QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROMM LOCARNO
A group of roughly 10 young Moroccan teens circulate on the streets of Melilla at night in the hope of eventually reaching the European continent, and settling in the EU. Their homeland has failed them, and they see little hope of education and career progression in their birth place. They consistently climb fences, walls, or even the thick cable connecting to the large anchored ships. These are hardened youths, used to class-a drugs and violent confrontation with the police. It is never entirely clear how they got there, and why the police don’t deport them back to Morocco.
At 183 minutes, this almost entirely black-and-white, sensory documentary has no discernible narrative. Instead, it just captures random actions and dialogues, without ever telling a story. A fade-to-black device that serves no narrative function is repeated ad infinitum (fading normally suggests the passing of time, but this clearly isn’t the case here). Same with a brief and bizarre video art montage at the end. French director Sylvain George also happens to be a poet, and he never shies away from taking artistic and lyrical liberties. The outcome is an extremely long, observational, freeform documentary, akin to the work of Chinese documentarist Wang Bing (whose latest film, also about young people under hardship, premiered earlier this year in Cannes). Such films are remarkably popular in prestigious film festivals, however far less common on general release or even streaming. That’s because they are extremely difficult to watch, and require full immersion (something not every film lover can afford). Just last year, George directed his debut feature Obscure Night: Wild Leaves (The Burning Ones, the Obstinate), an equally brief documentary (with duration of just 255 minutes, or four and a quarter hours), and another straightforward an unambiguous title.
Perhaps the topic and the cinematography are a nod to Italian Neorealism. Black and white, location images of poor people barely scraping a living on the Mediterranean might ring a bell for those familiar with the work of Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio de Sica. Incidentally, the Festival’s Artistic Director Giona Nazzaro told us in a recent interview that the event played a pivotal role in catapulting the post-War Italian movement to the international stage. So this might be a natural pick.
Obscure Night 2 has some powerful moments. The most shocking information is delivered in verbal format. We learn that the police severed the head of an illegal immigrant with the engine of their boat, in what may have been a deliberate attack. Police violence left protruding scars in the bodies of the young people: arms, legs, head, chest and back. One of the young victims still has an open wound, and he explains that it was inflicted by a glass-wielding major. The most graphic scene is a drug-taking session. These young people are equally skilled in cooking food and making cocaine-infused rollies.
What is also prominent is the militarisation of the Spanish city. There are various scenes inside a military museum, a Spanish coat of arms, and a plaque on a house once inhabited by Spanish fascist dictator Francisco Franco. The fortified walls of Melilla are everywhere. This includes both the stone constructions of the past and the towering roadside fences of the present, not dissimilar to the Apartheid walls of Israel. This is a place imprisoned by its tumultuous history, these man-made barriers seem to suggest
The biggest problem with George’s film is that it exoticises its characters. The combination of the artistic, black-and-white photography, and the director’s distance from the characters creates a sense of strangeness and alienation. These young males indeed live in the margins of society, however this does not mean that they should be portrayed as wild beasts. What we see is a pack of nocturnal, anti-social animals roaming a seaside jungle of rock and concrete. A poem at the end of the movie (presumably penned by the director) corroborates this as it describes the characters as “untamed animals”. These people are also robbed of their individuality: we see their black silhouette, we never learn about their personal histories, or even their names. Even the film location is exoticised: we see the monochromatic cinematography of a ghost city. Melilla is almost entirely devoid of passersby throughout the entire duration of the film. Otherworldly.
Another issue is that the dialogues feel contrived, lacking freshness and spontaneity. I am not suggesting that these conversations are scripted or rehearsed, but instead that the filmmaker may have not forged enough intimacy for his subjects to be entirely comfortable in front of the cameras, particularly as they open up.
Obscure Night – Goodbye Here, Anywhere just premiered in the Official Competition (Concorso Internazionale) of the 76th Locarno Film Festival. A cold and distant art piece created for contemplation instead of meaningful and profound reflection.