Set Sail With Salt, Return With Sugar: The 10th Punto de Vista Documentary Film Festival of Navarra


Le Saphir de Saint-Louis

By Jay Kuehner

Relatively nascent as festivals go, Punto de Vista celebrated its tenth anniversary with an edition predicated upon the concept of time, a programmatically tautological conceit that could too easily lend itself to pejorative claims of plucking low-hanging fruit: all film, somehow, partakes of time. But how to account for, in cinematically specific terms, what makes the branch bow, the fruit retire? Pace Antonio Lopez Garcia, meticulous painter of quince as they ripen, suspend, and ultimately decay on the tree in his backyard over the course of seasons (El sol del membrillo, Victor Erice, 1992): nothing survives but a poor representation, the rotten fruit scored with the measure of white paint on its slack skin, a natural reminder of our ephemeral nature, and the nature of ephemera. “What strikes me so clearly about this thing we call time is … the print that is left like a wound on living matter, on people’s faces and on the skin of things” writes Erice in “El Latido del Tiempo” (an essay published in the festival’s companion catalogue). The spectre of Erice looms large upon the collective conscience of Spanish cinema, and his presence here was virtually implied by the Ten Years Older section; his Alumbramiento (Lifeline, 2002) was among the more inspired iterations of the anthology film, itself an homage to Franz Herz’s classic Ten Minutes Older (1978), which the festival reprised in homage.

Within this curatorial context, the cinema on offer birthed an ages-of-man corpus: a life cycle that began with Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959), in which the director famously documented his wife in labour, appeared to reach a morbid end in Sabrina Muhate’s 2014 Ulterior (which seemingly revisits the morgue of Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes [1971]) before a powerful edit transforms the film from the realm of the decidedly dead to the newly living. It was by way of such marked juxtapositions and almost imperceptible transitions that the Ten Years Older program effectively came of age on the screen. Rather than celebrating its first decade—in which the festival narrowly averted closure due to the Spanish financial crisis—with a commemorative sensibility, Punto de Vista embraced the interrogative imperative posed by cinematic time, invoking the wisdom of John Berger’s perpetual engagement with the theme: “If architecture struggles to make space more inhabitable, films seek to make time more inhabitable.”

Rarely has a film about slumber been so transfixing: Sergei Loznitsa’s Polustanok (The Train Station/The Halt, 2000) observes passengers in various states of nocturnal repose within a station, their narcoleptic state uninterrupted by the intermittent whistles of trains passing in the night, the luminescent black-and-white photography serving to enhance the oneiric spell induced in the viewer. Whether intended as a literal reflection of traveller’s fatigue or as symbolic state of social inertia in Russia, the film unwittingly hints at the reality of the filmgoing audience, heads flung back not in amazement but in aesthetically induced sopor. Michael Snow’s 1971 La Région Centrale (from which the festival’s official competition borrows its name) proved no exception, though the question is begged: Is there a film more axiomatic in its relationship to time and to space? Purely science nonfiction, La Région Centrale is cinema for attention-surfeit sufferers. Confounding the mythical status of the film as being entirely remote (in both time and place, and in its directorial will) was the presence of Snow himself, ensuring the audience that they will never have seen anything like it. The present, speaking of the past, about the future: Snow’s future perfect proposition seemed conceptually tailored to the festival’s multiple grammaticization of time (in which the present continuous, for example, was conjugated by Alfred Guzzetti’s and Kurt Stallmann’s Time Present [2013]).

While time, relatively speaking, unfolded in the parallel section, the Official Section shuffled a deck of noteworthy films which have mostly premiered elsewhere (Keywan Karimi’s Writing on the City being the exception, for which the director was sentenced to 223 lashes by the Iranian judicial system), though the notion of an odds-on favourite was provocatively skewed by last year’s awarding of the main prize to a short. Buzzed about at Rotterdam, Andres Duque’s portrait of the eccentric pianist Oleg Nikolaevitch Karavaychuk (Oleg y las raras artes) arrived with intrigue, not least for the entourage in tow to the androgynous octogenarian virtuoso, who holds the unlikely distinction of having played piano for Stalin (as a child prodigy), and later served as composer to Paradjanov and Muratova. An altogether different kind of Russian Ark (2002)—Oleg (in customary tilted red beret) roams the halls of the Hermitage, reflecting on his unorthodox career while pausing to wring anguished beauty from a most ornate baby grand—Duque’s homage transcends the seductions of quirk inherent in outsider-artist portraits. Still active at 89, and actively engaged in an artistic inquiry of Russian cultural life in the 21st century, Oleg defies the times like one who’s stepped from the pages of a Gogol novel (as per the film’s description). The reference situates him as kin to Dead Souls‘ serf Plyushkin, whose fecund garden of useless treasures is envisioned by Gogol with rapt descriptive power, much like Duque to the rare art, and dissonant presence, embodied by Oleg.

Aleksandra Maciuszek’s Casa Blanca, an intimate portrait of a mother and son in a small impoverished community within the bay of Habana, proved affecting for its unsensational treatment of disabled characters, in this case an adult named Vladimir with Down’s Syndrome, who is cared for by (and must eventually care for) his aging, ailing mother Nelsa. What could easily have been a cinematic variation on the ennobled “village idiot” stereotype is instead dignified portraiture. “Vladi” is seen presiding over his domain with inimitable verve: he prowls the neighbourhood with the local fishermen, drinking, dancing, brawling, and suffering insults that attest to his inclusion despite his seemingly unassimilable nature. The hushed moments of shared tenderness between Nelsa and Vladi—him brushing her hair, her caressing his bowed head after he’s had too much rum—create an emotionally resonant familial portrait within the inferenced ethnography of the crumbling barrio. The vulnerability of these subjects naturally invites questions about the ethical positions of documentary practice, between the threshold of observation and the violation of privacy; a question, it should be noted, that is rarely asked of films with nominally “normative” subjects.

Jakob Brossman’s Lampedusa in Winter assumed the requisite role of topical doc, with the eponymous Mediterranean island increasingly becoming an unwitting, and sometimes unwelcoming, host in the refugee crisis (the question posed of Eurocentric, liberal-leaning docs is: whose crisis?). Brossman attempts a socio-political sweep of the island in the midst of increased  migration from Africa, but the story here could be distilled down to a tale of two vessels: the boats arriving (if that) with refugees seeking a foothold in Europe, and the halted ferry service that carries the native fishermen’s catch to the mainland. The local crisis is invariably pitted against a humanitarian crisis, with a well-intentioned mayor (not unlike the filmmaker) attempting to mediate between the two. An active memorial to those who perished at sea is conceived by a local, but the film remains at a remove from the liminal reality of the refugees themselves. As the wave of migration to Europe reaches critical mass, the documentary impulse will surely rush in; Gianfranco Rosi’s similarly scaled Fire at Sea, having since won at Berlin, nevertheless begs the question of how long the DJ will play on while bones are being plucked from the shore?

A series of video diaries (organized by educator Laura Doggett) by Syrian teenage girls living in Jordan’s refugee camps offered starkly realized first-person accounts of exile. A few weeks of workshop begot what many film schools neglect: take little for granted, least not the very light beyond a meagre window frame. These are films that by nature looked out onto the world, and their collective tone of wistful speculation seemed foundational toward realizing the political dimension of the image (what might “ten years older” reveal of these nascent dispatches should such work be sustained?). This very singular power of the image, the still life in which the “tranquility of oranges” is gleaned, marked the late non-fiction work of festival tributee Jean-Daniel Pollet, self-described younger brother of the New Wave. Pollet respired cinema, subjecting his films to a process of constant rewriting, often within the work itself; repeating figures, sequences, and gestures with slight formal variations to create a “multiple view.” The best example of this would be Méditerrannée (1963), an abstract contemplation of the region’s culturally codified figures, in which the seashore, a garden, an ancient mask, a Spanish bullfight, and an anomalous operating table are strung together like words in a phrase, punctuated by the intonation of Philippe Sollers’ dissertation and a dark score by Antoine Duhamel, the camera moving as if “flying in the dark above the place of another era.” The film is clearly possessed, but toward no discernible end, a sui generis work bearing a zeitgeist literary affect.

“I don’t take photos. I inhale silence. I inhale time” declared Pollet in his posthumous 2006 documentary Jour après jour (completed after his death by friend and critic Jean Paul Fargier), a valedictory film composed entirely of photographs taken in his last days, of everyday objects in his house and surrounding garden. “Always the same topics, but not the same light” commented Fargier, such that a simple wicker basket holding two lemons, resting on a table amid birdseed and rain’s residue, is revisited time and again, with subtle shifts in temperament. The decomposing flora of his final film contrasts starkly with the decaying visage of leper Raimondaki in L’Ordre (1974), though both take equal measure of the ravages of time, at home and in the world (Pollet was struck by a train while filming in 1989, leaving him paralyzed and subsequently housebound thereafter). Situated thematically between the charged melancholy of the former and the structural opacity of the latter, Pollet registered two poetically pragmatic bulletins on hard labour, the foundry-set Pour mémoire (1979) and the maritime Les morutiers (1966), a Leviathan (2012) of its time, with Pollet abiding the tension between mechanized and hand labour aboard a cod trawler in the Arctic. “I immersed myself in the heart of the boat just as in any other heart, and I stopped feeling like a director” proclaimed Pollet, anticipating a praxis of today’s more enlightened forms of nonfiction filmmaking.

Jela Hasler’s The Meadow (winner, best short) is discreet to the point of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it revelation; cows grazing with typical languor in the amber-hued countryside suggest a nature doc on Ruminantia. Nothing but sky on the horizon, until an explosion interrupts the bucolic idyll, portending the hostilities of civilization. The undisclosed location is in fact the Golan Heights, its contested history presumably irrelevant to these cud-chewers. An inadvertent Israeli western with Biblical cows, or really just a film about a meadow? Both it and Xacio Baño’s Eco (programmed out of competition in the native X Films section) maximize minor constructs with an efficiency of means, and reveal emerging talents to watch (take note of the respective premieres at Locarno). Baño’s forte here and with the previous Ser y voltar is catching a memorial drift within domesticity; Echo glimpses a couple, the actor Xosé Barato and his girlfriend Rocío, packing up a home in Galicia in which his mother lived, and they unsuspectingly tap a well of untold history in the discovery of her diaries. “1992 started badly. And who knows how it’s going to end,” she writes, along the way noting films she watched, high blood pressure, dreams of eggs, and a sense of distance from her husband. Has her voice been stolen, as per the Greek myth? Or does it resound in the floorboards, the kitchen tile, the empty wall on which a lone picture hangs?

If a single frame of film became a portal to the intrigue of José Luis Guerín’s Tren de sombras (1997), it was an ex-voto in the chapel of Saint Louis in La Rochelle that compelled the director to uncover a similarly unofficial history, “hidden” in plain sight within the medium itself. Where in the former a heightened scrutiny of the image revealed a dangerous liaison among an aristocratic family, in the painting of Le Saphir we are witness to what at first appears as a triumph of the merchant navy but is steadily revealed—under Guerín’s concentrated gaze, a condemning voiceover by André Wilms (see also Aki Kaurismäki), and a seafaring score by Jorge Arriagada (see also Raúl Ruiz)—to be the inherent crime scene of an 18th-century slave ship. The painting’s caption speaks in supplicant tones of a ship, loaded with slaves from Guinea and Santa Domingo, “becalmed” after months of navigation, but Guerín’s investigation betrays the nominal safe passage to reveal a boat unblessed, rife with sickness and mutiny. Can a simple brushstroke historically contribute to the indignities suffered by slaves? For a short film commissioned by La Rochelle Film Festival, Le Saphir de Saint Louis finds Guerín in heady, inspired form.

For a festival that evinces curatorial intent down to its trailer (a Dutch landscape postcard that appears to have caught a breeze in its trees, courtesy of Belgian provocateur David Claerbout) to its awards ceremony (in which the old lobby piano from Hemingway’s haunt the Perla was dragged on stage), Punto de Vista at ten looks, however wise beyond its years, more present continuous than future perfect.