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CINÉMA DU RÉEL 2024

Review: Under the Leaves

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- Florence Lazar crafts a meticulous documentary, part botanical, part historical, on memory, nature, the unseen, and the transmission and stigmata of a colonial past

Review: Under the Leaves

"Let us take the time to listen to the trees. There are things they want to tell us". We’re in the cove of Bellay, on the island of Martinique, surrounded by lush vegetation and a sparking sea typical of the West Indies. But behind this paradisical image lies a history of suffering, because upwards of sixty or so bodies of slaves are buried here. It’s into the roots of this hidden history, into a buried, haunted, therapeutic past passed on from one generation to the next by a local culture concealing invisible messages, that the French documentary-maker of Serbian descent Florence Lazar (who won particular praise for Kamen – Les pierres and Tu crois que la terre est chose morte) very gently delves by way of Under the Leaves, a film unveiled in a world premiere within the 46th Cinéma du Réel Festival’s international competition.

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"They call it archaeological property belonging to the French state. That word would anger us. Whether they like it or not, that’s one of our ancestors in there! So they changed the word to human remains." It’s a very strange and surprising meander through memories that this sensitive film embarks upon, encompassing seemingly disparate elements which are open to interpretation, with a view to eventually painting a highly coherent and profoundly informative portrait of the secret links between nature and human beings. Links which were previously kept under wraps at the time of "triumphant colonisation" - the property of the masters and the chains of the slaves - but which go back even further to the time of the American Indian Arawaks who lived in the cove of Bellay two centuries before Christ.

"When you don’t have the words to talk, when you’re forced to hide, you have to find a very subtle way of passing unseen by your master in order to convey a message: you have to return to the way of the seed". It’s this nigh-on botanical teaching - sustained by oral culture ("to talk is to bring to life") and by beliefs in different forms of the supernatural, as is the case in Martinique (the magic of Quimbois) - that is very slowly revealed by the filmmaker, using individual words, each of which resonating with each another. Between outings through a curtain of rain into the great green of the tropical forest, mysteries and revelations revolving around a tree from Madagascar, a psychiatric hospital, a crayfisherman, a "knife-breaker" of a plant, and a divinity known as Changó, a landscape steeped in stories and history emerges. Both an unobtrusive microcosmic investigation and a recipe based on an association of ideas which says it all, the movie is an allusive and highly restrained form of film art hidden beneath a veil of modesty.

Perfectly faithful to its guiding line (as graffiti glimpsed in the film insists, you have to create disorder to bring about order), Under the Leaves gets inside the shadows of collective memory, "accompanying us and taking us to the other side of life", and deftly channelling transgenerational emotions inherited from a very painful, historical past while staying true to a fundamental principle: "never forget".

Under the Leaves is produced and sold by Sister Productions.

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(Translated from French)

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