Arts

in focus

The documentary side of MFA French fest

A scene from Raymond Depardon’s “12 Days.”
Distrib Films
A scene from Raymond Depardon’s “12 Days.”

The two documentaries in this year’s Boston French Film Festival — Raymond Depardon’s “12 Days” (2017; screens Friday and Saturday) and Stéphane de Freitas and Ladj Ly’s “Speak Up” (July 19 atnd 28) advocate for the right of freedom of speech.

“What an abuse of power in the country of human rights!” a patient in “12 Days” says sarcastically. He is one of 92,000 people in France involuntarily institutionalized every year. 

They have legal recourse, however. After 12 days they can present to a judge their case for release. Like all of the others shown in the film, this patient’s case is denied and he is sent back to a locked ward.

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Most are poor; many are immigrants. An African man who has been incarcerated for nearly ten years for a violent incident asks to be sent to an out-patient clinic where he can get treatment other than mind-numbing drugs. His lawyer insists that the medical records on which the judge makes his decision are “not detailed or well-founded.” She is ignored, and the man is taken away.

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A veteran documentarian, Depardon employs technique’s similar to those of Frederick Wiseman. He presents the hearings without commentary, punctuating them with moody sequences shot along the hospital corridors or in the stark outdoor courtyard. Set to Alexandre Desplat’s Satie-like score, they come off at times like scenes from a horror movie. Though no “Titicut Follies” (1967) “12 Days” does evoke the pathos, isolation, and loneliness of those who have been marginalized and discarded, presenting their stories which otherwise would never be heard.

“Speak Up” offers a more hopeful scenario; if anything the film might be a little too chipper. Every year in the multicultural Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis young people are invited to compete in the “Eloquentia” competition where they match their skills for oratory and their ability to move audiences. Following the model of such documentaries as “Spellbound” (2002) and “Contemporary Color” (2016), the film focuses on a handful of contestants from varied backgrounds. 

They include Elhadj, who draws on his experience as a homeless person to add emotional impact to his presentation; Leïla, a Syrian-French-Muslim-feminist literature major determined to overcome her shyness; and irrepressible Eddy, who wins our sympathy because he must walk 6 miles to school in Saint-Denis during which time he runs through his spiel over and over again to memorize and fine tune it. And for those looking for a villain, there is the nerdy, arrogant kid in a bowtie who makes fun of the other students and brags that he will certainly make it to the quarterfinals and expects to win it all. You will be hoping he doesn’t.

In preparation, the contestants go through a training period that involves such eclectic studies as performance art, rap music, and elocution. As expected, there is a timetable posted regularly — “Six weeks to Eloquentia,” “Four days to Eloquentia,” etc. — a device that is a mandatory convention in these films.

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Though they present compelling portraits of some of the competitors — Eddy’s father deserves his own documentary, and Elhadj commands the kind of eloquence that is earned by prevailing over a hard life — the filmmakers seem to rush through the preparations and preliminaries and arrive at the final four contestants before you know it. The topics the event’s organizers have come up with — such as “Is the best yet to come?” and “Are dreams or reality more important?” — are a bit bromidic. A pity they don’t offer meatier, more relevant topics, like racism, sexism, economic disparity, and freedom of speech. 

“Speak Up” and “12 Days” can be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston

Go to www.mfa.org/programs/series/the-boston-french-film-festival.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.