The fifth Doclisboa festival reminds us that documentary film is an art form, speaking to the intellect, the emotions and the senses

Ulla Jacobsen
Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.

In their festival catalogue, the two festival directors of Doclisboa, Ana Isabel Santos Strindberg and Sérgio Tréfaut, wrote the shortest foreword I have ever read:

“Rainer Werner Fassbinder used to say that instead of setting off bombs, he made films. It was his way of dynamiting and creating new energies. We are organising a film festival for the same reason.”

Obviously they felt no need to make a long-winded introduction of the programme, but were content to let the audience see for themselves and feel the energy. So I did- and I wasn’t disappointed. Although the international competition programme included a couple of issue films, the overall feel was a festival whose films were selected for their artistic value. Most of the films I saw were remarkable for their beautiful images, clever editing and carefully prepared soundscape. They were films that spoke to all our senses and not only to our emotions or our intellect. Some are presented below.

“Umbrella”.The Chinese film “Umbrella” by Du Haibin is a poetic journey through modern China, showing the movement of the population from rural to urban areas. It is a truly observational film in the best style of the genre. What we define as observational films today includes characters talking to the camera, yet this film does not (with one exception). It merely observes a sequence of scenes where action or minor dramas unfold within a specific setting. These scenes are cleverly juxtaposed through poetic cinematography. The recurring theme of the film is umbrellas. The first ten minutes are imaginatively filmed in an umbrella factory: we see each process involved in manufacturing umbrellas filmed from carefully chosen angles. By including posters hanging on the walls, Haibin provides some information on the working conditions, such as the wages (piecework payment) or a note saying that due to a large order they cannot go home for the Chinese New Year.

Following the factory scene, the director elegantly cuts to a shopping mall with an endless number of umbrella shops, starting with a long travelling shot of a women carrying noodle soup back to her shop. Other scenes include shoeblacks in action; a job-application course (where the participants have parked their colourful umbrellas outside); a company’s employment procedure, where applicants are invited to write down their expected salary (a sign of new times in China’s job market). We get to witness military recruits being trained. The overall impression of these scenes provides a glimpse into how people from the rural areas find jobs in big cities. The last part of the film takes us to the countryside. Here Haibin changes style as farmers talk to the camera. They explain the simple math of their farming economy which doesn’t give them enough to live on. We enter the poor farmer’s simple house where he tells us he wears the same clothes he bought ten years ago.

The film is a historical document, a stocktaking of China at the start of the 21st century. It is also masterfully conducted, capturing the innate drama in single scenes by employing skilful storytelling techniques. It is a relief to watch a film that is not character-driven, but which is just as engaging and far more cinematic than average.

f491a8a67252ae8c25b9d7dc724a7e50“The First Day”.The Polish filmmaker Marcin Sauter has made a 20-minute poetic account of the first day of school for a group of Russian children living on the tundra. They enter a completely new phase of life by going to live at a boarding school, separated from their families and the wilderness and enlisted into Russian patriotism. Sauter follows the children at home, enjoying their innocent, happy life with their families, before the school staff arrives to pick up all the children who have reached school age. The children are transported to school by boat, and we see them at the school ceremony through close-ups of their quiet, sad and scared faces. In the classroom they are taught Russian nationalism in a world that seems completely alien from their experience on the tundra. The last scene depicts their longing through a Kodak-coloured idyllic scene from back home: carefree children playing in a field of flowers. The film is nicely done, making skilful use of the soundscape, showing the contrasts by alternating between silence, music and loud noises. It successfully depicts the emotional turbulence the children are going through by having to leave their family at such young age to enter an inhuman system that goes against their personal needs.

paper_cannot_wrap_up_embers“Paper Cannot Wrap up Embers” is another strong film by Rithy Pahn. He does not choose easy subjects, but takes his audience directly into the pain and hopeless lives of his characters. This film invites us to enter the lives of Cambodian prostitutes, poor, ordinary women who for various reasons had no other choice than to support themselves, and often their families, through prostitution. They are held by pimps, who take a huge cut of their earnings and get them into debt to keep them completely enslaved. Often the women are beaten, some contract AIDS, have abortions, or sometimes a child who is entrusted to grandparents or who waits outside while mum is inside doing business. Pahn films the women as they talk to each other about their lives, often just hanging out on the floor or the only chair that seems to be in the room. Most of them are also addicted to a drug of some kind to make their lives tolerable. Their faces are always unhappy. Pahn also includes merciless scenes like a little girl who refuses to go to her mother, now a stranger to her, and desperately clings to her nanny.

The woman became prostitutes when they were still young girls. In several scenes two of the women are lying on the floor, drawing pictures with felt-tip pens like schoolgirls. They still exhibit some childish behaviour from not having had a normal childhood, but rougher than anyone can imagine. The film is raw but done with complete respect for the outspoken characters.

These Girls”.The festival winner is also an extremely tough film, and its unique trademark is access. The filmmaker is right there together with a gang of young girls living on the street in Cairo. A tough gang, some are even mothers living with their small kids on the street. They survive by eating food from garbage bins, sometimes selling drugs, sometimes prostitution. They live in constant danger from men ready to rape them or beat them up or their own fathers wanting to kill them, as their life is shameful to their families, even if their families have nothing to offer them.

The filmmaker is seemingly ubiquitous in their lives, as we even witness a scene where a father shows up with a knife. The girls only manage to survive because of their close friendship: they help each other. It is touching to see their love for babies being born, though it is scary to see the small children walk around at night or sleeping on a blanket on the sidewalk next to their mother. The aesthetics are raw, and as the film was mostly shot at night, the dimly lit mood matches the coarseness of their lives, and the camera is always ready, moving together with the action, in a film that is just as restless as the women.

otmar_suitner_on_stage“A Father’s Music”  is a touching portrayal of a son’s quest to get closer to his 80-some-year-old father nearing the end of his life. His father is the famous conductor Otmar Suitner, and filmmaker Igor Heitsmann says in his personal voiceover that he was never interested in his father’s work, but finally realised that to understand his father he needed to understand his father’s dedication to music. The film then profiles Otmar Suitner’s career as well. Suitner is inspiring to listen to when he talks about music and certainly led an interesting, unusual life. He came from Austria, he was hired by East Berlin state opera and voluntarily decided to remain in East Germany during the Cold War, but was one of the few privileged artists who were allowed to travel as they wished. So he did: to West Germany, to work at Bayreuth, where he met Igor’s mother and fell in love. He was already married to a woman in East Germany, however, and had-and still has-a relationship with both women, each whom always knew about the other. He fathered Igor with his mistress, and Igor only saw his father briefly at weekends.

The film includes lovely archive material from Otmar’s public life, concerts, and training sessions. This alternates with the account of his private life done in scenes where he talks with his son, his wife, his mistress and even all of them together. At the end, the son persuades father (who hasn’t conducted for years due to Parkinson’s disease) to conduct one last time in a beautiful scene which the father enjoys to the full. This nice loving story has many moments that were well mastered by the filmmaker. A personal, yet peculiar father-son love story, including a double life and the world of a passionate musician.

Thank you Ana Isabel and Sergio for not throwing a bomb, but showing some great films instead!


-