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Jesting in Earnest: A Dispatch From FIDMarseille

The Marseilles festival of experimental film premiered thrilling new work from Nour Ouayda, Ben Rivers, Narimane Mari, and more.
One Sea, 10 Seas
This year’s slate of films at FID Marseille was overflowing with provocative and challenging premieres, films that were hilarious, frustrating, bemusing, fierce, and wholly surprising. But amidst all the excitement, there’s often a hint of the bittersweet at a festival like FID; among this cornucopia of experimental, non-commercial films, it’s inevitable that too many remarkable ones will soon evaporate into the ether. Yes, for the next year, they’ll wend their way through the festival circuit, but ultimately many won’t receive distribution, becoming virtually impossible to find again. A film review won’t change that, of course, but it can turn a few more eyes towards distinctive films that deserve a big, rambunctious, and thoughtful audience. Here, I’ve written about my five favorite premieres at FID (in no particular order), films that, when someone later asks me about the best films I saw this year, I want to tell them about, and I hope they might reply, “Oh, yes, I saw that one too…”
It is rare to find a film as sensorially rich and conceptually sharp as Nour Ouayda’s One Sea, 10 Seas, a landscape film of the Mediterranean off Beirut’s Corniche, and a trenchant exploration on memory and art. Through text overlaying images of the sea, we flit between past and present, learning about the collaboration between cinematographer N. and her friend C., as they edit the eight mini DV tapes that N. made on the Corniche over four years. It is a roughhewn archive of light and color—the sea’s hypnotic flow, the tapes’ beautiful, flickering noise—as well as of mood: “There are no written traces of the shooting dates,” the film explains, “but some can be recalled because they correspond to very specific moods, moments of rupture or periods that were particularly sad.” Adding yet another layer, we are introduced to T., an idiosyncratic sound recordist, who traveled the world compiling an acoustic encyclopedia of water: from the silent lakes of the Himalayas to the roar of the Atlantic’s waves and wind and stony shores. As we follow images and sounds of the sea, we also follow each character’s relationship to the sea and these recordings, their feelings of solitude, estrangement, reverence, and elation.
The film conjures a hypnotic and melancholy atmosphere, but it also has an impish, Borgesian sensibility. T., after an injury, retreats to her apartment where she begins to record the mundane sounds of her sequestered life—the flush of the toilet, the roar of motorcycles outside—and soon finds that these sounds create a simulacrum of the sea that is somehow truer than simple recordings of the sea itself. So what are the sounds we have been hearing throughout? Wind pounding against the microphone, the chatter of water rolling off pebbles, a sizzling frying-pan, a washing machine? Throughout, the characters are in search of what the film calls “apparitions”—moments when the collision between sea and recording creates something that exceeds the bounds of either, and in turn, captures both perfectly. And likewise, this film, through layers of record and fantasy, offers a delicate insight—the way we flow through the landscape, and the way the landscape surges in us.
Ghost Strata
Similarly attuned to elemental forces and spectral traces is Ben Rivers’ new film, Ghost Strata. Comprising fragments gleaned each month during a year, the film has an aleatory, diaristic feel—a collection of sound and image that Rivers captured and then playfully wove together. Ghost Strata begins with a prophecy, perhaps self-fulfilling, with a tarot reader explaining that this film will most likely be about time. We later linger with a geologist, who coins the eponymous “ghost strata,” which, he explains, are the missing rocks that make legible the geology that remains; it is a spatial and temporal absence that makes sensible the deceptive present. The geologic metaphor is an apt one: it is a film of coincidental accretions, like the topography of earth, building density with each subsequent layer. We stumble upon sheep grazing to W. S. Merwin’s meditations on environmental collapse, upon Greek ruins and the philosophy of time, images of from Hogarth’s series of paintings, A Rake’s Progress, which ends in the madhouse. When the year ends, Rivers visits the tarot reader again, and she draws the magician card, symbolizing unpredictability, flux, transfiguration, and chance. It is a card that seems almost comically vague as she rambles in describing it. But agnosia, the film suggests, can be full of meaning. It just needs some time to settle.
How Glorious It Is To Be Human
FID screened another marvelously peripatetic film, Mili Pecherer’s absurdist first feature, How Glorious It Is To Be Human, which follows two women as they embark on a desultory pilgrimage through the Pyrenees, wearing outrageous fur coats, and carrying a giant hemorrhoid named Alfred. Alfred, about whom we learn very little, looks like an oblong beach ball with hideous red veins, and he slowly deflates over the course of the film as bramble and twigs poke small holes in him. The concept might sound unpromising, a gag that would quickly grow old, but the film, brilliantly, keeps Alfred in the background, never making much ado of the terrifying boil strapped to the woman’s back. He is always present, but rarely the center of dialog or events; he is a symbol that, obscurely, never accrues its significance—he is simply, perhaps, quotidian abjection. The brilliant and idiosyncratic cinematography only sharpens this aspect. The camera is usually mounted to one of the character’s bodies, including Alfred and the stubborn donkey they pick up along the way, but the movements of the lens often feel incorporeal, sometimes too steady, sometimes turning in ways that seem independent of the bodies to which it is apparently strapped. The images seem both intentioned and arbitrary, wrought and coincidental, embodied and alienated.
The title of the film comes from Kierkegaard’s short tract on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air. The two wanderers stumble upon various characters who launder Kierkegaard into their folksy wisdom, as when a man, searching for his cat with an absurd radio tracking machine, suggests that animals are happier because they’re ignorant of time. But beyond these more direct citations, Kierkegaard’s spirit haunts the very tone of the film. An inveterate walker himself, he knew well the salutary potential of rambling. And knew well, too, the special potency of devotion stirred by playfulness. In the tract that inspired the film, he writes that birds teach us to escape worry through their “jesting earnestness.” A fitting description of this joyful and wholly strange picaresque.
Holy Days
Jesting earnestness was a theme that, like Rivers’ geologic layers, became increasingly present throughout the festival. And nowhere was it more abstracted and concentrated than in Narimane Mari’s sublime Holy Days. If much of her earlier work has focused on the colonial history of Algeria, this film creates a mythic dream-logic that seems to precede modern history. The film has the air of a medieval village reverie, where comedy, transgression, devotion, and passion all intermingle in ways titillating and disturbing. A man digs his own grave, tries laying in it, and continues to dig; a woman unfurls an old marionette against a ruined stone building; we watch chickens feeding around a bare foot, then feel the rubbing of rubber chicken feet entangling with each other; a donkey brays violently into the lens of the camera, his erect dick retracting to a nub; another woman arrives, dressed as if she had just tumbled out of a city, to tempt or seduce or simply linger with the man and woman. What to make of all this? If nothing else, the contiguity of emotions that are so often sequestered, in life as in cinema. If this film captures something premodern, it is precisely this ineffable swirl of experience against which contemporary ritual and language withers. This is most sharply conveyed in one of the best images of the festival—the man sits naked in a chair, his body writhing, jerks of pleasure or pain, grimaces that are actually smiles that are actually grimaces. He appears on the edge of some great climax, but from what, and before what, is never clear.  
Rights of Man
“Art, like bread, it’s hard on the outside, but soft on the inside,” is the wisdom offered by one of the circus performers in Juan Rodrigáñez’s delightful Rights of Man. It was one of the last films I saw at FID, and a perfect way to conclude the festival: a warm, playful, unpretentious, and quietly hilarious sendup of art and politics. Working with the same performers from his last film, El Complexo del Dinero, the film tells the story of the “Indomitable Circus” as they prepare an international premiere of their performance, the “Rights of Man,” in a sleepy village in northern Spain. It ruins little to tell you that we never see the final show. Rather, the film itself imitates the structure of a vaudevillian performance: it begins with an opening musical act, a lip-synced rendition of Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra, with each character entering the scene one by one, and then continues with loosely linked sketches in which the ensemble prepares for, then bickers about, and then gets distracted from the tasks at hand. The film retains a screwball logic throughout, leavening the debates about art and ethics. A rehearsal of the opening speech screeches to a halt as they debate the semantics of the audience’s experience: should they invite the audience to “behold” the experience (deemed too officious), or “live” the experience (deemed too pretentious), or perhaps “participate” in the experience (which is probably just asking for trouble)? Later, a discussion about what the show is missing leads to a discussion about starting a side business exporting used cars, or maybe a new line of taxis, like uber, but with performance artists who will pick you up at the airport. These gags, thankfully, never read as flatly cynical. Just the opposite. Rodrigáñez warmly embraces all the absurd, tortuous fun of making art, and in doing so, offers a delightful portrait of an ensemble of earnest jesters.
On Sunday, as the festival was wrapping up, Marseille celebrated Bastille Day, and fireworks crackled up and down the old port, setting the sea ablaze and echoing off the Calanques’ limestone cliffs. Then, just when things seemed calm again, Algeria won the semi-finals of the Africa Cup with a last-minute goal, and the city erupted once more into celebration—a harmony of horns, engines, ululation, and, once more, fireworks. A perfect end to the festival: the city itself had become a stage for the play of light and sound.

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