We’re living in a golden age of factual filmmaking. Documentaries have never been more abundant, nor more in demand. This has its downside. When desktop design suddenly became available to the average punter in the 1990s, there was an explosion of creativity but an explosion of crap along with it – great and terrible design everywhere. Similarly, affordable filmmaking technology means anyone and their grandma can make a feature-length documentary now. You wish some would not bother.
The upside is an embarrassment of riches, hundreds of worthwhile docos making the circuit of the daytime sessions and small rooms of the world’s festivals. Who can keep up with them all? Take a film like Bugarach, which opened the Antenna Documentary Film Festival. In its unassuming way it’s one of the more memorable docos I’ve seen this year, but it seems to have arrived in Sydney under the radar. It screened at Hot Docs and a few other noteworthy fests, but I couldn’t find a trade review for it or much in the way of press at all.
Maybe the film has something in common with the tiny French village it’s named after, its many charms concealed by anonymity. Nestled below the Pic de Bugarach, a striking formation in the Corbières mountains of southwestern France, the remote and very old, almost ancient, village of Bugarach has some 200 citizens. It’s a quiet place populated, like any other small town, with a mix of upstanding salt-of-the-earth folk and colourful characters. Bugarach, however, might have more than its fair share of colour. Like Stonehenge or Teotihuacan, this enclave has for decades been a gathering place for an assortment of New Age travellers, cultists and conspiracy theorists. There are many legends about the mountain – some say UFOs have been seen above it, others swear the body of Christ was buried by the Knights Templar beneath it.
None of this prepared the town for the crazy amount of attention it received in the months prior to December 21, 2012, popularly perceived as the day the world would end according to Mayan prophecy. Somehow the idea that Bugarach would survive this apocalypse was broadcast in the mainstream media. The film documents what takes place there in the six months prior to the fateful day, as first a trickle and then a flood of pilgrims drawn by the hope of salvation, along with curiosity seekers, right-wing militiamen and, of course, reporters, descend on the mountain. They tax the village’s modest infrastructure and resources, as well as its supply of goodwill. The regional government and police are called in to intervene.
There’s plenty of interest here, and even a conventionally shot and edited doco would have turned up some good stuff. But directors Ventura Durall, Salvador Sunyer and Sergei Cameron aim a lot higher. They’ve structured the film as a loose narrative, free of talking heads, breathless montages and didactic voiceover, and focus more on texture and atmosphere than running down the facts. It’s a patient and deliberate film. In place of hurried exposition, an intimate portrait of life in the village is painted over the first hour. Quotidian scenes of farm animals, boys shooting arrows in a field, old folks dancing at a café and a young magician practicing card tricks with his family are well-crafted pleasures in their own right. The device of nattering newscasts to explain things, so abused by other docos, is present here, but minimised and cleverly incorporated into the incidental soundtrack (the sound design is great).
Slowly the strands draw together into a narrative about portent, paranoia and the power of belief. The region’s rich history and the trippy behaviour of the itinerant travellers combine to create an atmosphere of contrasting dread and whimsy that owes more to arthouse thrillers (Lynch? Haneke?) than to documentary. Duvall, Sunyer and Cameron dance along the fuzzy boundary between the two with ease and style. They’re hardly innovators in this, but it’s all well-executed. They make good editing choices. They seem to trust that audiences are savvy enough to get what they’re doing. The ominous score adds to the atmosphere in a way that’s both effective and a little cheeky and satirical.
Bugarach is a nice-looking film too. The setting, a part of the world I’d never thought about much, is gorgeous. We’re treated to many lingering shots of the mountain and the weird weather systems that seem to enshroud its mysteries. The filmmakers wisely make much of the mountain’s visual similarity with the Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; the talk of aliens and government conspiracies, and the real presence of gendermerie troops and helicopters deployed to prevent disorder, further contribute to a running gag about Spielberg’s classic.
Since they had six months to work with, Duval, Sunyer and Cameron had plenty of time to get to know the village and the people, and it pays off onscreen. In their small-town subjects they find very willing participants. With all the moody closeups, reaction shots and cutaways it’s clear certain scenes were set up, the subjects more like nonprofessional actors. What’s sacrificed in verité is made up for in depth. Over the course of the film a handful of them emerge as central characters, and they are the best thing about the film, especially as the narrative frequently meanders, like the sheep that totter in and out of establishing shots. There is the youthful magician; the hardheaded, wisecracking mayor; the ranting but polite conspiracy theorist; the mystic hermit who reckons he’s an alien – and who very much resembles Denis Lavant’s feral beggar in Holy Motors.
The film presents many overlapping or clashing perspectives on the mountain’s magic and the impending doomsday, from the skeptical to the wholehearted to the absurd, with matter-of-factness. It listens to all of them. Documentaries that ridicule their subjects are boring. The trick Bugarach attempts to play, mostly with success, is to work both as a moving character study and as gentle satire. Sometimes it veers too far into the latter, as when the music seems to be cueing us to laugh, or when, in a shot of a New Age ceremony, we catch a participant smirking. But the spirit of generosity towards the subjects prevails.
One of the themes of the film is the objective similarity in behaviour between any organised group of people. For instance, what makes cultists different from TV reporters? Is the worldview of one any weirder or more threatening than the other when you really think about it? The many shots of mass in the local church seem to be on a continuum with the more freestyle New Age rituals that take place on the mountainside. The film seems to be saying something about the beauty and underlying utility of our beliefs, whatever they may be. It doesn’t always communicate it clearly, but it’s rewarding nonetheless.
We know, or we’re fairly sure anyway, that 2012 came and went without the world ending – but the way the filmmakers toy with that built-in anticlimax to create a satisfying denouement is pretty remarkable. The haunting atmosphere they’ve created, however tongue-in-cheek, has had its effect. To say our disbelief has been suspended is probably going too far; Bugarach’s goals are more modest than that. It’s content to make us observe for the moment. But we’re waiting for something to happen, even if it’s not necessarily supernatural. That’s the magic of a captivating little film.