Having discovered IFFR for the first time this year, I can’t comment on the evolution of the program over years, or the specificity of this 2018 edition. And I regret it: I would have loved to be able to measure the impact of the overall insanity of 2017 on this year’s productions, as well as on the curatorial choices of the festival’s programmers.
There is nonetheless an evolution I have witnessed over the past years, and that I feel the need to reflect upon: that of my own curatorial choices. Since 2014, I was once in Cannes, once at the Viennale and once at the Berlinale, at the very reasonable rate of one festival per year; and everytime, like any other spectator, I had to design my own non-official programming out of all the screenings, masterclasses, talks and other events scheduled in the program. Now, looking back at what films I chose to engage with four years ago, and what films I have watched this year, I can’t but notice a massive shift. I used to be mainly attracted to narrative, fiction films ; but this year, I have found myself browsing avidly the IFFR catalog for films that seemed to produce a direct engagement with reality, and real images.
Have I heard enough lies, and watched enough distorted pictures this year? Have all the mediatic bustle about “fake news” killed my strive for fictions, and left me craving for images and stories, the authenticity of which I wouldn’t have to question?
Now that I am back home, I realize I have been seeking refuge in the dark rooms of Rotterdam. Not that I tried to get away from the world by diving into the marvelous universe of moving pictures ; conversely, I was searching for moving pictures that could help me re-engage with the world in a way that feels true and solid. One could call that escapism, I guess: but it is not about escaping reality, rather escaping an intricate and sticky web of conflicting discourses about what is real, what is not real, and whether or not there even is such a thing as a “reality“. It is a question of trust, I think. At a time when so much of our understanding of images comes from how they are packaged and contextualized (visually, graphically, verbally), when one should always question the source of any information and the agenda behind its distribution, the big screen provides moving images with a context I am familiar with, and I have learned to trust.
Fictionalizing real images
Fortunately, I found many films to feed my hunger for real images. The most interesting to me were those where different modes of images would rub against each other within one single narrative: surveillance footage and YouTube videos (Dragonfly Eyes by Xu Bing), footage of real violence and staged fictional scenes (Tesnota by Kantemir Balagov and Permanent Green Light by Dennis Cooper and Zac Farley), national and family archives (The image you missed by Donal Foreman), and many other combinations. This attempts are fascinating, because they somehow reenact our everyday experience of viewing images on social media: pictures and videos are delivered to us in a single thread in which photos of friends, bloody reports from distant countries and lurid advertisements are juxtaposed without contributing to any consistent narrative. But in these movies, the juxtaposition isn’t random, it is carefully designed. These films are consciously well-arranged clusters of images in the entropic chaos of contemporary media. And yes, for someone who has spent a lot of energy over the past months trying to make sense of algorithm- generated fluxes, engaging with audiovisual objects that result from the conscience of identified, presumably trustworthy human beings constitutes an extraordinary relief.
Tesnota and Permanent Green Light are two feature films that differ in almost every way, but they have an important common point: their fictional fabric is split in the middle by the irruption a violent non-fictional image. In Tesnota, we follow the story of Ilana, a young Jewish girl living in
Nalchik, Russia, whose brother has been kidnapped. The film is dense, often moving, very successfully conducted. But after an hour, it freezes entirely. Ilana sits with a group of friends in front of a TV set, and one of them inserts a tape in the player (why?). We are made to sit with them and watch, for several minutes that feel like eternity, a video document of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers during the Chechen wars. No matter how realistic the first hour of the movie was, these images are indisputably more real. The fictional characters don’t comment on the images, neither during the viewing, nor after. They just turn off the TV. As viewers, we are thrown back into the fiction. In retrospect, it seems incredibly bold from first-time director Kantemir Balagov to have bet that we would still be able to care about the problems of his fictional characters after having been reminded so vividly of the horrors of history.
In Permanent Green Light, we follow the story of a another teenager (we should probably think further about this recurrent association between “real” images and teenage characters), this time male and French, who is obsessed with the idea of blowing himself up. No ideological claim, no destruction drive, no suicidal intention per se: he is merely fascinated by the idea of his body disintegrating entirely. The movie avoids almost all violent imagery (which is almost surprising, given that it is co-authored by the queercore guru Dennis Cooper), but right in the middle of the film, again, a real image appears that cleaves the fiction. The main character is on the phone, learning that one of his friends has commited suicide; on his computer screen, a GIF plays ad infinitum, in silence, showing a person (a woman?) running towards the camera and bursting in flames. The GIF is two seconds long, and it plays again and again, maybe ten or fifteen times. The gruesome images last several minutes in Tesnota, and only a couple of seconds in Permanent Green Light, but in both cases, our faith in the fiction is jeopardized by its confrontation with a reality it can’t comprehend.
In a video essay commissioned by the Critic’s choice program, David Verdeure (aka filmscalpel) traces a short history of such intrusions of archival footage into fiction films, from Persona to The Passenger and Come and See, focusing especially on films that don’t try to incorporate the real images within the fiction, but “throw up their hands, retreat into a corner and only slowly return to the normality of their fictional narratives when the real footage has passed“. In Tesnota and in Permanent Green Light, the conflict generated by the juxtaposition of the two modes of images is acknowledged by the filmmakers, and left for us to resolve. This mechanism relies doubly on the power of shock: the images are shocking in the most common sense of the term; and their confrontation with staged, cinematic images creates another type of shock – the kind that Eisenstein thought had the potential to make the masses aware of the necessity of a revolution.
At a time when, again, algorithm-generated mishmash is the most common mode of image consumption, I do wonder if editing together two heterogeneous images can still constitute a subversive gesture. In theory, I guess this kind of montage has the potential to offer resistance to social media filter bubbles, that make our online viewing experiences more and more homogeneous. But in practice, haven’t we grown too used to switching quickly from one mode of images to another, to be able to experience how fundamentally disruptive the experience is supposed to be? Of course, I have no other way to address these questions but to reflect on my own experience of watching these films; and I was shocked by both. By Tesnota, because of the duration of the found footage sequence. And by Permanent Green Light, because it felt so wrong for the GIF to be so short, and for the character not to be paying attention to it. So maybe editing heterogeneous images together isn’t as radical a gesture today, as to let one single image play for several minutes, and to demand that attention should be maintained to the screen while it plays.
I could elaborate on many other films seen during the festival that questioned what constitutes a “real” image, and what fictions it can feed. It is pretty much the theme of Possessed, a collaborative feature-long essay by photographer Rob Schröder and design studio Metahaven that explores our obsession with everyday image-making in the era of social media. In The Pain of Others, Penny Lane explores a specific skin disease that doctors have identified as a delusional, psychosomatic sickness, called Morgellons disease (or, as some people put it, Google-chondria). The documentary is entirely made of clips found on YouTube, essentially testimonies from patients who describe their symptoms and share their frustration with the doctors that keep considering that the disease is a fiction and the symptoms are only caused by the conviction of being sick – a conviction nurtured, if not generated, by the YouTube videos in question. On another note, Amateurs (Gabriela Pichler) and An impossibly small object (David Verbeek) are two fiction films about documentary practices: Pichler’s film confronts the making of two (fictional) documentaries about a small town in Sweden, one made by a professional team, the other by two local teenagers filming with their phones; in Verbeek’s film, actual documentary photographs made in Taipei become the starting point for fictional narratives to emerge.
Another, perhaps more problematic attempt at merging real footage and fictional narratives is Dragonfly Eyes. This first feature by Chinese visual artist Xu Bing consists in a collage of hundreds of clips from found surveillance footage, collected throughout China, and reassembled in a coherent fictional narrative (told by the characters themselves, whose voices are dubbed). It results in a very uncomfortable viewing experience, that has the merit to exemplify the omnipresence of surveillance cameras in literally every shop, every factory and every restaurant in China. But some of these images are very disturbing: the filmmaker found and edited clips showing gang fights, car crashes, murders, suicides… The fact that all of this could be caught by surveillance cameras, let alone made accessible to the filmmaker and his team, is quite incredible in itself. Whether or not it should have been edited and turned into a fictional story is another issue – especially since few of these dramatic events actually feed the story, most of them being merely included in essayistic interludes that punctuate the narration. Even assuming that the filmmaker really obtained authorizations from “most of the people” featured in the images, as is claimed in the final credits of the movie, it is hard not to question the ethics of such a radical gesture of appropriation and fictionalization.
Fictional, or simply fake?
But that’s not even the most crucial question, I think. As I was watching these films, thinking about how each incorporates real images into fictional narratives, one idea kept coming at me. What if, every time I say or write the word “fictional“, I were to use the word “fake” instead? Would it change the way I approach these works? After all, what exactly are fake news, if not fictional stories loosely based on apparently real images?
I understand that the question can seem odd. Obviously, the main difference between fake news on the one hand, and fiction films using real images on the other, is that the former pretend to be news. There can only be spoken of “fakeness” if there is a claim for authenticity or truth, and none of the films I have mentioned so far (none of the film that were presented at IFFR, I dare say) ever pretended to deliver an indisputable, unfiltered truth. But still, the question insisted. Aren’t both news and movies two mediated ways for me to access a wider part of the world than what I can experience first hand? If so, how comes that I let filmmakers take as much distance as they want from the reality they document, while I would blame journalists from introducing any kind of subjectivity in their reports? And more crucially, how does it make any sense that I find myself trusting filmmakers more than journalists, when it comes to engaging in depth with reality?
Unsurprisingly, none of the movies I saw at Rotterdam offered the ultimate answer to these questions. But some offered more: the opportunity to experience and to reflect on the dramatic power of fakeness. I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie), Insect (Jan Svankmajer) and My Friend the Polish Girl (Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek) are probably the three movies I saw that engaged with this question the most vividly. I, Tonya consists in the retelling of the story of figure skater Tonya Harding, staged in a mockumentary style using explicitly fake interviews set in the present day with the different protagonists (Tonya herself, her ex-husband Jeff, her mother, etc) as well as reenacted scenes from Tonya’s childhood and early adulthood. The script constantly questions the veracity of what is being said and shown: during a fight between Tonya and Jeff for instance, she fires a gun in his direction, then turns straight to the camera and says, “I never did that”. The film asks us to disbelieve what it shows. As Hedwig van Driel and Menno Kooistra said in a video essay presented at the festival before the screening of the movie, to watch Gillespie’s film and to wonder if the real Tonya Harding was or wasn’t implicated in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan is to ask the wrong question. “There is no such thing as truth”, says Tonya from the beginning of the film. So, you have been told.
In Insect, the legendary Czech animator Jan Švankmajer confronts us with a different type of fakeness. His film depicts the rehearsal of The Insect Play (written by the Karel and Josef Capek in 1922) by a fictional amateur theater company. The scenes are interspersed with behind-the-scene footage documenting the making of the film – showing the crew, the actors, Švankmajer himself, and an insane number of real insects. Thus the different levels of fiction (the play, the actors rehearsing the play, the actors shooting the film) are constantly confronted to their fakeness: following Brecht’s recommandations in the most literal manner, Švankmajer prevents the spectator from ever getting immersed in the story being told. Every actor plays three or four roles in this film, to the point that the spectator is led to doubt of the authenticity of what is presented as the behind- the-scene footage. The falsity of all images, situations and discourses is impossible to ignore.
My Friend the Polish Girl is yet another exploration of narrative fakeness. The movie presents itself as a cinéma-vérité style documentary directed by a young American filmmaker living in London (Kate), while it was actually written and staged by a Polish couple, Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek. Once again, several layers of “truth” are peeled off during the film, while Kate proves to be a terrible filmmaker (and, one could argue, a terrible human being), being more and more intrusive in the life of the subject of her documentary, the “Polish Girl” from the title.
Watching these three films back to back constitutes an interesting experiment. As far as I’m concerned, it led me to this temporary conclusion: revealing the fakeness of a fiction doesn’t prevent me from being invested (intellectually, emotionally) in what I see onscreen. It simply provides a supplementary storyline to juggle with. Exhibiting fakeness doesn’t endanger the fiction; what it really does, I think is celebrating the mastery of the fakers. And gratify the spectators, whose intelligence is given more credit than the usual. Isn’t it exciting and empowering to be made the only judge of the veracity of what is shown?
But where does this leave us, if we try to import these thoughts on fakeness into the distinct realm of online media and news? Reflecting on yet another movie screened at the festival might be of help here. In The Cleaners, Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck reveal how images and videos are moderated by Google and other social media platforms. They show that these companies outsource the moderation to independant firms mainly based in the Philippines: there, hundreds of underpaid men and women sit all day in front of computers and watch literally every image uploaded on the platforms, deciding in a split second whether the image should be “deleted” or “ignored“. And they aren’t allowed to skip any video, no matter how intolerably violent it is. If the documentary doesn’t explore specifically the burning issue of how fake news are created and distributed, it definitely raises questions as to what gets to be considered news in the first place: it shows for instance that the same amateur video documenting a bombing in Syria can be seen as war propaganda by the moderators, hence be deleted, while it would be a most useful material to collect for the various NGOs that work at gathering evidences of war crimes.
The Cleaners reveals, if not the fakeness, at least the filtering of the “reality” that is made accessible to us by the Holy Trinity of the digital world, Google-Facebook-Twitter. As to whether these revelations are empowering or paralyzing, it is hard to tell. During the viewing, I experienced strange alternate waves of relief and anxiety. My first reaction was to be pleasantly surprised that Google would hire human beings to moderate its contents: I would have assumed that this sensitive task (we are talking about global censorship, nothing less) was entrusted to algorithms, incapable to even understand the idea of art, or humor. Then I was made sensitive to how traumatizing a job it was to watch these images all day long; and also, I heard the very disputable (yet human) rationale behind the censoring of some images – a pretty inoffensive caricature of Donald Trump, for instance – and was almost made to wish these decisions were made by an algorithm. Later on, I found myself wishing that national governments could have more control over these multinational companies, for it is insane that private corporations have such an incredible power of censorship over the entire world; only to be reminded a few minutes later that if governments indeed had more power over Google or Facebook, then dictators and other not-so-democratic leaders would have a much easier job controlling and repressing any online expression of opposition. The movie left me feeling, as well as I think many other spectators, utterly helpless.
Now that I had time to reflect upon it, I still feel pretty helpless – but I’m also interested in how this movie connects to such films as I, Tonya, Insect and My Friend the Polish Girl. Exhibiting the fakeness of a movie amounts to celebrating the mastery of the fakers, I wrote. The Cleaners proceeds to a systematic exhibition of the lies and secrets behind the polished interfaces of Google, Facebook and Tweeter: how is it not, at the same time, unwillingly celebrating the overwhelming power of these platforms? I think the way I felt after the screening of The Cleaners – wishing someone would be so kind as to point me the nearest exit from the world – speaks to a very concrete danger that also loomed, to a lesser extent, on the different aforementioned fiction films. Constantly questioning and exposing fakeness might be an intellectually useful and rewarding exercise. But emotionally speaking, it is exhausting, and arguably counter-productive.
Subjective facts and collective fictions
In her essay “The Reality-Based Community” (e-flux, June 2017), Erika Balsom (who incidently gave a keynote address at the festival on a different subject matter) expressed somewhat similar concerns about the way the traditional role of documentary filmmaking is being redefined in the era of fake news. She saw a pretty straightforward way-out of the rabbit hole: future documentaries should reassert a sense of “the real“, through a “commitment to a reconceived observational mode“. She named examples of such films: Leviathan (2012, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel), People’s Park (2012, Libbie D. Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki), Manakamana (2013, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez), or The Iron Ministry (2014, J. P. Sniadecki).
For one reason or another, I didn’t really get to see such a film at IFFR 2018. But I saw a movie that, I think, points to another possible direction. In The Image you missed, Donal Foreman confronts footage from films shot by his father (Irish-American filmmaker Arthur MacCaig, who spent his entire life making documentaries about the Irish conflicts) with other images: personal and familial archives, and footage from films he himself directed, from as early as age 11. As the film unfolds, we learn about their father-son relationship, or rather non-relationship, since MacCaig would hardly ever come to visit his child, as busy as he was with his filmmaking; browsing his archive after his death, the son gets more intimate with his father than he ever was. More than a mere homage, the film provides a meticulous and challenging comparison of two different ways of being a man, a citizen, and a filmmaker. In a sequence that really stayed with me, Foreman shows footage from his own documentary 6 x Occupy, shot in 2011 during the movement Occupy Wall Street – and he wonders, in a thoughtful voice-over, why he couldn’t make sense of his presence and participation in the protest, the same way his father used to make sense of his own presence in Ireland. His father’s films, Foreman says, were more straightforward: images filmed in a cinéma- vérité style, and an explanatory voice over that helped the viewer understand the situation, and didn’t hesitate to take side with the militants he filmed. At Occupy Wall Street, Foreman didn’t know what to film; partly because they were already so many other people filming with their phones, so is role couldn’t simply be to document the events. He felt a lack of purpose, and perhaps also, a lack of necessity. Later, during the editing, he found himself reluctant to use as explanatory, authoritative a voice-over as his father’s. Personal taste, or manifestation of a certain zeitgeist? Both, I think. I for one can easily recognize myself in this mix of resistance and jealousy towards the previous generations, who seemed much better at making sense of the world than we are.
So it made me wonder: did the world really become more chaotic and less organized than it was some forty years ago? Or did we collectively lose our ability to describe and interpret it in a way that makes sense?
Later, I realized these two questions were the same: describing and interpreting the world is precisely what makes it organized. I am too young to have known the times MacCaig has filmed. But when I watch his films, I am struck by how much it all looks the same as now: small-scale conflicts, individual desires and aspirations, human beings doing their best to go through life and protect their loved ones. But MacCaig’s voice points to something they had at the time, that we seem to have lost: a general sense of agreement on the terms in which the problems are formulated. An agreement, one could say, on a shared vocabulary, or a set of narratives.
The Image you missed articulates the themes I have been exploring here in an original, and I must say very convincing manner: it shows the necessity to create space, in the public sphere, for subjective facts as well as collective fictions. The subjective fact is the story of the lonely child whose father is never home. It isn’t more or less factual than the story of the respected filmmaker who so happens to prioritize work over family, but whose films were really important and necessary, so we can all understand that some sacrifices needed to be done. At a time when so many stories are being rewritten, notably thanks to the impulse of the #metoo movement, it seems crucial to find ways to give voice to alternate, potentially conflicting subjective takes on a given set of “facts“. Which is not to say that everything is relative and open to subjective interpretations: in many cases, it is absolutely necessary to determine which stories are true, and which are fake. But The Image you missed provides a brilliant example that the confrontation of conflicting stories can also be led with kindness – and if only for that I was most grateful. Collective fictions, on the other hand, are what we would need to feel more confidence in our ability to comprehend the way the contemporary world works. Many old fictions we still believe in. National borders, for instance. The value of the coins in our pockets, and the price of a coffee. But other fictions have crumbled over the past decades, and The Image you missed can be watched as a vibrant call for new fictions to be collectively written. Then it is not about confronting, exposing, erasing – it’s about designing alternative frameworks. Getting back to my earlier question, maybe this is the main difference between the fake and the fiction. The fake, by definition, supersedes a truth. The fiction doesn’t take over from anything else. It is not belligerent. Its mode of being is the alternative, the otherness. So if the new fictions we write don’t work, if they don’t make the world more intelligible to us, we should try again. We just need more imagination.