Why do films matter? A pretentious question that might be dropped by a frustrated up-and-coming director in a Woody Allen film. Why should films even have to matter, you might ask? Let me show you why I’m asking.
The Panorama of the European Film’s catalogue this year, with a sleek red on black cover, starts with this sentence: “Once again, in the midst of turbulent yet exciting times, the Panorama of the European Film bounces back, for its ninth edition, with an eclectic and fun program reflecting the awes and ills of our societies through different genres, mediums and length.”
Let me remind you how last year’s catalogue started: “In the midst of ongoing socio-political tensions at home and abroad, the Panorama of the European Film comes back this year with an eclectic selection of more than 60 films, fiction, documentaries & shorts, from the Old Continent.”
Drop the flamboyant rhetoric and you find an image of the Panorama bouncing back both years with a new lineup of films while the world is caught in tensions and turmoil. What relationship do films have to social realities and why does it matter that we continue watching films when the world seems to be on the precipice?
The Panorama is almost over and I spent my Saturday watching films from their program that day and trying to think of something clever to write. I started with Jiří Menzel’s new wave masterpiece Closely Watched Trains (1966), which was Khairy Beshara’s Carte Blanche selection, went on to watch experimental documentary On Call/La Permanence (2016), directed by Alice Diop and edited by Amrita David, and ended with Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s dialogue-driven family drama Sieranevada (2016).
As Nazi cargo trains cut through small town Czechoslovakia during the Second World War, everybody, especially the train station staff, seems too consumed by daily concerns to care about Hitler’s advancing troops. Milos (Vaclav Neckar), a trainee at the station in Closely Watched Trains, is in love with Masa (Jitka Bendova), a train operator. Just as he is about to have sex with her, he realizes he suffers from premature ejaculation. As in many heart-warming coming-of-age dramas, he then gloomily walks around seeking help from friends. But as soon as he has his moment with an older woman, the guy is a changed man. Within hours, he muscles up the courage to blow up a Nazi ammunition train and finally the town is awoken from its slumber. As the tide of history rolls in, there is still space for little individual histories to intersect with and diverge from it. There is little better than a sardonic story about a uniformed, provincial, embarrassed young man during World War Two.
Cinema brings us the faces of the ordinary people who have lived history in its everyday sense. We recognize ourselves in them, or sometimes submit to the fact that human beings are just unknowable.
In 2013, Alice Diop started filming On Call/La Permanence in France’s Avicenne Hospital, where Dr. Geeraert meets undocumented immigrants twice a week. The camera rarely leaves his consultation room. Patients who enter the room often break down from emotional and physical exhaustion. The camera switches from a frontal view of the doctor at his desk to a frontal view of the patients as they recount their ailments, sometimes cutting to a silent black screen. One patient fled Sri Lanka with broken ribs in fear of the army, another fled Guinea to avoid political imprisonment and a woman with an infant ran away from an abusive uncle in South Africa. Many were smuggled into France without proper papers or medical coverage. The camera enters a space beyond the reach of many, where vulnerable people suffer under the weight of a bureaucracy rife with prejudices. A delicate film like Diop’s makes us all less naïve: a French public cannot claim ignorance anymore. In one scene, Diop steps out from behind her camera to give a woman in the middle of a psychotic episode a hug.
The Panorama’s programming this year backs up its claim to bring us a cinema that is engaged with the world surrounding it. In these two films, among others on the program, we see a cinema that is turning inwards, examining its own formal tools, from camerawork to editing and sound design, in an attempt to figure out how and why films matter today.
When reality is too thin, fiction steps in to help us think through lived experiences. In Sieranevada, a family struggles to get through a commemoration dinner for a deceased father. In a crowded apartment in contemporary Romania, conspiracy theories concerning 9/11, the war in Iraq, the fall of the communist regimes in the Eastern Bloc, the Romanian revolution in the early 1990s, state surveillance, Barack Obama and George Bush infiltrate the discussions. Sieranevada is also about our relationship to history and the lived experience of it unfolding in the confined private space of a family’s apartment. With tight frames and editing that doesn’t lose a beat, the bubbling madness underneath the civilized chitchat gradually surfaces.
Of course there is cultural specificity to many of the concerns these films embody on screen. I cannot claim to have the same experience of Sieranevada as a Romanian, or that screening On Call/La Permanence in Egypt has the same impact as screening it in France. However, for me all three show why films matter in a time of crisis. Films show how history appears in people’s faces and mannerisms. As a person who tends toward the melancholic, these films assured me of the porousness of human beings to the world around them. We do not remain unaffected.
With that, I look forward to the Panorama “bouncing back” for a 10th edition, no doubt in the midst of political turmoil!