A wise man – and a festival director to boot – once said to me, “Film festivals are not about the films. Neither are they about the Q&As with the filmmakers, the industry panels, the workshops or any of that. Rather, they’re about what happens afterwards.” His counter-intuitive statement was that the films are secondary to the festival itself – the ‘festival itself’ being the conversation you strike up on the way out of the cinema, or the filmmaker you bump into in the bar, or the actual human connection you make with people.

Judged on this criterion, many of the world’s leading festivals – the Cannes and Venices – could be considered to be miserable, abject failures, precision-engineered to avoid conversation between humans but rather to generate buzz, discourse, and media engagement. These festivals don’t really happen in person – they happen second-hand, via the coverage, viral memes and sense of FOMO they generate. A small festival, like Play-Doc in Tui, Spain, though, supported by local, regional and national funds, naturally cannot contend with that star power, so it has to happen in person, between people. On these criteria, it is a success.

Play-Doc has space and geography on its side. Much of the festival takes place in two auditoriums, each one a five-minute walk from the other. Tui is a key part of the festival’s charm, a small town of about 5000 people, centred by an ornate old town and a beautiful cathedral, which originates from the 12th century, though much of the current construction is based around its 17th-century iteration. The weather in late April/early May when the festival runs is warm and pleasant without being stifling. Drinks and food are cheap and in plentiful supply. In short, it’s the kind of place that is naturally conducive to a genial atmosphere, but the festival organisers go to great lengths to generate and encourage that atmosphere, actively introducing and engaging guests and visitors. Festivals curate their program, but I suspect that part of what Play-Doc also does is curate the guests, bringing in a wide range of filmmakers (young and old), programmers, archivists and cinephiles, engaging them together. 

Spain’s regional identities play a part in Play-Doc’s off-the-beaten-path, relaxed sensibility, sitting in Galicia in northwest Spain, right on the border with Portugal. Away from Spain’s major cities, there’s a real exploratory, roving perspective to the programming on show: much of it is retrospective-based (a few of the titles at play also appeared at last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna), with a small but focused selection on contemporary cinema, split into International and Galician, without making a distinction between feature-length and shorts, a refreshing about-turn as far as juried competitions go. It also plays fast and loose with the documentary aspect of the title: few of the titles I happened to see this year fall strictly into a box clearly marked ‘documentary’; a number were fictional features, but all films programmed shared an element of blurring the lines between fact and fiction, toying with reality, of asking the audience questions about what documentary is.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

This was most evident in a mini-retrospective of the early work of Chantal Akerman, which concluded with Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), perhaps the closest thing to a ‘populist’ choice in the programming. Most interesting, however, were the other films in the program including short film La chambre (The Room, 1972) paired with Hotel Monterey (1972), and a screening of four unfinished two-minute shorts from 1967 made for admission into film school in Brussels paired with News from Home (1977). Hanging Out Yonkers (filmed 1973, never finished), Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town, 1968), Le 15/8 (1973) and Je, Tu, Il, Elle (I, You, He, She, 1974), rounded out the program.

Tired and out of time, I didn’t see them all, but what I did see drew out the line of thought that sat behind Akerman’s early works, all of which converse with her most famous work, existing as part of the same philosophical and psychological headspace. Akerman’s first feature documentary Hotel Monterey, for example, strips down the titular hotel to a series of mostly static shots, starting from the lobby and crawling up, all entirely silent. It finds poetry in the repetitive mundanity of the hotel, an anonymised, peripheral place its denizens largely drift through. Poetry in the mundane and repetitive: one of the key tenets of Jeanne Dielman

Her early shorts are raw and unfiltered, but already there is an interest in what young women do in their time off, in their interior worlds when nobody is looking. The 11-minute Le chambre consists of one continuous 360-degree pan around a room, always circling back to Akerman on a bed. Domesticity and womanhood, so keenly intertwined in collective social thoughts of the time, begin a theme that returns in Jeanne Dielman. Akerman’s work bears the imprint of Structural Film, the avant-garde movement that emerged just a few years prior with the work of such figures as Michael Snow, James Benning and Joyce Wieland. But in her hands, the thought process goes beyond the physical facts of the film form itself, and into a searching question as to what it means to repeatedly and endlessly film such domestic spaces.

This is most striking in News from Home, in which Akerman returned to New York after her early ‘70s stay, filming many of the places she previously visited, whilst narrating letters her mother sent her, reporting on how their family is doing and asking what she’s up to (unfortunately for me, the festival played the French language version with Spanish subs, my Portuguese just about good enough to parse the basics. Something may have been lost in translation). In its long, sparse shots, which often seem devoid of people (even when they’re present, they’re not really present, they’re hurrying off somewhere, somewhat anxious about the camera’s presence), Akerman scratches away at what it means to be a migrant, at the essentially lonely and peripheral nature of migration. The security of the domestic space that characterises much of Jeanne Dielman and the interplay between mundanity, repetition, and the slow build of narrative form, is completely absent here in the face of a hostile, aggressive city in which there is little grounding. Akerman’s time as a migrant was by choice. The prosaic world described in her work – and much vaunted by the critical establishment – is a predominantly middle-class one, where the choice to travel is reasonably secure. 

Far from Home

Conversely, Sohrab Shahid Saless, an Iranian director, under pressure at home, was forced to move to West Germany in 1974. His first film made in Germany, screened at Play-Doc, Dar Ghorbat (Far from Home, 1975), is an incredible piece of art centring on the life of a Turkish gastarbeiter attempting to make ends meet in ‘70s Berlin. 

Saless’ work – rights and materials scattered across countries – has been a challenge to restore and bring to light. Much credit goes to archivist and film historian Vivien Buchhorn for doing exactly that. That Saless was a contemporary of both the Iranian New Wave and of the German New Wave and yet his name remains relatively unknown in the wider annals of cinephilia is testament to the complex and cruel ways in which film history becomes distorted and minimised by time, by copyright issues, and owing to the occasional bout of ignorance and disinterest. Far from Home, in its restored format (one of the restored titles here with its premiere at last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato), is rich in earthy, grey tones, befitting its location, a perpetually grey and overcast West Berlin, drenched in seed, sleaze, sexism and casual racism. The opening titles declare that this is “Not another gastarbeiter film”, but instead a paean to the state of being for all those living away from home, a state of being best described as “MISERY”.

In spite of such a nihilistic opening statement, the resulting film is touching and even funny in places. Parviz Sayyad plays Husseyin, who, living with his fellow Turks in a dingy apartment, saves up money to send back home. His fellow countrymen are all in the same boat. Some are jobless but all are factory workers, faced with the agony of not seeing their family for months or years on end, and the never-ending noise and repetition of the work they do manage to find. Their attempts to assimilate into German culture and make use of its liberties compared to the conservatism of back home – easier access to alcohol, gambling and sex – are depicted with pathos and are sharply written. 

Husseyin’s struggles with the language lead to cringe-worthy scenes of interactions with members of the opposite sex, coloured partly by outdated attitudes to women on his side, and partly by racism on the other. That Saless manages to wring out small drops of bleak humour inside this material is testament to his talent as a brilliant writer-director, and it’s even more astonishing that this was the made for TV work of an Iranian who, at the time, was still learning German and yet was writing the film predominantly in Turkish. His work is befitting of rediscovery and regeneration.


That sense of rediscovery was also a key motivation for screening two works by Govindan Aravindan, a famed Indian auteur from Kerala state in the south of the country: Thampu (The Circus Tent, 1978) and Kummatty (Bogeyman, 1979). I’m perpetually annoyed by the fact that Satyajit Ray remains the first and only touchstone for most non-Indian cinephiles, in spite of the fact that we’re talking about the biggest film-producing country in the world, with a film history that reaches far beyond the populist Bollywood stuff. Therefore, as far as I’m concerned, anybody doing any work to preserve and expand Indian cinema heritage is doing vital work, and so it is with the Film Heritage Foundation in Mumbai.

Aravindan’s work is lyrical and dreamlike, capable of mesmerising softness, leavened by an undercurrent of hard-bitten reality. The Circus Tent tells a documentary-like story of a circus arriving in town, performing for a while, then leaving, featuring actors alongside circus performers. Aravindan details almost every aspect of a circus production in the late ‘70s Keralan countryside – set up, promotion, the acquisition of local authority permission, practice, performance and pack down. Amidst the performances, he frequently cuts to images of the audience watching, often completely lost in a state of reverie. It’s an exquisite document of what it means to be emotionally beholden to a work of entertainment, of the relationship between audience and artist, and of the relationship between the viewer in the cinema and the film itself.

Kummatty is an even greater delight, telling the story of a mystical wanderer who arrives in a small village and gets up to some outright shenanigans with the local kids. Its direct English translation, Bogeyman, doesn’t really do justice to the folkloric figure of the Kummatty: he has the capacity to be dangerous, yes (he impetuously decides to turn all the kids into animals), but he is also mercurial and loving, a sort of genial, ambiguous pied piper figure. The colour photography, deeply embedded in the rich yellows and greens of the Keralan landscape is enriched further by the way Aravindan films the sun rising and setting, imbuing it with a mythical, phantasmagorical energy befitting of the subject matter.

The Grave’s Sky

But, as mentioned at the start, a festival is not really about the films, it’s about what happens afterwards (although having great films is an excellent starting point). Play-Doc’s focus on keeping the conversation going after the films, however informally, is an essential part of its appeal, not least because it feeds back into the films themselves. That’s most evident in the contemporary program: I’m not sure what context I would have stumbled upon the relaxed naturalism of Mourir à Ibiza (Un film en trois étés) (Dying in Ibiza (A Film in Three Summers), Anton Balekdjian, Léo Couture & Mattéo Eustachon, 2022), or the minimalist war movie I morti rimangono con la bocca aperta (The Dead Remain With Their Mouth Open, Fabrizio Ferraro, 2022), which uses the white-out landscape of a snowy Italian mountainscape to strand our characters philosophically and morally in a blanket of nothingness, but I’m glad I did. Elsewhere, two new works by avant-garde filmmaker Jean-Claude Rousseau, Welcome (2022) and Souvenir d’Athènes (2023) were paired with John Gianvito’s tribute to those lost to Covid, The Grave’s Sky (2023), which collectively emerged as a sharp work of programming and filmmaking, the three works in contact with each other, both running over the same notes of loneliness and isolation that so defined many of us during The Lockdown Years. Together, these films are more than the sum of their parts, playing with the physical structures and forms of digital cinema and its capacity for diary-esque filmmaking. 

Feeling those works together in a cinema, at a festival, surrounded by like-minded cinephiles is also an act of finding oneself in the right psychogeographic headspace, mentally clear and ready for the process of watching and engaging with cinephilia, which is itself a privilege. I can’t pretend I could ever engage with these films at the same level at home on a laptop, or even with the best home cinema system, which can also be said for much of the rest of the programming. That is as much to do with my mindset as it exists at home, cramped and overactive, sitting alongside my capacity to actually set out and attend festivals when many can’t. But I watched these films here. I watched them because they were screened. And, afterwards, I talked to some people about them, because, after all, a film festival isn’t only about the films, it’s about what happens afterwards.

26 April-1 May 2023
Festival Website: http://www.play-doc.com/en/

About The Author

Fedor Tot is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised film critic, editor and curator, with a particular interest in Balkan and Eastern European cinema. He has bylines at MUBI Notebook, Calvert Journal, Photogenie and WeLoveCinema.

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