Two of the most distinctive and notable of the premieres at Rotterdam, concerned Ukraine. One xx and the other urban to its very core.
Size isn’t everything. At the time of writing the Ukraininian super-featherweight Vasyl Lomachenko, all 60kg and 166cm of him, is considered one of the world’s two or three greatest active boxers. As in pugilism, so in cinema. Like Lomachenko, short films at their best strike quick and hard, punch far above their weight, and are often, “pound-for-pound” more rewarding and satisfying than films of conventional feature-length. This is especially true of experimenta, and also of non-fiction.
Any survey of European documentary cinema in the last couple of years which overlooks such outstanding examples as Gabriel Abrantes’ A Brief History of Princess X (2016, 7m), Arthur Summereder’s The French Road: Detroit MI (2015, 7m), Mehdi Ahoudig & Anna Salzberg’s We’ll Go to Neuilly, Inshallah (2015, 19m), Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Rubber Coated Steel (2017, 21m), Aline Magrez’s No’i (2016, 21m), Isabel Pagliai’s Isabella Morra (2015m 22m), and Igor Bezinović’s Veruda: A Film About Bojan (2015, 34m) – to name just a handful – is operating on a one-eyed basis.
«Short documentaries has a capacity to dazzle and delight.»
The capacity of short documentaries to dazzle and delight was amply illustrated by the 47th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), which ran from January 24 to February 4 in the vibrantly multicultural Dutch mega-port. One of the venerable (but still edgy) behemoths of the film-festival circuit – with around 300,000 “visits” annually to its screenings, exhibitions and side-happenings – IFFR is really five or six different simultaneous interlocking events at once, some of which are only tangentially connected with cinema as it is traditionally perceived.
This can be a strength and a weakness – in terms of feature-length work Rotterdam struggles to compete with Amsterdam’s IDFA (for longer documentaries) and Berlin (for fiction). But on certain fronts IFFR reliably excels. Its shorts programmes are invariably numerous and well-curated: this year 22 titles competed for three equally prestigious ‘Tiger’ prizes – out of a total of 264 short/mid-length films screened in total, including 80 world premieres.
By happy coincidence, two of the most distinctive and notable of those premieres concerned Lomachenko’s homeland – where a somewhat “forgotten” war with Russia continues to take and ruin lives on a weekly basis, even if it seems to have dropped off the global journalistic radar. These films present Ukraine in original, illuminating and very personal ways which conventionally objective, TV-oriented journalistic/reportage documentaries cannot easily attempt – and were made by artists previously best known for their still photography.
«The wide range of opinions held in Ukraine about Lenin and what he represents.»
In almost every other regard, however, Tobias Zielony’s Maskirovka and Anna Jermolaewa’s Leninopad could scarcely be more different, either in terms of form or content. Rather unfairly passed over by the Tiger jury (for this writer, it was more deserving than any of the three eventual laureates) Maskirovka is provocative, audacious and jolting. It comprises nine blunt minutes of rapidly alternating images – the film has been described by more than one source as an “animation” – unfolding in total silence, with neither opening nor closing titles. Assaultive and uncompromising in the starkness of its purpose – to plunge us into the milieu of hedonistic Kiev youth against a backdrop of political turmoil – the film is a concentrated burst of imagery and energy whose brisk duration is part of its appeal and its charm.
A first-person travelogue essay
“Short” films, usually made with little or no concession to commercial considerations, have the great benefit over their longer cousins that they are precisely as leisurely or as brief as they need to be; if an artist wants to express herself in a three-second gif or in a 45-minute “sprawl,” the format allows her to do so. Budgets are generally low, sometimes sub-shoestring; shooting and editing schedules can be economically rapid, benefiting from quick turnarounds – whereas feature-length documentaries often get bogged down in complex, protracted funding negotiations and post-production complications.
Short films are also an invaluable liminal zone between different branches of art, affording established names in other disciplines a fresh challenge and wider reach. One of the most acclaimed visual artists operating in Austria today, Anna Jermolaewa looks set to win new audiences with Leninopad, which is sufficiently viewer-friendly to ensure considerable exposure on the festival circuit over the coming months.
«Maskirovka depicts the techno-aficionados in their nocturnal environments.»
Born in what is now St Petersburg in 1970, back when the city bore Lenin’s name, the dissident-minded Jermolaewa fled the country at 18 via Poland to Austria, where she was housed at a refugee camp in Traiskirchen, south of Vienna. She has resided in the city since 1989. Leninopad is a first-person travelogue essay, unapologetically rough-edged and even a little deliberately amateurish at times – though at others the photographer’s gifted eye for composition is evident. Jermolaewa’s genial approach is instantly arresting: she tours the country looking for empty plinths which until recently held Lenin statues, chatting to whoever happens to be in or near the area at the time.
She zips from location to location, assembling a rapid-fire compendium of plinths, pedestals and “dismembered” statue-remnants. In most instances, the locals have little or no idea who was responsible – “they came at 2am” is a typically ambiguous comment – though occasionally fingers are pointed at representatives of reactionary political organisations such as the Svoboda (“Freedom”) party.
Jermolaewa doesn’t go into the back-story during her 22-minute run-time, but the “Leninopad” (“Leninfall”) phenomenon has been very well chronicled elsewhere. In 1991, there were more than 5,000 Lenin statues in the newly independent Ukraine; following 2013’s Euromaidan demonstrations and the subsequent toppling of the government, their number has steadily reduced. This process accelerated after a controversial official prohibition was signed into law by President Poroshenko in May 2015.
Jermolaewa, handling her own camerawork, editing and sound duties, started her project in the summer of the same year. In 2017 the resulting photographs and “video component” were exhibited for the first time, the latter now forming the short film Leninopad. A work of deft anthropo-ethnography, it documents the wide range of opinions held in Ukraine about Lenin and what he represents; again and again the locals comment that the statue “didn’t bother” them, but others have more trenchant views at either end of the spectrum. While focusing mainly on the empty pedestals, Jermolaewa steadily and subtly weaves a panoramic, wryly comic portrait of Ukraine via its villages, towns and cities, ranging from urban blight to bucolic semi-countryside populated by scenestealing livestock.
Maskirovka, however, is urban to its very core, the fruit of a deep immersion by Zielony in Kiev’s techno scene – specifically the world of its queer denizens – between October 2016 and July 2017. Born in Wuppertal in 1973, Zielony has long chronicled youth subcultures in cities and towns across the world, gravitating to the gritty margins to interrogate how young people’s self-expression is moulded by their exposure to mainstream media.
Taking its title from the long-standing Soviet/Russian tactic of deception in warfare (per Zielony, it here “refers to the fragile and treacherous situation in which the protagonists live and act”), Maskirovka depicts the techno-aficionados in their nocturnal environments. Fast-pulsing rhythms emulates the strobe-stroked dancefloors and unlicensed LGBTQI clubs where the elaborately maquillaged and costumed hedonists gather clandestinely after dark.
Originally presented in galleries alongside 42 photographs (also collected in book form), the film is explicitly intended to be impressionistic rather than journalistic. And Zielony is, like most artists, wary of labels: “I have the feeling that documentary is more fiction than fiction film.” But as an immersion into how Kiev in the mid-2010s feels to its beleaguered, unbowed, defiant young residents, this is an irresistibly powerful document indeed. Brusque and bracing, it hammers like a Lomachenko left.
Rebirth of a “lost” Spanish classic
An oblique but revealing portrait of Spain in a period of painful transition.
For many at Rotterdam this year, the freshest and most vital find was a film more than four decades. Because while Jaime Chávarri’s The Disenchantment (El desencanto, 1976) is legendary among Spanish cinephiles, it has for some mysterious reason never enjoyed very much international renown. This may well change after the picture’s warmly-received screening – via ghostly 35mm monochrome – in the eclectic ‘History of Shadows’ sidebar curated Gerwin Tamsma, examining how cinema deals with the past.
In the case of The Disenchantment, the piercingly personal experiences of a single – decidedly unusual – family are used as a prism to probe, in deceptively modest fashion. psychological and political matters of wide scope. Over the course of two years Chávarri interviewed Felicidad Blanc – sixtyish widow of esteemed poet Leopoldo Panero (1909-1962) – and her three adult sons, in and around their tastefully opulent family home.
This is obviously a clan of high sophistication, learning and anxiety, their manifold interlocking insecurities emerging in utterly absorbing fashion as they – sometimes separately, sometimes together – candidly reminisce about Panero Sr’s career, eccentricities and overbearing nature. A dozen years after his death, it’s evident that the Great Man (not merely a franquista but also a personal friend of Franco himself) still casts a long shadow over his kin. The film subtly probes stark differences between his private and public faces, as a statue to his honour is unveiled amid much pomp in his provincial home town.
Chavarri’s film also stands as an oblique but revealing portrait of Spain in a period of painful transition from the repressions of the Franco era – which the Panero boys dealt with in their own particular ways – into the shaky first years of democracy. A fundamentally melancholic work leavened by a streak of world-weary humour, The Disenchantment now looks set to belatedly take its place among the landmarks of European post-war documentary. That it should do so some four years after the death of the last surviving Panero brother is an irony which the family themselves would doubtless savour.