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Reality Shows: Non fiction at Cannes

 The Venerable W

Documentary films still face an uphill battle in Cannes. Once again, no documentaries show up in the competition. When was the last time a documentary was selected for the competition? Could it have been as far back as 2004, when Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” was put in the competition at the last minute and wound up winning the Palme d’Or?

There were a number of documentaries at the festival, but they are categorized as “Special Screenings” where the organizers crammed most of the non-fiction; or “Cannes Classics” - and those all have to do with cinema. In addition, Critics Week showed one, and three showed up at the Directors Fortnight, all having to do with the seventh art.

Such masters of the documentary film as Claude Lanzmann, Barbet Schroeder and Raymond Depardon all had films in the special screening section. In his film “Napalm,” Lanzmann revisits his own story of politics and possibly lost love in North Korea. Barbet Schroeder asks how Buddhist monks in Burma can wage a religious war against Muslims there in his film “The Venerable W.” Raymond Depardon has been documenting France’s social system, justice system for years. This time he turns his camera on the work of judges who must determine if patients in a Lyon mental institution are well enough to be on their own. And new to the format, Vanessa Redgrave presented “Sea Sorrow,” following the dire tales of war refugees.

As previously mentioned, the Cannes Classics section is not comprised of old, “classic” films, but rather films about film. And filmmakers. This year, the festival presented Mark Kidel’s cursory look at the life of Cary Grant. The film is titled “Becoming Cary Grant” and it purports to investigate the recesses of the star’s past to discover how he morphed from Archie Leach to the suave star. While there are some interesting moments - he grew up believing his mother died and only when he’s a Hollywood star does he discover that she was, in fact, still alive and living in a mental institution in England where his father deposited her when Grant was only 11 years old. And we get into his experiments with LSD - but under the careful supervision of his psychotherapist. What fun is that?

Eugene Jarecki, whose films take harsh looks at the US war on drugs, Henry Kissinger’s duplicitous actions and other serious topics, came to Cannes with his documentary “Promised Land,” in which he drives through America in Elvis Presley’s beloved car. While people ooh and aah, and fawn over the car, Jarecki discovers, through interviews, some of the reasons why we’ve wound up in Trumpland. It’s a sobering look at the American dream, now a nightmare.

Agnes Varda is the doyenne of French non-fiction. And at age 88 she hasn’t slowed down. For her latest film “Visages, Villages,” Varda has teamed up with the young photographer and street artist JR to create a beautiful, moving film that is about ordinary people in France, that is about aging (JR, with Varda’s permission, addresses her failing sight), that is about the past merging with the present (they try to visit Jean-Luc Godard) and with the future - the relationship between the two filmmakers is a lovely sight to behold.

“Visages, Villages” was the most moving film of the festival to this humble viewer. no wonder, then, that it was awarded the prize for best documentary, the L’œil d’or (golden eye). This is only the third year this award has been given out; it was created in 2015. And the award is not presented at the awards ceremony with the Palme d’or. If the festival organizers can be convinced to pay more attention to documentary, and to seriously include these films in the competition, perhaps one day the L’œil d’or will have the respect it - and the films it awards - deserve.

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