Thursday, March 8, 2012

This week in ones and zeros

Posted By on 03.08.12 at 03:00 PM

Claire Denis, in Suriname, shooting To the Devil
  • Claire Denis, in Suriname, shooting To the Devil
The greatest bargain of this year’s European Union Film Festival, the Jeonju Digital Project program screening on Sunday and Wednesday showcases three important filmmakers for the price of one. The annual project, launched by the Jeonju International Film Festival in 2000, commissions prominent filmmakers to produce works on digital video. This may not seem as novel today as it did 11 years ago, as digital cinema has proliferated so widely that it threatens to take over film altogether (certain recent movies, like The Social Network and Hugo, have exploited this development brilliantly). But the directors featured in this program—Claire Denis, José Luis Guerín (In the City of Sylvia), and Jean-Marie Straub—use video to make something distinctly other than films. Part of the appeal of the program is seeing how these artists address the formal properties of digital and try to personalize them.

One benefit of shooting digitally is that a director doesn’t require as large of a crew as she’d use when shooting on film. For Denis, this newfound intimacy allows her to make a movie that proceeds like a series of snapshots. Her documentary To the Devil (44 min.) deploys casual interviews and observations to consider the history of the Alukus, Africans who re-created traditional village life in French Guiana (present-day Suriname) after escaping from slavery in the 17th century. Denis rarely discusses this history directly, however. She centers her study around Jean Béna, an Aluku who recently tried to go into business as a gold prospector only to be attacked in the press by local whites (the fact that he employed illegal immigrants from Brazil didn’t help his case). Béna doesn’t appear until the final 15 minutes, but he’s the subject of discussion for most of the movie. This gives him a mythic dimension, comparable to that accorded the rarely seen African revolutionary in Denis’s White Material (2009). To the Devil might seem like a footnote to that major work, but there’s a lot happening beneath the surface. Denis continues to chart the complex interactions between colonial history and post-colonial present, and she’s such a sharp observer that she sees this exchange nearly everywhere she looks.

From Memories of a Morning
  • From Memories of a Morning
Guerín’s Memories of a Morning (45 min.) creates a similar tension between past and present, though its tone is even more low-key than that of the Denis. The movie is an oral history of a radio host and smalltime musician who committed suicide in the director’s Barcelona neighborhood in 2008. While it contains no footage of the man himself (the closest we get to him are a few photographs), Memories still presents a three-dimensional portrait of him, thanks to the varied impressions of friends, neighbors, and local store owners. Guerín elegizes his subject as a valued part of his community—and, by extension, he pays moving tribute to urban neighborhood life in general. It’s emblematic of the director’s feeling for form that the emotional content emerges directly from the offhanded nature of the production, which allows the viewer to feel like a guest in the subjects’ apartments or diners.

The program concludes with An Heir (21 min.), which finds the legendary Jean-Marie Straub using the heightened realism of video to grant immediate presence to a story written in 1903. Straub stages the story (though text would be a more accurate way of describing it, as the performers have been instructed to recite rather than act) in the Lorraine locations where author Maurice Barres lived and wrote. I find much of Straub’s work punishingly dull, and An Heir is pretty symptomatic of his approach. That’s not to say that it shirks the challenges of the Jeonju Digital Project: it’s carefully composed and as keen to the weight of history as Denis’s documentary. On a formal level, it interacts gregariously with the other shorts on the program.

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