Essay: Thierry Garrel - Two Cats, An Owl and a Lot of Nice Human Beings

Essay: Thierry Garrel - Two Cats, An Owl and a Lot of Nice Human Beings

French French program was curated by Thierry Garrel. Read his essay below and learn more about the screenings and events here.

The Gallic rooster is back at DOXA! This third edition of FRENCH FRENCH includes a selection of new auteur documentaries, as well as an eclectic retrospective of the work of Chris Marker — “The most famous of unknown filmmakers.”

Chris Marker was both a world traveller and a time traveller. Throughout his peripatetic life, he remained largely a secret cinéaste, although his name and his films (La Jetée/The Jetty, or Sans soleil, which ranked third in Sight & Sound’s poll of the greatest documentaries ever made) have influenced generations of filmmakers.

Three years after the retrospective at Centre Pompidou, organized after his death (he died on his 91st birthday), and in advance of the Cinémathèque française’s encompassing multimedia event planned for May 2018, I am proud to present to Vancouver audiences, 7 FOIS CHRIS MARKER, a selection of Marker’s rarely screened films. The timing is curious, and like so much of Chris’s work, serendipitously entwined with our current moment in history.

Long considered the inventor of the film essay, Marker is a master of editing and narration. Nowhere is this more evident than in Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (The Last Bolshevik) (1993), that depicts the life and work of Russian film director Alexander Medvedkin (1900-1989). Epic in scope – covering a century of the Soviet Union and the failure of communism – the film is also replete with Marker’s inimitable humour and whimsy. The intermission features his beloved orange cat, “Guillaume-en-Egypte” listening to music by Catalan composer Mompou.

Among the unique and compelling films produced for cultural television, is the legendary series L’Héritage de la chouette (The Owl’s Legacy) (1989). Banned for a quarter of a century, the series explores the shadow cast over our civilization by Ancient Greece. Organized as a kind of platonic banquet of artists, philosophers and scientists, the series demonstrates proficiency in pairing TV and intelligence. It is here in all its joyful, cantankerous, wine-soaked wisdom. A feast!

From the collection Cinéma, de notre temps/Cinema, of Our Time, comes the little known and splendid Une Journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch (One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich) (1999). The film is devoted to the Russian master and Marker’s good friend Andrei Tarkovsky, who found shelter in France at the end of his life, and died when he was completing the editing of his last movie, The Sacrifice.

Le Souvenir d’un avenir (Remembrance of Things to Come) (2001), codirected with Yannick Bellon, is based on the work of photographer Denise Bellon (1902-1999). A pioneer in photojournalism in the 30’s and 40’s, Bellon was friends with the leading members of the surrealist movement, including Salvador Dali, André Breton, and Marcel Duchamp. Composed of still images, stitched together with Alexandra Stewart’s calm and measured narration, it is the documentary soul sister of La Jetée, and a very French journey in time “where each of the photos shows the past, yet deciphers the future.”

With Presidential elections taking place in France and provincial elections in BC this May, it is appropriate to (re)discover Marker’s epic film essay, Le Fond de l’air est rouge (A Grin Without a Cat). A monumental elegiac archival fresco, masterfully edited, the film was completed forty years ago, and reedited by Marker in 1993. The film revisits the global political turmoil of the 60’s and 70’s in two sections: hope (Part One: Fragile Hands), and disillusionment (Part Two: Severed Hands). Throughout this welter of images, snatches, and fragments of history, is Marker’s authorial voice — literate, cogent and cultured, brilliantly digressive and associative, and at the same time witty, tender and humanist.

Chats perchés (The Case of the Grinning Cat) (2004), Marker’s last film, dizzily combines a yearly diary about political events and demonstrations in Paris, with poetic excursions triggered by an enigmatic smiling yellow cat tagged on Parisian walls. “Thank you, cats. We will badly need you wherever we go!”

As an opening to this retrospective, Chris Marker, Never Explain, Never Complain (2016), by Jean-Marie Barbe and Arnaud Lambert, portrays the cinéaste and his works through the testimonies of seven people who knew him and worked with him – including Wim Wenders, Patricio Guzman, and … yours truly, as I had the privilege to collaborate on the production side while working for French Television at INA, La Sept and ARTE, with all the films presented!

A roaming, dreamy POV shot of the suburbs of Paris swoops into the open window of a young boy. A fractured, fragmented travelling sequence shot in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan. A rolling oceanic tempest edited into a mesmerizing hypnotic loop. These are some of the startling images from this year’s selection of new French documentaries. Each of these films embodies the current trend of documentary: back to cinema itself and peculiar écritures, be it through cinematography, reenactment, narration, sound and image interplay, music, silence and mise en scène.

All deal with the human condition, with the goal to share intimacy and restore dignity through the richness and power of cinematic language. These ordinary people, often teenagers or young adults coping with life, love, and exile, are revealed to be the heroes of our time. The films don’t serve any cause. They simply attempt to capture the essential vibration of life.

Alice Diop’s film Vers la tendresse (Towards Tenderness) (recently awarded a César for Short Documentary) is a profoundly empathetic but unvarnished examination of the sexuality of young men stuck in the quartiers. Elegant in its construction, but filled with searing grief, pain and vulnerability. In Swagger, director Olivier Babinet sublimates the hopes and dreams of a dozen boys and girls who live in the Aulnay-sous-Bois project (coincidentally enough, the same housing project where Alice Diop grew up). Spilling over with hope, anguish and the manic joy that is adolescence, Swagger is a pulsing, throbbing cinematic explosion.

Maki Berchache and Nathalie Nambot’s Brûle la mer/Burn the Sea tells the story of young Tunisians who fled their country after the fall of dictator Ben Ali. Torn between their motherland and France, where they remain unwanted guests, their stories are captured with delicacy and cinematic bravery in 16mm and 8mm (!)

In Être-Cheval (Horse-Being), director Jérôme Clément-Wilz follows a transgender ex-school teacher named Karen in her initiation/quest to accomplish her fantasies. On a Virginia farm, Karen engages in “pony play” – a ritual of domination and submission between a trainer and a trainee, involving harnesses, hooves and bridling. Despite its potentially salacious topic, the film is elegant, mournful, and deeply human.

Anthropologist and filmmaker Eliane de Latour tenderly captures the life of the Go in the ghettos of Abidjan in Little Go Girls. The young women utilize their bodies as cash machines, in the hope of gaining some measure of freedom. Without pathos or sentiment, the film is also an attempt to create a small “casa” community between the filmmaker and her subjects.

After a retrospective of her work at DOXA 2016, Claire Simon is back with her new film Le Concours (The Graduation), awarded at the Venice Film Festival, and newly released in theatres across France. The film plunges into the very heart of the comprehensive selection process for candidates applying to La Fémis, one of the most prestigious cinema schools in the world. (Simon has been Head of Directing Studies for several years.) Without any commentary, and paradoxically shot in an almost Wisemanian vérité style, the film looks with empathy at the applicants, as well as the members of the juries. It’s about cinema, of course, but also about Bourdieu’s “distinction” as well. So French!

The defense and illustration of “la politique des auteurs” (the “auteur theory”) is where we began. What is an auteur after all? And what do you expect of him or her? “Ils ont fait classique parce qu’ils ont fait nouveau,” — “They made it classic because they made it new,” wrote Marcel Proust about Courbet, Renoir and Manet. So it is here, as well. These impassioned auteurs bring evidence that documentary is becoming the art of the 21st century, and that cinema has been reborn as documentary.