Hearing critics talk about European documentary festivals you could often be fooled for thinking they start and end with Amsterdam’s IDFA and its sexier (in its all-out embrace of the blurred lines of the fiction-doc hybrid, and immaculate Scandi packaging) rival CPH:DOX in Copenhagen. Enjoying the biggest profile and annual hype, these two events are key industry meeting points for sparking collaboration, and have the heft to claim a large share of the cream of premieres, allowing seen-it-here-first coverage of the impactful films that will travel wide. As impressive and well-programmed as these oiled machines are, the rarest of experiences are often to be found on the periphery. This piece will pay tribute to less-discussed highlights from smaller festivals, such as Portugal’s Porto/Post/Doc and Doclisboa, and Galicia’s Play-Doc, where integrity of vision manifests almost alchemically into atmosphere, and to exemplary retrospectives in festivals like DOK Leipzig (a larger showcase that has not forgotten the strengths of its unique roots). But first, Dokufest in Kosovo, which is in a category all of its own, in the way it has through fierce belief in cinema as a transformational community tool transcended any classification of art as commerce.
Dokufest: From Talking Heads to Southern Gothic Dread
In Prizren, Kosovo, the adhan (call to prayer) sounds out through the streets from mosque loudspeakers several times per day, sometimes competing with the music and chatter from the outside packed bars of a city in full festival mode, as August heat soars toward the 40-degree mark. Such contradictions permeate this city of contested territory. Scarred by conflict and subject to newly rising tensions with Serbia, it’s still strangled by hard economic challenges, where many locals (from an orthopaedic surgeon, to a chef) told me they had to undergo work stints in Germany just to make ends meet. “Future” was the theme of this year’s 16th edition of Dokufest. It felt like there was no better place than Prizren – on the Ottoman-influenced “outside” of an EU paradoxically strongly present there as a chimera – to reflect through film on citizenry of a world that identity clashes are ripping apart.
Dokufest, though still considered somewhat off the beaten path, has attained high respect globally, and attracts a large roster of international guests. Kosovars also flood in, with the level of enthusiasm only found where quality cultural happenings are far from taken for granted. Many come for associated music showcase Dokunights (this year headlined by New York rapper Princess Nokia), and recharge in the cinemas by day. The appreciation of Dokufest’s raising of Kosovo on the cultural map was everywhere apparent from young volunteers to staff in local bars and restaurants, and rawly palpable in the air was a hunger to make something meaningful work; to come together, and to hell with the limitations. Of course limitations are crushingly concrete, and embedded corruption in Kosovo has meant tough funding hurdles for Dokufest’s organisers over the years, so it’s even more remarkable that such a world-class event thrives in such infertile conditions. It is genuine belief in cinema as a driver of identity and regeneration that seems to keep Executive Director Eroll Bilibani and Artistic Director Veton Nurkollari going. When Nurkollari tells me that they reached a crossroads of expansion and rejected a more industry-facing, red-carpet route as they didn’t want to lose the heart of the festival, you know this is not mere PR-speak, and sense wisdom and courage at work.
City mood aside (and that alone can buoy you through a week), Dokufest is programmed with great finesse. Attention to boundary-pushing, multi-layered aspects of the form as well as the catalysing of political awareness marked the main competition selection. This year it was won by experimental Mexico border meditation El mar la mar (by Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki) in a program that included Theo Anthony’s punkish mash-up on Baltimore’s segregation by urban design, Rat Film. Ziad Khaltoum’s vision of construction workers in Beirut exile Taste of Cement and Rahul Jain’s Indian textile factory portrait Machines were also in there, films that ostensibly critique the subjugation of the human body as work tool, but tread a problematically close line to fetishisically replicating that oppression in their gaze.
Dokufest’s curatorial flair is perhaps best encapsulated by the inspired choices that bookended the festival as opening and closing films. These were shown in the open-air cinema of the Lumbardhi, once a cultural hub before falling into disuse during the war. With moves to privatise it as a parking lot fended off, it is now the focus of a campaign to fund its renovation as an independent cultural space. It was the perfect place to kick off with Stop Making Sense – Jonathan Demme’s flawless 1984 concert film of Talking Heads – in tribute to the recently departed director, a wide-ranging talent who also blended documentary filmmaking with activism in his support for rebuilding efforts in disaster-struck locations. On screen, the concert proceeds as a beautiful exercise in building and collaboration: first it’s only David Byrne, on a bare stage with just portable cassette player and acoustic guitar (though this “just” is already a whole world), before he is joined one by one by other group members and their instruments. The infectious energy of sheer joy in creation between the funk-inflected and constantly innovative ensemble is sublime magic, and filled the Lumbardhi as an invocation of mood for the entire festival. And it worked. Guests were dancing in the aisles and the optimism that invigorates open human connection stayed for the next ten days as a spontaneous, shared gift. The screening paid tribute to Demme’s legacy, but also embraced that irreverent playfulness that defies rigid submission to forbears – after all, the film’s title comes from the Talking Heads lyrics: “As we get older and stop making sense…” History is absurd; the future is constantly open to reinvention by the young.
The closing film, by contrast, was Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, introduced by its director Travis Wilkerson and screened on the same day white nationalists and counter-protesters were clashing in Charlottesville, creating a gut-churning sense of immediacy. The film, imbued with a Southern Gothic air of dread, is an incredibly haunting and dark investigation of racial hatred and the rape and murder of blacks by whites with impunity in the American South, seen through the very personal lens of the radical agitprop filmmaker’s own family history. His white supremacist great-grandfather killed an unarmed African-American man named Bill Spann in 1946 inside the general store that he ran, and went unpunished. Surrounded by secrecy – and hints at a whole pattern of other abhorrent deeds – the story of this crime defies Wilkerson’s attempts to fully get to its bottom, because it has been repressed by those intent to unmark, silence and erase the experiences and very lives of the US black population. Wilkerson, narrating, says he believes the store is inhabited by ghosts, since he feels sinister energy inside – intuiting viscerally that the unnamed persists to determine the present. Facts may be elusive, unrecorded and unrepeated above terse, collusive whispers, but this only fuels our knowledge that what occurred is probably as bad or worse as its few hinted-at traces, and that the discrimination and denial tactics that underpinned the crimes of the past are not one bit abated in today’s macabrely twisted America. With stylistic flair to burn in service to its point, the film still couldn’t be further from the kind of feel-good film that tends to close a festival; and it was a brave choice with which to send us back out into our troubled times. Celebrate, and regenerate your common energies – but don’t let a bubble of complacent hedonism close your eyes, this bookending suggested.
Doclisboa: Věra Chytilová and the Real Surreal
Věra Chytilová has been subject to a surge of recognition in the last few years – and it’s long overdue. This was partly catalysed by the Czech director’s death in 2014, which prompted tribute screenings and a re-evaluation of her legacy far beyond her more widely known masterpiece Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966). That film is an anarchic explosion of surrealist free spirit and irreverence. Two giggling girlfriends – deciding that since the world’s gone bad, they’ll “be bad too” – go on a riot of destruction around Prague, playing pranks on a host of entitled older men who want to sleep with them. It was often lumped in with the Czech New Wave movement and its political resistance against oppression at the hands of the Communist regime, rather than considered for its decimation of accepted gender etiquette and the absurdity of decorum in a world run by men. Hardly surprising, given that feminism was stigmatised and maligned in Prague as an imported western slogan, a hysteria or as revered dissident Vaclav Havel said, “simply dada”. Rejecting the label, Chytilová by obstinacy and agile stealth still did the work. It’s only with today’s greater openness to feminist layers of cinema and the emergence of more curators and writers intent on bringing the work of the few female pioneers of radical screen subversion to audiences that the rest of Chytilová’s oeuvre has found greater meaning, and come to make more sense as a whole. Perfect timing, then, that a 33-film retrospective more complete than any we’ve seen yet was screened in all its glory (put together by curator Boris Nelepo at the behest of festival co-director Cintia Gil) at Doclisboa in Portugal. Intuitive timing seems a quality of Doclisboa, which by not forcing its program into clumsy title categories enables more organic choices and surprising echoes to spark.
It’s beautifully fitting, somehow, that this retrospective happened at a documentary festival. Chytilová started her career playing with that literal form. Her feature debut O necem jinem (Something Different, 1963) blends the training regime and doubts of champion gymnast Eva Bosáková with a parallel, fictional strand about a dissatisfied housewife – in so doing turning what a more conventional director might shoot as a Soviet-style tribute to heroic sporting valour into an ambivalent, absurdist and highly original portrayal of the elusive nature of inner satisfaction with life’s options for all women. As she shifted into wildly experimental fiction and then in later years (after a censorship ban had made it very difficult for her work) returning with a more formally commercial comedic style that were just as taboo-busting in content (anti-consumerist rape-revenge farce Pasti, pasti, pasticky [Traps, 1998] exemplifies this), she remained focused on exposing society’s entrenched hypocrisies, and ripping apart the very fabric of decorum that veils the power abuses at its core. So to place her work within a wider frame of the real is not just to pay tribute to her roots; it’s also to sense on some level that her surrealism and pitch-black farce were part of a militantly activist strategy to reject the game of pretending there is any sense to the status quo. It’s society’s organisation that is outlandish; Chytilová’s shrewd filmmaking we might take as a factual, educational, albeit performative report on this.
DOK Leipzig: The Red Past as Present Tense
One of the world’s oldest documentary festivals, DOK Leipzig could hardly be said to fly under the radar. It has lost some of the radical allure it had before our days of internet-easy-access, when the Iron Curtain was intact and it was seen as a politically daring gateway platform for directors from socialist states to have the rare chance to show their work among western guests (and vice versa) in the then-partitioned East. But while the need to smuggle films in may have faded out along with many other legendary anecdotes, DOK Leipzig retains strength in its roots. As its 60th edition proved yet again, it’s still the best festival for astutely curated retrospectives on documentarians from the post-Soviet region, and archival cinema that mines its history and resonances for us today.
“Everything is true and everything is a lie,” said found footage genius Sergei Loznitsa in a two-hour masterclass in which he waxed lyrical (with his particular deadpan, archly contrarian charm) on the paradox of reality as formatted by documentary. The very editing of archive already intrinsically changes the meaning of what is there, he contends, since all cinema through its necessary selectivity of the simultaneity of any history can never be more than the artificial creation of truth. In the face of this, he said he aims not to convey meaning directly but to give audiences the impression they are inside the world shown so that they can “feel it on their skin”, an immediacy from which they can then create their own opinion about how the society around what is depicted has been organised.
Known for his precision and rigour, it was surprising to hear Loznitsa speak of the essential presence of the inexact, the messy, and chance elements to create a believable sense of reality (“Many things you make carefully don’t work”), and of his conception of the camera almost as a living, animistic conduit (“Maybe I found the footage, but maybe it found me,” he said of the reels from which he formed Blokada [Blockade, 20016]).
Loznitsa put it well when he said that cinema is a lie that fights against simultaneity; that we see only the shots representing the particular truth that resonates with the director. He didn’t seem to be thinking specifically about gender, but he later paused a clip of Sobytie (The Event, 2015) on the face of one woman in a 1991 St Petersburg crowd that was in solidarity demanding freedom. He said that his woman’s face and soul (“Well, I don’t know what was in her soul,” he then corrected himself) he saw echoed in the face of actress Vasilina Makovtseva, and because of this he cast her as the lead in Krotkaya (A Gentle Creature, 2017), his Dostoyevsky-inspired parable of a stoic sufferer on a quest through a Russian underbelly of total social decay. A woman’s face – holding all kinds of meanings we project onto it. Make of his reading of this face what you will, but it made me think back again to DocLisboa – because you’d never find such an idealised, symbolic vessel in a Věra Chytilová film.
When historian-curator and moderator Barbara Wurm asked Loznitsa whether he made The Event and Maidan (2014) in a similar way, he replied: “No. Well, yes. They were both made according to how I think.” This answer might seem dismissive, did it not encapsulate that for Loznitsa cinema is always, to a degree, inescapably subjective. He believes that archive can help us out of this bind to a degree, by enabling us to observe a past that we do not have such blindingly personal investment in. However, he counters that any deep understanding of this past is still elusive, since the shadows of its horrors cannot be confined to the doings of evil men – their potentialities and reverberations are also inside of us. Wanting to glean more of the “mystery” of the ‘20s and ‘30s, he is now completing a film from archival footage of Stalin’s Moscow show trials, and he afforded us a glimpse of part of the rough cut.
It was footage that echoed elsewhere through the program, namely in a retrospective Commanders – Chairmen – General Secretaries that coincided with the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, examining its lasting ideological sway and the seeds that sprung up globally in differing forms. The show trial of Bolshevik revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin appeared again in Eduard Schreiber’s Tod im Kreml (Death in the Kremlin, 1996), screened in a cluster of films about funeral rituals in Communist times. Soviet regimes saw death as exhibition – both as punitive lesson through the fates of the dishonoured, tried and executed, and as a reverential display that in its state funeral processions and open-casket tombs mimicked sainthood for the party leadership cult. The importance of exhibiting justice being done (and exposing its opponents by giving them enough verbal rope) drives Milo Rau’s gripping feature Die Moskauer Prozesse (The Moscow Trials, 2014), also screened in the focus. He recorded the 2013 political theatre action of restaging three trials of artistic dissidents involving a cross-section of Muscovite society, which was organised in response to the lack of an independent judiciary under Putin. It’s often said that Russia is a land swung between extremes, and it’s hard to argue with this cliche seeing this crystal-cut microcosm of influence groups in the capital’s current landscape, their views and tactics.
There’s no shuffling past an embalmed corpse in Peter von Bagh’s Päivä Karl Marxin haudalia (A Day at the Grave of Karl Marx, 1984), but idealists of varying fervour can be seen still hoping to access some form of sacred aura in their visits to the resting place of the dead philosopher in London’s Highgate Cemetery in the film, shot with gently ironic undertones and showing how Communism itself has been fetishised in its demise. The retrospective was intent on showing the ideology and its revolts as far from just a white, male project. Rage over Vietnam injustices ignites Cuban director Santiago Alvarez’s 79 promaveras (79 Springtimes, 1969), and the thwarted idealism (and championing of women’s rights) of an African revolutionary who colonialist forces were determined would never become a household name pulses through Robin Shuffield’s Thomas Sankara: l’homme intègre (Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man, 2006). Seeing Agnès Varda’s name atop the credits in a documentary (Black Panthers, 1968, shot on 16mm with a camera borrowed from student activists) in which Kathleen Cleaver talks about her role in the revolutionary rights movement was refreshing amid a deluge of trials, parades, and stately ceremonies that filled the screen with exulting and exulted men.
Porto/Post/Doc and Play-Doc: Archive Against Oblivion
The ferocious rivalry between Portuguese film festivals has spawned colourful anecdotes over the years, but a more supportive attitude exists between Doclisboa and newer documentary festival Porto/Post/Doc (which has just had its fourth edition), in the northern port city of Porto, understanding that there is strength in comradeship, and room for both of these outstanding events.
Porto/Post/Doc was in part born of a spirit of resistance against the stultifying impact of the multiplex; to revive film exhibition and community around the downtown cinemas of Porto. It’s a project that takes on special urgency when you realise what risks being lost; when you pass by the neon-lit signage into the interior of Modernist festival venue Passos Manuel, which has shabby, ashtray-grimed style in spades and combines a re-utilised old movie theatre, late-running bar and small basement dance-floor, and where its owner Becas (who has been running clubs in Porto since the ‘80s – the first, Aniki Bobo, named after a Manoel de Oliveira film) can often be found into the early hours regaling drinkers with stories, or behind the decks drawing on his eclectic music connoisseurship. In addition to festival screenings Porto/Post/Doc screens a monthly program there called Há Filmes na Baixa! (There Are Films Downtown!).
The astute trust placed in fruitful collaboration and expanding the reach of cinema by festival founder Dario Oliveira is further evidenced in the carte blanche freedom offered to allies to share their peculiar passions. A slot was this year offered to Czech filmmaker Jana Sevcíková (whose stunning works of wry wit and collective memory in the vestiges of an old-world, creaking Europe were a revelation of the 2016 edition, shared in a carte blanche by Sensory Ethnography Lab renogades Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel), who chose to show ‘90s portraits of the blind by Miroslav Janek, Nespatřené (The Unseen, 1996), in which the children take up cameras to show that intuition is a way of framing the world, and Hamsa, já jsem (Hamsa, I Am, 1999).
Carte blanche sidebar screenings were also offered to friend festivals, including Play-Doc in neighbouring Galicia. Play-Doc, happening in April amid hills of Pontevedra that feel tinged by mystics, is also programmed with a high level of vision (there must be cinema in the water of this small corner of Europe), this year having boldly hosted a retrospective of Dominic Gagnon, recently hit by a fever-pitch level of controversy in North America for his working methods mining the darker tendencies of the internet. It had been a welcome chance to explore his challenging, acerbic work. To Porto, Play-Doc brought El Desencanto (The Disenchantment), Jaime Chavarri’s 1976 gorgeous, acerbic film about the family left behind by poet Leopoldo Panero, often read as an allegory of the death of the Franco regime. It’s a stunning revelation of endless depths, in its wry self-awareness and philosophical musings on a mother and sons transforming over time in a world of diminishing returns.
Play-Doc’s choice chimed well with Porto’s festival focus, Archive and Post-memory, which explored cinema as a tool for regenerating and shoring up collective memory in the wake of the trauma of colonialism and dictatorship. El nome de los árboles (The Name of the Trees, 2015) is an exercise in bearing witness by Ramón Lluís Bande. He shot it in the Asturias region of Spain, heading into the hills where the partisan resistance hid out between 1937 and 1952 while opposing the fascist regime, and recording the recollections of locals. It’s a tapestry of eye-witness accounts and hearsay stories about the murder of guerillas – often the inexactly recalled impressions and vivid details of those who were children at the time – that together in numbered chapters evoke the haunted recesses of a horror not precisely set down in any history text. “They say they killed him there. So they say. I heard that,” says one local in the typically uncertainty-shrouded language of rumours, and of a truth that was often covered up by counter-tales and perilous to speak by name. This is memory work that is very much in current process. At the Gijón International Film Festival only the week before I had seen the world premiere of Bande’s new short in competition, Aún me quedan balas para dibujar (I Still Have Bullets to Draw, 2017), aimed at retrieving from obscurity drawings on the walls of the Cangas del Narcea prison made by resistance figures condemned to death under Franco; to transmit and revivify their traces in the realms of collective memory.
Argentinian filmmaker Albertina Carri adopts a more experimental approach with Cuatreros (Rustlers, 2016), also screened in Porto. In this very personal assemblage she narrates labyrinthine tendrils of her experience trying to make a film about Isidro Velázquez, an insurgent outlaw and folk hero who was shot by police in 1967, and who her father (an intellectual disappeared under the dictatorship) had written about. There are conflicting accounts about him, and a film already made that is now missing. In its barrage of split-screen footage and analysis is convoluted, overly self-referential and frustrating – a sensation that nevertheless is effective in conveying the impenetrability and resistance of archival traces to history’s simple reconstruction.
While to Loznitsa, all documentaries are acts of selective reality, these films answer the question of what to do when what we wish to show has been taken or hidden from us. They resist oblivion and the forgetting of unofficial histories through attuning themselves to the frequency of traces; insisting – as indeed Travis Wilkerson did with Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? – that while the erasure practiced by the politically dominant and by time itself is a momentous force, the spirit of subversion and our responsibility to memory persists even in the smallest of remains.
5-13 August 2017
Festival website: http://dokufest.com
19-29 August 2017
Festival website: http://www.doclisboa.org/2017/en/
30 October – 5 November 2017
Festival website: http://www.dok-leipzig.de/en/
27 November – 3 December 2017
Festival website: http://www.portopostdoc.com
13-17 April 2017
Festival website: http://www.play-doc.com/en/