Travels to Different Corners of the Earth

Report on Visions du Réel Nyon 2017. By Mikael Larsson
The Gaze of the Sea

The Gaze of the Sea (© Visions du Réel 2017)

The 48th Swiss documentary film festival Visions du Réel was the seventh and last one led by the artistic director Luciano Barisone, an impressive ending in so many ways. 19 films were selected for the Interreligious Jury, which this time consisted of only three members. Unfortunately, the Jewish representative had to cancel in the last minute.

Watching documentaries is to travel to all the corners of the earth and to get an idea about what is going on in the world. What troubles, unites or baffles us humans this very moment? Many films in the competition dealt with political issues, if one understands the term in its broad sense. What motivates political activism? How does man endure economic exploitation, alienation from nature or forced migration? What does it mean to live under the shadow of war?

Based on our criteria, two films clearly stood out from the rest. José Álvares’ subtle and sensitive film The Gaze of the Sea (Mexico 2017) received the prize of the Interreligious Jury. It is the story of the loss and grief after five fishermen and a biologist perished at sea in 2011. How do you mourn without bodies to bury and where do you go to remember if there is no grave? The film portrays the piety of the marginalized. At the center of the film, a woman leads the effort to collect and ritualize the memories of the deceased. The film gives voice to their families, how they struggle to accept the fate and choices of their loved ones, but also to come to turns with their own sense of guilt and responsibility. In this community of the poor, solidarity thrives and reconciliation is possible. Without simplification, the film breathes hope and connects these men and woman with the traditions from the gospel.

The jury gave a special mention to Reyan Tuvi’s No place for Tears (Turkey 2017). The battle of Kobane in Syria is seen here literally from a neighbouring village, on the other side of the Turkish border. In this film, the viewer gets to hear the voices of women and children. Such as the teen girls who patrol the village border at night, armed only with flashlights. Or the children, who managed to escape, leaving their families behind, singing and dreaming about reunion. Or the old women, who have washed the clothes of the soldiers, cooked for them, who have taken part in the fighting themselves, who tell the men to stop crying. The film portrays the war simultaneously as absurd spectacle and horrifying reality. Yet it does not end there. The children play in the ruins, the musicians retrieve and repair their instruments. Life continues, beyond madness. The community is determined not to give in to hate.

Ziad Khalthoum’s A Taste of Cement also deals with the war in Syria, this time seen from the perspective of Syrian construction workers in Beirut. Under slave-like conditions, these men only work and sleep, embodying the Sisyphean paradox of endless rebuilding and bombing. Intensely beautiful, the film undoubtedly merited the International jury’s big prize. Francois Jacobs subtle and sensitive portrayal of life of Siberian Norilsk, A Moon of Nickel and Ice, undeservedly had to leave the festival without a prize. Giving voice to the Gulag survivor, the theatre director, the mine worker and the young, it manages to connect the present with past and urgently encourages us to remember, lest not history repeats itself.