“Is Finland a fucking awful place?” Jörn Donner asks his fellow citizens for answers in Fuck Off! – Images from Finland. He travels around his then-modernising country in his 1971 documentary classic to get to the bottom of attitudes there on everything from socialism to the trend for debauched holidays in Sweden. Blusteringly patriotic it’s not, but the bone-dry, irreverent humour in this self-deprecating oddity could not be more Finnish. The awfulness of places, of course, is relative. And as no land is a monolith, the question must also be asked – awful for who? Seductive (and destructive) myths of havens change according to the access to them and ability to control their narratives afforded by status. Donner evaluates Finland with gentle wit, from the inside. He might have reservations about his homeland, but we can’t doubt his comfort there on the job (he even conducts one interview in bed with his subject). Nearly half a century on, concerns about the planet’s liveability have become more soberly, catastrophically urgent. Fuck Off! – Images from Finland screened in January at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in a focus celebrating Finland’s 100 years of independence – a fitting taster not only for the films of Docpoint in Helsinki a few days later, but as a start to a year of documentary festivals in which from Taiwan to Nyon, Copenhagen to Tel Aviv, notions of national self-examination, globalisation as confusion, and crises of identity are very much to the fore.
The search for “authentic”, or even better, “authentically eccentric” local experience has long underpinned the touristic urge. If you’re set on getting to the heart of what “Finnish” means locals would likely not begrudge you to start with the cliches. This means not only the sauna (on the heels of a snowstorm guests warmed their bones on Uunisaari island before an ice-dip for hardy, northern-style invigoration) – but all things Kaurismäki.
This year DocPoint presented Mika Kaurismäki with the Aho & Soldan Award in honour of his life’s work. Tigrego – A Film That Was Never Made (1994) was just one of his films which screened at Andorra, the cinefile hideaway he owns with brother Aki that in its loose, laidback cluster of spaces includes a billiard hall and Kafe Mockba, a cosy drinking hole behind ruched Russian-style curtains that’s filled with Soviet decor. The pair are legends in Finland and beyond not only for their filmmaking but their nurturing of the near-mythical white nights Midnight Sun Film Festival up in Lapland. Tigrero was shot in Brazil, which Mika has made a second home. It sees American king of low-budget genre fare Sam Fuller return to visit a tribe in the Amazon with friend Jim Jarmusch in tow. Fuller tells how his 1954 studio-commissioned project about a jaguar hunter starring John Wayne and Ava Gardner fell through – but not before he’d gotten acquainted with indigenous people, the Kajara. In its offbeat irreverence, deadpan humour and humanistic warmth, the film is a welcome respite from the self-aggrandising high drama of the colonialist explorer mentality or po-faced ethnography. In showing the changes time and western contact have wrought, it’s a reminder that cinema records that which is already being lost.
Travel, displacement, culture shock and efforts to belong: these themes dominated the national premieres of the Finnish competition at DocPoint, to mixed success. The Fifth Sun by Cristiana Pecci and Matteo Maggi, for instance, proclaims itself as a film about wanderlust and the seemingly paradoxical project of making a film about an urge so unpredictable. It follows Panu, a free-spirited and self-romanticising – and at times, downright grating – traveller as he journeys with the film crew by van to witness a solar eclipse in Australia by way of Siberia, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. He comes across more as the kind of braggart bunkmate you wouldn’t want to be stuck beside in a youth hostel than a charismatic man of adventure (he’s got nothing on the ragtag bunch of Tigrero), and no real insight is offered into the lives of those encountered. Meanwhile, Niklas Kullström and Martti Kaartinen used a more engaging source in the form of the memoirs of Finnish linguist and diplomat Gustaf John Ramstedt, who travelled to Mongolia and East Asia a century ago, as the basis for Eastern Memories. But the effort to illustrate and contrast the narration with its referenced locations in modern times falls flat, despite high production values that slickly capture visual city grandeur (a stereotyped take on Japan that nods to manga and sleep capsule hotels does not get past cliches).
These superficial treatments of culture clashes only served to make Markku Heikkinen’s film No Road Home (Ei tietä kotiin) stand out all the more for its ambitious effort to dig deep in portraying the heart of immigrant experience and its psychology, both from the perspective of an arrival in his new land of Finland and the home he has left, and on the level of institutional challenges and shortcomings. This film, singled out for this year’s Critic’s Choice Award, asks hard questions about what Finland is really like when seen through refugee eyes – and what kind of country it wants to be. It’s a committed social project that challenges assumptions and transcends many of the immigration films being made by avoiding a reductive, suspenseful narrative focused solely on the hardship of the journey (as if arrival equates with a simplistic happy ending). Rwanda is the first stop for Charles when he escaped traumatic war experiences in the tribally fractured Democratic Republic of the Congo. His difficulties continue in Kajaani in central Finland, where he goes to try to establish a new life along with his wife and children, learning the country’s notoriously difficult language and trying to integrate as a useful member of society – despite prevalent racial abuse. Some startling scenes, such as an interview in which authorities attempt to ascertain whether his marriage is genuine with absurdly ill-informed questions peppered with casual racism and references to imams and witch doctors, convey the institutional disdain that casts a shadow over the refugee experience, not to mention a Finland that in idealising homogeneity is poorly equipped to make its systems more welcoming to those from the “outside”. Voiceover couches the film in part as a letter from Charles to his daughter; a powerful, poetic gesture to re-establish a thread of historical continuity and connection to past and homeland that in turn shores the family up to face all that is new.
Short film Dream of Championship (Unelma mestaruudesta), the directorial debut of visual artist Sophia Ehrnrooth, was another stand-out in the Finnish competition, recognised with a Critic’s Choice special mention. Using a simple, effective concept, it suggested much about youth and tech-age rituals of identity in our times of globalisation and Google facts, as four boys are shown face-on reeling off the names of as many international football players as they have been able to memorise. Hundreds are recalled, before the fans start to struggle and flag.
Taiwan International Documentary Festival, Taipei
To spend time in East Asia is to remember how hermetically self-referential Europe can be. Not only does the very air feel different here, but politics are geared toward other signal-strengths. China is close-by; conversations map themselves accordingly. An impassioned concern for documentary as a rallying force for political engagement, eager to link past to present, shone through the astutely assembled program of the 20th edition of the Taiwan International Documentary Festival in Taipei, which provided ample space for the formally as well as politically challenging. Fascinating strand (Not) Just a Historical Document: Hong Kong-Taiwan Video Art 1980-1990s, for instance, brought anti-imperialist protest centre-stage, aligning Taiwan in a relationship of solidarity with other nations grappling with Chinese power.
A restored version of Richard Yao-chi Chen’s 1966 The Mountain was one of three opening shorts, showing again at one of the festival’s relaxed, nightly secret screenings, held in the balmy open air of the Grassroots artist collective complex (a DIY settlement of tents and outlandishly decorated structures in a park in the city’s heart that, under threat of shut-down from the authorities, gave a glimpse at alternate, co-operative modes of creative organisation within Taipei). The psychedelic-tinged film, soundtracked by “California Dreamin’”, follows three art school students on a mountain excursion. They speak about their artistic frustrations, and how only party members are eligible for scholarships, in a sublime vision of restless youth that taps American counter-culture influence to convey and transform local specifics.
In a temple in Taipei, a man told us that he “uses incense the same way as wifi, to connect with the gods.” The analogy was one of those surprising instances that make you think about communication in a wholly different way. Another opportunity was occasioned by a pair of films, as problematic as they are intriguing, which ruminate on whether the human connection that cinema’s technology upholds – between director and protagonist, and imagined audience – can ever reach beyond the merely symbolic. Taiwanese director Wu Yao-tung made them twenty years apart. Swimming on the Highway (1998) and Goodnight & Goodbye (2018) are in a sense mysteries; unanswered questions and existential dead-ends about the element of searching that is difficult to pin down or articulate in documentary filmmaking. When ensnaring a subject before the lens, what are we looking for, and what life force do we take from them?
Swimming on the Highway was Wu’s first portrait of Tom, a gay 30 year-old, charismatic but troubled, prone to heavy drinking and erratic moods. Unsure of a subject at film school, the director attached himself to this protagonist from a sense his life contained more drama to mine than his own (as the film was awarded at Yamagata, Wu did achieve success off the back of Tom’s personal history). As he pushes him to describe over and over details of his life (including a rape at age 17, a depressive breakdown and an HIV diagnosis), there is a sense that the process of filming makes the pair (“both anxious” people, we are told) increasingly entangled in a toxic bond that spirals back upon itself repeatedly, unable to make no further sense of the events and too directionless to achieve catharsis. Mischievously elusive, at times contemptuous and at others visibly upset, Tom is needled by a director that deems him difficult, but one can’t help but feel unsettled by the parasitic aspects of such a film project. The director’s up-front acknowledgement that his own motivations might be questionable, and his reflection that the camera is an “ominous curse” that takes away one’s soul, do little to absolve him.
This partly performative directorial humility becomes even more problematic twenty years on, as Wu sets out in search of Tom, to film where he is at in his life, and to apologise (he insists to us, and to himself) for exploiting him in the first instalment. Goodnight & Goodbye, which had its world premiere in Taipei, winning both the Audience Award and a Special Mention in the Asian Vision Competition, discovers Tom living in small-town isolated alcoholism in Puzi, his creative potential no further realised than in those decades past. Receiving the awards in Taipei, Wu commented that it is strange to give a prize to a documentarian, given that they take something from someone else in order to make their work. This seeming self-awareness and navigation of personal guilt, as well as reflections within the film about his possible “vanity”, felt somewhat disingenuous. Both films, after all, exist, and his ambition proved stronger than any doubts he had about what he was undertaking. As Tom becomes too drunk to respond to questions and passes out in the film, the director’s clumsy attempts to make him more comfortable are met by his assistant’s observation: “You haven’t looked after anyone before” – a comment carrying wider insight and resonance throughout this pair of films. When Tom dies in bed overnight in uncanny timing, and the filmmakers must take care of the body with the authorities, the question of their role in all of this is brought to a head. Is this in essence a testament to a life, or a snuff film? The unsettling ambiguity provides much food for thought, where the director’s hazy aimlessness in giving his project meaningful shape had failed. The director insists on being lit up by his subject, even as he apologetically burns that flame out.
The Danish capital: affluent and stylish, its flagship documentary festival CPH:DOX also tends toward the most slickly packaged of possibilities – and that means a strong tendency toward the creative hybrid form. So it’s no surprise that two stand-out films on displacement and contested histories from what was this year a very strong competition line-up in Copenhagen employed innovative methods: associative poetry in the case of Extinction by Salome Lamas, and re-enactment in Robert Greene’s Bisbee ‘17.
Lamas, at the forefront of a generation of Portuguese filmmakers strong in experimentation, has always been fascinated with the ambiguity of border realms, and people living on margins still touched by oppressive power systems. Extinction is her first feature-length documentary since Eldorado XXI (2016), her otherworldly blend of ethnography and poetry shot in a mining outpost in the Peruvian Andes. Perhaps even more haunting, Extinction is a black-and-white elegy for a territory in entropy, which turns its attention to a post-war Europe of disintegration. An intertitle presents us with a quote by Thomas Bernhard: “After all, there is nothing but failure.” This thinker – a reluctant Austrian who renounced the prejudices and hypocrisies of his homeland and often wrote about geniuses whose utopian projects collapsed through their impossibility – is perhaps the ultimate voice of post-war disillusionment. The title of Extinction is no doubt taken from the title of his final novel, about a man who has the unwanted inheritance of a Nazi-tainted family home come into his hands. Lamas’s film is concerned not with the legacy of National Socialism but that of the USSR – suggesting that all state ideologies and their land-carving claws are prone to inevitable decline (she dedicates the film to all unnoticed territories on the margins of legitimacy, with their shifting borders, visionary leaders and forgotten peoples). This conflation of ideas from very specific times and places may tend toward a superficial, stylised treatment of history – but some truth of zeitgeist can also be felt in its conception of a post-globalised dreamfever-scape of interchangeable, doomed efforts to redraw lines of self-definition.
Extinction unfurls as a dark road journey across the subterranean breakaway peripheries of the former Soviet Union. Now attempting to redefine the edges of their identity, they exist in precarious instability and conflicts (currently thirty of them we are told, a legacy of Stalin having mixed countries around “as if playing chess”). The director and her crew – accompanied by a young man from the internationally unrecognised state of Transnistria, split off from Moldova in a war now often compared with that of Donbass, a situation he will only tentatively discuss – cross through checkpoints of the region’s “bureaucratic faultlines”, their grilling by border guards secretly recorded. The sci-fi appearance of the hulking, deserted concrete monuments that are visited (the oft-fetishised debris of a defunct Communist future), only underscore the haunting, absurdist sense of a utopia envisioned with grandiose delusion. But most alienating yet poetic in its strange impenetrability is the soundscape – a density of muted radio signals as if from a distant world now underwater; persistent signs of sinking life the centre can no longer pick up.
Accomplished documentarian Robert Greene just gets better film by film. After Actress and Kate Plays Christine – two brilliant, complex features on female identity compromised by toxic mythologies of celebrity in which performance itself is a central inscrutability – he delivers Bisbee ‘17, a tour de force of embodied history that takes performance into the realm of collective summoning. Cities that are haunted seem to straddle past and present. It’s as if two versions of the same place have been overlaid on top of one another, a quote from Colm Dickey’s Ghostland reminds us. This is never more so than in the town of Bisbee, Arizona, a former mining hub crucial to the First World War effort but now mired in poverty. Just north of the Mexican border, it is also nearby Tombstone, the location for numerous TV westerns with a dream-peddling history of gunslinger dress-ups, dubbed “the town too tough to die”. In 1917 Bisbee was a company town run with an Old West ethos and white supremacist undertones ready to buck the laws of centralised authority when its migrant labourers unionised and went on strike for better working conditions. The resulting deportations of strikers (90 per cent of which were born outside the US in eastern Europe or Mexico) – regarded by some townspeople as an ethnic cleansing and others as a necessity to retain peace and stave off communism – had all but been effaced from the town’s official memory. That is, until Greene’s richly textured reconstruction, in which he enlisted residents to play the main historical personages of the event based on similarities with their own worldviews and experiences. Descendants of the Ray brothers – one of whom was deputised by the sheriff and arrested the other – use the exercise toward a cathartic resolution of an old conundrum and their self-justifying ideologies. But the real heart of the film is Fernando Serrano, a soulful, sensitive youth whose mother had been expelled back to Mexico and who is able through playing a striking miner to connect in some associative way with a wider common well of emotions, and process his own painful memories. History does not just overlay itself from past to present, but also across equivalent experiences of oppression and resistance, this multi-layered, and very moving film shows.
Visions du Réel, Nyon
Cosily sized Visions du Reel in Nyon – in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, for those without firm bearings in this small, cantonised nation region-divided by four official languages – takes place by Lake Geneva in a picturesque, affluent town flush with the sun of approaching summer. It’s a sleepily idyllic location that might seem surreally at odds with its program. Adina Pintilie’s divisive, radically self-examining and original Berlinale-winner Touch Me Not screened there this year, as did Going South, the latest from controversial king of the web’s dark corners Dominic Gagnon. In other words, it’s a selection that, often socio-politically charged, has no fear of the uncompromisingly audacious.
Made up of clips gleaned from YouTube, Going South is a catastrophe-strewn mash-up of the carnage littered across today’s internet, with a delightful, tongue-in-cheek eye for the quirks and surreal details of the awkward affliction that is the human condition. Typical Gagnon in other words, and a highlight of the main competition. It’s the second of a proposed tetralogy by the Montreal-based filmmaker (the first, Of the North, occasioned heated debate over its use of footage of Quebec Inuit and issues surrounding appropriation, consent, the status of self-published footage in the public domain, and censorship; the third will deal with the East, and we can imagine a dive into Russian cyberspace rabbit holes and more). The vision expertly distilled by Gagnon is to be sure as discomforting as it is at times hilarious – but it assists us in grasping an age in which the human consciousness has not kept pace with the embedding of technology into all aspects of our relations in terms of an awareness of how the tools use us (as an extension of corporate power and the like) rather than vice versa. The giving over of privacy is routinely done before the impact of its violations becomes apparent. In capturing a fraction of just how deep the internet’s weirdness goes, Gagnon’s film – a teeming assemblage in six parts like a Boschian punk symphony that kicks off with a cyclone, flaming trees and a drunk Russian passenger on Ryanair prompting an emergency landing – prods us to consider the darker side of the unleashed monster that is networked life, amid our cataclysmal civilisation. From a redneck alcoholic to Thailand-bound sex tourists, conspiracy theorists and a flight attendant over-sharing banal shopping lists, people want to be seen and affirmed by their subscribers but obsessively project themselves into a hyper-chaos that swiftly destabilises further any orienting principle. It’s only fitting then, that “going South” has the double meaning of going awry; and that the final section of the film is dedicated to “Flat Earth Theory” – a concept propounded by one ardent believer, which in wider context starts to seem less ludicrous than “logic” would dictate. We are, after all, lost in the flat-screen wilds of our brave new world; a gloriously or horrifically demented hell of our own compulsively enthusiastic, endlessly replicated making.
Docaviv, Tel Aviv
Arriving in Tel Aviv, it’s hard to get your head round the fact that it’s only an hour away from Jerusalem by car, given how radically different it is in atmosphere to the oppressively tense holy city. The modern, irreverent city of sunny beaches, where music beats out over the street tables of hip bars, almost feels like a self-contained bubble, removed from conflict and the intense pressure to inhabit a position in a group identity. Maybe Tel Aviv’s party vibe shouldn’t be so surprising, given that a life-goes-on attitude edged with hedonism, in which news is downplayed, can be felt in many places in which security is experienced as precarious. It’s even harder to fathom that it’s only an hour away, too, from Gaza, which dominated world headlines the same week the 20th edition of Docaviv Film Festival kicked off due to the killing by Israeli forces of scores of Palestinians demanding a return to land they’d been displaced from. It was a reminder of just how high the stakes are here for community engagement to break down divisions – and how formidable the task. The festival, headed by Galia Bador, does what it can despite the ubiquitous hand of the right-wing state in culture in Israel to offer a rich program of not only quality, innocuously apolitical cinema (of which there was a lot, with dedicated music and fashion side-bars that drew in the young creative scene – a highlight being a free open-air screening of Matt Tyrnauer’s Studio 54 at nightlife spot Teder), but also confrontational work offering critical political perspectives (albeit from within Israeli society), often to packed houses.
The political situation is so intensely complicated in this region, it can leave your head spinning. Views are so myriad and conflicting, it feels like the more people you speak to, the less you know. That didn’t phase director Iris Zaki, who left her sphere in Tel Aviv with its secular, anti-settlement values to stay in Tekoa, occupied territory in the West Bank, to interview members of its local Jewish community about their attitudes to living there and to the Palestinians they displaced. “You made a strategic mistake, telling them you’re a leftist,” she’s told upon finding them highly suspicious of her, and far from eager to talk. She gradually wins over their co-operation, capturing candid interviews over an outdoor table – and from these emerged her film Unsettling. It’s a simple set-up, with a powerful result. A range of views across the nationalist-religious spectrum are expressed, from the more conflicted (that the poor conditions for the Palestinian workers herded through checkpoints could become a normalised sight for his children bothers one resident) to the extremism of one woman who says she feels no empathy at all for Arabs. She wilfully admits there is a level of “fascism” in her thinking, arguing that before the IDF were formed Jews were defenseless against the world’s hatred and slaughter, so must protect Israel at any cost to survive. Obsessive distrust forged through a history of persecution is a notion also touched on by a former Hilltop Youth hardliner. Everyone who grew up in a settlement is suffering a degree of trauma, he says. The absence of Palestinian voices in this film underscores just how much harder segregation lines are to break through than divides between Israelis. Iris speaks up for the dispossessed (“Holding your head high in the face of those you can’t – that’s violent”), and makes the film a spirited call for open dialogue – even if crucially that dialogue has no reach across ethnic divides. The expectation that diverse voices be incorporated into such a film is quite a “Eurocentric” one, another Israeli filmmaker later suggested in a bar – even if directors earnestly want this, the logistical challenges in a region of such rigid structural divisions, and the pressures upon would-be participants, are very great indeed.
Two more politically bold selections in the Israeli competition (won by trans story Family in Transition by Ofir Trainin) were The Candidate and The Jewish Underground. The first is a wryly sardonic look close inside the deception-heavy world of election campaigning by Death in the Terminal directors Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry, which manages intimate access into the bid for office of Moshe Kahlon. In the second, Shai Gal sets out the story of a group of terrorists who were part of the hardcore settler movement and circumvented official structures in trying to brutally enforce their vision – before some later entered the government themselves. “It’s the wrong building in the wrong place, and it must be removed.” So says a Jewish Underground member about the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine on the Temple Mount, in a simple, absolutist statement that belies the complexity of reconciling a clash of two religious dogmas of entitlement through divine sanction. Their plan to blow up the Dome (the same structure more recently in a media scandal photoshopped out of a photograph given to the US ambassador) is one of several plots hatched, a thwarted bus attack marking a growing willingness to kill random Arabs (the inner quandary, a member claims, was not whether their actions were legal, but at what point the decision is made to harm somebody else). Gal amps up the thriller-style suspense so we root for the mystery to be solved and the organisation to fall, but dubiously affords a little too much criminal glamour and daring to the vigilantes – supported by powerful rabbis, and enjoying a degree of public popularity as heroes – in the process.
Collective memory as a way to shore up Jewish identity was another strong theme of the festival selection. Austrian-Jewish director Ruth Beckermann, whose work often explores the legacy of wartime Europe, was there as special guest, along with her powerful, Berlinale-awarded documentary The Waldheim Waltz (2018). It probes Austria’s unhealthy relationship with its past and failure to address its complicity in Nazi atrocities. Its focus is the scandal surrounding presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim, who covered up his activities serving in a Wehrmacht unit that in the ‘40s killed partisans and deported Jews. Its lens is wide enough to show his evasion of responsibility reverberate through a society in which anti-semitism still has firm roots.
29 January-1 February 2018
Festival website: https://docpoint.info/en/
Taiwan International Documentary Festival
4-13 May 2018
Festival website: http://www.tidf.org.tw/en
15-25 March 2018
Festival website: https://cphdox.dk/en/
Visions du Réel
13-21 April 2018
Festival website: https://www.visionsdureel.ch/en
17-26 May 2018
Festival website: http://www.docaviv.co.il/org-en/