DOK Leipzig 2012 set the tone with a compelling statement on climate change by opening with a documentary from Bangladesh, Kamar Ahmad Simon’s Are You Listening! It’s a harbinger of what the festival aimed to unveil this year: strong political content with a distinct artistic vision and creative storytelling that doesn’t want to be confined to any strict interpretation of the genre.

So where does documentary start and finish? Why do we need to know what’s staged and how do we trust that the filmmaker is telling us the truth? Does it even matter?

Grit Lemke, Head of DOK Leipzig’s Documentary Program,

Grit Lemke, Head of DOK Leipzig’s Documentary Program, says to DOX: “This is about art, not about journalism, it’s about images, and people care about these images,” She continues: “As an audience member, I would only care about good and bad films regardless of the genre. Yet, as documentary film programmers, we have to decide what a documentary is. Is the story based on true events? What is the documentary material presented in the film? Are there at least some photos or a diary, for example? If the film has a made-up text, if anything is scripted, that’s where I draw the line.”

One example from this year’s edition is Andy Wolff’s The Captain and His Pirate, a fascinating take on the hot political issue of Somali pirates. Cleverly edited, the film can be watched as a psychodrama centering around one of the longest hostage-takings at sea, excavating the sophisticated state of mind of two characters brought together under unsettling circumstances.

Wolff leaves sufficient breathing space for the characters to let them articulate their story, and thus challenges our notions of enemy, oppressor, morality, victim and culprit through these personal accounts that seek to peel off the dehumanized political aspects of the issue.

Challenges our notions of enemy, oppressor, morality, victim and culprit through these personal accounts

Fidaï, by Damien Ounouri, who embarks on a highly personal journey through a dark Algerian past, also delves into the intricacies of the human condition. The documentary tells the story of Ounouri’s great-uncle El Fadi, an ex-fighter (or fidaï in Arabic) for Algerian independence, who unified a secret FLN armed group in France during the Algerian Revolution. The use of innovative reenactments by El Fadi himself adds to the chilling effect of this honest tale about the incognito lives of Algerian fighters, of which murder and imprisonment were natural parts. With its serene pace of storytelling and well-edited dialogue, through which each subject is presented as a distinguishable character, Fidaï leaves a taste akin to that which one enjoys from well-written literature.

Pablo’s Winter by Spanish director Chico Pereira, a DOK Leipzig winner this year, is another exciting encounter that seamlessly blurs the boundaries between narrative and documentary.  Set in Almadén, the filmmaker’s hometown, the film has a very simple storyline: Pablo, a retired mercury miner, tries to stop smoking.

Pablo’s Winter by Spanish director Chico Pereira

His story serves as a metaphor for the end of an era in this 2000-year-old mining town, which provided some of the most valuable mercury mines in history until a decade and a half ago. As a backdrop to Pablo’s quiet and monotonous elderly life, we observe the town and its inhabitants as they adapt to new realities. With its bold black and white photography and meticulous visual compositions, Pablo’s Winter not only transforms documentary storytelling but also inspires those who work in the paradigms of fiction film.