Carefully constructed realities: Locarno 2017

As a FIPRESCI jury member at Locarno, I look at the documentaries in the 2017 competition.

In the docufiction A Skin So Soft [Ta peau si lisse], characters could easily pass for braindead beasts, were it not for a minutely planned operation of viewer domestication. At first, we see the bodybuilders to whom the film is dedicated as they see themselves. On their own, in turns, they do their thing – in their trailers, in their apartments or at the gym. It’s a rather repetitive first segment, where they lift weights, they admire their own bodies in the mirror, they take selfies, their muscles ready to explode, then they lift weights some more.

The narcissistic look is followed by the perspective of a third party: a partner, bodybuilder herself, as it turns out, who tries to encourage him as he does his number (fixed shot); the students of a painting course, who see the bodybuilder as a subject (circular pan, which means we watch the scene through the eyes of all the students, not just some of them); another partner (this time, the perspective is moral as well, and concerns smoking as a self destructive, therefore inexplicable habit); a photographer (over the shoulder shot); finally, the photographer’s assistant, who edits the pictures in real time (another over the shoulder shot).

After the first two takes on the act of contemplation, the bodybuilders are shown as husbands or dads, roles which include a reflexive look on their intimate relationships. Tenderness is almost indistinguishable (a hand on the shoulder, at the right time) or as on the nose as can be (the partner who demands to have a talk about their feelings for each other). The bodybuilders are then made human some more, firstly by suffering, as they endure the rituals that precede the contests (massage, exfoliation, tanning by different methods, etc.), secondly by their dedication to a number of hobbies (wrestling, playing guitar, new age therapies).

One of the great merits of director Denis Côté is his disinterest in the spectacular. The wrestling match of one of the protagonists is shot so close, that the only thing you can tell is who won, while the big contest all of the big men in the film prepare for is in fact not shown at all. The result of all these choices is that we never watch this movie as serious people, or at least people who don’t waste their time doing foolish things, contemplating a pack of macho apes. Considering its subject matter, it is a feat bigger than it might appear at first sight.

Two times a participatory documentary, Good Luck is dedicated to the workers in two mines, a copper and a gold mine, one in Serbia, the second one in Suriname. The most obvious way in which director Ben Russel interferes with his subject is the way in which he asks his questions. It is difficult to say what his intentions are, that is to say if he is expects answers to his specific questions or is just aiming for any kind of reaction. When he asks them about what they fear most, with all their mates around, it is fairly predictible that the interviewees become defensive and say nothing or use humour as a social shield. It can be argued that, by means of this technique, Russel gives us a pretty clear image of the group dynamics, which also means that we get to see each individual make fun of his peers and be made fun of, in turns.

Sometimes, the camera provides the only light in the shot. It is the case of one of the first scenes in the movie, when the elevator goes down in the shaft. While the director is part of the miners’ reality, changing it and giving it new direction, the miners change the director’s reality too, by interfering with the former’s creative process. The miners, be they Serbian or Surinamian, produce content when they film themselves, albeit in a preset context, with the same camera, in the same light. However, in this setting, it is them who decide what to do (one of them decides to smoke a joint), what they say (that is if they say anything at all, and when they do, Russel won’t have us hear it), or what they give our by facial expressions and body language. In these black and white scenes, reality shows its constructed quality by means of the small imperfections specific to film that we see on screen, the little scratches and dots that make movies recognisable as such and function as a punctuation sign: we are witness to a reproduction or a reinterpretation, not to reality as is (on the other hand, in the Suriname mine segment, we are also witness to a seemingly endless tracking shot, where a worker carries a canister from one place to another). Finally, a miner suggest a shot to Russel, a helmet stuck in a rock wall, and Russel shoots precisely that.

That said, Russel shows who’s boss from the very beginning, starting with the way in which he chooses to disclose or keep to himself relevant information. The first camera movement comes with the first visual pun in the movie, when the members of a band are finally shown on film – this, in fact, is we find out that the music actually comes from within the shot. The camera then pans right to left and we get to meet them individually, which is yet another humoristic device in itself. Because it is a brass band, in all cases except one, we also find out what instrument they are playing (we expect him to be the drummer in the band, since the drum sound does intensify when we see him, and we are later proven right).

The second way in which “Good Luck” not only presents a specific reality, but it interprets it as well, is in postproduction, by means of double exposure (of the two natural landscapes in which the mines are set, we find out in the end), and mixed media (a drawing of a circle cut in two, metaphor of the two mines and the people in them, seen as similar, even though they are miles apart). In doing so, Russel explains his intentions and justifies his options, which doesn’t also make the choice these two particular mines and mining instead of beekeeping, for instance, a less arbitrary affair.

The rapidly approaching death of the protagonist is followed with an enthomologist-like curiosity in the Pardo d’oro winner Mrs. Fang. Seen mostly in close ups, the dying woman certainly goes through a lot, but understands very little, if anything. The perspective of mrs. Fang, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s eight years prior to her demise, is opaque par excellence, given the fact that she is unable to express herself and barely even moves, the only action she is still capable to see to its end being to ask her close ones to turn her over from one side to the other. All along, her family waits for the inevitable to happen, remembers things from times past, gets food, cooks it and eats it. The realism of the film is extreme, when we see mrs. Fang lying in her bed and crying, but also when we watch three men walk the whole length of the road from one water course to another, where they try to catch fish and fail. Director Wang Bing may have obtained the family’s consent for recording her last ten days, but his venture remains as immoral. The indecent spectacle of “Mrs. Fang”, which belongs to a genre that could be named deathploitation, is that of the physical and pshychological decay of a person, who, against her will, is made to become a character.

It is clear from the very beginning who the culprit is in “Did you wonder who fired the gun?”, which tells the story of the great-grandfather of the American director Travis Wilkerson, possible murderer of a black person in the USA of 1946. Because he decides to answer the question in the title so soon, Wilkerson’s job simply becomes to gather as much context data as possible. His detective-like quest is doomed to fail – the murder took place too long ago, therefore few witnesses remain, Wilkerson’s investigative talent doesn’t quite keep the pace with his eagerness to expose the truth, and to top it all, the setting is the deep American South, where tongues are predictably tied on the subject. The deep voice over of the director himself is the main attraction for a while, but in the end, one cannot help but notice the divide between this voice, or rather what it suggests (that the man behind it is letting us in on a secret, and a very important one too), and way the story really unfolds, with hazard playing an important part.

Wilkerson will talk to whoever agrees to speak in front of a camera, even if the connection between his interviewees and Bill Spann (the victim) or S. E. Branch (the aggressor) is unclear. Moreover, the American filmmaker is quick to draw whatever conclusions best suit him from his encounters, comparing terms from different equations, interweaving historical fact with personal belief and militant poetry, “Give it enough time, whiteness will incinerate the Earth” being just one such example. Ultimately, he seems to be aware of the fact that he didn’t really find out much, so he tries to make up for it with shots (a lot of them) of a car in slow motion, on a winding road, under a fiery sky, with fragments from “To Kill a Mockingbird”, played in the original version, in negative of with added jump cuts, and with musical, karaoke-style intermissions. Wilkerson really believes in his mission, or at least that’s the impression he makes, but that doesn’t make him a director more endowed or more rigorous than he is.

Articol publicat pe platforma fipresci.org

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