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Visions du Réel 2024: The American Way and Other Options

A row of people with their backs to the camera sit on a boat wearing orange t-shirts.The Dells

Having living abroad for 19 years, music critic Philip Sherburne recently described the culture shock of returning home and trying to navigate an American supermarket: “the self-checkout machine accuses me of stealing and runs back video of me while calling for an employee to come intervene. Every time you turn around, it seems like a corporation is trying to screw you out of yet more money via another hidden fee. It’s no wonder Americans seem pissed off all the time. It’s a fundamentally hostile environment.” For me, some of the fun of attending Visions du Réel, a Swiss festival focused on art-leaning nonfiction, is getting to temporarily cease thinking about parochial American nastiness and instead contemplate the EU’s troubles—movies regarding which form a reliable strain of the festival’s programming—from a visitor’s comparatively remote distance. But Sherburne’s words came back to me while watching my 20th and final screening of this year’s VdR, Nellie Kluz’s The Dells. Her debut feature was the sole American film I saw at the festival, which takes place in Nyon’s predictably expensive and orderly environs; The Dells is set in a titular Wisconsin town that—aside from the $13.5 million house of a millionaire, both person and property heard of but unseen—is neither. 

Dense with waterparks and tourist-baiting American kitsch, The Dells is also a site for foreigners temporarily entering the USA on a J-1 visa to take part in the Summer Work Travel program, which—per official State Department verbiage quoted in the film’s opening titles—“provides foreign students with an opportunity to live and work in the United States during their summer vacation […] to experience and to be exposed to the people and way of life in the United States.” In practice, that means working for dirt wages at Walmart while a supervisor yells that spilled milk isn’t being cleaned up fast enough—truly a representative American experience, if not necessarily as intended. I snorted in grim recognition at the opening shot of a characteristically homogenized American small-town landscape—Taco Bell and Dunkin’ in the foreground, Culver’s mid-depth, Denny’s at the back—and outright laughed when two visiting workers, asked by their taxi driver whether they’d rather stay in the States or return home, say they’d like to remain because, among other things, the US has good health care; they are immediately and correctly informed that the US is the only first-world country to not offer health care as a right. In this context, the German story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, retold at a nearby park via a animatronic clock show, registers as emblematically American: a man is contracted to do a job only to be told that he won’t be paid for it just because. (The clock stopped working during the pandemic and isn’t coming back, which is metaphorically even more depressingly resonant unless we rethink this as an object acting in solidarity with “quiet quitting.”) End credits identify each person by a compact description of their scene and/or key line of quotable dialogue, an solid final associative reminder for a counter-intuitively funny ensemble of people (not least the filmmaker) finding humor in a default hopeless place. 

Nicole Vögele’s International Feature Film Competition Grand Prize winner The Landscape and the Fury is textbook slow cinema in both its shots (durationally extended, carefully chosen static perspectives) and structure (the implied magisterial and elegiac tone that comes with dividing a film into four chapters/seasons). There’s no main character, appropriate for a film taking place along the liminal zone of the Bosnian-Croatian border, where migrants to Western Europe are perpetually crossing through or getting deported back. (“This morning the kids played police and migrants again,” a woman tells her partner.) In that respect, a wide shot approach is thematically apt in anonymizing transient subjects as they try to slink through. The most distinctive images are devoid of visible humanity altogether: abandoned passport photos on the ground or a single shoe on a forest floor, abandoned to transform into microscopic lake for a minute quantity of water that vibrates from inaudible nearby stimuli. Beginning and ending in a forest that’s nearly visually illegible at night, Landscape has Lynchian levels of faith in the inherently compelling properties of darkness, a reference point that becomes especially relevant at a chilling moment where we hear, but don’t see, the anguished screaming of a woman whose family has been apprehended by border guards; calling it Laura Palmer-esque isn’t meant to be trivializing but admiring. But the 138 minutes of Landscape are simply too long, diluting individual sequences’ formal impact as they collectively cross from immersively textured to moodily attenuated. 

The almost irritatingly handsome title subject of Louis Hanquet’s debut feature A Shepherd, Félix herds his flock through immaculately composed widescreen frames; acting as his own cinematographer, Hanquet has a spectacularly oriented still photographer’s eye. After a few Alpine establishing shots, the action kicks off with a static view first animated from the left by one of Félix’s sheepdogs, whose head intrudes in the bottom third. Next comes the shepherd himself, rendering depth dynamic as he lays fencing down away from the camera, then finally the sheep. Hanquet cuts to an overhead view of them streaming across the landscape while organically separating into three different lines that neatly mark up the frame’s top, middle and bottom components; it takes a lot of observational time to render the real world as neatly as a studio-set obsessive. Likewise, it’s one thing to take advantage of spectacular mountain scenery, another to understand how best to render its proportions. Hair color helps; Félix’s blond dye stands out against the mountains, just as later, when he’s visited by his father Francis, the patriarch’s white mane immediately differentiates him from his son even in extreme wide shot. It’s now been 15 years since Sweetgrass, the radically filmed shepherd documentary announcing that the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab had had just about enough of traditional cinema, but A Shepherd pits classically excellent widescreen mise-en-scene against 1.33 nightvision shots of wolves approaching the flock; here, the idea of “trouble in the image” aligns literal predators with visual expedience.1 Late in the film, Félix and his fellow shepherds sing a song celebrating their pastoral traditions’ perseverance in the modern world, which just offers contracts and encroachments on their freedom. Likewise Hanquet’s images: reject modernity, embrace tradition.

Of course, it’s not good for me to only get what I already know I want; that way lies reactionary ossification. Miguel Morillo Vega’s Cyborg Generation follows Kai Landre, 18 when the film begins in 2019, who wants to augment his body to be more in touch with space; specifically, he wants to implant chips that will sonically translate cosmic rays entering the earth’s hemisphere into tones inside his head. As someone who’s literally just trying to get through the day most of the time, I can’t say I understand that impulse, but Cyborg is fascinating and unexpectedly sweet while observing Kai for four years. He’s attempting to follow in the footsteps of Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas, two self-proclaimed cyborgs (with, yes, some serious art school training), but theirs is a tough road; with so little medical precedent and the required surgeries being totally illegal, it’s hard to find someone to implant chips even if you can figure out how to design them. Plus there’s the oddity of it all: “Does it bother you that it’s a bit weird?” Kai is asked. “I’ve been weird my whole life,” he reasonably counters. The parallels with trans rights are straightforward (Kai’s body requires augmentation to deal with a form of dysphoria, in this case manifesting as a discomfort with the limitations of earthly experienced a desire to feel more in touch with the universe), and if I can’t viscerally relate to the urge, I don’t need to. Tapping into chill, on-trend ’80s NASA vibes, Harto Rodriguez’s synth score got me partly there, and the movie ends on a surprisingly positive note as Kai has lunch with his once-freaked-out parents, who still don’t really get his project but have made their peace with it anyway. Vindication comes when he’s invited to travel from Spain and speak at a Princeton conference, where Kai announces, “I can finally say that I can feel space inside of me, and also that I am a cyborg.”

Previously unknown to me, Uruguayan filmmaker Mariana Viñoles gives a video diary perspective on lockdown with Not Even the Flowers, a work modestly/rigorously confined within her apartment to one window’s vantage point which she continuously reframes but never backs away from. Unseen but regularly heard, Viñoles frets on the phone about how she doesn’t know how to get her work onto Netflix but really should figure that out since she’s a single mother supporting herself as a filmmaker, occasionally yells at her kids when they interrupt her shooting or smartly provides an extra audio attraction by turning on the radio for news commentary or playing songs. (The title comes from one by Eduardo Darnauchans, so Viñoles gets an honorary mention for introducing me to cool new music). Outside the apartment, her attention is most frequently drawn to a dumpster that attracts a regular stream of action: people dumping rubbish, dumpster divers, an angry guy standing around threatening to kick the ass of someone just offscreen. It’s a pleasingly compact, emotionally clenched work.

My head-and-shoulders festival favorite, Martín Rejtman’s determinedly strange Riders is the drolly-inclined Argentinian’s second documentary. Where his narrative films are structurally unorthodox comedies still operating within the more familiarly humorous idiom not dissimilar from the Bresson-inflected familiar deadpans of Jarmusch, Kaurismäki et al., at first I wondered if Riders would end up being the director’s first entirely humorless film, though I gradually found some chuckles. It kicks off in May 2020, with extended global lockdown fatigue ramping up; after an opening rally of delivery drivers protesting their horrible conditions (“It is inadmissable to normalize the bodies of our comrades lying in the streets”), Rejtman (who I also interviewed about the film) presents a series of locked-off nighttime shots of migrant Venezuelan deliverymen queuing to pick up their orders and handing them over, the distance from restaurant to diner bridged by elegant parallel tracking shots of bicyclists in action. This visual language connects directly back to Rejtman’s first feature, 1992’s Rapado, similarly defined by nocturnal roaming and long sidewalk tracking shots—a distinct vision maintained 30+ years later, now sculpted in the real world.

Riders‘s consistently gorgeous, rigorously worked-over images lean even further into aggressive formalism during a second half taking place in Caracas, 2022, first via a eight-minute montage of alternately left and right tracking shots exploring the Venezuelan city, a roving gaze trained up at buildings and away from people. That’s immediately followed by an unbroken five-minute shot of teenage Venezuelan karate students performing solo kata routines with hilariously rigid faces and strained intensity. Both of these sequences push durational buttons that were pleasurable for me but which also produced a rapid cascade of walkouts; that, of course, made me like the movie even more. (The film took second place in the Burning Lights section.) After branching further away from Caracas to one bicyclist’s hometown of Colonia Tovar, the coda brings the film back to Buenos Aires, following different riders backed by an audio chorus of voices discussing future plans, these dispatches from exiles back to their loving parents an inverse of News from Home. The underlying sadness of the film is heightened the gap between the optimistic way these kinds of visuals would normally work (peddling with determination towards the future!) and the bleak post-pandemic actuality the image encapsulates: The future we’re rushing to is actually even worse than the one we were approaching before the lockdown reset.

1 It’s a weird time to be in Switzerland watching a documentary demonizing wolves: Earlier this month, farmers went to Lausanne to dump the corpses of dead sheep on the doorstep of the government’s regional headquarters as part of a call to renew wolf culls (i.e. killing) after decades of leaving the endangered species alone. But this is A Shepherd, not A Wolf Sanctuary.

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