Feature Documentary Reviews

La Maison [The House] (2019) – 4.5 stars

Director: Mali Arun

Writer: Mali Arun

Running time: 1hr 13mins

There is a deceptive line of thought that documentary making is about purely reflecting the ‘reality’ of a particular moment in time. As is the case with journalism more broadly, however, this call for objectivity and distance to preserve the reified depiction of a subject neatly brushes over the fact that such a level of detachment is entirely impossible.

While the medium may be much quicker than oil on canvas, a documentarian filming the goings on of a rural community today is no more objective than a painter who sought to offer a snap-shot of ‘everyday life’ of the 19th century’s peasantry. By the very nature of choosing to cover a certain topic – as well as the terms of when, where and how to film it – a filmmaker is eliminating an infinity of other scenarios from their end product. Whether they like it or not, every cut, re-ordering and segue is a matter of construction, and however ambiguous they would like to be, every film is less a representation than an interpretation of its chosen material.

One of my favourite things about Mali Arun’s meticulous portrait of communal living in Alsace, is that it so flagrantly shows us the figure crouched behind the curtain, when it comes to the construction of slice-of-life filmmaking. From the very outset, Arun makes it plain that she is not only part of the goings on in the titular Maison, but aware that simply pointing a camera and microphone at a subject does not lead to a capturing of ‘reality’.

Arun’s opening encounter with Jacques Roth – the founder of the commune – wastes no time in laying this contradiction bare. Pointing toward quantum theory, and the observer effect, Jacques raises the valid point that particles respond to changes in their environment, including when they are being observed. By nature of seeing them, and showing them, human beings change the very thing they set out to understand, so to an extent objective categorisation becomes impossible. In the case of the film, meanwhile, no matter how excruciatingly drawn out some scenes depicting how strenuous daily chores and construction at the commune are (to the point some might actively turn off more casual viewers), they are still edited for effect – they have been changed in Arun’s observation.

Later, Jean-Paul, another member of the Roth clan, applies a similar critique to the idea that you can record music. While the sound and vision of a performance might be caught on camera, he argues, their ephemeral essence cannot be. The feeling and meaning of a moment where notes ring through the air and connect with listeners in a host of different ways cannot be captured – even if a director tries to posit them with a collection of pleasing images to illicit a similar feeling among viewers at a later date. It is not the same; it has lost its organic nature.

Again, it is a fair point – and one Arun does not have a direct response to; at least, not in the discussions which are captured on film. Instead, I would argue, her response is the film itself. Looking back on all that we have seen at the end of the film, what becomes clear is that this film is less about documenting the walking idiosyncrasies populating La Maison, than it is a process of Arun finding her own voice – and that is something just as beautiful as the music or building of community also featured in the film.

Arun’s life is inextricably entwined with the others living in the cooperative. Jacques, who is seeking to restore the house and its natural stream to their former glory, was a former lover of her mother’s – and father to her younger brother. Since childhood, then, Arun has been part of a growing community of “the vivacious, the wise, and the crazy,” but above all she has been surrounded by creators. The house that Jacques built – and is still building – as well as the veritable orchestra of instruments adorning its walls, which the other friends and family residing in the area constantly use to make music, surround her with the talents and voices of others. While those people might have noted that her attempts to film them in their work might fail to capture their true essence, though, her inclusion of their assertions to that end suggest she was set on doing something else anyway.

Arun has taken the moments of song, silence, joy and anger captured during her time at the house, and crafted them into something new – a patchwork of movements, thoughts and feelings, and while that is not to say she has shown us ‘reality’, she has created a moving and ephemeral work of art of her own, which is not any less authentic than the music in the moment of Jean-Paul, or the unobserved particles of Jacques – as long as we appreciate this as a process of creation, and not reflection.

I would argue in this sense, that La Maison is essential viewing to anyone looking to enter the fray of documentary making then. It might not be overtly political, or particularly ground-breaking in what it has to say, but it does address an important stumbling block that a great many directors in the medium trip at. This is inexorably an art-form – and no matter how compelling your footage, how earth-shaking the revelations you think it uncovers, how your film moves forward in that knowledge can make or break whatever it is you have to say.

Arun is clearly a mature and patient filmmaker, and her measured, meditative approach to her chosen art form mean even if her film might not be particularly explosive, it still effectively tackles one of the toughest logistical conundrums facing documentary directors. La Maison is an excellent piece of work – a slow-burning and sumptuous depiction of daily life in idyllic Alsace, used to frame a knowing examination of the construction of meaning in journalistic cinema.

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