Knowing that I was about to spend more than ten days looking for documentaries at a film festival that rolls out the red carpet for feature-film stars filled me with an awkward feeling of directing my attention in the wrong direction. Why even bother to attend a festival that only rarely includes documentary films in the main competition? My dilemma, however, soon proved to be groundless once I realised that it would be impossible to watch even less than half of the documentaries from the Panorama and Forum sections, even with a daily programme of three to five films.
The Panorama section was opened by Ron Mann’s documentary feature film Grass, a historical investigation into the use of marihuana in the United States and the huge financial resources there have been put into prohibiting it. Consisting of anti-marihuana footage from TV archives and feature films, carefully mixed with era-revealing vignettes, the film wittingly and engagingly examines the origins of the marihuana’s criminalization. As the film unfolds, the viewer become aware of how profoundly documentary language has been abused over the years as a way of persuading public opinion in a certain direction.
In the Forum section, the film Long Night’s Journey into Day, by Deborah Hoffmann and Frances Reid, focuses on the various parties involved in four cases at the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) over a two-year period. In depicting how the TRC has been cathartic in making it possible to start co-existing with a former enemy, the film subtly exposes the pain the victims still carry with them and succeeds in providing touching insight into a complex issue of contemporary history. Another South African issue raised by an audience member seemed relevant, as it concerned the inclusion of one the cases, namely the parents of a white American girl killed by a black activist. Her story was not superfluous, but why was it important to include her story in the film? The prompt answer from the directors was that an American angle to the film was necessary in order to reach an American audience, otherwise the film would be impossible to distribute throughout the broadcasting networks in the United States. Bearing in mind the Southern African series Landscape of Memory (see review in DOC #24), one cannot help but think that by making this editorial decision, the directors risk diverting attention from the film’s central issue.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman dealt with another dark yet absent spot in the history books in Paragraph 175 (Panorama Special), as it uncovers the history of the pink triangle that has been adopted as a symbol by the gay community. The title “Paragraph 175” refers to the German Penal Code from 1871, which was used not only by the nazis during World War II to send homosexuals to concentration camps. The persecution of homosexuals continued many years after the liberation, as the law was actively enforced until 1969. Centring on interviews with five homosexual survivors of the nazi regime, the film successfully avoids using stereotyped and clichéd imagery of the era by focusing on evocative images from the period and new footage shot for the film as a way of reviving their painful memories.