Home is a space in time: Visions du Réel 2021

30 April, 2021

It might sound strange, but it looks like I needed a documentary film festival to arrive at a little personal revelation, after having spent the better part of the last year in my home: it looks like I am in the midst of an escapist period, which was probably brought on by the late pandemic. It’s harder than ever for me to watch the outside world through a screen, and to wait for the moment in which I will be able to fully live it on my own. If I managed to overcome my weariness of online festivals easily, in regards to the Berlinale – this time around, I found it very hard to concentrate; maybe it also has something to do with the fact that, after an entire year of horrifying news, both on a global and local scale, after the arrival of spring (in its physical and metaphorical sense, once better news finally began to come in), it was hard for me to take a look at many of the films from this year’s outing of Visions du Réel, many of which have tragic premises – from the occupation of Palestine to particular incidents such as the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, or the case of the Germanwings deliberate plane crash.

This feeling would especially kick in if I came over a title that seemed to manifestly discuss the pandemic – I’d immediately scroll on, and I think that this particular sensation was worsened by the fact that I was well aware that these were works of non-fiction. I might have reached a certain level of saturation in regards to this topic (and honestly, who hasn’t by now?) – and it’s not like cinema would be of any blame here, it’s surely because I have been overexposed to this topic in the media and my daily life, coupled with pandemic fatigue. I remember that, during my college years, I would ask myself what would be the first big (traumatic) historical event that I would be fated to experiment empirically – well, now that this one’s off the bucket list, I seem to have begun to understand what kinds of emotional states determined (and thus encountered) the phenomenon of escapist cinema in postbellum societies, namely le cinema du papa (to quote Truffaut) / Papas Kino (this time, Alexander Kluge), which was contested by the New Waves, not just the European ones – just take a look at the meta-cinematic critique of such films in the late Edward Yang’s masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day (1991), whose plot is set little over a decade after Taiwan’s secession from the mainland.

Still din Don’t Hesitate to Come for a Visit, Mom, de Anna Artemyeva.
Still from Don’t Hesitate to Come for a Visit, Mom, by Anna Artemyeva.

The only pandemic-era film which I managed to watch was Don’t Hesitate to Come for a Visit, Mom, a documentary short film by Russian director Anna Artemyeva, which follows a day in the life of a little girl whose mother is a migrant to the UK, their relationship unfolding through WhatsApp video calls. It’s a film that is as short and simple as it is heartbreaking – the mother sings a lullaby while her daughter wraps herself around the cellphone, taking a few more moments to watch the sleeping child before hanging up, her image replaced by a string of short messages including mostly kiss and heart emojis. A scene with enough force to touch even the most jaded of hearts, and which raises an abundance of questions – from those related to the emotional lives of the so-called digital natives and the shifts in families due to migration and instant communication, to the concept of “home” as a space which is dependent on immanent presence.

This being one of the first films that I saw during the festival, I found myself watching more and more films that were approaching the topic of “home” (even tangentially, like Lobster Soup, which focuses on the closure of a popular local bar in a gentrifying part of Iceland) – and after a year like the past one, in which most of my time was spent in such a place, it’s particularly this kind of setting that incites my curiosity. One in which directors are looking back towards their biographies and families and towards the spaces in which they settled, either through found footage techniques, either through direct interventions and interviews; and so, I will stop on a couple of these titles in this piece. (Note: I’ve already seen some of the films in the selection at the Berlinale or IFFR: amongst them, No Taxi do Jack by Susanna Nombre, Nous by Alice Diop, Landscapes of Resistance by Marta Popivoda, and The first 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation by Avi Mograbi.) Films mapping all sorts of family history could be found all across this year’s selection of Visions, from the Latitudes side-bar, dedicated to films that already premiered in larger festivals, passing through the Official Competition and up to the Burning Lights section, which features titles that are inclined towards formal and thematic experiments, all of them having one common element: a filmmaker that is using the cinematic medium to explore his or her own domestic space. (And in the case of The Rosellinis, we witness a family of filmmakers – that of the children of the legendary Roberto Rossellini, one of the central figures of the Italian Neorealism movement.)

Still din Radiograph of a Family, de Firouzeh Khosrovani.
Still from Radiograph of a Family, by Firouzeh Khosrovani.

In Radiograph of a Family, the grand prize winner of IDFA 2020, “home” is an unstable space, subverting the notion of a home that remains always unchanged, and impervious to the large political and cultural shifts which happen outside of its premises. Filmmaker Firouzeh Khosrovani constantly reprises the same tracking shot along the length of an apartment, whose furniture and decorative objects change in each instance of the shot, functioning as one of the film’s central metaphors, in a narration that explores the relationship of the director’s parents. “My mom married a photograph” – thus begins the story between Tayi, a religious young woman, and Hossein, a secular man that is studying radiology in Geneva. Rushing to get married for Tayi to be able to quickly settle in Switzerland, the young woman finds herself alone and alienated in Europe, caught in a lifestyle which she oftentimes deems inappropriate concerning her religion, yet slowly accepting secularization as she dreams of returning to Teheran one day – and the chance to do so arrives with the birth of Firouzeh. Returning to an Iran that is on the brink of the Islamic Revolution, Tayi and Hossein slowly change roles – now a political and religious radical, the wife sets an end to her partner’s cosmopolitan lifestyle, partially destroying the photographs of their time abroad, making away with paintings and European furniture, and banishing parties and music, while imposing a strict and devout lifestyle in the family. It almost looks like she is taking her revenge for the years of suffering and loneliness in Geneva: Tayi is increasingly radicalized, and at one point she even enlists in a female military troupe during Iran’s war with Iraq, her political activity leaving her husband and daughter alone and isolated. By dramatizing her family’s story through the means of a voice-over dialogue, which runs over a collage of remarkable archival footage (which are largely personal, while also using various reportages), Khosrovani uses an accessible aesthetic and formal register, which is even a bit mainstream in tone. Despite cheesy moments here and there, Radiograph of a Family tells a powerful story about a love that is defeated by the ruthless tides of history. In contrast with Persepolis (2007), Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical animation, whose discourse is entirely critical towards the social effects of the Islamic Revolution, especially when it comes to those which affected women, here we have a rare positive outlook of a woman on the same moment in history through Tayi, even though her character is incorporated in a critical discourse.

Still din The Moon Represents My Heart, de Juan Martín Hsu.
Still from The Moon Represents My Heart, by Juan Martín Hsu.

In the self-reflexive The Moon Represents My Heart, the image of a destroyed family is recomposed not through the means of images from the past, but rather, through narrations from the present, in a home away from home – and Argentine-Taiwanese director Juan Martín Hsu rapidly realizes that his attempts at unearthing a painful past are pale in the face of realizing the sheer force of the present. Instead of offering details about the tumultuous history of his family by using extra-diegetic means, Hsu recomposes it by shooting discussions with his mother, who lives in Taiwan, and whom he visits once every couple of years: as such, this is not a thorough and linear story like in Radiograph of a Family, but rather, bits and pieces that allow us to understand a tragedy, which sometimes even turn speculative. (As if to underline this final aspect, the film is underpinned by several fictional vignettes, which borrow fine details from the details contained in its documentary part.) Hsu’s father was murdered when the director was a child, and the story of his death was never really cleared up – beyond a handful of theories (amongst them, the hypothesis of a vengeful lover, or Mafia involvement), the reason for his killing was never apparent, and it doesn’t look like the family is too eager to reopen this topic. (One of the strongest scenes in The Moon Represents My Heart has the filmmaker and his brother discussing the latter’s refusal to be a part of the film – and lamenting his sibling’s threat to cut him off should he decline to appear.) Hsu presents the discussions in chronological order, and as such, certain key elements in the story only appear quite late down the road (such as the fact that his brother, Martin, has a different father – setting his refusal to appear in the film in a different light), or the revelation of the fact that his mother left Taiwan after her father had been tortured during the White Terror. Slowly, Hsu realizes that his topic is not the complicated past, but rather, that it has been under his eyes this entire time: and that is his mother, the tenacious survivor of said past.

Still din Splinters (Esquirlas), de Natalia Garayalde.
Still from Splinters (Esquirlas), by Natalia Garayalde.

It is possible for a home under the external pressure of history to be destroyed not just slowly, from the inside – but it can also happen quite literally, in a single moment. That is the case of Splinters (Esquirlas), the debut of Argentine director Natalia Garayalde, which focuses on the effects of the devastating explosion of the Río Tercero munition factory on her family. Also working with found footage, Garayalde uses her family’s video cassettes – who bought a camera not long before the tragedy; what is also valuable in this footage is that it contains the very first experiments with cinema of a budding filmmaker (which, of course, are mostly infantile games constructed together with the director’s brother), who at the time was in her final year of middle school. The passage from the film’s introductory moments, composed of home movie fragments of an idyllic family (because, in the end, the purpose of such images is to preserve moments of domestic happiness), is abrupt, just as the nature of the tragedy which befalls the community: we see shots of a city that is torn apart, its streets criss-cross by humans and dogs which are running frantically, not knowing the magnitude of what has just happened, nor that of what is to come, while the smoke and dust have yet to settle. Natalia shoots the effects of the explosion on her own house, once her family can return – filled with broken shards and dust, broken doors, and shrapnel holes – but also its surroundings; through the eyes of a child, even a catastrophe turns into a context for discoveries and adventures, and her curiosity leads to the preservation of the images of a family and community that slowly reprise their lives in the wake of a major trauma. But, it’s known all-too-well that such things are not as easy as they sound, especially in a city where unexploded shells are constantly being discovered – from the father’s paranoid reactions, who believes the air to be contaminated with white phosphorus, to anxious states that are palpable even in moments which, at least hypothetically, should be happy ones (such as Natalia’s graduation ceremony). Splinters transforms an accidental document into an essay underpinned by anthropological notes about the act of surviving a disaster.

Still din Only the Winds, de Karim Kassem.
Still from Only the Winds, by Karim Kassem.

Although it’s not a part of the film itself, a similar catastrophe is hovering over one’s experience of watching Only the Winds, the hybrid-documentary feature debut of Lebanese filmmaker Karim Kassem – with a sizeable part of its plot set in Beirut, and an introduction which features several characters complaining about how things are going in their country, it’s impossible to watch this film without thinking of the explosion that mauled the Jewel of the Mediterranean last summer. The film is constructed in a manner that brings Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece, to mind (who is also visually cited at the beginning of the film – an aerial shot of a solitary car driving down a country road, which references Taste of Cherry). An emigre to the United States, Karim returns to his homeland to start working on a documentary, which slowly takes shape as an exploration of a school for sightless children – but also to get an eye surgery of his own. Just like in Close-Up, this is a film that melds together reenactments and documentary fragments, but, unlike in the case of Kiarostami, the two registers aren’t demarcated from each other – the film seamlessly flows and ebbs between the two styles, sometimes even from one shot to the other, a fluid and free construction which complements its exploration of the creative process; at the same time, this style also compliments one of the film’s main themes, that of blindness. After all, this is also a poetic wager, whose stakes are counting on the tension between sight and blindness: how does the world of the sightless look from the outside, and is it possible to access its interior through the use of a medium that is intangible to them? Can cinema also serve those that cannot perceive it? As he spends the film’s first part recovering from his surgery, Karim explores Beirut with bandaged eyes, rediscovering the home and town where he grew up through sounds, touch, and movement – the same sensorial micro cosmoses that he will end up searching for in the blind students, after regaining his sight and becoming increasingly aware of his privilege. Having this in mind, Only the Winds’ meta-cinematic aims appear even more robust: after all, wouldn’t a rigorous division of cinema in two separate camps, that of fiction and non-fiction, also be in itself a form of blindness?

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.