Puiu and Dardenne documentaries

For the War to End, the Walls Should Have Crumbled

The Cinematheque Ontario is screening five documentaries by the Dardenne brothers this week–the first time the films have been exhibited in North America (outside of Montreal)–and I’m hanging out for the event. I’ve attended Toronto’s international film festival the last couple years, but this is my first non-fall visit to the city, and its bare trees, icy winds and cloudy skies are a far cry from its warm Septembers. (For a thin-blooded Angeleno like myself, it’s positively freezing.)

But that hasn’t kept employees of the Cinematheque from working hard the last couple weeks. Senior programmer James Quandt introduced the films shown today, telling us how his assistants had laboriously typed up custom subtitles and would scroll through them manually during the screening, PowerPoint style. The technology worked flawlessly, and the fact that it was performed for only a couple dozen people in attendance confirmed the Cinematheque’s professionalism and commitment to world cinema. (As Quandt told me in an email, “For some filmmakers, you go the extra mile.”) Toronto residents have a real treasure here.

At least one other Yank showed up for the screening, my pal Girish, the man behind the ever-bustling hub of blog mania that is his website. Girish and I always have fun together free-associating about films and life . . . and eating at his favorite Indian buffet on Queen street.

To make the weekend even more exceptional, the Cinematheque also programmed the first feature of Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu on Saturday, whose recent The Death of Mister Lazarescu remains the best film I’ve seen all year. As an energetic road movie, Stuff and Dough (2001) is significantly different than Lazarescu‘s night trance odyssey, but its tale of a young man (Ovidiu) who agrees to smuggle a package to Bucharest exhibits the same unrelenting momentum. Told never to stop en route, a charge which recalls Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Ovidiu and the high-strung Vali and Vali’s girlfriend Bety speculate, criticize, and cower together when danger emerges. Puiu establishes his ability to coax authentic and intense performances from his whole cast, and the psychological maelstrom induced by their journey is immediate and immersive.

* * * *

The three Dardenne documentaries are reflections on political resistance movements that foreshadow the brothers’ later works in highly intriguing ways–perhaps more so than even their first two features, Falsch (1987) and Je pense à vous (1992), which they all but disown today.

When the Boat of Léon M. Went Down the Meuse River for the First Time (1979) is a black-and-white video introduced by the brothers (looking like long-haired radicals) that revisits key people and places in Seraing’s workers demonstration for health insurance in 1960. In Dardenne spirit, a montage foregrounds the manual labor involved in building the boat of LÈon (a participant in the original demonstrations), people are introduced by their trades and locations, and the narration draws enough potent metaphors about truth-seeking and the flow of history from the boat’s journey that one wonders if it alone later inspired the name of their production company, Les Films du Fleuve.

For the War to End, the Walls Should Have Crumbled (1980) reviews the history of an underground newspaper published by workers at a Cockerill factory during the ’60s; the documentary features Edmond, a former dissident who circumnavigates the ruins of the factory seven times (a reference to the biblical story of Gideon) while the Dardennes juxtapose interviews, archival footage, and ruminations on how history is preserved in objects (tables, documents, architecture, even their own film). The video is shot in color and contains a fair bit of playful technique that might surprise those familiar with the filmmakers’ later works. Despite its Godardian touches (three alternate beginnings, a tour de force mix of war and video game sounds set against images of production and copies of the newspaper) the long takes of walking and movement prefigure Rosetta’s own determined resistance.

R . . . No Longer Answers (1982) is a rousing examination of free radio culture in Europe: “Were free radio stations created because the mass media could no longer make love?” the narrator asks. “Or because they did so reluctantly?” The Dardennes highlight the passion and loose network of individuals (engineers, broadcasters, listeners) who comprise this form of alternative media, giving emphasis to physical equipment like hidden transmitters. A family of listeners commends a station that broadcasts in the Alsatian dialect for preserving a minority language, and the documentary highlights free radio’s multilingual existence. The documentary is also the most formally adventurous of the three screened today; the Dardennes utilize repetition, replaying key moments at various times, and build up a layered cacophony of voices in the final moments.

(Part two of the documentary series can be found here.)

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