According to Famed Documentary Film-maker, Films Should Be More Than Just a Document

Ellie Armon Azoulay
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Ellie Armon Azoulay

It’s not surprising that Jean-Pierre Rehm, the curator and director of the documentary film festival FID Marseilles, is a guest of the continuing education program of the School of Art at Beit Berl. The immediate reason for Rehm’s visit is his previous acquaintance with the program head, artist Roee Rosen; Rehm once wrote a detailed text on one Rosen’s movies.

But their friendship also shines a spotlight on the views held by Rehm, one of the most important figures in the world of documentary film-making, who has never kept his opinions of the field to himself.

For Rehm, there is no strict separation between fiction and documentary, neither in practice nor in theory. He objects to the sharp distinction that gatekeepers in both fields try to maintain. Rehm also objects to the all-encompassing separation between the field of art and filmmaking, and he encourages and welcomes the rapprochement these two spheres have undergone in recent years.

Rehm’s acquaintance with Rosen began in earnest ahead of the FID Marseilles festival in 2008, where the film “The Confessions of Roee Rosen” was screened. It was later screened at Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art and other festivals. The film features three female migrant workers who don’t speak Hebrew, reading a transliterated script that voices the sins of Roee Rosen as if it were in the first person. The film, according to Rehm, drew mixed responses from the audience, but ended up winning the viewers’ prize.

Rehm believes the film is unique due to its complexity. “The use of sound in the film consists not just of the music appearing in the connecting segments, but also in the recordings of the voices and the function they fulfill: the thought of what a tired voice actually is,” he said. “Why does a voice sound tired? Because it speaks an unfamiliar language that it does not understand, it’s the fatigue of the exploited. It’s the tragedy of slavery, even though it isn’t expressed explicitly − it’s expressed in the voice. For me, this was powerful and interesting. I’m not saying it was easy, but I felt it was important to give it a platform.”

During his short visit to Israel, Rehm held personal meetings with students in the program. On Monday, he participated in a discussion and screening that was open to students and the public at the Center for Contemporary Art, featuring works by Henri Sala, Philip Warnell and Manon de Beer, and talked about the importance of sound in the cinema.

This wasn’t Rehm’s first encounter with art students. Despite studying modern literature and philosophy at ENS Paris, Rehm mainly taught history of cinema, as well as cinema and art theory, in various institutions; he was also in charge of the Lyon Belle Arts graduate program.

“As far as I’m concerned, cinema is a form of art, or at least should be,” he said. In recent years, he added, the two spheres have grown closer, with artists focusing on practices beyond the traditional video art and attempting to direct films, even full-length feature films.

Rehm believes the turning point occurred in 1997, at the Documenta X, curated by Catherine David in Kassel. This festival, which focused on documentaries, included films that couldn’t be considered classic video works. “I believe she tried to bridge and update the forms of the 1970s,” he said.

Today, he continued, the situation is different. “When I said that more and more artists are turning to filmmaking and even directing features, it’s important to stress that in most cases, they do so without clear knowledge of the history of cinema or how a film should be created. Therefore they bring a freshness and strangeness that suddenly brings forth very interesting results.”

Every year, Rehm chooses films created by artists for the FID Marseilles festival, and some of them even win prizes. Rehm has also curated several exhibitions in various art institutions, such as the Cairo Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, the Yokohama Museum of Art and the Rotterdam Witte de With. In addition, he worked for the French Culture Ministry and for many years was a member of the editorial board of Cahiers du Cinema.

A significant change took place in the festival five years ago, when you started accepting fiction films.

“First of all, I don’t believe in the distinction between the two. This distinction can be translated in several ways: Historically, when you establish a documentary film festival, you effectively declare, ‘We’re dealing with documentary, not cinema,’ an approach that morally and politically says fiction is entertainment, legends and stories, whereas we’re actually dealing with documentation, i.e., reality. It’s important to understand that documentary cinema is also cinema: It is produced, from A to Z. Every single representation of reality is the result of an artistic decision or judgment.

“On the other hand, classic cinema always yearned to reveal the truth, and even when the director wasn’t aware of it, the film had true values. I don’t believe Gustave Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary only to entertain.” 

Documentary-maker Jean-Pierre Rehm.Credit: Nir Kafri