Credit: FIDMarseille
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

FIDMarseille 2024: Dispatch 2 — Lichens Are the Way, Merman, Every Document of Civilization

July 5, 2024

Lichens Are the Way

As documentaries go, the subject of plant life tends to suffer from a lack of tangible movement. Inertia, ascribed to the slow-moving, still hearkens back to the animate, whereas vegetative existence — although a step up from the mineral — takes stillness to be the norm, and movement its exception. Rocks, ferns, mushrooms, the like: to casual observers, these pale in comparison to the compelling narratives of survival, shot with breathtaking intimacy, on Animal Planet or National Geographic. But they too offer insight, if not into vivid spectacles of evolution armed and sped-up, then at least in and of themselves. 2014’s The Creeping Garden, for starters, dug into the reclusive world of slime mold; Last Things, Deborah Stratman’s 2023 meditation on extinction, does so through the humble if enduring existence of the rock.

With Lichens Are The Way, director Ondřej Vavrečka attempts something a little more than mere fact-telling. For one, its subject matter — the hardy, perpetual lichen — isn’t strictly a plant; it’s the curious synthesis, or more accurately symbiosis, between plant and fungal life. Algae, with chloroplasts and thus able to photosynthesize, provide carbohydrates for the superstructure it nests within, while the partner fungi are the former’s superstructure, safeguarding fragile plant matter from the elements and also sustaining it through the moisture and other nutrients they draw. With the scientific pleasantries out of the way, Vavrečka proceeds to fashion a more ambitious thesis situating the lichen’s symbiotic relationship alongside humanity’s own with its environment. “They’re not a culture of more; they’re a culture of enough,” argues one of the film’s two narrators, the lichenologist Trevor Goward. (The other is Trevor’s partner, Curtis Randall Björk, and between them are 10 full acres of land on which several species of lichens, among other plants, grow.)

There’s an intimate quality to the film’s approach, whose economical runtime (at just 43 minutes) manages nonetheless to articulate a quiet ecological wisdom. Humanity, convinced of both its evolutionary superiority and incessant demand for resources, sees the world as its own preserve and a playground for unlimited exploitation. Against this anthropocentric individualism, Lichens Are The Way posits a more deferential attitude of our constituent parts to nature’s whole. Contrasting the average leaf which “grows” with the lichen which “is built,” Goward and Björk suggest that a more reflexive stance toward our environment, akin to a conversation between partners on equal footing, might pave the titular way for a more sustainable future. Avid cinephiles may have come across Bas Devos’ Here (2023), a film about chance encounters bookended by clumps of fresh moss. But whereas moss figures in Devos’ film as a narrative device at best, Vavrečka’s charming — if equally slight — documentary frames the lichen in all its simplicity as the possible centerpiece for a time to come. MORRIS YANG


Credit: FIDMarseille

Merman

What is the difference between a filmmaker and a filmer? Watching archival films assembled from home movies, it’s difficult to escape the long shadow of Jonas Mekas — a man who did not view his work as artistic, but compelled by a “necessity” to move forward, to keep recording. With her latest film, Merman, Romanian filmmaker Ana Lungu delves into an archive of 8mm left behind by her uncle, Alexandru P. With footage ranging from WWII to just past the Romanian revolution in 1989, Lungu organizes and narrates an imagined life for a man who would otherwise be lost to time. His personal films cover his trips and his romances, with fleeting hints of Méliés. Lungu’s voice, a poetic monotone, blends history and imagination to put into focus a man who was a passionate communist, a musician, and a great lover. While Alexandru appears sometimes in his own films, Lungu is more fascinated by his role behind it: why did he pick up a camera and decide to shoot what he did?

Unlike Mekas, who filmed and edited his own work, thereby structuring it (though, if you were to believe him, often with a certain randomness), Lungu enters as a mediator. The footage doesn’t reflect Alexandru’s perspective, despite being composed of his images. Looking through the collection of images he amassed over his life, Lungu puts forth a structure built around the women of his life — many of whom were only vaguely known by the filmmaker. Imposing this reading on the footage becomes ethically dubious, something that Lungu seems well-aware of. It strips the film of its nostalgia and also its specificity, rendering it from mere filmed images into art.

As fiction imposes itself on these tapes, the fiction of our lives comes into clearer focus. On one hand, it’s clear to see how the imposed reality of Lungu’s filmmaking might find parallels in the way Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime framed a new reality. We see this especially in the sojourns into the uncle’s vaguely pornographic tapes: images of lovers nude, lounging, and open, only vaguely pornographic by our terms but potentially punishable by prison time in the oppressive Romanian state. Through his unpracticed lens, we sense both curiosity and love in his lingering gaze. While his camera pauses on breasts, butts, and vulvas, there’s a sense of curiosity rather than titillation driving his camera. The women, while nude, remain anonymous; only through Lungu’s montage, which offers up a series of portraits (as well as gardens full of flowers), do they come into human focus.

Overflowing with ambiguity and dubiousness, these erotically charged images become the film’s strongest part. Lungu’s new ownership over these black-and-white bodies, mostly shot over 60 years ago, feels both radical in its rebuttal of censorship and transgressive in its infringement on privacy. While the personal archival documentary is hardly anything new, she pushes the boundaries of ethical acceptability in her approach. It complicates the way we see her uncle’s images, as his voice gets lost in the shuffle. The filmmaker’s elliptical approach to the narration further complicates his sense of self, as he becomes more obscured as the film goes on. It becomes increasingly clear that what he sees doesn’t necessarily reflect what he thinks. Lungu’s context transforms them into something new.

Much of the rest of the film lingers on questions of art and artistry. Through the narration, we learn that Alexandru felt that people became more cultured through communism, but the culture suffered. We learn of his desire to be liked, to be important. He was a musician, though one who would likely be lost to history, if it were not for his niece’s revival of his archive. Yet, even while immortalizing him through her film, Lungu erases her uncle from it. Who we see is not the real man; we get little sense of his art or talent. His legacy becomes crowded with limitations and the imposition of other voices; the government first, and then later his own blood.

The film’s original title, Triton, refers to an irregular musical interval that inspires dissonance and tension. While most pieces of music that employ a tritone often circle back toward some musical resolution, it’s unclear if Merman ever reconciles the film’s various tensions. As a reflection on Romania, the film seems to suggest that the anxieties of the dictatorship that fell 35 years ago remain thorny, a tangle of values and questions still largely unresolved. JUSTINE SMITH


Every Document of Civilization

The haunting lack of something or someone is ever-present in Tatiana Mazú González’s Every Document of Civilization. We first hear two female voices — presumably González’s and her subject’s — preparing for an interview centered around the woman’s son. But they can’t seem to find a “beginning” to her version of his story. Neither, seemingly, can filmic images: the screen remains blank as González tries to understand what approach suits her interviewee best. Once the narration stops, though, we get two establishing shots that, on the one hand, clearly mimic the POV of someone staring out into the distance through their window, but also make you realize the framing around said window. The low-intensity blur filter, in particular, noticeably fuzzies the edges of the image, distorting its otherwise sharp, documentarian naturalism; there isn’t any voiceover here to explain its overt construction away. Then, hard cut to concrete clarity — a document titled “General Paz Avenue: Design and Layout,” published in 1936. What does this have to do with the boy’s story though? Still, no voiceover. Then, a series of nighttime establishing shots, presumably of this avenue and of the “District of La Matanza.” Why? Still no voiceover. 15 minutes pass before we finally hear Mónica Raquel Alegre begin to detail the tragic story of her teenage son, Luciano Arrugo, tortured before being forced to disappear and killed by the Buenos Aires state police. But now, the accompanying images disappear into the darkness.

This constant disjunct between image and sound is, in many ways, representative of the distance between Luciano and his mother, reality and remembrance. González recognizes this and utilizes it to its fullest in the film’s opening 45 minutes: the lack of logical explanation for its repetitive, disruptive, and at times boldly fantastical form feels like the most natural embodiment of unimaginable, almost unrepresentable personal grief that endures. The remaining 45 minutes require González and her subject, Mónica, to move out of this dark, though, closer to a space where one can at least see the possibility of reconciliation — between image and sound, reality and remembrance. This push toward bright light, through collective resistance against the Stat, is less believable, but that’s also because González realizes that doing so does not alleviate the pain already inflicted. The lack feels permanent in Every Document of Civilization, then. At least much more so than civility. DHRUV GOYAL


Credit: FIDMarseille

The Ballad of Suzanne Cesaire

Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich’s new film can only be described as experimental. It doesn’t just explore the legacy of Martinican writer Suzanne Roussi-Césaire, an intellectual whose ideas and achievements have largely been eclipsed by those of her husband, post-colonial poet and theorist Aimé Césaire. The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire is also a meta-filmic commentary on the process of reconstructing history’s incomplete record. Hunt-Ehrlich frequently breaks the frame, showing us the process by which she and her actors are constructing 1930s Martinique with limited cinematic means. (The film was actually shot in Florida.) We are also kept guessing as to whether the performers onscreen are representing Suzanne and Aimé, or themselves as actors within Hunt-Ehrlich’s project.

This slipperiness is clearly by design. One of the theses of Ballad is that Suzanne Césaire might have achieved much more as a writer were she not a mother of six. This conundrum — the fact that motherhood is time-consuming even as it affords a mother unique human insights — attains another layer of meaning when we learn that the actress playing Suzanne has taken the role three months after the birth of her own child. This performer, Zita Henrot, is never addressed by name, and so the film strongly suggests that Henrot is playing a character (the actress) who is playing yet another character (Suzanne Césaire). Motell Foster, who appears as Aimé, is similarly multiplied.

Suzanne Césaire, we are told, published only seven essays in her lifetime, essentially giving up her career as a writer in 1945. So to a great extent, The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire is both an intellectual reclamation project and a speculative fiction, asking us to consider what this woman might have accomplished under different circumstances. This accounts for the fragmentation and mise en abyme that characterizes the film.

But despite these non-traditional methods, there is something very familiar about The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire. This metatextual approach has been applied many times before by filmmakers working to supplement a culturally incomplete historical record. Hunt-Ehrlich’s slow, deliberate pace and the often declamatory performances she elicits from her actors immediately recall postcolonial cinematic experiments from the 1980s and ‘90s, in particular the films made by the Black Audio Film Collective, its former member John Akomfrah, and others who took inspiration from the Black Audio project, including Isaac Julien, Ngozi Onwurah, and more recently Ephraim Asili.

While this observation hardly detracts from the work that Hunt-Ehrlich has produced, it does raise the question of whether, and at what point, bold formal techniques become standardized, perhaps even just another genre. We understand that we’re in the midst of a major wave of what, for lack of better terms, have been called experimental documentaries. But this field is so broad that it has developed into sub-categories, one of which — the Brechtian historiographic metafiction — is almost immediately recognizable.

With roots in Black Audio and Trinh T. Minh-ha, this style has even achieved a measure of commercial success in films like Asmae El Modir’s The Mother of All Lies and Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters. And this, unfortunately, leads one to ask: are these tactics really applicable to so many historically and culturally specific subjects? And, if the methodology is so endlessly iterable, can it really be called experimental? MICHAEL SICINSKI


Before It’s Too Late

Mathieu Amalric is undoubtedly best known to audiences as one of the finest French actors of his generation, having maintained a fascinating career now spanning several decades but perhaps most notable for numerous collaborations with filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin (as well as occasional forays into the American mainstream, including an appearance as a Bond villain and a Spielberg blockbuster). But for all his work in front of the camera, Amalric has also long sustained a simultaneous presence behind it as well, directing both fiction films as well as numerous documentaries. Amalric seems to have a special affinity for documenting artists at work; he has made films about cartoonist Joann Sfar, a trilogy of works on John Zorn, and two non-fiction shorts on singer Barbara Hannigan. It was this pre-existing relationship with Hannigan that led Amalric to collaborate with the renowned Emerson String Quartet, the subject of his latest film, Before It’s Too Late. The members of the quartet — Eugene Drucker (violin); Philip Setzer (violin); Lawrence Dutton (viola), and Paul Watkins (cello) — have decided to record one final album to cap off a 47-year run, after which they will retire and largely go their separate ways. Hannigan is invited to provide vocal accompaniment, and Amalric and his (very small) crew are on hand to document the rehearsal and recording process.

The result is a brief film (64 minutes) that eschews the most familiar forms of this sort of documentary in favor of a series of intimate encounters. There are no talking head interviews, no walls of text imparting bibliographical or historical information, no fawning admirers explaining why, exactly, this quarter is so important or so beloved. Instead, there is only the work itself. Indeed, Amalric seems interested only in the process, not the product. To that end, we learn about these people only through their work, which turns out to be a difficult yet joyous affair. Someone unfamiliar with the Quartet (like this writer) will still walk away from the film with a real sense of these people’s history, their easygoing, laid-back camaraderie and sense of humor, but also with a fastidious attention to detail (the men stop several times to discuss a beat, or a rhythm, or a specific note). For her part, Hannigan comes across as a real ham, constantly cracking jokes and generally goofing around for the camera. Of course, once the recording starts, she’s all business, her lovely voice adding a lovely heft to the proceedings.

As the film begins, Amalric is heard off-screen speaking to his sound engineer, Guido Tichelman. They are discussing the small cameras they are using, and how a small, red light is the indicator that they are up and recording. Tichelman then casually mentions the film’s primary tension; he says that his joy comes from his ears while Amalric’s stems from his eyes. Before It’s Too Late becomes, thus, an exploration of the differences between these two modes, but also their synthesis, the pleasures of the image and the music coming together to accentuate each other. This is a small, even minor film, perhaps even a “fan only” endeavor. But its pleasures are myriad.   DANIEL GORMAN


Credit: FIDMarseille/Jacques Rozier

Du Côté d’Orouët

The premise is familiar: three young women spend their holiday by the sea, relaxing, flirting, and drinking; Jacques Rozier fertilizes this unremarkable narrative turf with a freewheeling spirit and melancholic edge in his second feature, Du Côté d’Orouët, premiering at 2024 FiDMarseille in a new 4K restoration. Made just a few years after the tumult of May 1968, Du Côté d’Orouët exists in between the end and the beginning of what the film never explicitly says; but this invigorating expression of female friendship remains, through its specificity of character and place (and over 50 years after its original release), a prescient comment on a generation searching for escape and getting mixed results.

The film starts in sanitized, contemporary Paris. Office workers in carefully manicured outfits dutifully type away about nothing in particular for a wet rag of a boss, Gilbert (Bernard Menez). One of the employees, Joelle (Daniele Croisy), heads for lunch with her friend Caroline (Caroline Cartier), with whom she and another friend, Kareen (Francoise Geugan), are about to go on summer vacation. Gilbert implicates himself in their lunch plans, not predatorily but clumsily, a less-than-dignified air of flirtatious desperation infusing his bumbling presence in their idle conversation. They’re to stay at the empty villa belonging to Caroline’s aunt, an hour west of Nantes. It’s almost October, Gilbert says. It will be too cold and unpleasant. It doesn’t matter to them.

Their three weeks by the sea embody a kind of utopian ideal. While lateness of the season, the often-rotten weather, and the lack of other people (perhaps an upside to some) casts the town in a decrepit shadow, the trio eagerly forges ahead, like pioneers of the Summer holiday who have found virgin territory along a hidden path. Rozier directs his actors with an attentive but non-intrusive eye, following Caroline, Joelle, and Kareen’s eating, drinking, and merriment in long improvisational scenes. Unencumbered by the rules of polite society, they occupy the empty villa in childish reverie, gorging themselves on wine and pastries, screaming and running around the villa like hyperactive children. The girls are more than enough to fill every space they enter.

It would be easy to compare Rozier’s film to his contemporaries, particularly — in its milieu of female friendship and summer holidays — to Jacques Rivette and Éric Rohmer. There’s something of the former’s Celine and Julie Go Boating here, a receptiveness to the whims of both the universe and of its characters’ impulses, a sense of play and adventure that guides them like an invisible hand. While this doesn’t traverse planes of reality as with Rivette’s film (which arrived three years after Rozier’s), there is an endearing kinship between the two in the way it portrays female friendship as a constant volley of trust, irritation, intimacy, and silliness.

But such comparisons, which could also include Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse or Love in the Afternoon, don’t account for Du Côté d’Orouët’s more explicit symbolism for a generation in search of quick pleasures and new beginnings. The ocean has always represented potential and escape for Rozier, before this film and certainly after (in The Castaways of Turtle Island); here, it represents, almost too literally, the end of the world, in which these women — rendered almost completely childlike by lack of obligation — set up a new one for themselves with tenuous rules. The vacation now becomes a kind of social experiment. The actors’ complete freedom in their movement and behavior is textual as well as subtextual, and on a filmmaking level facilitates a documentary feel. The film refuses to define any one of the girls as a protagonist, and instead allows its restless energy to generate a communal perspective that even incorporates Gilbert’s (who shows up under the false pretense of stopping one night in the beach seaside town on the way to a friend’s house), as he tries, unsuccessfully, to flirt with Joelle.

This isn’t to say the film is without tension or conflict. The communal utopia the girls have set up for themselves, as we expect, comes crashing down. The once youthful energy that propelled the film’s beginning washes away upon the introduction of Patrick (Patrick Verde), a handsome local sailor. His presence forces ego and romantic feeling, as with Gilbert like an uninvited guest, into the small social container the girls have created for themselves. Kareen likes Patrick, Patrick likes Caroline, Joelle hates Gilbert, and Kareen feels bad for Gilbert. What remains in the end, after Kareen goes home early, is a melancholic hangover.

Summer is long over when the group is back in Paris. Thoughts inevitably turn to next year’s adventure. We see Gilbert and another female office worker chatting together over lunch, sharing stories of their summer and ideas for the next. Joelle, one table over, is barely able to contain her delight watching Gilbert put a desperately positive spin on his humiliating, rejection-filled summer vacation. Hopeful thoughts turned to the future, to the next hope-filled holiday by the sea, invite us into an elliptical trance. In post-’68 France, Rozier, an iconoclast and cult figure among the familiar class of French New Wave heroes such as Godard, Truffaut, and Rohmer, made a generation-defining film, a satirical, symbolic, yet strikingly familiar story of a nascent society: the structures that form it, allow it to change, the conflicts that bring it swiftly down, and the impulses that encourage it to rebound. It’s the perfect story for a country still in the emotional wake of a political uprising. CHRIS CASSINGHAM


Flamenco

The cinema of Jean-Claude Rousseau is one inexorably tied to its architecture — whether natural or forged — and one whose structural nature makes full use of film’s power to distort elements of time and space, as in his latest, Flamenco. The film is constructed similarly to many other late Rousseau shorts, with the noted exception of its actual content, which feels like a radical change to the filmmaker’s perspective and energy, a decidedly late period work which integrates new technologies and an until now unknown ecstaticism.

Flamenco music and a ballroom waltz greet the audience before the main act: intermittent black screens interrupt action which takes place in a hotel room, a quotidian event for any Rousseau fan. The room is roughly divided into three planes of action whose relation to time is ever-changing and interconnected. On the right is a man pressed against an obscure glass pane, whose slow, definitively solitary movement suggests a form of self-pleasure or possible anguish; in the middle, a white wall which is used as a canvas on which Rousseau digitally layers apparent phone footage of a woman flamenco dancing. A flamenco soundtrack cuts in and out as does the flamenco performance, though their entrances and exits rarely overlap. The man in the “window” continues his “dance” in partnership with the phantom flamenco dancer, before he and the dancer disappear and Rousseau himself fades into view in the center, appearing out of thin air as if manifested. He wanders and leaves through a door on the left side of the room, which is now used for the first time.

Rousseau’s black screen plays the role of timekeeper, as each cut represents a jump to a new moment, though there’s no easy way to tell what is the past and the future until the complete picture is formed. Non-diegetic sound and images of flamenco complicate what is otherwise a simple story, and form a twist in Rousseau’s filmography that’s not easy to parse. It’s a film that demands at least one repeat viewing to completely grasp on a narrative level, and untold viewings to understand beyond that. It feels like an homage to the origins of cinema, when lenses were naturally attracted to the whirlwind, dynamistic movement of the flamenco dancer — from Thomas Edison’s Carmencita (1894) to Carlos Saura’s Flamenco trilogy (1981, 1983, 1986) all the way to Rousseau’s latest. JOSHUA PEINADO


Credit: FIDMarseille