The Film that was Killed by 'Variety' Lives Again

A great film festival, like a great film, raises questions. The New York Documentary Film Festival- Festival dei Popoli, from its opening film tonight, has posed a controversial one;

Why has one of Italy's most awarded auteur films, 'Below Sea Level', (winner of 10 prestigious international awards including Best Documentary Venice Film Festival 2008, Grand Prix Cinema Du Reel 2008 & European Film Academy Awards 2009) not yet premiered in the United States?

As Director Gianfranco Rosi addressed the audience at the opening of the 3rd New york Doumentary Film Festival, he choked back tears and answered that question. ¨'Variety' killed the film... I made this film with a lot of love for this country. But it had not yet premiered here. That for me was a huge defeat. Thank you to the festival for enabling this film to keep living".

It was a thought provoking opening to a festival that without fail presents thought provoking films. This is not a festival that cares about red carpets. Not a festival that cares about ¨bums on seats¨. Not a festival that cares about entertaining its audience with 'Coke and popcorn´ movies, or the latest darlings of the film festival circuit. In true European film style, this is a festival that is purely about films. And so it challenges its audience.

Firstly, because the most highly awarded films may indeed be the ones that an audience finds the most unbearable. Because documentaries present reality, and the truth can be confronting. Pushing boundaries means pushing buttons. and also because, as with many European or art house films, a quality documentary requires an investment from its audience, a patience and willingness to let a delicate story and deep characters unfold without an action opening sequence- and pays offs tenfold when that world becomes the audience's second skin.

But we live in the age of the 10 second attention span, the age of films shot with the subtlety of a gun, and an age of entertainment above enlightenment (where even documentaries are now expected to entertain, like the sexed up style of Michael Moore, and Supersize Me). Many a drama is searching for a depth and reality it can´t seem to find. So it is indeed ironic when docs with depth search for an audience they can´t seem to find.

Could that be, in truth, the real reason why Gianfranco Rosi´s 'Below Sea Level' has not yet found distribution or premiered in the US - more so than a damning review in Variety? The film is a slow unravelling of a tragi-comic desert community of the "residentially challenged". The homeless antiheroes of this outpost of outcasts south of LA are damaged and destitute. "It´s not a view of America most people want to see", an audience member says after the premiere.

Questions also inevitably arise about how the doc maker managed to film an erotic bedroom scene, in close up, between two of the characters. It takes cinema verite to another level. It takes a lot of tenacity and skill from the doc director to get that intimate with his characters, and it moves the audience into the reality of their lives in a way that we usually only see, ironically, in drama. Or were the characters 'acting' for the camera - that old conundrum of the art form, that has been questioned since the dawn of documentary?

Variety decided not to pose that question to its readers, but to wrongly present the filmmaker as a porn director, according to Rosi. "Exploitative... Would he have included an oral sex scene in a docu about a loved one?" Variety wrote. It's been said that all publicity is good publicity. But the film has not been seen since.

"That" infamous review then presents another controversial question; What is the accountability and responsibility of the film press, when a film can be killed by one reviewer, and the filmmakers career will be over quicker than he can say "tweet"?

And is it right for films to have a maximum 2 year expiry date on the festival circuit, when truly independent films need at least that long, if not longer, to market and distribute or beat a blasting review? Cinema is not live theatre, existing only in the moment. The beauty of film is its timelessness. Festival dei Popoli curates an archive that ensures films live on and filmmakers voices can be heard decades after their dreams were caught on film.

So a third controversial question is raised; why is it that many of these renowned documentary filmmakers, of Italian and other world cinemas, remain undistributed and their filmmakers unfinanced? The Festival dei Popoli, celebrating 50 years and a distinguished status as the oldest documentary film festival in Europe, has been a pioneer in bringing this art form to an audience. But there is a long way to go. And surprisingly, given the NYDFF´s Italian pedigree, much resistance has come from Italy. Whilst the NYDFF celebrates the high art and culture that Italian documentarians have brought to the screen, Gianfranco Rosi reveals another shocking truth to his audience; "documentaries are not part of our Italian film culture. Because for a long time they were considered something like propaganda."

Rosi points insteads to the heritage of the French, the British and the Scandinavians as the forebearers of the artform. But later, when an audience member remarks that his film characters seemed at times "like actors, being directed", Rosi quips "if that were the case, I'd be the best director in the world" but he hits a hometruth. His films are not cinema verite. He is indeed a director, directing the story and the characters, as documentarians too are story tellers, creating a scene or foreseeing a conflict, and carefully choosing what questions to ask - or not. Documentary is a depiction of reality, and the art of the director is in finding and revealing that truth.

and so the Festival dei Popoli and its filmmakers, by focusing purely on documentaries, present yet another challenge to its audience in the way we think about films and the world; "documentary is film", Rosi says. "there is only good film and bad film. there is no distinction of documentary film. There is only cinema".

Wendy Dent
New York, 26 May 2010