Two very different films caught the author’s attention at Thessaloniki Doc fest in March. Despite their difference, they both demonstrated that it is what the films see and how they see it that matters.

Emma Davie

Emma Davie’s research area is documentary filmmaking. Her work explores approaches to narrative structure and form and how ethical questions affect this.

What you remember about Thessaloniki as a place is the sea: fresh air blowing through this whole business of looking for films. The festival also feels fresh – like there’s still a bit of breath around the films. It’s not too market-driven. There’s space to remember, celebrate, discuss the craft. There were programmes such as the spotlight on Finnish director, Pirjo Honkasalo’s films – including an uplifting masterclass – a retrospective on French-Canadian documentarymaker Pierre Perrault, a series of films dedicated to Jean Rouch, focuses on themes such as refugees and human rights and late-night music films.

Us film fanatics search through such festivals for clues, glimmers, reminders – matches struck in the dark – for a sense of community, for hope.

I found it especially in two films. Darwin’s Nightmare by Hubert Sauper and Wellspring by Sha Qing.

Darwin’s Nightmare was like a political poem. A tiny plane flies over a  lake – casting a shadow, like a bad omen. A man in an airport ignores the plane landing as he tries to swat a wasp. It is clear we are in a land where the smallest action, the tiniest image has resonance in a larger world – but also where the murky issues of international politics cast their shadows on every detail of people’s lives.

It was a tiny action by one man who released the Nile perch into Lake Victoria – a fish that led to the disappearance of hundreds of species and threatens to destroy the fragile local economy as it destroys itself and all life around it. The Nile perch eats its young.

Everything seems out of joint round this lake which was once seen as the birthplace of man. All is now dislocated – slightly rotten like the carcasses of fish which the locals are left to eat in a famine-struck country, whilst filleted fish are flown all over Europe to feed millions of Europeans. Every detail of people’s lives ties back to the fish. Homeless boys melt down the fish packaging to sniff glue in order to fall asleep without fear; bright young Eliza wants to study, but has to survive as a prostitute for the Russian pilots and is eventually murdered by one of her clients; and the night guard at the fish plant waits quietly, calmly in the dark for the trouble he knows will come – the last guard was killed by a machete attack. He turns to the camera, philosophically – there are no jobs and this is what he is forced to do, but there would be more if there were a war.

mv5bmtk0njy4nti4mf5bml5banbnxkftztcwota0odu0mq-_v1_Joyce said, “If I can get to the heart of the particular, I can get to the heart of the world,” and there’s something of that search in this film. By unremittingly scratching the surface, a Machiavellian world of international mischief is revealed. The unnaturalness of the lake becomes a metaphor for a wider, cynical arena which uses the empty planes flying into Tanzania to smuggle in weapons from the West for other places in Africa. A lesser film would force this issue to be up front, but director Hubert Sauper allows us to gradually discover it with him, picking up clues as the camera does.

In these days of rather simplistic political moralising in documentaries, it was a relief to see a complex film which unravelled the web of interconnections through imagery and observational filming – not through polemical diatribe. It remained human as we saw the macrocosms of international greed play out in the tiniest microcosm of someone’s life. “You’re part of the big system,” says the calender on the wall at the fish factory. No detail of life – or of the film – can escape.

Wellspring, by contrast, is like a Chinese minimalist painting. It is a tiny, heartbreaking portrait of a poor family looking after their son Lei Xiguan who has cerebal palsy. What I loved about it was its simplicity and total respect for the family. Every movement (or lack of it) of the camera expressed the filmmaker’s reverence for the situation. It felt like an exquisitely compassionate gaze which was never sentimental, never voyeuristic but only felt. Deeply. As the film progresses, Lei starts to waste away.The family can’t afford treatment and the grandfather refuses to sell his cows to pay for it but hovers, like a bad conscience, round the boy. The film is transcendent in its depiction of the love the parents and litttle sister have for the boy – a delicate, beautiful thing, like the paper butterfly the father cuts out for his son or the flower he places over his bed. No sound track is needed. Long after the film ends, the image of the father cradling his son plays on the mind.

Neither film was shot with big budgets. Both used quite simple formats but seemed to understand that it was what they saw and how they saw that it mattered.


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