One of the first scenes of the documentary The Dazzling Light of Sunset, which was awarded best debut film during the Swiss documentary festival Visions du Reel last spring, shows a close up of a light blue sea against a grey sky, surrounded by rocks and trees. However, looking closer, we notice seams in the landscape, and realise quickly that what we are in fact staring at a wall paper, a faded and worn wall paper.
This optical illusion frames the office of journalist Dariko Beria, and acts as an indicator of what is to come. Together with a colleague, Dariko works at the local TV-channel in a Georgian village. The two use their days to film and report on the region’s big and small news. Most are small: a village street receives a new and decorative pavement; a farmer has caught a rare owl; a beauty pageant for 12-year olds is underway; a wedding took place. Dariko is present to capture it all, but it is not through her camera we are introduced to these scenes – she stays mostly in the background, as a part of the story told by the documentary. As we follow her through her days, we witness the situations from a comfortable distance – the camera is static, and through the lack of a voice-over or other explaining elements, we are encouraged to observe the stylised tableaux, hunt for details and draw our own conclusions.
Staging. Dariko’s presence in the film indicates that not only is she a vantage point, but she also forms part of the life which the documentary aims to portray. Simultaneously, her presence makes it evident that much of what happens in front of her seems fake, rehearsed. The documentary makers are here using an interesting angle: they are often present long before anything happens, and are this way able to capture all the training rounds, cramming and preparations. Prior to the beauty pageant, the frazzled organisers are running around in the venue, swear words are flying, the girls are given instructions on how to catwalk, they are rigid and look uncomfortable, a man stands on the sidelines and shouts that they look like a row of ducks. But, when the show has started and the winner is announced, what Dariko captures with her camera are the rehearsed movements, smiles and speeches.
A film maker or journalist is powerful: by choosing the right cut and angle, and through later editing sessions, you are able to decide how certain things will be depicted.
The staging feels eternally present in the film’s content and imagery – it is conspicuous how accomplished much of the film’s scenography is at this stage. Screens, or screen-like objects, encapsulate the people in new ways, and these frameworks are repeated: the white wall behind a half-closed stage curtain, a green-screen Dariko sits at the front of the news studio, the mirror hanging in their office. A film maker or journalist is powerful: by choosing the right cut and angle, and through later editing sessions, you are able to decide how certain things will be depicted. In a scene where Dariko edits the beauty pageant recordings with her colleague, this dynamic is clear to behold. We follow them first from the inside, by the computers, and afterwards observe them through a window by the editing suite and towards their office, framed. This is in line with the aforementioned staging thematic, but we soon understand that the focus of the documentary is journalism itself and its autonomy in this small Georgian community. Perhaps is the freedom of the fourth estate power also an illusion?
Folk dance and Gangnam style. The film maker compares Dariko’s position in the film to Vergil’s part in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy: a guide who, by allowing the audience to join her journey, elevates us to a higher level of recognition. The mix of people, traditions and cultural impulses is experienced as a micro-cosmos, but it still feels as it is Dariko herself who achieves renewed recognition at the end of the film. When she, at some point in the film, is criticised by two journalist colleagues for covering up the governor’s corrupt actions, we understand that she too is restricted in what and how she reports. Furthermore, the TV-channel is under pressure, we realise later: times are new, everything is being digitalised, and fundraising citizens not the solution. It is indicated that for the TV-channel to survive, it is vital to be on the same team as the politicians.
The director of the film, Georgian Salomé Jashi, is herself a journalist by trade. The journalistic method she sets forth in her documentary is to allow things to play out at their own speed, seemingly without interference or by asking questions. This way she is also able to show a cross section of this little Georgian community: through multi-faceted presentations of the ordinary and extraordinary, what is accentuated more than anything is the distinction between tradition and new impulses. In several scenes containing musical or dance shows, Georgian folk music is set countered by Euro trance, traditional dance against Gangnam style.
Show, don’t tell. The tragicomically element of the different scenes, their careful revealing of society’s structural cracks, is highlighted through the documentary’s observing, non-narrative form – we want to laugh but there seems to be an obstacle. Therein lies some of the greatness of Jashi’s little documentary, alongside its accomplished scenography and imagery: by making most things implicit, she leaves the critical deed to us. See for yourself, she says, but watch carefully. Are you able to see past the illusion?