Short Films, Big Ideas

Film Documents

Abhijit Ghosh-Dastidar

Documentaries grab at to random, the social scene, politics, art and movies. Creative endeavours encompass the self-revealing laughter and traumas of the past and present, in the true landscape. Raymond Depardon and Claudine Novgaret’s ‘Journal de France’ (France, 2012, 100 mins, b/w, and colour) review the career of the great people-observing documentary film maker, Raymond Depardon (born 1942), with commentary by his long time companion and collaborator, Claudine Nougaret. The show reel for the French photographer and film makers is courageous and insightful. The off-screen narration is a breathless hagiography. As per the film’s title, Depardon has created an anatomy of his homeland, watching politics, the penal system, rural life, and the legacy of colonialism. With pleasant interludes, the series of clips provide rich viewing of ‘Venezuela’, ‘Israel’, ‘Biafra’, ‘Jan Palach’ of the 1960s, to ‘Paris’, ‘Portents of Peasants’, ‘Tour of the World in 14 days’ of present times, among such else. Depardon roams France in a camper van, with an ancient tripod and discovers plenty in peasant faces and empty French landscapes, which convey history, heritage and husbandry. Foreign African deserts inspire the Chad desert hostage scoop and Depardon’s only fiction feature ‘La captive du desert’ (1990). Youthful photo-journalism is self revealing in a TV portrait of young Giscard d’ Estaing. In Depardon’s present tense film sequences he photographs anything he sees from dilapidated corner shops to four old men framed in a doorway. Natural places are poised between ‘was’ and ‘is’, as the camera built up elements, memory and history. The past recorded in present day sequences of France, exists no more, except haunting or speaking remnant. The 20th century is recalled with Depardon’s filming of revolution in Czechoslovakia, war in Biafra, and Giscard d’ Estaing’s presidential campaign.

Tales of madness emerge from BBC 4’s ‘May Dog-Gaddafi’s Secret World’ (60 mins, colour, 2013). The documentary portrays Colonel Gaddafi as the creator of ‘the world’s first terror state’. Libya, under Gaddafi, became a haven, bank and school for terrorists. As a New Saladin who would liberate the Arab world, he purchased and stockpiled chemical weapons. The private Gaddafi is described by interviewers, who include his rocket-maker’s wife, his plastic surgeon, a female body guard, and the head of his murder squad. Gaddafi is depicted as a serial rapist of school girls, and that he kept assassinated enemies’ bodies in a fridge. ‘Mad Dog’ achieves a static portrait of the regime’s horrors and a chronological account, where the two do not coalesce smoothly. Steadily the remarkable material gets properly organized, but completely ignores Gaddafi’s attempts for socialism, non fundamentalist Islam, and multi-polar diplomacy.

Mahdi Fleifel’s ‘A World Not Ours’ (93 mins, colour, 2014) records life in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. The documentary features no battles, but war remains more like war. Fleifel was born in Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest camp for Palestinian refugees. The people are enervated, and a poignant picture of hope and homeland dreams is built. The film maker as a Dubai migrated child and a teenager on family vacations regularly revisits the extended family in the Palestinian refugee camp. As a filmmaker he keeps returning, and finds the Palestinian refugees enervated. One young man says that local youths who became suicide bombers, do so just to end their lives, not with any higher loyalty in mind. The camp suffers from despair and lethargy. Sporadic excitements are chartered, including World Cup mania. Though not a cheerful film, Fleifel draws humour touched sketches of a woebegone grandad and a free-thinking uncle. A Fatah attached best friend swings between revolutionary zeal and the shrug of emotional surrender. Demoralization, rage and resignation co-exist. Fleifel, who grew up in Europe, has relatives and friends in the camp, and observes them genially. The film carries a friendly warning that the placid Palestinian refugee camp could become dangerous, give the right provoking speak or momentum.

‘What’s going on in Venezuela’ (6 mins, colour, 2014) is a debut short film on the plight of Venezuelans. Conceived and made by 21-year-old Andreina Nash, who was born in Valencia (Venezuela), but moved to Florida at the age of nine, when her father got a job there, the Venezuela video shows the scale of student revolt in the country and protests against the suppression of the media. The sequence of stills and video of the protests is narrated in Nash’s voice, which is clear American, but with Spanish pronunciations. The background sound track from ‘Gladiator’ rises to a crescendo. Three students are confirmed dead from gunshot wounds. The film shows one protester being hit over the back with a gun by an armed policemen, and then kicked in the head. Nash’s voice-over stops while the footage rolls over oblique angled street scenes, patches of sunlight cutting across shadowy long-range views of tiny demonstrators pouring down a road, amidst the sound of rapid gunfire. The impressive piece of film making has drawn images from the Venezuela Lucha Instagram page, which has been docementing the violence.

‘The Invisible War’ (93 mins, colour, 2014) reports about the high number of sexual assaults in the American army. The director, Kirby Dick, gathers testimonies from victims of assault. The military establishment’s indifference to their complaints has caused them as much agony, as their original ordeal. The film’s campaigning is resonant, even if the particular aspects of American bureaucracy might have limited relevance. Half a million is the estimate for rape incidents in modern military history. The film suggests that one in five serving female officers has been sexually assaulted. The male victim rate is not clear. The women know that making a complaint will entail a humiliating and futile procedure, in which the original experience becomes a thousand times worse. The film argues that the system of justice makes the US military a rapists’ playground, because the commander is the only person, to whom a case can be brought. Torrents of unhappy stories spring from anecdotal evidence. A girl cannot get the army to finance surgery on facial damage suffered during her assault. US forces’ dysfunction could affect its relations with foreign civilian population. The films had limited screenings in Kolkata’s art house circuit.

Vol. 47, No. 4, Aug 3 - 9, 2014