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Cinéma du réel, télévision du réel by Thierry Garrel 

(in Images Documentaires n° 16, 1994, for Cinéma du réel’s 15th anniversary) 


At a café where filmmakers, jury members and journalists wander between screenings, an American director recently noted how comforting it feels to find a cosmopolitan family in the center of Paris, in a strange museum of modern art shaped like a petrochemical plant where people from all over the world teach each other how to look at the world. 


The films that have won awards at Cinéma du réel over the past 15 years form a magnificent film library, documenting the citizens of the world. It helps us not forget that today’s world must be seen from everywhere, and not just through the narrow lens of a particular place, time or environment. Filmmakers and viewers of all origins, from all over the world, come together at Le Réel to learn about the civil war in Nicaragua, the cultural resistance of Australia’s Aborigines, the life story of a Bushmen woman in the Kalahari desert, the everyday life in French prisons, the destiny of a family from Palermo’s shantytowns, the first encounter between White gold miners and local mountain dwellers in New Guinea, the cloistered women of a Nigerien chiefdom, the endless loneliness of the residents in a psychiatric clinic, the harsh living conditions for Bombay squatters, the Lebanese Civil War, the Palestinian refugee camps or the memory of Patrice Lumumba. 

In all these films, content cannot be separated from form, and aesthetics merge with ethics, for it is the sagacity of the gaze that matters. In addition to Cinéma du réel’s role as a discoverer of new trends and new authors, the festival also serves as a builder of memory. If mankind were to refuse, deny or mask its own memory, it would only increase the “confusion within civilization”. Revisiting is not an act of admiration towards the idols. On the contrary, it means being aware of the corrosive power of constantly-daring approaches. The documentary works of Flaherty, Rouch, Ivens, Marshall, Maysles, Rogosin, Leacock, Wiseman, Oshima, Depardon, O’Rourke, Van der Keuken, Gheerbrant, Kramer, Connolly-Anderson and many others kept intact a certain impertinence. This impertinence must be widely spread if we don’t want our society to be turned into a gigantic department store in which there is only room for goods. 

Thierry Garrel, head of the Documentaries programme unit at La Sept (TV channel now known as Arte)