Nénette (2010) Nicolas Philibert - Recommended
Nénette is a 40 year-old orangutan who has spent 37 of those years in captivity at the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Nicolas Philibert trains his camera on Nénette and her three orangutan companions behind the thick observation glass of the zoo and never deviates from them. A vocal narrative accompanies the images with interviews about Nénette and conversations people have with and about the orangutans in front of the protective glass. Sometimes this was the din of a hundred school children and sometimes this was the thoughtful presumptions about Nénette's life. Philibert, the director of the most successful documentary in France, To Be and to Have, is one of the most conscientious documentary filmmakers around. Careful with subject matter and attentive with style, Philibert's choices have a subtle effect on an unsuspecting audience. This sort of visual specificity is not about manipulation, but about creating a unique experience with a documentary film. Nénette ends up being an effective portrait of ourselves through the reflection of the orangutans. Having just heard a radio program about a group of orangutans in a zoo who figured out how to pick a lock in order to get into the tress of the elephant pen, I was aware about how amazingly intelligent these animals are. Add to it my general distaste for zoos and Nénette became a very melancholy film about our patronization of animals. But being able to see these animals and their amazing features and how they resemble us, is one of the great gifts of zoos. My chances to see an orangutan in the wild: zero. Philibert taps into this dichotomy by contrasting the images with the audio.
(Nénette is one of the newest films at MSPIFF and has yet to negotiate distribution. Best possible scenario is that we will see it available on DVD in a few years.)
Last Train Home (2009) Fan Lixin - Recommeneded
When living in China, I took it upon myself to tackle the art of train travel. The trains in China go everywhere, are relatively affordable and extremely reliable. The real tricks involve negotiating tickets and the masses. As a foreigner I had more options when it came to buying tickets, but often took the when in Rome philosophy despite the fact that it was obvious I wasn't a Roman. It was good practice for my language skills and made for interesting situations, to say the least. When I would find myself in the middle of the crush to get on the train (hundreds of passengers who all wanted a seat and room for their luggage) people would be shocked to see a 'big nose' amongst them, but would keep on pushing. Train transportation in an ever more mobile population was the backdrop for this documentary about a modern Chinese family torn apart by the financial needs and desires created by 'communism with capitalistic traits.' Husband and wife, Changhua and Suqin, left their sleepy, economically depressed village in the middle of Sichuan Providence to pursue more gainful work in Guangxhou's garment district. Their only desire is to provide enough money for their two children, left in Sichuan with their grandmother, to go to school and the education they need for a better life. Their children, however, feel completely cut off from their parents whom they see only once a year when they (and a million or so other people) make a trip home for the New Year. Their teenage daughter sees other opportunities other than school and follows in her parents footsteps to seek work elsewhere, becoming just one more migrant worker. The documentary work wonders in lifting a veil on just one family among the millions in the same situation. However, much like Up the Yangtze, the presence of the camera feels like an unintended red herring that acts as a diversion for the subjects and the audience. The subtle observations get overshadowed by the melodrama that documentary pursues.
(Last Train Home is has US distribution and will eventually make an appearance on DVD and/or on demand services.)