A first-time visitor to Leipzig, just to state the obvious, is immediately struck by this continental city with its small-town charm, not to mention its cleanliness, all the more impressive considering the seeming absence of rubbish bins.I happen to know at least one city where the exact opposite is the case. And then there’s the architecture. Having to rush back and forth between the different cinemas – and the occasional restaurant – without finding the time for Jugend indulgence, feels like sacrilege.

The festival-goer is spoilt for choice among the titles being screened, the events, and there’s the master classes, and the mingling parties and business get-togethers. Add to that the subterranean “off-programme” market, Dok Mark(e)t, where screening booths are available in the basement of the festival Centre, enabling purchasers or other interested parts to watch a select number of titles not in the main programme, and the abundance should be apparent. With up to eight or nine screenings and events running simultaneously from 10 am until way past 10 pm, the festival life could easily be compared with that of some of the world’s major cities, of which it is said that you could easily live countless disparate lives here, without having the one interfering with the other.

In short: it’s not the place for people yearning to have it all, let alone those of us who resent the idea of having the impressions of one film mashed up by the next one immediately following. Ah, the acute problems of the Western World, to paraphrase Rocky, the Swedish cartoon character. There are choices to be made.

Of course, knowing it’s a documentary festival, the attendee knows he has to brace himself for the eternal documentary topics of need, poverty, neglected children, abusive husbands, of life in the war zone – in case disastermongering television doesn’t provide the necessary daily dose. Predictably, the situation in the Middle East was the subject matter of at least a couple of them, and, in case this presentation sounds a bit blasé, one of them should immediately be pointed out: Precious Life, a remarkable story of a Palestinian child being treated by Israeli doctors. There’s more than the apparent paradox being presented here.

Being one of the world’s major documentary film festivals, the Leipzig festival’s vast repertoire might be seen – in all its diversity – as a pretty fair representation of the current conditions of documentary cinema.

For better or worse, that is. So, what film in particular was it that’s so upsetting? None of them, actually. It’s a cumulative effect, obtained over years of watching documentaries with a ceaseless curiosity and varying degrees of pleasure. After a while you get the sense that a kind of routine mind-set has established itself, a customary “way to go” that doesn’t sit all that well with the investigative and/or revelatory motive some of us like to see in certain lines of documentary film-making.

Anyway, talking about “misery porn” is not a recommended ice-breaker for late night mingling events at the Ring Café.

There’s plenty of fodder for most segments within the festival community, for directors and producers, for audience, press and students alike. Apart from the animation programme, there were other sub-programmes, such as Money Matters, films dealing with economics in a wide sense, and from the most peculiar angles (eating coins being one of them), as well as a podium discussion, Geld – Problem oder Lösung, not in English, unfortunately for us not-so-German-proficient foreigners.

There were quite a few other occasions for debate, interaction and audience participation under the Dok heading: Dok Summit, Dok Podium, Dok Talk, some of which had a focus on criticism, marketing and distribution, not to mention “Crowdfunding – When Your Audience becomes your financier”. There was also discussion around the authentic versus arranged truths in documentary cinema. Other recurring themes within several films on the programme were: family relations as conveyed by expats in a couple of them, and more defined by father figures in another couple of titles (Walking Back to Happiness, Portrait of a Man, Father’s Prayer), or the contemplation of contemporary manhood: Men who swim and Steam of Life, to name two of them.

Men who swim

Attending one of the Master Classes was a reminder of the more questionable qualities of certain documentary traditions. The revered and awarded Kazakh director Sergey Dvortsevoy talked about his career, about his “inner rhythm”aesthetics, and threw in a few entertaining anecdotes about silly officials and camera (or more precisely: editing) conventions gone rigid (sic!). Then there was the round of questions from the audience.

After a few concerns regarding the technical aspects and practicalities of his film-making, somebody came to think of the actual participants in his films, what they thought about it. “Did they like it?” one blessed member of the audience asked him. No. Dvortsevoy was sure they would not like it because some of the participants in one earlier film had seen the film they had been in, and disapproved of it, so now he felt pretty sure that they did “not like”. Someone appears to owe somebody else an apology, no?

The natural follow-up question should have been: “So what’s your excuse for exploiting these people, then?”, but no-one posed it. It’s a peculiar experience to sit in a full house in the heart of Germany, and listen to a man cheerfully admit to the ill-treatment of some distant, illiterate people – and nobody raises their voice in dissent. Not one single objection.

Ok, on a arrangement like this you’d obviously expect most of the people present to be either fans or students starving for knowledge, humbly eating out of the Master’s hand. But still? Isn’t this the place you’d expect at least a few of tomorrow’s documentary whistleblowers? Someone with more than just a polemic concern for people in faraway places?

The issue here that’s really disconcerting is precisely the fact that this takes place in an environment where social concern, in so many different and beautiful words, is being exclaimed on a regular basis. It seems like Dvortsevoy’s proclaimed love for the image far surpasses his care for the people whose hospitality he has benefited from while eagerly awaiting the miracles of their everyday, inner life.

Sergey Dvortsevoy

It is not the intention here to make one single director the scapegoat of something that is more of a business malaise. The point is that the hearts worn on the sleeves of so many docu-people seem to be somewhat formatted. Accordingly, there are some established, good ways to care for people (devouring them with a camera, for instance), and other ways to care for them that are not quite as good (like not making the film at all, if the subjects decline to participate). I guess we all know which of these two kinds of caring will make their way to the festival circuit.

The fact that this rather asymmetric distribution of truth goes largely undebated, suggests that there are some deeply rooted orthodoxies at work here.
there’s consolation to be found, though. Thankfully, there are rudimentary countertrends emerging over the last few years.

Films like Uncovering Michael Moore, Shooting Michael Moore, Secrets of the Tribe and The Winnebago Man show a long awaited scepticism towards the methods of documentarists, their effect on their hosts, and a growing concern for the effects of unwanted publicity. There are even more reasons for hope. To end on an up-note: it’s been said that so far the election of Obama has at least resulted in comedians and a few artists actually having to earn their fees, as opposed to churning out the ritual Bush jokes.

A similar view applies to the financial crisis: now kids and people in even the most remote parts of artist life have started wondering about economics and politics. Something quite interesting could come out of that.

The Money Matters programme at Leipzig is promising in that respect, it’s sympathetic as well as entertaining and interesting, but, judging from the scant repertoire, there’s not too many titles to choose from yet. And they must have searched the archives as well: it’s at least 15 years since I saw the witty one about tomatoes, screened here among the compilation of shorts at Panta Rhei – Der Kreislauf des Geldes. This scarcity of titles becomes all the more apparent when compared to the slight repetitiveness of other documentary themes. This field is a new frontier, ripe for pioneering by ambitious, young enlighteners. Admittedly, this is as much a personal wish as a matter of fact.