Go backBack to selection

Visions du Réel 2023: Follow the Water, Zimmerwald, Knit’s Island, Human, Not Human

Valeria Stucki's ZimmerwaldZimmerwald

I’d enjoyed watching films from Visions du Réel online over the last three years, but in-theater is always better and this year that became possible. “I’m very interested in the festival, not so much the idea of ‘visiting Switzerland,'” I kept insisting in the weeks leading to my first IRL attendance—historically I’m left cold by the splendors of nature, don’t ski and have no large or illicit banking transactions to perform (to my regret!)—but that statement needed revision after arriving. On my first morning in Nyon, I walked to Lake Geneva and realized it looked uncannily familiar from Goodbye to Language. I had arrived in Godard country in multiple senses; he spent chunks of his adolescence and much of his subsequent life here, the program book’s welcome letter states that this year’s “edition will inevitably be dedicated” to him and many attendees are retirement-age men who look like him or Jean-Marie Straub, a latter-day resident of Rolle (two stops away on the train). And, like audiences anywhere, the ones here like seeing themselves onscreen; they laughed riotously during La Maison, structured by a voiceover monologue about the endless tearing-down and reconstruction of a house, when narrator-director Sophie Ballmer said that her partner’s grandmother was so eager to dispose of said house once its owner died that she “would have even sold it to people from Geneva.” Why is this funny? If you’re here, I could use a guide to internecine Swiss references.

The first standout I saw, Follow the Water, was initially presented last year as a gallery installation—as co-director Pauline Julier’s website states, in the form of a “3-channel video, 4K” with an “epilogue 3 min.” Reconfigured for a theatrical presentation, that translates as three 1.85 frames strung together horizontally, meaning that if my math is right this is in the extremely wide aspect ratio of 1:5.55. Julier and Clément Postec’s tripartite images begin underwater before relocating to space and then, for the majority of the running time, to the Atacama Desert. All three are sometimes unified into one unbroken panorama, but more often are discontinuous in ways that are often slight—desertscapes where only very slight changes in the sky’s color testify to different times otherwise seamless images were captured. Other times the gaps are explicitly brought into relief; Julier and Postec will sandwich two related shots around a disparate one, or show a road in which cars drive towards the end of their frame and then disappear once they hit the otherwise invisible wall. This is all very cool to watch as spectacle, and thematically the form-content relationship can work multiple ways; e.g., as the title indicates, one of the film’s main preoccupations is the increasing disappearance of water, of which shocking quantities are evaporated to produce lithium. The triple-screen format, with its heightening of tiny differences in daytime colors, can act as a metaphor for distressing environmental changes that need to be rhetorically foregrounded since they can’t be seen by the human eye in real time.

My next screening, Zimmerwald, began with programmer Violeta Bava inviting director Valeria Stucki to introduce the film; she, in turn, invited so many members of the cast and crew onstage that Bava joked “I was afraid if she kept calling people the room would be empty […] I was so proud of this full house”—but the theater remained full, the local interest factor at work again. Stucki’s film considers the 1915 Zimmerwald Conference, when 38 delegates from 11 countries, including Lenin and Trotsky, gathered in the obscure titular Swiss town. I’d heard of neither the event nor the city, which is essentially the point; teenage students study it for a school assignment, placing audiences in their position as the kids use Switzerland’s (surprisingly excellent) public transportation to travel there and ask local experts about its context and background. The hotel where the meeting took place has been torn down; as one man they talk to points out, because of the politics involved, “everybody was probably fine with” the destruction of an arguably historic site. The kids eventually become so interested that they wonder if there shouldn’t be a commemorative plaque on the site. One older man—who presumably doesn’t register that he’s speaking to precisely the people he’s insulting—tells them this is unnecessary because the youth don’t know or care about history, and the film climaxes with the Zimmerwald municipal council debating the plaque proposition in a meeting about a nearly 110-year-old meeting. An excellent end credit note specifies, at the request of the council itself, that their meetings aren’t generally open to the public, presumably in fear that viewers will rush to town and demand to sit in. Unlikely, but Zimmerwald‘s calm openness to the idea that history’s more obscure corners and deep-dives into arcana can remold our present thinking is inspiring.

Taking place (almost) entirely in the world of the video game DayZ, Ekiem Barbier, Guilhem Causse and Quentin L’helgoualc’h’s Knit’s Island is most interesting as a study of how documentary norms can translate seamlessly to the virtual realm. The three co-credited filmmakers—director, cinematographer and “technician”—spend 963 hours within a version of the video game’s zombie apocalypse landscape, wandering to meet some of the most ardently plugged-in faux-survivalists. Their initial encounters aren’t terribly edifying, as they meet up with a group led by a woman who insists that murder and mayhem are “fun”—she seems like somebody for whom Harley Quinn is a personal role model, which is as grating as that sounds, and Knit’s Island grows more interesting as director Barbier grows more embedded and less obligated to play the fool in order to draw out his subjects. Bouncing from group to group, the team encounters a melancholy “reverend” who leads a ragtag band that seem more interested in peaceably hanging out than expelling negative social energies; as one says of the game’s context, “I haven’t seen this in real life and I hope I never do.” Inevitably, the players let down their guards and discuss who they are offline and, towards the end, the reverend says that it would be weird to tell those in his life about his online activities. (As someone who’s spent hundreds of hours hanging out with friends while they play Super Smash Brothers, various iterations of Grand Theft Auto and Elden Ring, I’m not so sure; I always feel like the weirdo for not playing video games.) Just like IRL, the documentarians must obtain release permission to film their subjects. The shoot takes years, yet there’s still the fear of not having enough, and the most touching moment comes when the director is asked how he would feel if he was killed in the game: “If you shoot me right now, I will stop shooting and maybe miss the best scene.”

Despite the relative novelty of its setting, Knit’s Island is pretty structurally traditional; my second festival highlight, Natan Castay’s Human Not Human, takes a bolder approach to our virtually mediated future. Protagonist Otto is introduced while manually blurring out faces captured in photos for Google Maps, for which he’s paid a penny apiece. Taking on various gigs through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, Belgium-based Otto identifies objects in photos as “human/not human,” scans X-rays and labels cancerous tumors, searches crowd photos for missing children and generally takes on all the weirdest corners of the internet-based gig economy, for which he’s paid entirely in Amazon gift cards. Otto’s sole companions are video chat friends—a brother and sister in Brazil, an expat Brit with social anxiety in Thailand, and a 51-year-old American pastor (“Findlay, First Assembly of God”) who tells the 25-year-old Otto that a young man should be doing something else other than talking to an old guy online and that these should be “the best years of your life.” Oh no, I thought—”Other people wouldn’t like to hear you if you said that these are the best days of our lives,” as Blur sang, and the future’s not looking better. The film is both strikingly contemporary and already out-of-date: this labor is in part to train AI to replace the people performing the work, and that technology’s acceleration (and the human firings that are already starting to come out of it) is the unavoidable backbeat of this year’s news. Human Not Human gets its comedy in part because the mildly schmucky Otto—a self-described “lone wolf” living off instant ramen which he sometimes doesn’t even bother cooking, the very model of a super-online nerd but without the compensatory technical skills to make a lot of money—is played by Belgian actor Harpo Guit, who’s skilled at playing up his character’s haplessness. The AI may be able to do a lot, but the film’s extremely sharp editing—like the timing on a cut from someone saying “Why not let the robots do it?” to an overhead view of Otto unpacking dozens of Amazon boxes, a task for which mechanical labor would be truly useful—makes the current case for the human factor: robots could never be this funny.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham