By James Der Derian

My arrival into Florence for the documentary film Festival dei Popoli was not auspicious. The last leg of Providence-Washington-Frankfurt-Florence was in one of those bulbous flying buses; each bit of turbulence felt like hitting the West Providence potholes that guard the approach to the Udris brothers’ studio on Washington Street. The last one was the worst, launching stomachs up around necks and a flight attendant into the air. I was doing OK until the hitherto cool German next to me lost it, screamed, and dug her nails into my thigh. There was a collective exhalation and an unusual (for Europeans) public display of applause when we landed.

The hotel room wasn’t ready for a couple of hours, so I did a jet-lagged, psycho-geographic drift through Florence, skirting the cathedrals, duomos, and big art museums for the back streets, where I stumbled upon the the pocket-sized Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. Although the Italians do not have as long or as illustrious colonial history as some, they did a pretty good job of plundering artifacts from the far reaches of the world in the name of science and discovery. It was much smaller than, say, Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, but rivaled it on the bizarro factor: from pre-Colombian Peru, shriveled mummies, erotic ceramics, and more examples of cranial trepanation than needed; from Polynesia, a formidable display of spears, war clubs, and ceremonial wooden forks for eating human flesh (it might have been a bad translation – as well as suspect ethnology – but it seems that the cannibals boiled their friends and roasted their enemies); from Canada, a pair of male and female Inuit underwear, both of which put Calvin Klein to shame; and from Brazil, fertility symbols, spears, bows, and some splendiferous ceremonial robes made entirely of exotic bird feathers. It all stimulated the senses but depressed the mind: so much cross-cultural appreciation of war-making on display…

After checking in at the Helvetia and Bristol Hotel (nice), I went to meet the co-sponsors of our film, which was pretty easy since the two Renaissance Palazzos that house the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea and the Odeon CineHall are both on the same Piazza Strozzi as the hotel. I spotted Franziska Nori, curator of the “Power and Pathology of Networks” exhibition at the Watson Institute back in 2005 and now program director at the CCC, in the Palazzo courtyard, where she was trying out various installation ideas for an upcoming show with the very congenial Jenny Holzman. Jenny solicited my views, so I suggested an electronic basilisk around which Holzman’s cryptic missives would spiral; that got skeptical looks. Next stop was the Odeon, where Maria Bonsanti, the go-to organizational director of the Festival, gave me my accreditation and informed me of the obligations that went with them: short intro to the film, screening, followed by Q & A. The next day there would be a noon ‘Free Speech’ session, where the directors from the day before would meet to discuss with each other and with interested public members the theory and practice of documentary filmmaking. The privileges began with a dinner at the Olio & Convivium Ristorante Gastronomico on the Palazzo Capponi (double-plus-good, had scampi with fresh tortellini, and, not to foreshadow too much, a portentious wine, Brunello di Montalcino).

I woke up the day of the screening of ‘Human Terrain’ to a CNN report that there had been a shooting at Fort Hood in Texas, where Major Nasan, a Moslem about to be deployed to Afghanistan, had opened fire on his fellow soldiers, killing 13 and wounding over 30. The war – and ‘cultural sensitivity’ – comes home with a vengeance. There is, of course, no excuse for what took place, but having spent time at Fort Hood while researching my book Virtuous War, I could imagine what the environment must have been like for the Major. Located in the heart of the Bible Belt (and not that far from Waco, site of another sect of fundamentalist violence), Fort Hood is probably the largest depository for the war machine on the planet. This spasm of endo-violence is definitely going to send some major ripples through the Matrix.

I did have some time before our screening to check out a few of the other feature documentaries. Two really hit a nerve: the first was by Canadian-Swiss director Peter Mettler, ‘Petropolis’, almost entirely an aerial perspective on the Alberta Tar Sands, where an area the size of Rhode Island (is it a blessing or curse to be the standard unit of the gargantuan?) are being deforested and mined to extract and convert bitumen into oil, producing tons of CO2 and a toxic slurry that is then dumped back into the Athabasca River. Not a pretty sight. But Mettler messes with our head and heart by producing stunning tracking shots, zooms, and pans of a hell on earth that aesthetically invoke Kant’s notion of the sublime and our penchant for self-annihilation while indicting our voracious appetite for oil.

If your sensibilities were still intact after ‘Petropolis,’ there was ‘To Shoot an Elephant’ (yes, Orwell, but early colonial not late totalitarian) to drive the point home that man has it in not just for nature. Directed and filmed by Alberto Arce and Mohammed Rujailah, the film transvalues the concept of ‘ambulance-chasing’. Riding with the ambulance drivers of Gaza during the Israeli invasion, the directors record in relentless verité the destruction, chaos, and indiscriminate violence of urban warfare. This is not a film for the faint of heart; it left me thinking of Dostoevsky, who wrote that no cause or action can possibly justify the killing of children, not just for sentimental reasons but because they lack any moral agency.

The screening itself was fabuloso. The Odeon has fully made the leap from the 15th to the 21st century, with state-of-the art projection, accurate sub-titles (I think more was gained than lost in translation – see below), and super-comfortable gold velour seats (sometimes too much so if one is trying to watch very good but very long films while jetlagged). The estimable director of the festival, Luciano Barisone, made some introductory remarks, very generous and very much to the point of the film, followed by a personal introduction from CCC co-sponsor, Franziska Nori. I offered some brief remarks, mainly to give the audience some sense of what ‘Human Terrain’ means – not exactly a household word in Italy. Fortunately I was ably translated by an anthropologist who had actually done research in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. All went well, the Udris cinematography finally getting its fullest technical expression. I occasionally looked around the theater, with well over 300 in attendance, and never saw a head swivel or break from the sightline of the screen. I must say, scale, sound, and setting matter: for the first time in a long time, the old emotions came back; I thought the numerous editing sessions had numbed me to Michael’s death, but I guess not.

The Q & A went well, enhanced I think rather than hindered by our expert translator. The lag time also gave me a chance to collect my thoughts rather than say the first thing that came to mind. I made an effort to not allow linguistic differences to shortchange my interlocutors, soliciting follow-ups when I thought they might be needed.

An interesting synchronicity happened earlier in the day. I had gone to see the show Franziska had curated on ‘Manipulating Reality’ at the CCC, and on the elevator I had struck up a conversation with a couple from New Mexico who were doing a two-week tour of Tuscany. I gave them a postcard for the screening, not really expecting them to show up. But then I saw them trying to make their way to the cinema bar and went half way to meet them; they shook my hand, told me that I had done justice to all sides of the story, and thought it the best documentary they had seen in a long time. That made my day, if not my week and month as well….

But it got better. I wasn’t sure if I was going to the closing awards ceremony the next night (we were an official selection but in the non-competition ‘Free Style’ program). But I felt an obligation to my fellow filmmakers and ended up having some pre-ceremony drinks with Peter Mettler. Well, we got into it, and realized we were pretty much on our own at the cinema bar when one of the festival organizers came up to remind us that the ceremony had begun. The place was packed, and we got two of the last seats in the house. After some rather long intros thanking all the sponsors, giving a brief history of the 50-year anniversary of the Festival (turns out it is the oldest documentary film festival around), and saying a word or two or three about the meaningfulness of the genre, the jury heads got up on stage and awarded the first prize which went to…Peter Mettler! 5,000 Euros plus distribution in Italy – not bad. When he came back after his very short, very generous speech, I told him he was paying for the next round of drinks. Two more awards followed, including a very brave one to the controversial Gaza film. I was zoning out a bit when Luciano, the director of the festival, announced the final award, the ‘Audience Award’. I heard ‘Terreno Umano,’ my name, and David and Michael Udris, and then felt Peter give me a poke. First lesson of film festivals: learn the rules. Evidently all categories, in or out of competition, were eligible for the Audience Award, which is based on each film-goer filling out a preference of 1 to 5 for each film they see. Luckily, since I was all the way in the back of the theater instead of the reserved seats up front, I had a few seconds to think about what I wanted to say. When I got up on stage they gave me the prize – no money I’m afraid, but the most enormous basket of Tuscany food and wine (including, yes, a 2000 Brunello di Montalcino). Lot of lights in my eyes, applause, and then I said I could not think of any better way or place than the Festival dei Popoli to win the vox popoli – or something to that effect. I then dedicated the award to the memory of Michael Bhatia. More applause, then I had to wait for the translation, and the luxury of another round of applause. The rest was a bit of a blur. Lots of congratulations, drinks, clearing of the café floor for some dancing, great conversations with other directors, more drinks, and called it a night at 2 AM. Not a bad start for ‘Human Terrain,’ a great tribute to everyone who put so much into this project. And now on to Copenhagen.