01-07-2008 - Traces, n. 7

Greater  The movie about the Kampala Meeting Point

Hope Takes the Place
of a Happy Ending

What is so interesting about the Cannes-winning documentary? That–in the words of the director, Emmanuel Exitu–in it, reality wins, with all of its drama

by Maddalena Vicini

Greater–Defeating Aids,the documentary directed and produced by Emmanuel Exitu about Rose and the Meeting Point in Kampala, was awarded a prize at the Cannes Movie Festival by none other than Spike Lee. Mr. Lee selected it for the Documentary Award among sixty or so other works coming from all over the world, on the occasion of the contest organized by the online television channel Babelgum (at the beginning, there were around 1,000 contestants). It is a powerful movie, as those who already had the opportunity to see it know well. Rose, Vicky, the orphans, and the other women of the Ugandan shanty towns are artlessly on display on the screen: they dance, they cry, they talk about themselves, about their disease and their victory over AIDS. Everything is recounted using the unfiltered language proper to true reportage, where the circumstance imposes the method of narration–that is, to guilelessly show what one is living. Even without considering the award, this deserves a deeper analysis. How did this movie really come to be? What kind of gaze on reality did it spring from? The Bolognese director, Exitu, tells us: “I do not pursue the deception of a glossy image; I let myself be submerged by what happens and by its superabundant concreteness and truth. I wouldn’t have been able to shoot a single scene if not for Rose’s trust in me and in my camera. The most beautiful thing she told me was, ‘All right, come along. I trust your heart, because I perceive that we care for the same thing.’” (Exitu borrowed his stage name from the novel by Giovanni Testori, his “illegitimate father,” as he likes to calls him.)

Glued to the circumstances
This movie is no reality TV. There are no hidden cameras; nothing is staged. Exitu explains: “The presence of the camera is always manifested; it is part of the very reality that is recounted, and this creates a sort of short-circuit effect. Paradoxically, it heightens the sense of truth: the camera’s point of view is no longer falsely external and distant. It is glued to the circumstances; it is forced to follow them, to see what happens.” This way, the viewer becomes a travel companion, a co-protagonist, and is thrown into what is being recounted. Using the method of narration proper to reportage is very risky, because you know where you start from but you don’t know where you’ll end up. Emmanuel tells us: “I am totally confident in the ability of experience to speak for itself. We followed a simple method: whenever Rose would come to pick us up, I would ask her what she would do that day, and I followed her. There was no preparation involved on my part. I just wanted to be punched in the face by what was happening.” Nothing was scripted then. At the same time, nothing was left to pure spontaneity. You don’t just turn on the camera and let it record at random. The final product was the fruit of several scouting trips, three days of filming, fifty hours of recording, and a painstaking cut-and-paste editing process. What springs forth from the images is not a complaint, but life, with everything that comes with it, beyond misery and sickness. Just like what Testori himself wrote about Christ on the cross: “The sweet space/ of your sign/ that stretches,/ trembles/ and lights up in us/ a different projection/ of the human indistinction” (from Sign of the Glory, Scheiwiller, unofficial translation).

“You need to see”
After all, it is just what Rose tells us in the first few frames: “In this world, we talk too much. You need to see, you need to see and be moved, because just doing things is not enough; it tires you out. On the contrary, seeing moves you and continually makes you move.” This is exactly what struck Vicky when she first met Rose. The Cannes award didn’t just go to the umpteenth documentary exposing the evil of society, or to the stereotypical fabricated reportage. Reality itself won, with all that comes with it everyday, and with all that we search for. Exitu closes: “I search for hope, not for a happy ending. This is what sets me in motion, and it is the strength of Greater as well. A happy ending makes all the evil that you lived become dumb and deaf. Hope, on the other hand, does not need to forget anything; it always burns.”