Cinema and truth in Sarah Vanagt’s work

In response to the invitation from the International Festival of Documentary and Short Film of Bilbao, Zinebi’s 57th edition, Bulegoa zenbaki barik, office for art and knowledge proposes a special session on Cinema and historic truth with the Belgian director Sarah Vanagt (1976) and a seminar where we can look in-depth at her way of making and understanding cinema. The programme for this session is made up of eight short films that show the journey of this filmmaker, who is little-known amongst us, over a period of twelve years (2003-2015). We will see how what, at first, seems like an interest in documenting unofficial history is really a desire to detect how the film medium constructs a reality that cannot be conveyed by other means.

In her first film, Little Figures (2003), made one year after she finished her studies at film school, Vanagt sets out to reveal the controversies hidden behind the search for an historical truth when it is processed by means of documentary film. Under the apparent form of a documentary, children’s voices play an important role in her films. We see how they play at questioning history, returning an image to adults that is even more raw and accurate than what is learnt through books or the media.

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The selection we have chosen begins with a series of films whose background is the relationship between Belgium and its former African colonies. Over several years, Vanagt travelled to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to record children’s perception of the different historic moments that took place in their country. History Lesson (2005), Money Exchange (2005) and First Elections (2006) combine different aspects of the lives of children born after the wars: what they learn at school; how they relate to business; how they build a miniature city. At the same time, these films maintain a dialogue with other ones made in Belgium, where we hear new children’s voices talking about what they have learnt about Africa. In Baby Elephant (2006), a child challenges a stuffed elephant, asking him about his African origins. The child’s body, much smaller, is fearful and threatening at the same time. The setting, in the disordered basement of a large museum, nonetheless shows the fragility of the events .

Between these and her later films, we can perceive a change: the question of childhood and colonialism are left aside and Sarah Vanagt decides to centre on the way in which film —as a language— is able to take a new look at reality. The three last films in our selection are practically silent films. In The Corridor (2010), the experience of tracking a donkey that visits old folks’ homes in search of excited reactions gives way to a tableau vivant, a tactile image that covers the screen little by little, as if the image alone were capable of telling what is happening. In The Wave (2012), we are witness to the modifications made during the exhumation of the bodies of nine victims of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). Produced using a technique for capturing fixed images, the film deals with the subject of the passage of time and the disclosure of the life of bones under the ground; and it is also an attempt to prove film’s ability for revealing its iconic materiality. The last film we are presenting, In Waking Hours (2015), is completely free of dialogue and —like the silent films at the start of the 20th century— it talks to the spectator through inserted text. In it, Vanagt reproduces the experiments narrated by the Dutch physician Vopiscus Fortunatus Plempius in his Ophthalmographia, published in 1632.

The day after this special session, Bulegoa z/b will hold a seminar with Vanagt to look in more depth at her current interest in film as language, form and medium: what is it that only cinema can do? We will have the participation of Katrien Vanagt, an historian who specialises in the writings of V. F. Plempius, who directed the film In Waking Hours (2015) in collaboration with the filmmaker. We will talk with them about the relationship between theories on vision, cinema and truth.

Zinebi. International Festival of Documentary and Short Film of Bilbao, 57th Edition