The 14th Madrid International Documentary Film Festival was held in Matadero, a former slaughterhouse and livestock market built between 1908 and 1928, and commissioned by the Madrid City Council to the architect Luis Bellido. Since 2003 the site has been dedicated to sociocultural activities. In 2011 the Cineteca was created, the first and only theatre in Madrid dedicated almost exclusively to nonfiction and documentary film, and also the home of DOCUMENTAMADRID, as the documentary festival is most commonly known. The most recent edition of the festival brought 28 feature films and 31 shorts to Spain’s capital city, in three different sections (International, National and Fugas, a new section devoted to “the most innovative and creative filmmaking”, according to their website), in addition to retrospectives on the work of Rithy Panh and Margarita Ledo.
Many times, critics writing about festivals are expected to watch all the films in competition, which means watching films all day, every day, for the entire festival duration. But this is almost disrespectful towards the films, which, one should hope, have been made with patience and care, that is to say, with a lot of time put into them on the part of the filmmakers. So to watch them quickly, with little to no time to think in between, puts the films, I believe, in a place not too different from that of cattle, at a slaughterhouse, ready to be turned into objects for massive and quick consumption. What I have done, then, in this essay, is to present some of my observations and notes on the films that I did see, and some perspectives on how these films can be thought about in relation to one another.
There are two films that will most certainly do very well internationally and they are both from Chile and by women filmmakers. They are Los niños (translated to The Grown-Ups) by Maite Alberdi and El pacto de Adriana or Adriana’s Pact by Lissette Orozco, films that have yet to premiere in their country of origin.
Adriana’s Pact is a compelling and twisted film about a young woman who wants, at all costs, to make a film. This film will be about her beloved aunt who is being accused of doing terrible things. That these things occurred during Chile’s dictatorship is what makes this film perhaps more marketable, but really the film is not so much about the dictatorship, as much as what it means to make a film about a subject that is so big that it can easily spill out of the director’s hands. That is precisely what happens and yet, somehow, the director finds a way to pick all the pieces back up again and take control of the narrative, even if this means losing a loved one in the process. This film makes me think about all the things people are willing to do in order to make a film. It’s frightening and fascinating at the same time.
Los niños, an inevitable crowd-pleaser, is a tragedy masked as a comedy. The subject itself is extremely alarming. Adults with Down Syndrome who are forced to attend “school” for 40 years where they are obligated to work making cupcakes and other sweets and are paid only 10 dollars a month. The school is a thinly disguised prison. And yet, somehow, with pastel filters and close-ups on the cupcakes Alberdi turns this prison into a paradise. Birthdays are celebrated with colourful balloons, white walls and fluorescent lights turn cream-coloured and despite the protagonists’ tears, the audience has a wonderful time. Every other scene the tragedy returns and we are gently reminded: This is not funny. Los niños shares a lot both formally and thematically with La Once (2014), the director’s previous film, which was nominated for a Spanish Goya in 2016, but it is superior for a very specific reason. From her talk following the film I learned that although Alberdi had written an introductory text for her main character to read, the non-actress rebelled against the text, putting it into her own words and her own thoughts. I believe that this resistance from her characters is what makes the film more successful because the director had no choice but to loosen her grip on the film and give her actors more freedom. It will be interesting to see what Alberdi does next.
On the other side of the filmmaking spectrum is my favourite film of the festival, Obscure Light by Portuguese filmmaker Susana de Sousa Dias. Obscure Light is, perhaps, the third film in what we can consider to be a trilogy, even if the filmmaker did not intend it to be this way. The other two films are 48 (2010) and Still Life (2005) and all three are made with photographs taken by the Portuguese political police during the Salazar dictatorship, which lasted from 1926 to 1974. These films work together the way that films by any great director work together: they are pieces of a larger exploration that is concerned with one general subject or material (the political prisoners and the photographs themselves) and the quest to find the form that can best fit this material, that is, how to use image and sound to tell this story. The filmmaker attempts to answer this question in one film and the way she answers it provokes new questions that must be answered in subsequent films, and so on. It is a process that involves us as spectators because it is about the act of seeing and hearing and how to see and hear images and sounds that are difficult because they are images and sounds of pain. Sousa Dias is a filmmaker that explores, rather than answers, these questions and her exploration is a gift to us all.
While Los niños moves quickly, and has the audience engaged in no time (much like television), Obscure Light works on the viewer in a very different way. It does not pull the viewer in forcefully, and does not manipulate the viewer emotionally, even if the film is about the children of political prisoners (a subject matter that could be very easily be used to manipulate an audience emotionally). If the viewer of Obscure Light allows, the film works on him/her slowly, and leaves much out. I believe that the time that the film constructs is cinematographic time (as opposed to TV time or Internet time, which is much faster). This is a time that is slow, not necessarily because the editing is slow, but because the film makes the spectator work too, putting one block on top of – or next to, or under – another. In the end, there is much that is left out, there is much that remains unknown, but the spectator who has entered into the film’s time will make sense of what he or she has seen and if he or she allows it to, this sense will be personal and full of thought.
There is another film in the festival’s official selection that works with blocks that seem to have the intention of constructing a whole but that, in my opinion, does not succeed. The film, El mar la mar by Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki, is the latest from Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, about the U.S.-Mexico border. As in Obscure Light, El mar la mar separates image and sound and a person’s face from their voice. But while Sousa Dias’ ouvre expresses a searching, an exploration for a form (and this exploration, it must be said, puts in evidence the fact that the form will never be complete), Bonnetta and Sniadecki’s film gives us an answer, one that I believe to be unsatisfying because it does not put in evidence its incompleteness.
While Sousa Dias’ film searches for ways to show (and hide) the faces of the children of the political prisoners (whose voices and tragedies we also hear), Bonnetta and Sniadecki choose to ignore the faces of the Mexicans involved, entirely. I could understand this if there were no faces at all in the film. But this is not the case. We are shown faces, but none are of Mexican people. What is the reason for this? Why do we hear Mexicans telling stories that are very, very painful for them to tell, stories that bring them to tears, yet never see or get closer to them? It seems to me that when a filmmaker goes out and searches for painful stories and gets them, he/she has a responsibility to find an aesthetic response that is worthy of the pain that has been recorded. I believe that the form that Bonnetta and Sniadecki have found in this film is not. They seem to have decided the film’s form before even considering the subject matter. The tears go unanswered by the film and by the filmmakers who seem more concerned with filming beautiful images and less about the subject at hand. The result is a film that turns its back to the subject.
A film that not only turns its back on its subject, but somehow also manages to feed off of it like a vampire and then throw it away is Solar by the Argentine filmmaker Manuel Abramovich. The director is supposedly making a film about Flavio Cabobianco, a bestselling author and New Age phenomenon, perhaps also his friend. But his concerns as a filmmaker are neither for the subject nor for the form. Flavio senses that something is up and puts up a fight. He, who at first seems completely unlikeable as a character, becomes more likeable only when we see him next to the film’s director. In the end this is a film about making a film, in which the subject, against the filmmaker’s desires, becomes a co-creator of the film. Whether real or fake it doesn’t seem to matter since the filmmaker seems only concerned with making a movie. What is his pursuit as a filmmaker? It is unclear that there is one. The film ends only when the filmmaker has decided that he wants to make another film. That there will be a festival ready to receive it when he is finished is likely.
The Festival concluded in mid-May, right as summer began.
DOCUMENTAMADRID – Festival Internacional de Documentales de Madrid
4-14 May 2017
Festival website: http://www.documentamadrid.com/en/