You’re never too old to be an artist! Art is expression, and expression impossible without a context in which to construct it. Agnès Varda’s context is this life, this world; her art is engagement with all that is amenable to being engaged, all that opens itself up to her as she, now 89, opens herself up to the world once again. The London Film Festival opens its arms wide to embrace filmmakers from around the world, of all ages and cultures and nationalities, with all perspectives on artistic expression, but of them all there is only one Agnès Varda, and she only has one film showing at this year’s LFF. It needed no long, arduous consideration when the programme was announced at the end of August – I was going to make time for La Varda.
Making time is getting ever more arduous, however, as my busy schedule refuses to relent. University work and festival duties are melded together with a sticky, smelly mortar of Tube travel and not enough sleep to form a daily non-routine of heavy bags and sweaty backs. Refreshments must be purchased so that Wi-Fi can be accessed, maps must be consulted so that journeys can be planned, films must be seen so that articles can be written. I may now live in London, and fuck knows it’s brilliant to have a proper, permanent base here, but forcing together these extraordinary 12 days with an ordinary life that’s still not quite ordinary yet is quite the task, and as the festival progresses it’s growing more tiresome by the hour.
My sole source of solace arrives on a giant screen before my weary eyes twice a day, as I settle my dampened corpus into a cushioned chair for the purpose of ingesting culture. Thank fuck I’ve got Agnès entering my system today. She works with JR, the acclaimed French artist, 55 years her junior though her match in spirit and energy, and probably her inferior in artistic vision, though it’s of no consequence toFaces Places. The pair embarks on a cross-country tour of their native France, encountering those souls so rarely depicted in mainstream, bourgeois French cinema – or at least depicted only with contempt – then reproducing their image on giant photos pasted over the sides of local buildings. There’s the modern art part, the JR contribution, as Varda pastes her moving photos on the insides of international arthouses. When asked why, we are informed thus: “The point is… the power of imagination”, though we needn’t necessarily be told – Faces Places is, as the best photography, an invaluable document, a snapshot of a moment in time, and of an emotion captured therein. In this case, the emotion is mostly joy, whether on the faces of those photographed before or after the process, and then of the viewer. Varda, ever the innovator, turns inward once again for another canny self-portrait, although enlists an objective eye to diversify the point of view. Both she and JR recognize the importance of the direct relation of modern art to its contemporaneous environment, and see an image-obsessed western world as one of opportunity: pictures aren’t replacements for memories, they’re exquisite little (or, in this case, large) supplements to it, and records of it. Faces Places is a 90-minute record of utter loveliness, and proof that you’re never too nice to be an artist (take that, Jean-Luc)!
Varda filmed a pre-screening introduction, though it was more of an apology, as neither she nor her co-director could attend. We heard reasons, but none of them were that the night before they’d been in Hollywood with Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Lawrence for the film’s U.S. première. I’d almost forgive them that, but that I was better dressed than either of them. It’s La Varda, though, and she can do whatever the fuck she wants. I just want to get home and get into bed by this point, but I’ve got a 9pm showing of Makala in fucking Shoreditch, so away I trundle out to Hipsterville to reach Rich Mix, the only cinema in the world where the screens are so impossible to locate that they have to draw a red line on the floor to lead you through the building to your seat. By the time you’re there, you’re barely even in Shoreditch anymore.
Worth mentioning now: so far, #LFF2017 has been a strong year. It’s been as solid a year as I’ve had in my five at this festival. That said, as for bona fide, all-time classics, I’ve seen maybe one. Plenty of real keepers, but only one that I’d consider a flat-out masterpiece… until now.
Makala looked interesting – I’d wanted to include a sturdy crop of documentaries in my LFF lineup, and to ensure that I included a few Africa-set titles in there too; the Cannes Critics’ Week winner seemed like the perfect fit, not least having bagged that prestigious prize. But coming after three ostensibly more exciting docs, from established figures in the industry, this breakout film wasn’t exactly high on my most-anticipated list either going into the festival or going into the cinema. Goes to show, as ever it does, how anticipation misleads.
Makala is just so fantastic. I can hardly put words to how good it is. It made my heart beat faster. It made my lungs work harder. It’s making my sentences shorter as I write. This is the Trumpified paragraph – short-lived bluster, no actual content, though still I’ll try. This is what I crave in cinema, the creation of poetry and art using the materials of reality, the shot composition, the editing, the crisp, evocative sound design, the whole fabric of the film taken straight from the specifics of everyday existence and filtered through a visionary prism of cultural excellence. Real events occurring in real time, breathtaking beauty set alongside painstaking toil, the film even forming out of itself – its production and its presentation – questions that exist only now in its consumption: for what purpose such effort, and to what ethical gains its depiction? A cacophonous, corrupt landscape in which every seed, every speck of dust has been evaluated for its monetary worth, endless roads through barren nations colonized by western capitalism. Other, equally injurious, more insidious, also flourishing hangovers from a recent past linger still, Makala closing on a note of surprising, climactic quasi-ritualism, bringing what themes one might have gleaned from its preceding 90 minutes into clearer focus. Shot by magnificent shot, Gras’ third feature reveals itself to be a work deserving of placement among the finest documentaries of modern times.
My mini-marathon of docs continues tomorrow, though with a brief interruption: who could resist a Claire Denis rom-com? Juliette Binoche stars in Let the Sun Shine In, before returning to non-fiction for Chen Zhou’s experimental debut Life Imitation.
Enjoy reading my articles? Check out my Twitter @screenonscreen, and stay tuned for a rebirth of my beloved blog in the coming weeks!