With the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine dominating global events in 2022, it’s perhaps little surprise that documentary film festival Visions du Réel would feel its impact. The 53rd edition of the festival opened with a tribute to Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravicius, a regular attendee who was killed while filming as he tried to leave the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol on 2 April, the weekend before the festival began. Kvedaravicius’s 2016 film Mariupolis, which presciently depicted the turbulent life in his adopted hometown, was promptly added to this year’s line-up as a last-minute addition. 

Such sombre news seemed at odds with the beautiful, tranquil environs of the festival’s home on the shore of Lake Geneva in Nyon, Switzerland, where patrons attended the first in-person festival in the town since 2019. As it turned out, the programme of 88 features, 29 medium-length works and 43 shorts contained multitudes. Its mix of world premieres (including 56 feature and medium-length titles) and big-hitters from other festivals conveyed a variety of moods, from hopeful to despairing.

L’Îlot (2022)

At the optimistic end of the spectrum of the world premieres was Tizian Büchi’s L’Îlot, which won the festival’s top award, the Grand Jury Prize in the international feature film competition. An unhurried and often whimsical study of Lausanne’s Faverges neighbourhood, the film is an unusual hybrid in form (something of a VDR speciality) bookended by gently magic-realist scenes featuring a mysterious couple hiding in the undergrowth near a river.

The river is protected by two private security guards: loquacious Daniel, of Angolan origin, and the quieter Ammar, of Iraqi origin. The pair bumble along, keeping watch and discussing the customs of their respective countries while pensioners peer down from balconies and a group of Spanish-speaking women from different parts of South America reveal the sacrifices they made to leave their respective homelands. It’s warm, light and charming, offering an unusual, benevolent look at a harmonious multicultural Switzerland community.

Equally upbeat but with a wider commercial appeal – screening out of competition – was Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s), the late Roger Michell’s final film. A chronicle of the Queen’s life told through archive footage, the film has the pace and variety of an Asif Kapadia doc, presenting a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Britain’s longest-serving monarch. While it won’t change many republican minds, it’s not the hagiography you might expect, including moments of royal turmoil such as Prince Andrew’s disastrous TV interview, the Windsor castle fire and the public criticism the Queen faced following her lack of response to Princess Diana’s death. It’s set to be released in UK cinemas in June to coincide with the Queen’s platinum jubilee. 

International competition title Dogwatch had farcical elements that made it tonally similar to L’Îlot. Gregoris Rentis’s film – about armed security guards hired to protect commercial cargo ships from pirates – starts with a funny training sequence in which a trainee confuses left and right, and later includes exercises where paid men lay around like corpses because there is now so little real danger from attackers on the seas. Dramatic incidents of the kind fictionalised in Captain Phillips (2013) seem very far off.

Jennifer Rainsford’s All of Our Heartbeats Are Connected Through Exploding Stars was the best-named film in the programme, and one of the most distinctive too. Rainsford’s international competition film looked at connections between people and places following the Japanese tsunami of 11 March 2011. An essay film about grief, which also delves into nature and the universe as a whole, there’s something unique and compelling about the way the piece drifts into stunning underwater sequences. The middle section digresses into a fascinating and lengthy explanation of the big bang, culminating in what must be the most satisfying spoken film title since Richard Attenborough welcomed us to Jurassic Park (1993).

Don’t Worry About India (2022)

Containing plenty of concern about the future, in spite of its title, Don’t Worry About India is both a vivid travelogue and a highly personal story. Credited to Nama Filmcollective with narration and co-direction by collective member Arjun Jr, this national competition entry sees him travel across India visiting relatives and friends across the economic and social divide in the build-up to the country’s 2019 election. Taking in the teeming streets of Delhi and Mumbai alongside stopovers in rural India, it shows a corrupt system in which ordinary working Indians are often paid to attend protests and sometimes openly bribed to vote for particular politicians. There’s a fascinating disconnect too between how the process of completing elections region by region takes months and seems to obsess the population, and how Arjun’s own mother and father refuse to talk about politics. His mother even warns Arjun against making his film.

The most moving title in the programme was How to Save a Dead Friend by Marusya Syroechkovskaya, which received a special mention from the international competition jury (the equivalent of a bronze medal). At 16, a depressed Syroechkovskaya met bad-boy Kimi on the Moscow indie music scene and fell in love. United by melancholy and music taste, the pair began a long relationship that would repeatedly fracture and reconnect over 16 years due to Kimi’s heroin addiction and spells in hospital, before his eventual death.

During a lengthy Q&A after the premiere, Syroechkovskaya was visibly emotional as she explained how Courtney Love instantly allowed the use of a Hole song on the soundtrack without seeing the film – the echoes of Love’s own life with Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain are clear, even without the posters of Cobain we see on walls in the film. Amid the archive footage Syroechkovskaya has collected, there are occasional TV broadcasts of Vladimir Putin. Like the suffocating depression that surrounds Syroechkovskaya and claims the lives of many of her friends, Putin is a malevolent force hovering in the background as the doomed love story unfolds.

Of several films that had played other festivals before VDR, the most notable was Sundance hit Fire of Love. Sara Dosa’s tribute to French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft received justified acclaim because of its startling close-up images of volcanic activity, droll Miranda July voiceover and the Herzogian heft of its doomed man-versus-nature story.

See You Friday, Robinson (2022)

Meanwhile, See You Friday, Robinson tickled many a cinephile fancy at Berlin in February and again at VDR. Mitra Farahani’s film is an interesting real-life visual take on the epistolary novel, comprising weekly missives between Jean-Luc Godard and Iranian filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan. Both filmmakers expand on their email correspondence and appear in front of the cameras in their homes (Golestan in Sussex, Godard in Rolle, Switzerland), pontificating about cinema, life and more. It’s worth seeing especially for the bizarre pleasure of seeing nouvelle vague titan Godard mooching around his house in shorts and doing his ironing.

Aside from the dozens of new films screened, veteran director, screenwriter and producer Marco Bellocchio received an honorary award. The Italian filmmaker, whose excellent fiction feature The Traitor (2019) was among a dozen of his works shown at the festival, revealed at a three-hour masterclass that his next work will be a film that Steven Spielberg once wanted to make about the kidnapping of a Jewish boy.

American director and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson (who won an Emmy for her 2019 film Dick Johnson Is Dead) also appeared as a special guest of the festival and spoke at her own masterclass. She began her chat with festival artistic director Emilie Bujès by giving credit where it’s due, naming every one of the technical crew on set individually – a move that chimed with the VDR audience as much as it did with her fellow filmmakers.