’50 Days in the Desert’: Palm Springs Review

A documentarian offers an intimate look at a challenging film shoot in a remote area of Morocco.

When The White Knights, Joachim Lafosse’s unsettling drama about European NGO workers in Africa, arrives on DVD in a definitive edition, 50 Days in the Desert will be a natural companion-piece extra. But Fabrizio Maltese’s documentary portrait of the seven-week shoot in Morocco is no smoke-blowing, congratulatory making-of. It’s a penetrating examination of the strange alchemy that a movie set generates, with each creative collaboration its own cinematic beast.

In the case of Knights, the most ambitious project to date for Belgian director Lafosse, that alchemy was fraught with a particular tension that some cast members embraced more readily than others. “It’s a good thing when the actors want to take my film hostage,” Lafosse says, although the evidence is that no one acted on that impulse. Central to the documentary is the idea of the filmmaker as manipulator — a role that Lafosse, in his hands-off way, savors. By film’s end, Maltese is left wondering whether his enlistment as chronicler was, in a sense, another piece of casting, and a part of Lafosse’s grander moviemaking scheme.

The Bottom Line

Compelling viewing for anyone who makes movies or cares about them.

The two films enrich each other, but you don’t need to have seen the narrative feature to appreciate the doc, which had its world premiere at the Palm Springs fest and should find warm welcomes elsewhere on the fest circuit.

Maltese, a photographer whose work has included covers for THR, became friends with Lafosse when he served as stills photog on the director’s well-received 2012 feature, Our Children. For the new film, he was invited to expand his role to that of documentarian. Over the titular 50 days during spring 2014, he filmed the shoot itself as well as weekly conversations with Lafosse and interviews with cast and crew — with one key exception.

Read more  ‘The White Knights’ (‘Les Chevaliers blancs’): TIFF Review

The ensemble piece’s star, Vincent Lindon, chose not to participate in the documentary, creating an interesting logistical challenge for Maltese (as well as inserting an unspoken question about the value of going behind the scenes). But an absence that might have been merely awkward takes on an unexpected dimension as the French actor (who appears in the doc in stills) becomes a key topic of discussion for his fellow cast members, among them Reda Kateb (A Prophet). Their reactions to his outsize emotional presence and working methods, not to mention his relatively privileged professional relationship with Lafosse, provide illuminating perspectives on the interpersonal dynamics of a set.

The actors’ comments, along with those of the film’s behind-the-lens collaborators, overlap and echo one another. A cascading effect seems to be Maltese’s intention, and it works to an extent, although a bit of tightening in one or two sections wouldn’t have hurt. But an intriguing group picture emerges from the individual interviews, and script supervisor Marie-Florence Roncayolo provides especially perceptive insights about Lafosse’s drive toward “molten magma” rather than the creation of a market-defined entertainment product.

Maltese is attentive to the ways the technical demands of the filmmaking affect cast and crew, and how their being alone together in a remote locale mirrors the situation of the characters in the feature. On the desert set, his fluent camerawork maintains a discreet distance while capturing the intimate chemistry of the filmmaking process.

Elegantly shaped by editor Amine Jaber, and subtly enriched by an eclectic selection of music tracks, the doc casts a certain spell. It’s a refreshing departure from the awards-focused breakdown of moviemaking achievements into discrete categories. There’s no shortage of films about cinematic technique. Here’s a rare and welcome look at something far more mysterious: the spirit that arises, fractured and communal, when a group of people gather around the cameras to create a world.

Production company: Joli Rideau Media
With: Joachim Lafosse, Reda Kateb, Louise Bourgoin, Stephane Bissot, Yannick Renier, Bintou Rougalta, Valerie Donzelli, Luc Van Grunderbeeck, Philippe Rebbot, Catherine Salée
Director: Fabrizio Maltese
Screenwriter: Fabrizio Maltese  
Producer: Fabrizio Maltese  
Director of photography:  Fabrizio Maltese
Editor: Amine Jaber
Sales: PTD Paul Thiltges Distributions

No rating, 88 minutes