I was thrilled when IDFA asked me to select my 10 favorite films. That said, I soon realized that it’s no easy matter to choose from all the films I like, and thus give a place of honor to some and not to others, while there are a vast number of films that have left images etched in my memory. On the other hand, the fact that it’s hard to choose is also a good sign, because it means that there’s always interesting work to see. My selection is simple in that it brings together films that describe the world, life and different countries, in an understandable and enjoyable way. They are as follows:
Mother Dao, the Turtlelike
This is one of the best found-footage films in the world, if not the very best. Vincent Monnikendam found 260 kilometers of film in a cellar and transformed it into an exemplary, beautiful and magical work of art. It’s a portrait of the Dutch East Indies from 1912 to 1933, and a symphony of unique images accompanied by exciting music. More than 260,000 meters of 35mm nitrate film from the Dutch silent film archive served as the raw material for this documentary, which shows how the Netherlands ran its colony (present-day Indonesia). Traditional commentary is replaced by poems (edited and sometimes rewritten by the filmmaker) and traditional songs from the region. Monnikendam has respected the original length of the shots, adding only some electronic atmosphere and unsynchronized environmental sound and accentuating the “historical effect.” In my opinion, it surpasses every other archive film I’ve seen.
Cristóbal Vicente is a talented Chilean filmmaker in a category of his own. Actually an architect by profession, he’s one of those rare people of whom only a few are born in each generation. He makes one film every 10 years, and sometimes it takes him even longer. To make Arcana, he spent years visiting an old and dangerous prison in Valparaíso, Chile, gradually getting to know the prisoners’ lives and circumstances. Little by little, he became accepted, which is quite a feat in this tragic world. Having won the prisoners’ trust, he started to take his camera with him, filming over a period of 12 months. The result is a film that nobody could have imagined. It’s a unique and different view of a formidable prison, which was established in 1843 in an old gunpowder magazine. Vicente then toured many festivals with his film before returning to Chile. He later agreed to participate in the filming of my Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light). He was the best assistant I’ve ever had. We’ve become friends and still keep in touch despite the huge distance between Europe and Chile.
I discovered this masterpiece as a teenager in Chile. It’s a science fiction film that tells the story of time travel after a nuclear war. To save humanity, there’s only one option: to send someone either to the past or the future to ask for help. Some years after this imaginary war, Chris Marker arrived at the door of my house in Santiago, Chile, in 1972. He had come to buy my first documentary, El primer año (The First Year). I was completely taken by surprise and dumbfounded. I could never have imagined that the director of La jetée would ever be on my doorstep. This meeting also changed my life as a filmmaker forever. A year later, he helped me to make La batalla de Chile (The Battle of Chile), for which he provided the raw material. It’s a story that I describe in a book about the film that will be published in Chile.
Ether is more than a movie. It is an aesthetic and philosophical reflection on India—a long, masterful and artistic description of a country, and of the paintings of Viswanadhan. The director lives in Paris, but his homeland features in every painting he exhibits and every film he makes. His passion is painting, and his films are as fascinating as his paintings, which I find less accessible due to their abstract nature. Nonetheless, I do see his colors, his breathing, his atmosphere and his mystery reflected in his cinematic work, and on each journey, I accompany him with admiration. “In the 1970s,” Viswanadhan says, “I started a series of films about the four elements: earth, water, fire and air. Now I am venturing into the domain of the fifth element, the most elusive of all: ether… This element is inseparable from matter, but is not matter itself, it is inseparable from life and is invisible. It is an element that continues to exist even after death.”
The Sugar Curtain
Camila is my daughter, the younger of two. I’m proud of her first documentary. As any father would be, I was glad that she wanted to follow in my footsteps and become a filmmaker. I can see that she has talent and I really like this film, in which she describes her years in Cuba after my entire family and I fled from Augusto Pinochet’s Chile. Children growing up in Fidel Castro’s Cuba were known as “pioneers.” Camila experienced the heyday of the revolution, in which people’s basic needs were all met and there was a high level of welfare. Thirty years later, these children have largely left the island, while those who have stayed behind try to lead a life between illusion and disillusionment. Camila has also left, but she hasn’t lost her love for the island. When she returned, she set out to discover why the country of her childhood no longer exists.
Living in Tazmamart
This film by the young filmmaker Davy Zylberfajn is surprising because of its classic strength. During the same period as the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1991), 50 men were buried alive in the desert of Morocco after planning a coup against King Hussein. The intelligence services discovered the plot and the rebels were imprisoned in Tazmamart, an area of the Sahara. About 15 of them managed to survive. Their testimonies are an extraordinary demonstration of human strength of mind. Living in Tazmamart is a brilliant work that shows how even the worst prison cannot break the free spirit of a handful of determined men. Zylberfajn patiently traced the survivors and filmed them in vivid landscapes. He has thus created a classic in the field of testimonial cinema; a treasure for the world’s collective memory.
This is a series of 11 short films that show the work of 11 women with the most diverse professions: a florist, a piano tuner, an optician, a glassworker… and also an illusionist. It’s a true and timeless masterpiece. Alain Cavalier is a filmmaker who knows how to make portraits like no other.
Y in Vyborg
A movie in which the happiness leaps off the screen and directly touches us. The film emanates a strong sensuality, a powerfully evocative force, and a nostalgia more intense than I’ve seen in a documentary for a long time. The Finnish filmmaker Pia Andell has succeeded in telling a unique story in the “Nordic tradition.” Her film is reminiscent of the world of Ingmar Bergman, with those country houses in black and white, in the middle of spring, lunches in the open air in the countryside, children running freely among the adults, jumping and playing. The method was simple: Pia Andell unearthed the footage that her father filmed between 1938 and 1949, showing family life and also the war years. For various reasons, the husband had to work in a different city, and the text in the film is based on the letters of love and despair that the spouses wrote to each other. To recreate the voices, the director used a group of actors who breathe new life into these silent 8mm images. A remarkable, incisive work by a female documentarian, that has won prizes at numerous festivals.
Travel in G Major
This is Georgi Lazarevski’s first film, and undoubtedly his best. He went on to make other, very interesting films, but this is one of the world’s most beautiful documentaries. He shows his intimate relationship with his grandfather, who was a violinist in a symphony orchestra all his life. Georgi proposes that he should take his grandfather on a journey he has always dreamed of: a modest trip to Morocco. In a film full of humor, tenderness and beauty, we gradually get to know the grandfather, on a journey of mutual understanding, adventure, surprise and nostalgia. Without a producer, without a cameraman, without a sound engineer, without the support of a TV channel or government subsidy, without material or moral assistance from the French or European film industry, Lazarevski, a young French director, son of a Belgian mother and a Yugoslav father, singlehandedly made a film about his 93-year-old grandfather and created a unique work.
It also serves as an example of the laziness of certain bureaucratic processes in the film world. The only person who believed in the project was the documentary filmmaker Mariana Otero, director of the extraordinary Histoire d’un secret (History of a Secret). She writes the following about this interesting film: “Due to its free form, the film invites us to think about life and death in an unprecedented way. It shows us the simple journey of a grandfather with his grandson in Morocco. They cross the desert and oases, but the viewer soon realizes that a different story is emerging in the background. This is one of the great joys of cinema, that behind one simple story, another story can be hidden. The film takes us into the deepest confines of an individual, to something invisible that is within us all: the human condition.” Lazarevski shot the film on a small Sony pocket camera with an external clip-on microphone.
Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes for a Fugue
This is one of many films that show the complex process of “artistic creation.” It’s a topic I often deal with in my film classes, because everyone wants to know the “secrets” of creation in general. And anyone who sees this documentary is fascinated. Arvo Pärt is a portrait of a mysterious man who has the eyes and beard of a 12th-century prophet. The film follows Pärt over several years, during a particularly productive period of his life. He’s filmed while composing or practicing with the orchestra, and during various concerts, workshops and meetings. The director Dorian Supin has constructed the film in chapters that list the different nuances of the composer. He thus explores Pärt’s musical thoughts and inner world, and the way he conceives his music, trying to discover the secret of what makes it so captivating. Pärt was born in Estonia in 1935 but lives in Berlin. He has always sought to compose music steeped in a spirituality that seems to go back to the Middle Ages, without regard to contemporary trends. He has built a universe of sound outside of the present era. The film contains excerpts from masterpieces such as Tabula Rasa, Passio, Fratres, Orient et Occident, Cecilia, vergine romana and Como anhela la cierva.