Saturday, November 19, 2011

RIDM's opening night controversy with Crazy Horse

An unusual situation has unfolded as a result of Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM) selecting Crazy Horse as the festival's opening night film. The screening itself got off to a good start after a lively introduction by Chair of the RIDM Board of Directors Mila Aung-Thwin, Executive Director Roxanne Sayegh, and Director of Programming Charlotte Selb, as well as a pre-taped introduction by Crazy Horse director Frederick Wiseman. But the mood gradually became restless and tense during the screening itself and some people walked out. As the film ended, the applause was punctuated by a shout of "Sexist! Sexist! Boo!"

I understand that the shout came from Sophie Bissonnette, a respected veteran documentarian whom I interviewed last year. She has made a number of films on women's issues including Une histoire de femmes (A Wives’ Tale)A Vision in the Darkness, and Sexy Inc.: Our Children Under Influence. She is one of the various documentarians that founded the festival.

At the post-screening party, there was certainly a lively debate with opinions sharply divided. It tended to divided along gender lines with women disliking more, while men defended it. But there were men who were also put off by it, while the person I spoke to who liked it the most without any reservation was a young woman who is currently studying film at Concordia.

The next day a group letter was spear-headed by Bissonnette and sent to the festival to voice their objections. A total of 29 members of the filmmaking community signed the letter. Nine of the signatories, however, hadn't seen the film. Among the charges in the letter were that the film objectified the women, was complicit in their exploitation, was inappropriate to open the festival, and was simply "boring." The letter is reprinted below.

Charlotte Selb told realscreen Magazine that those signing the letter were invited to attend the Frederick Wiseman masterclass that took place on Sunday, November 13. She mentioned in her introduction at the masterclass that people were invited to ask him any question including about the controversy regarding the film. Apparently none of the signatories attended, however, and only one question was asked about Crazy Horse. The question came from a young man who asked why he chose to have only the management speak in their own voice and be the "heroes" of the film, whereas "you don't show the stories of those Russian dancers, we just see them as sex workers."

Wiseman responded (via Skype from Paris) that he wasn't sure if that was a question or a statement. He said that the women weren't all East European but primarily French, with some Eastern European as well as Spanish and Italian. He denied that they were portrayed as sex workers but rather as professional dancers and like most professionals, they don't spend a lot of time talking about dark secrets to their co-workers, but just do their jobs and leave.

Yesterday, the festival responded officially with an open letter defending their choice. They explained that they had been planning a retrospective film for a year and that it seemed a natural choice to open with this film when they had discovered it was his latest project. They denied that the film is a sexist statement by Wiseman but rather a typical of his work in portraying an institution without judgment, and they denied that they were capitalizing on sexism to expand audiences by programming it. The RIDM's letter is also provided below.

My own feeling is that the film is good and has moments of real beauty. I think it successfully shows how dedicated professionals can take something considered lowly and elevate it into an art form. As the club's boss (a female) explains and the film shows, many couples and women attend the shows. It is essentially a concert film which evenly balances behind-the-scenes footage with performances.

I've spoken to a number of people who felt it was boring or too long, but that view is highly subjective. At 2 hours and 13 minutes, it could have been trimmed but I didn't mind it. Boring or overlong are frankly common complaints against Wiseman films and other vérité works, and even documentary films in general. Often the more observational films become a Rorschach test whereby the observer sees what they want to see or expect to see.

The question of voice is not such a simple one either. Many complained that they didn't get to know the subjects, especially the women dancers. But that is a false expectation. Wiseman's observational approach means that he never interviews his subjects directly but is a proverbial "fly on the wall." Atypically for Wiseman, the film does have interviews but only because the media interviewed some of the higher ups and so he captured that as part of the process of mounting a new show. Other than one very talkative subject, we really don't get to know any of them. Wiseman's films are not character-driven, but instead about a particular place. I doubt that a woman filmmaker making a similar vérité-style film would have captured more deeply personal and revealing material.

A filmmaker told me that she took the time to scan through the film a second time in the screening room and was surprised to find that the women and dancers did actually speak more than she had remembered. I would add that the two most conspicuously silent characters were two male dancers who seemed like twins. They weren't nude but then neither did they speak a word.

Interestingly, when the women speak in the film, they all express a pride and seriousness in their work. The costume designer is especially determined to uphold the standards and the tradition of the club. An audition scene near the end of the film shows a surprisingly large number of women trying out for the club. It is entirely possible that if the women had been interviewed, they would have no shame, trauma or dark secrets to share. The expectation that they all have tragic stories, which Wiseman somehow neglected, might turn out to be presumptuous. 

It might well have been an inappropriate choice for the festival's opening night slot. But it had played previously as major festivals including Venice and TIFF, and was the opening night film at another documentary festival in Lisbon.

Besides, people can put too much importance on the opening night film. When I spoke to TIFF's documentary programmer Thom Powers about the choice of the U2 documentary From the Sky Down as the opening night film, I asked if it was a one-time change from the usual Canadian film or if it would now be wide open. He said it was wide open and that it was felt that neither TIFF nor Canadian films were served well by always having a Canadian film on opening night. Out-of-towners felt they could too easily ignore it while the increased pressure and scrutiny of the slot made it hard to please everyone with the choice.

Anyhow, this whole hullaballoo is a fascinating though unfortunate situation with no heroes or villains and no easy answers. All sides in the dispute are understandable and reasonable. Perhaps it shows generational differences in the feminist movement, or a divide between European and North American thought. The festival and the signatories have agreed to meet together after the festival but it's hard to see what can be accomplished or resolved. This may simply be one of those instances where people have their reasons and just have to agree to disagree.

Everyone will soon have an opportunity to make up their own minds as the film is set to open. It plays at Cinéma du Parc starting on November 25.


Montréal le 10 novembre 2011

Mila Aung-Thwin, président_ des RIDM
Roxanne Sayegh_ Directrice générale :
Charlotte Selb, Directrice de la programmation :

Cher Mila
Chères Roxanne et Charlotte,

Nous sommes tous et toutes de fervents défenseurs des RIDM qui sont une vitrine exceptionnelle pour le cinéma documentaire qui contribue plus que jamais, avec la montée du néolibéralisme et la concentration de l’information, à un espace de liberté, une bouffée d’oxygène tellement nécessaire. Au fil des ans, les RIDM nous ont permis de découvrir les réalités humaines grâce au regard sensible et personnel posé par des artistes du documentaire sur leurs concitoyens et concitoyennes à travers le monde. Les RIDM ont été pendant ces 14 années un lieu de débat et d’échanges pour nous ouvrir les yeux sur des réalités insoutenables, dénoncer les inégalités, promouvoir la compréhension entre les gens, célébrer l’ingéniosité et le courage, apprécier la créativité et la sensibilité artistique des cinéastes documentaires de tous les pays.

Aussi, après avoir assisté hier soir au film d’ouverture des RIDM, nous voulons vous signifier notre étonnement et notre indignation quant au choix du film Crazy Horse pour ouvrir la 14e édition des Rencontres.

Dans ce film, Frederick Wiseman, un cinéaste américain chevronné, pose sa caméra dans un club de danseuses nues à Paris, le Crazy Horse, le temps de la préparation d’un spectacle. Nous croyons que ce film est une œuvre complaisante et sexiste basée sur le double standard qui a si longtemps régi les rapports hommes femmes dans la vie ainsi qu’au cinéma, et qui malheureusement semble perdurer.
Dans une entrevue à un journaliste de La Presse (9 nov.2011), le réalisateur revendique son point de vue sur la situation qu’il a filmée : « Un film, c'est un millier de décisions en montage, angles et prises de vues. Il n'y a rien de plus subjectif qu'un film documentaire». Alors parlons-en de ce point de vue.
Le film alterne essentiellement entre les scènes de préparation du spectacle (répétitions, réunions de production, rencontres de promotion du spectacle) et la captation du spectacle des danseuses.

D’une part donc, nous assistons aux réunions de production du spectacle avec le metteur en scène et son équipe, tous habillés jusqu’au cou. Le metteur en scène a un droit de parole exhaustif dans des séquences durant plusieurs minutes où il explique sa démarche créatrice à ses collègues de travail. Ses collègues sont par ailleurs des femmes pour la plupart, qui s’expriment très peu en réunion, mais dont l’une se porte à la défense de l’entreprise dans une scène où elle rencontre un journaliste et l’autre, costumière, défend son travail. On prête une oreille attentive aux propos du directeur artistique (qui veut être calife à la place du calife de toute évidence) et qui disserte longuement sur ses ambitions personnelles.  Le tout avec une caméra à l’épaule plutôt discrète qui suit l’action. Bref, ces hommes, et ces femmes du côté de l’exploitation et de la production du spectacle, sont des sujets dans le film.

D’autre part, les danseuses, toutes des femmes, la plupart immigrées, ont droit à un traitement cinématographique complètement différent. On les voit essentiellement faire des danses nues à partir de la position du voyeur, de la personne qui les regarde se mettre en spectacle. Finie la caméra à l’épaule. Ici, la caméra est toujours stable  et cadre pour mettre en valeur leurs fesses et leurs seins dans des numéros qui reprennent tous les codes de la pornographie : danse poteau, femme en cage, femme ligotée qui se mettra même la corde autour du cou à la fin du numéro, associant sexualité à violence. Aucune critique ici, sinon des scènes gratuites et inintéressantes par rapport à l’évolution du spectacle. Les danseuses sont toujours en représentation. Elle n’ont pas droit de parole. Dans les deux seules scènes où elles s’expriment, elles réagissent à des images d’autres femmes en représentation (en train de danser).

Contrairement à l’équipe de production du spectacle, on n’apprend rien sur leur travail de danseuse, leurs conditions de travail, leurs aspirations, leur vie intérieure. On apprend lors d’une réunion de production que certaines d’entre elles pleurent à la suite d’un des numéros qu’elles ne veulent pas faire. On ne saura jamais, de leur point de vue, ce que ce numéro leur fait vivre. Elles ne sont là que pour assouvir  le désir et les fantasmes du spectateur. Bref, elles sont complètement objectivées. On est en droit de se demander par moments en quoi ces scènes se distinguent de la porno si ce n’est par l’ampleur des moyens à la disposition du réalisateur et par l’aura de « chic » qui entoure le film. On ne s’explique pas que Frederic Wiseman, un réalisateur documentaire reconnu dont les œuvres précédentes ont marqué le cinéma documentaire, témoigne de si peu respect, de compassion et de solidarité à l’égard des femmes dans un film qui ressemble par moments à une commandite pour le Crazy Horse.

Tout aussi incompréhensible quant à nous, la décision des RIDM d’offrir une vitrine à ce film en ouverture de l’édition de cette année alors que dans ce cadre il n’y a pas d’échanges avec la salle permettant le débat. Cela nous étonne d’autant plus de la part des RIDM qui ont fait une part accueillante aux femmes réalisatrices et aux préoccupations qui touchent les femmes: ateliers et tables ronde sur les femmes en réalisation, débat sur la prostitution suite à la projection du film d’Ève Lamont L’imposture l’an dernier, projections de films à la prison des femmes Joliette cette année.

Faut-il que les RIDM, pour rejoindre un plus large public, utilisent la stratégie la plus éculée, soit celle d’utiliser le sexe et le corps des femmes pour vendre, une stratégie de marketing très répandue actuellement et qui se fait aux dépens des femmes ? Pourquoi ne pas plutôt faire confiance à l’esprit citoyen et à l’intelligence des gens dont nous avons de magnifiques démonstrations actuellement dans les rues, pour rejoindre le public, rappelons-le, composé en majorité de femmes? C’est cet esprit auquel les RIDM nous ont habitués que nous avons envie de continuer de voir triompher.

Nous estimons, à la lumière de ce qui précède, avoir une rencontre avec vous pour comprendre votre choix. Nous estimons aussi qu’une discussion publique sur la représentation des femmes à l’écran est plus que nécessaire et que les RIDM pourraient jouer un rôle de premier plan à cet effet. Nous aimerions en discuter avec vous et vous offrir toute notre collaboration.

Avec nos salutations les plus cordiales,

Sophie Bissonnette, cinéaste documentaire et cofondatrice des RIDM, membre du CA de 1998 à 2000.
Cosignataires : ....


RIDM’s response to the Crazy Horse controversy

On November 11, two days after the start of the 14th edition of the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM), the festival organizers received a letter calling into question the selection of Crazy Horse, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the famed Parisian cabaret, as the opening film.

Signed by 20 filmmakers, producers and cinephiles, as well as nine others who had not seen the film but supported the idea of a public debate on the topic, the letter expressed the group’s shock and indignation at the programming choice. They called the film a "complacent and sexist work" and found the decision all the more incomprehensible since there was no opportunity to discuss the film after the screening on opening night. Accusing the RIDM team of using the same old marketing tricks to draw people in, the signatories have proposed a public discussion about the "representation of women onscreen."

While the directors of RIDM are completely open to such a debate, we feel that the issues mentioned in the letter deviate greatly from the question of the representation of women. The criticism of the film itself, the work of a great documentary filmmaker, was surprising and will be discussed shortly, but before we would like to address the accusations regarding the work of our programmers.

RIDM is particularly proud of presenting a retrospective of Wiseman’s work as he is among the most significant figures in the history of cinema. One year in the making, the retrospective is one of the festival’s most important activities. Over the summer, we found out that he had recently completed Crazy Horse and were intrigued. After seeing it, we chose it as the opening film, as it would also allow us to highlight the retrospective. The choice of the film was also a cinematic stance and was in no way intended to perpetuate the any exploitation of the female body for the purpose of broadening the RIDM’s audience. Indeed, if we had seen this documentary as moot, poorly made or unworthy of RIDM’s mission, we would have never honoured it on opening night.

However, Crazy Horse is a film that follows Wiseman’s cinematic tradition. True to form, the documentary observes the famous Parisian cabaret for the ten weeks leading up to their newest show. As can be seen in his previous films about cultural institutions, Wiseman alternates between backstage scenes and performances. The letter’s signatories accuse Wiseman of not offering a critical point of view, and of reproducing sexist attitudes, inherent in the Crazy Horse, through the film’s mise en scène. Whether the Crazy Horse is a place that exploits women or projects sexist images can be discussed, just like the choice of filming such a subject can be debated. Faithful to his ethical principles, Wiseman’s primary goal is to exhibit, without explicit judgement, the inner workings of an institution. Wiseman has never been an agitator. His approach, which is anthropological in nature, tries to give an in-depth view of a subject, allowing the viewers to draw their own conclusions. That said, his films are never completely neutral. In Crazy Horse, for example, placing the casting scene in the last part of the film is a fitting choice which proves that there is a critical point of view in regards to the double standards that exists in the cabaret. Some may say Crazy Horse is disappointing and does not represent the best Wiseman has to offer – we can respect these points of view. However, we reject the interpretation of the signatories, which is a questionable response with a dogmatic and limited vision of the work of a great documentarian.

As emphasized in the letter, RIDM has always aimed to showcase the work of women filmmakers and shed light on societal issues affecting women. We are open to discussing this matter with all concerned parties. However, we wish to express our surprise and concern about the letter’s underlying message. We would have been more than happy to engage with the audience members who were disappointed and outraged by the film. However, we can only express our reserve against the will of the signatories to seek support in order to give political weight to their dissatisfaction. Given the fact that one third of the signatories have not seen Wiseman’s film, it seems that the criticism was a dogmatic stance to the liberty and exchange that the RIDM represents. It is important for us to highlight that the mission of the festival is to offer a selection of cinematographic works that propose themes, concerns and aesthetic approaches that are different and challenging. A selection that is not just an open door to all excesses, but rather the result of a strong editorial line based on the real expertise of its programming team.

Mila Aung-Thwin, Chair of the RIDM Board of Directors
Roxanne Sayegh, Executive Director
Charlotte Selb, Director of Programming
Bruno Dequen, Associate Programmer

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