Cinéma du Réel review: Carrousel (Marina Meijer)

Editor’s note: Like so many events, the Paris-based documentary festival Cinéma du réel was cancelled because of the measures taken to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The festival, however, graciously provided accredited critics with a number of films online that were supposed to play in its various sections. Our own Cédric Succivalli will review a number of these this week.

A new chance. That might mean a second chance, or a third one, or even a fourth one. At the New Chance center in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, the educators don’t give up that easily on their pupils, even if those pupils are at times so frustrating that it is hard not to. Those pupils are young men, 18 years and up, who have veered from the straight path but try to get back on it. Sometimes again and again. They never finished school and led a life of crime or violence, sometimes both. The older men try to help them to reintegrate into the school system or prepare them for the job market and for a life as normal as possible. But they also try to peel away the tough outer layer to find out where the rage inside the heads of these young men comes from.

Dutch director Marina Meijer’s second documentary Carrousel is one of verbal arguments, never of physical ones. It follows three young men locked in a struggle with society, but just as much with themselves and with their educators at the New Chance center. Meijer focuses purely on the direct interactions between the younger and older generations, stripping away as much backstory as she can. In a way this is detrimental to the viewer’s engagement with Carrousel, but at the same time this constant tug of war, a roller coaster of open smiles and tense aggression, is a fascinating watch. The choice to hide the background, often quite literally as well, leads to a distancing of the viewer paradoxical to the closeness of the camera on its subjects. And that’s a shame, because at the end of its run you’re left hanging in an open ending.

In at least one case, that becomes frustrating. The pupil in question (Tayfun) is the most characterized of the three men, a veritable powder keg of a guy who can explode at any moment, but also has a soft side that worries about his relationship and desperately wants to move forward in life. Inside his head a battle rages, and his educators try to pry out of Tayfun what the war is about. When it doesn’t get out and the film at a certain point just ends, it is frustrating because you want to know whether this sad-eyed boy finds the inner peace he is looking for.

Not to say that Carrousel isn’t gripping. Its fly-on-the-wall approach gives the conversations an intensity that is amplified by their sizzle. Meijer introduces beats at the right time and has a knack for letting a confrontation hang on a line or a single word, knowing where to choose silence over talk. She has a few character surprises up her sleeve that she pulls out at the right time, wrong-footing you when you had just made your mind up about somebody. Nabil is the most ‘difficult’ pupil of the bunch, initiating confrontation at the blink of an eye, yet during a phone conversation with his educator Toine he does something that shakes the image you have of him. And that is probably Meijer’s greatest strength here: her non-judgemental approach banishes ideas of right or wrong, black or white. The title hints at this struggle, trying to get through life without trouble and failing, as being a neverending cycle for these young men, but Carrousel refuses to paint them into a corner. The film may lack a certain closure, but it gives a valuable and honest look into the world of young people who are often easily brushed off.