The Play-Doc festival, which takes place in the ancient river town of Tui in the northwest Galician region of Spain at the border with Portugal, is very special for a variety of reasons. It is one of those festivals that stay close to its roots, finding breadth and expansiveness in its imperative to stay intimate – in the ways in which the event of the festival itself is planned, certainly, but also in the curation of its program. This year, with just seven selected “essential” non-fiction films in its international competition, the programmers once again gave refuge (and a spotlight) to films at once elegiac and highly personal, rigorous in their narrative structure but executed with highly impressionistic and poetic imprints from their authors. The school of Impressionism in painting dealt with the nature of fugitive light falling on various surfaces, creating a play of ephemeral movement – one that is temporary, fleeting, rooted in the moment … and then gone. It was an event and a program filled with such moments that always stay long in the memory and make me long to return year after year.
In his book, Ways of Seeing, John Berger says: «Images were first made to conjure up the appearances of something that was absent. Gradually it became evident that an image could outlast what it represented; it then showed how something or somebody had once looked—and thus by implication how the subject had once been seen by other people. Later still the specific vision of the image-maker was also recognized as part of the record. An image became a record of how X had seen Y. This was the result of an increasing consciousness of individuality, accompanying an increasing awareness of history.»
It is this nod to history – or History – that seemed to resonate in the two films awarded by a jury, personal, hand-made films made by young women each with début features. Both the international jury who gave its prize to a 42-minute film called Motu Maeva, and our CAMIRA jury who gave its prize to Talena Sanders’ Liahona, emphasized in both statements that what was valued about these films was the way in which a viewer was transported by the use of filmic languages that are at once personal and intimate, yet also have within these aspects an expansive and magnanimous relationship to landscapes and History.
Filmmaker and dancer Maureen Fazendeiro, who works between Paris and Lisbon, film and literature, is as much an elliptical presence as both her film and her protagonist, a woman she befriended called Sonja André. Shot on Super-8 – the preferred stock of memoirists, we could say – Fazendeiro meets André’s fragile narrative through the veil of the distant memories of an incredibly freewheeling life as wife of a French ambassador. Throughout the decades of their life together in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s as they traveled to every continent, Sonja and her husband Michel filmed compulsively, extravagantly, constantly. They filmed one another and the people around them, and they also shot on fragile Super-8. They filmed one another adoringly, lovingly, thrillingly, a visual manifesto of perfectly matched partners in adventure and lust for life.
Without being tied to any sense of linear time, Sonja’s reminiscences bring back both these entrancing adventures as well as a darker, more mysterious sense of tragedy that limns the edges of her narrative and has to do with her mother. One of the many emotional touchstones of this short piece is the way in which the director so carefully guards certain information, only to expose the wayward heart of an abusive mother and a terrible event that happened to mother and daughter together when Sonja was a girl. The history that has been documented (and is therefore researchable, knowable) is almost completely hidden here.
In the Super-8 celluloid stock employed by Fazendeiro and the Andrés’, the containment of several different layers of emulsions and filters, the speed and resolution are key qualities in this considerably ephemeral portrait. 8-mm film typically has the lowest resolution of any film stock, which results in more time per foot of film. This sense of time and the elliptical quality of the narrative denote a profound and beautiful economy of expression, full of dark hints, concise and straightforward declarations from Sonja, events sometimes on the verge of utter obscurity. This verge of obscurity is also physically where Sonja dwells, on an “island” she built called Motu Maeva in the middle of the lush French countryside where she lives alone among the detritus of what’s left of her life. She alludes to an illness that is painful and protracted, not really knowing the source of it but acknowledging that her mother suffered the same affliction.
From the opening shot, the textures of this secret place feel like stepping back in time and, indeed, as the film goes on and we see more and more of the Andrés’ footage, we realize that Fazendeiro has matched the look and feel, the framing, the exposure of the film stock’s sprockets on the left side – all are aligned with almost (but not quite) identical qualities of fragility and disintegration. Palimpsests of one scene bleeding through the surface of another are created with transparent overlays of flowers and other textures making the story tactile and immediate.
In French, we hear a woman say: «When I was still young, they locked me up somewhere and I told myself: «They might lock me up, but no one can lock up my mind.’ I just have to think about being outside and I started to wander about outside thinking about what I’d do…». We see a slight, bespectacled, almost-bald woman sitting at a table smiling and playing with her ear. She is dressed in tomboy attire of striped T-shirt, fitted pants and a baseball cap over her small head. «When I was little, my mother lifted up my chin and said, ‘It’s too bad. You’re pretty so you will be raped straight away»».
Then we are with Michel and Sonja in Paëa, Tahiti on Motu Maeva whilst Sonja tells us the story of the time she was in Paris, how she met Michel in a métro station. She tells of a great and immediate love story and of the man who felt she was his destiny, who avowed he would follow her «to the ends of the earth». There is unfettered freedom and sophistication to their relationship, and together they decide to honor their mutual desire to remain “unleashed,” to live as if they were alone, and free. «And together, to live it». Her voice is lyrical, filled with exhilaration at this profound love bestowed upon her and the one she was allowed to give and the happy memories that have never left her consciousness.
But there is a dark side to this tale and in the last ten minutes of the piece, Fazendeiro and editor Catherine Libert continue to deftly, and more emphatically, intercut footage from her camera with that of Sonja and Michel’s, the instability of this kind of expansive cinema reflected in the migration of the image from space to space from time to time. It is deeply affecting, tugging at some ephemeral rediscoveries of what has been lost, degraded, what’s gone missing. A violent storm approaches and the electricity is cut. Sonja’s voice fades and we hear a woman’s voice speaking in Dutch to Sonja and Michel that she has recorded on a cassette to send to them while they are traveling. We hear papers rustling and realize she is reciting from a letter she wrote to them and is reading it aloud. She starts to choke up with emotion – it has been twenty-four years and it is Christmas and she is alone. «And I’ll look into [my grandchildren’s] bright eyes shining like your beautiful dark eyes. …My greatest desire is to have you finally close to me and for a long time». From 1961, over half a century ago, the specter of the evil mother emerges from the winter of her own life. And then she is never mentioned again, that cassette just another memento mori left to gather dust amongst all the rest.
In her book of essays called When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson says: «There is dignity in the thought that we are of one substance with being itself, and there is drama in the thought that ultimate things are at stake in these moments of perception and decision. But the cosmos considered in such terms went out of style a few generations ago. We know that tremors pass through the sun as if it were a giant gong, that the earth tilts, that our hearts beat. But the thought of participation in reality on this scale seems to have been dismissed together with metaphysics as meaningless. In their place we have the casting back of anthropological assumptions to describe our remotest origins, which, by implication, also describe our essential selves».
Certain people are, at once, a complete world unto themselves. These are the same individuals who never forget that they are but an infinitesimal part of a larger world, where the matter of their being melds with everything else – the earth, the universe – both terrestrial and incorporeal spirit. The indefatigable Sonja shouts to the cosmos, «I love you», as only an individual who loves herself can express so unequivocally.
We see the last of the essential Sonja dancing drunkenly in her kitchen, celebrating the end of another day. With red flashes indicating that her roll of film is nearing its end, with barely any light, just a candle or two to film by, Fazendeiro dances with her subject, her camera held aloft on one shoulder as a Tahitian love song plays on the soundtrack.