Isbel Diaz Torres
HAVANA TIMES, June 6 — With a documentary that came in at 50 million euros, the Festival of French Cinema opened in Cuba, and already the movie Oceans, by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, has had a major impact on audiences in the capital city.
The showing includes 17 feature length films and runs through June 30th at several Havana cinemas.
The event is one that has won the hearts of cinephiles on the island who every year wait anxiously for the selection of French films. Unlike the International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema, with such a wide range in the quality in its selections, francophone filmography has proven itself with a consistently high level of excellence.
In his opening words, the French ambassador in Cuba, Jean Mendelson, recognized that the festival “has managed to persevere even through the more challenging stages of official relations between Cuba and France.” For the French embassy, this is it the most important annual cultural activity in Cuba.
At the opening of the festival, a delegation of prestigious artists was introduced, with the legendary French actor and director Jacques Perrin receiving ovations from the public.
Similarly, the young Cuban actress Yahima Torres was presented with the Lumiere Award for best new actress for her leading role in the film Venus Noire. The film narrates the life and martyrdom of Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman who dazzled European slaveocrats at the beginning of the 19th century with her very developed physical attributes (she had large buttocks and the elongated labia of some Khosian women).
The ceremony was also attended by Manuel Herrera, the director of Cinemateca de Cuba; and Alfredo Guevara, the director of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema.
From tropical lagoons and ice flows to the untold depths that solar rays fail to penetrate, Oceans explores the most unknown environment on the planet. Four years and three film crews spanning the entire world were necessary for this work of such high technical and artistic quality.
Co-directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, the film premiered in 2009. The producers had previously acquired world fame for their award-winning documentary Nomads of the Wind (2001).
For this complex endeavor, Galatee Films developed prototypes of high definition cameras, some which were placed on board mini-helicopters and submarine torpedoes guided by remote control. Hermetic containers and computer programs that adapted shooting to the conditions of light and the quality of the water were also produced. Highly detailed images taken by satellites of the European Space Agency were used.
Therefore, to capture all the visual and audio beauty of the documentary, it has to be presented in cinemas using widescreen Imax projectors. Not all cities, not even in Europe, have those types of theaters; however recent improvements made to the Chaplin Cinema, here in the Cuban capital, allowed for the full enjoyment of the work.
Thanks to similar technological investments, it is possible to feel oneself in the center of a hallucinating sequence where dolphins and birds feed on a school of sardines. Complemented with incredible sound effects, the fast-paced sequences and stunning music succeeded in moving the spectators emotionally as they remained glued to their armchairs.
One of the divers who worked in the filming shared his impressions with the public. “The ocean is the last untamed place of the planet, and what’s wonderful is that the animals of the ocean accept you like you’re one of them,” he explained with excitement. His personal experience of “swimming with (his) back against the fin of a great white shark” changed his life forever. “This encounter with the wild animals filed me with joy,” he concluded.
What the millions were spent on
Oceans is a coproduction of France, Spain and Switzerland whose budget of 50 million euros turned out to be the most ever spent on a documentary.
Certainly it was an exorbitant figure. In the face of the needs of the human population around the world, one could think of better uses for such high amounts. Yet the fact is that the same criticism could be made of governments that dedicate even greater sums to armaments and the military industry. Therefore, it’s clearly preferable to invest in a colossal work of art like this than in all the regular armies of the planet. Oceans not only it elevates the human spirit, it also endows it with a sharp critical capacity.
Its story shows us how human beings are the species that most affects marine ecosystems. Our net, harpoons, fisheries and ships interrupt the vital cycles of aquatic residents and extend their effects through the entire community of living beings. The film displays real islands made up of plastic waste products while the satellite images used reveal how the pollution we generate in mainland areas runs unobstructed into oceanic waters.
The French cinema is renowned for its documentaries on nature. Such is the case of The Emperor’s Journey (2005) for which Luc Jacquet won an Oscar for the best documentary. That film, shown in Cuba, chronicled the annual trips of emperor penguins from Antarctica.
Jacques Perrin seems to be a precursor of this line of filmmaking, because after being an actor he became a producer. After producing movies like Z (1969) and State of Siege (1973), both directed by Costa-Gavras, he devoted himself to the complicated field of nature documentaries.
He began as narrator for Microcosmos (1996), directed by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou. The documentary deals with the lives of insects, and this work too was filmed using novel techniques (macro lenses). Moreover, the movie required fifteen years of research, three years of filming and six months of editing.
The best aspect of the film is that its idea is not didactic; rather, it is a polished audiovisual exercise about the universe that constantly surrounds us but that we usually disregard.
Nomads of the Wind (2001) — his first movie as a director, along with Cluzaud and Michel Debats — was an ambitious documentary on the migration of birds. On a voyage that covered more than forty countries they worked for four years and involved more than 140 people in its realization. The great success of the film won him nominations for an Oscar, a Caesar and the Goya.
For Perrin, “Oceans is more than a movie, it’s a cinematographic poem.” In the film, the French artist worked as director, script writer, producer, narrator and actor.
Seeming to be the father of the film, every year he has consistently achieved a high-level of sensitivity to the planet’s environmental problems. “This film speaks not only to the beauty and aesthetics of nature, but also to a form of political commitment,” he asserted.
The organizers of the event sent invitations to the documentary’s showing to the Faculty of Biology of the University of Havana. To me it seemed like a good strategy, not only to guarantee an interested and sensitive public, but given the purpose of the documentary.
The Darwinian vision of evolution that is taught at that school views “competition” as the decisive evolutionary force. Such an emphasis, which is frequently extrapolated to social relations, intentionally forgets that other relations of solidarity and mutual support take place in nature.
The film exhibits exactly the opposite. It presents us with evidence of relations of solidarity and of many others that are seemingly the “patrimony” solely of human beings.
Such is the case of an immense walrus that, in vertical position while floating in freezing water, caresses its young between its extremities and nurses it with infinite fondness.
It was evident that this involved not only feeding its offspring and guaranteeing the perpetuation of its species. For those reasons alone the mother’s caresses would not have been necessary, the baby’s hunger was enough. Maternal feelings are therefore shown to have a wider universality than what is suggested by notions of the “law of the jungle.”
In a similar manner, the by no means amicable relationship between divers and the most terrible predator of the seas, the gigantic and fierce great white shark, is shown to be undeserving of many of the myths. There’s no reason to take for granted that big fish always eat smaller ones, as occurs in world economies.
One beautiful sequence involved the sexual relations between a dolphin couple performed while they swam at high speed. Likewise we saw the amusing images of sea lions enjoying the surf and later sunning themselves while flailing about in the sand. What these show in many cases are activities that the laws of “necessity” cannot explain.
The most terrible moments in the film were those focusing on net fishing. Gigantic whales, sharks, and marine turtles are filmed after having drowned or suffocated from the lack of water circulation when trapped among these kilometer-long materials.
The camera closely followed the fishing of a shark which after cutting its fins and tail manages to escape barely alive into the depths. The image of the animal is one of being in the throes of death at the bottom of the ocean. Like a piece of live bait, looking all around without being able to move, the scene demonstrates the height of abandonment and cruelty.
It’s because of this that it’s not misspent to invest millions of dollars to send that tragic message of human reality.
The Cuban public exhibited great sensitivity and admiration with a long ovation given to the makers of the film. They demonstrated that this message of love, as well as the movie’s criticism and self-criticism, can have intelligent recipients.
The Festival of French Cinema is underway in Cuba and runs through the end of June. Let’s hope it contributes to the elements of diversity to “neutralize the effect of Hollywood’s dominating global image,” as pointed out by the director of the Cinemateca, and that it also neutralizes the closed and conceited forms of nationalism lacking in perspective.