Festivals: Punto de Vista
“While still a student, Napoleon had written on the last page of his geography book: 'St. Helena. Small island.' This may have been what we call a coincidence, but the thought must certainly have aroused terror in him in his last days.”
—Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Rashomon
Around the World with Orson Welles
Pamplona’s other festival, Punto de Vista (aka International Documentary Film Festival of Navarra) proved suitably bullish in its 9th edition, resuming after a two-year hiatus brought about by the Navarran government in response to the Spanish financial crisis. Dissent from the international film community, consolidated in a petition, forced the reprieve, though Punto de Vista had maintained its cinephilic pulse during this recuperative period of “austerity” by mounting successive seminars (last year focusing on the films of Ignacio Agüero and Pema Tseden). For its 2015 return, the festival was thematically positioned as something of an island, featuring an ambitious yet manageable program about the nature of archipelagic identity. From shark-hunting off Ireland’s coast in Flaherty’s Man of Aran to defining the very notion of Basque identity in a dedicated sidebar, from a Syrian intellectual’s exodus/exile (Our Terrible Country) to the melancholy of kleptomania (The Blazing World), Punto de Vista charted the uncertain dreams produced and the damages exacted by being all too remote.
This conceptual gambit took on a playful feel in the hands of new artistic director Oskar Alegria. Island fever was never more palpable than in the festival’s choice opener, the admirable 1979 ethnographic feature documentary Study of an Island. Rudolf Thome and Cynthia Beatt’s film chronicles the plight of a group of Germans who arrive on the South Pacific island Ureparapara in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) with the intent of researching the local customs, language, and geography. From the opening shot on the arriving boat—passengers slouching on deck in the foreground, land looming on the horizon, a locally sourced pop song imposed on the soundtrack—the film looks bathed in the leftover light from René Clément’s Purple Noon, the textures suggesting naturalistic fiction. The sensation hangs on the film like humidity on a tourist, forging an uncanny relation between the feral nature depicted and clinical culture of the Western visitors, between intuition and science, the plucked spine of a young palm frond and a makeshift radio’s buzzing antenna. Unfolding like an anthropological performance in which the Germans become unwitting specimens, Study of an Island risks self-parody but sustains a sincere tone. As its European subjects descend into boredom, sickness, and incomprehension, the film comes to function as a postcolonial auto-critique, indebted to Jean Rouch’s ethno-fictions and pointing the way toward Miguel Gomes’s genre reconstructions.
And Then There Was Light
A similar ethnographic ambiguity could be found in And Then There Was Light, by Otar Iosseliani, a guest of honor at this year’s festival. Iosseliani’s 1989 film re-stages scenes from a Senegalese village that operates under an idyllic matriarchal code (cherish the shot of men hunched over sewing machines on an unpaved city street) until the arrival of European foresting industry inexorably alters their way of life. The paradox, of course, is that Iosseliani’s well-intentioned but intervening construct probably cast a similarly indelible impression. By the film’s subtle yet pointed conclusion, the villagers have dressed their native wooden effigies in the apparel of the timber gangs. This docu-fable is an anomaly within the Georgian filmmaker’s oeuvre, and it was screened at Punto de Vista to showcase his devotion to rituals of all kinds, in which the sacred and profane mesh: monastic choral singing, farmers felling wheat with scythes, a sweaty shift in a metal foundry, the incessant drinking of wine. In Euskadi été 1982, also part of “Chez Les Basques,” a program devoted to Basque identity, Iosselliani romanticizes farmers and villagers at work and play. This made-for-television doc is essentially an affectionate homage to the Basque people, and can best be appreciated as an act of displaced, pastoral nostalgia in light of the director’s then-recent self-imposed exile in France.
These and other films in “Chez Les Basques” evoked “the country of the long farewell” (as the festival catalog lyrically referred to it) and served as a collective index to Basque identity, while implicitly calling into question various aesthetic means of representation. Is there a way of faithfully capturing the Basque soul on film? The festival highlighted the flattering but superficial attempt provided by another exile, Orson Welles, in his troubled TV series “Around the World…” Made in 1955, the episode features the director as European dilettante, whose fresh delivery verging on the sardonic (“Basques are… what Basques are.”) effectively reduces the footage to historical footnote status, revealing more about him than his subjects. But the festival trotted out one surviving subject in Chris Wertenbaker, incidental child-star of the episode’s first segment, in which he was enlisted as a guide and impromptu musician (his parents were friends of Welles). History coiled back on itself when the now-elderly Wertenbaker, teary from the festival screening, was tapped once again to pick up his guitar, 60 years later, and play the old Basque songs. F for fandango.
Le Chemin d’Ernoa
Perhaps best known today for his portraits of Godard and Cassavetes in the French Filmmakers of Our Time series, Hubert Knapp also portrays Basque quotidian life in Le Curé basque de Gréciette (58), with an approach evoking a croquis. Knapp profiles an octogenarian priest in remote French Basque country who plays pelota religiously and routinely pardons smugglers in his parish. If the Basque soul still eluded the grasp of such expressive portraiture, Louis Delluc and Rene Coiffard’s Le Chemin d’Ernoa (1921, also known as L’Américain) represented a quintessentially site-specific attempt. The light in mountainous Ascain becomes the foremost attraction of this smuggling drama, true to Jean Epstein’s concept of photogénie; its devotion to the luminosity of the area was echoed with a screening of the Lumières’ Rochers de la Vierge (1896), set in nearby Biarritz. Sadly, the print of the Delluc–Coiffard gem, restored by the Cinémathèque Française, proved rather ethereal itself, unable to endure a second projection.
In Basque mythology, bees are sacred, and fittingly they represent the first Basque word (erleak) recorded in a sound film, In the Basque Country (Maurice Champreux and Jean Faugères, 1930). For Orkney Islands experimental filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait, who was celebrated with a retrospective and a book of poems and essays on cinema, Hen Means Honey, bees evoked the landscape of her childhood in Kirkwall in her 1955 short Happy Bees. Tait (1918-99) eschewed the distinction between writing and filming; in Color Poems (74), one of 18 shorts presented in the retrospective, she intones verse about men returning home from the Spanish Civil War, over seemingly unrelated visuals, with the exception of the grainy image of empty black rubber boots quivering in the wind. Her written poetry conjures the fleeting sensation of looking, and of time’s passage, endemic to the medium of film. In her poem “Now” she describes her feelings while filming a poppy opening on a summer morning: “It gave me a sharp awareness of time passing, / Of exact qualities and values in light,” she observes, “And [I] felt time not so much moving as being moved in.” But she laments being unable to fully see movement while filming, only upon later watching the film: “My timing and my rhythm could not observe the / rhythm of their opening.” This intractable, infinitely divisible moment is at the heart of the cinema spectator’s alternate enchantment and frustration. Tait’s legacy of intimate, staunchly independent filmmaking deserves to be mapped for more than just cinephiles; kudos to Punto de Vista for pinning her on its atlas of islanders.
On Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua, a volcano named Concepción lies dormant, a sleeping body waiting to be wakened in Cochihza, Khristine Gillard’s gorgeous pastoral. Gillard’s 2013 film listens to the soporific rhythm of a community seemingly at peace in their tropical idyll but haunted by past eruptions and the imminent construction of a grand shipping canal that will part their land. The disembodied voices of old men carry through the trees as they dispute the taxonomy of wildflowers, play dominoes, and honor the memory of their ancestors. Bananas are harvested. Carnaval comes. Children swim. The island becomes shrouded in a storm. Cochihza, in one expansive yet efficient hour, taps into elemental mystery without ever losing its lucid gaze upon the natural world.
Halfway across the globe, the Dutch island of Urk ceased to be an island after its inland sea had been dammed and drained to make way for arable land, leaving its fishermen inhabitants to lead seafaring lives farther from home. In Episode at Sea, Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan attempt a record of the fishing community’s endeavors while laying bare their own process. “We would be loyal to the material that surrounded us and insert ourselves as moving bodies into the universe of ropes, nets and water,” write the artists, who state their intentions and findings with scrolling intertitles that are at once theoretically minded and drolly amusing. Episode at Sea is, among other things, a monument to briny labor, a tableau of circulating matter, and an artist studio in situ (imagine Jeff Wall staging outtakes from Leviathan on 35mm black and white as an asterisk to this wonderful undertaking).
Our Terrible Country
The festival’s competition, dubbed “The Central Region,” was elevated by CPH:DOX and FidMarseille titles having their Spanish premieres. Topical urgency propels Mohammad Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi’s Our Terrible Country, a fractured and fractious look at the writer Yassin Haj Saleh, chronicled from his perilous perch as a fugitive from the country whose revolution he helped inspire. The threat of an emergent Islamic State suffuses Atassi and Homsi’s film with an air of palpable danger, while Saleh’s predicament produces a steady undercurrent of the sorrow of exile, as he attempts to Skype with his wife who stayed behind in a bombed-out Douma. Homsi, a young rebel who co-directs and becomes a player in the real drama, accepted the Special Audience Award for Best Film and dedicated the prize to his compatriots back in Syria whose stories have not been told. Perhaps the film’s increasing international exposure will go some way toward countering Saleh’s assertion (in an interview) that the Syrian opposition has “failed in translating Syria’s dreadful suffering into universal meaning.”
In a gesture that typified the festival’s defiance of convention (or the efforts of a persistent jury), the prize for best film went to Guillermo Moncayo’s Echo Chamber, which consists of a ghostly 19-minute traveling shot through Colombia’s fecund interior via a decaying railway. The serene, linear glide of the camera moving through the jungle canopy formally expresses a notion of tranquility and progress. Then reverse shots reveal a boy astride a stationary motorbike mounted on the tracks, an image that belies the country’s once-modern rail system. A portentous weather report warning of an impending hurricane is broadcast from old speakers attached to the bike, interspersed with a soothing cumbia, “Hola Soledad.” A cow roams the graffiti-scarred corridors of an abandoned home. Residents are glimpsed on their porches and lawns beside the railway, unperturbed by the echoing, incantatory announcements of possible evacuation, while laundry is hung out to dry. The sense of contrasts gives the film an open-ended identity: is Moncayo channeling subjective states of mind amid objective realities? Is Colombia itself an echo chamber, reverberating with natural and political catastrophes over time? The film eludes easy summation, and any on-screen threat is subsumed by the onset of dusk, as this experimental docu-fiction sinks into an oneiric trance.
Overall, Punto de Vista’s heterodox reputation was born out by an intellectually curious program that was worth savoring, if not celebrating outright. Given a week, you could see every one of the films. For object lessons on how to adapt Alain Robbe-Grillet to the screen, conceptual artist Isidoro Valcárcel Medina’s 1972 La celosía offered a literal solution: just film the book. Meanwhile, in the spirit of the durational, the vast basement beneath the festival’s main auditorium played host to a three-hour anthology film commissioned on the subject of darkness; the work of 38 international directors looped in perpetual crepuscularity on a spectral screen. (Blink and you’d miss J.P. Sniadecki’s Silo Sketches.) I’m curious if the film will continue to unspool uninterrupted until next year’s edition, like a heart beating continuously in the dark to commemorate the festival’s survival to its 10th anniversary.