamic, and the adults and their striking eyes that inspired the title are nowhere to be seen.) When she states matter-of-factly that her favorite animals are whichever ones she’s currently working with, it’s a small thesis statement on Everson’s consistent commitment to showing African American professionals of all stripes locking into the groove of performing a job well done. A more conventionally shot documentary about Perry would have made her small everyday heroisms more immediately comprehensible, but Everson’s own eyes are more inclined to hunt for the obscurities that make the work exciting for being a little more incomprehensible to us. Most of us will never see a Puerto Rican crested toad (or know it if we have), but isn’t it nice to know they’re around?  ANDREW REICHEL

Voyage à Gaza

“The word ‘Gaza’ means ‘pride’” is a statement softly uttered by Piero Usberti, whose gaze will define our capacity to witness in his feature travelogue-cum-poetic documentary, Voyage à Gaza. The complications of pride are inconclusively distilled throughout the short runtime of this project, as the sentiment of pride, as displayed through Usberti’s camera, comes enmeshed in discourse: one of despair and struggle, where both subject (the many Gazans whose silhouette against a setting sun lingers as a faculty of landscape) and observer (Usberti, of course, but us, too, the spectators) seek to commingle in apprehensive appreciation of the beauty that surrounds them. Usberti’s own attitude, as explicated in the final lines of narration, indicates a vacuum of nostalgia, a cinematic image of this beauty so often dissected from the history it extends from. Throughout the montage of his work, Usberti attempts to reconcile with these motivations that are reflexively aware of their fraught conditions, recognizing the complex of representation and its further problematization when discerned through his own positionality. And so this document becomes one constantly searching for an evasive answer, where serenity under the setting sun is eclipsed by occupation accentuated whenever these conditions of coloniality lay themselves bare. In short, Voyage à Gaza, while respectfully intrigued by the stories and experience of many young Gazans moving through the social circles of those Usberti has access to, remains caught in between states of documentation, unsure what the footage means, can do, or has use for. It’s a film that projects itself as its own specter.

Usberti is filming in 2018, amongst the Great March of Return, where weeks of peaceful protests — confronting the apartheid policy of a buffer zone along the Gaza wall blockade, where only Palestinians are not allowed to approach — are met with hundreds of dead and thousands of injured, Israeli soldiers firing brazenly at civilians with illegal bioweapons and live sniper ammunition. Moving throughout the strip, we glean short insights into an ideological perception of Gaza from its youth, one often based on an atheistic nationalism that articulates itself via a history of revolutionary theory and praxis. It should be noted that Usberti’s sporadic historical recollection is unfortunately thin in factual assertion. His simplistic account of the political processes behind the Nakba, the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, alongside the 2005 disengagement (which would lead to the 2007 blockade), is shortsightedly framed as peripheral context to contemporary circumstances. This elision plays into the agitated and amorphous character of the film as a whole, where the politics of occupation and colonialism become experiential, à la any given travelogue one might find. An elongated sequence near the end of the film, where an interview is conducted between two young Palestinian women (Sara and Jumana) and two young Palestinian men whose names aren’t mentioned, highlights this general air the film operates upon. They discuss aspirations, propaganda, the projections that orientalize and dehumanize their existences. It becomes a conversation about unknowingness, stifled mobility, and holding both despair and hope clenched in a single fist. This interview breaks down the film, with Usberti not having any role but cameraman: his poetics halt in order to convene with the dimensions of history as they unfold in the subjective plight that is Palestinian autonomy.

Incisively displayed is a focus on Gaza’s environment, prefaced with a necessarily critical eye on Zionism’s catchphrase, “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Extending from this ahistoric concept is one that also imagines Palestine as barren, as uncultivated by the indigenous populations prior to Israeli statehood. Usberti’s gaze is taken by the blooming gardens in the yards of various homes, transfixed even by northern farmlands, where crops of fresh strawberries are indulged in by parties who travel up to partake in their natural sweetness. It’s impossible not to see these images, so immediately refuting the Israeli propaganda that enables this current genocide we all witness, and not harden with rage and despondency. Israeli artillery and illegal chemical weaponry raze this land and render it inhospitable for cultivation. In understanding the current assault ongoing in the north of Gaza, where these strawberry fields once flourished, one bears witness to ecocide, to a campaign dead-set on self-destruction in the name of supremacy: the Israeli colonial project as a negation of history, of the self, and of the plurality that beckons culture and futurity. In 2024, Usberti’s voyage through Gaza is one of incommensurable images, weighed down by the destruction we now know replaces each structure from which the laughter of people emanates, where the secrets and aspirations of many are divulged in dialogue. This film’s edit was completed in September 2023, the film more readily functioning as the echo each formal choice begs us to imagine it as. But what do we do with an echo? Do we allow it to just pass us by, letting the tingle of its sonic waves course across us like the tide rolling on the sands of its beaches?  ZACHARY GOLDKIND