For a long time, the documentary film festival in Leipzig was renowned as one of the most significant events in the cinematographic life of the eastern Bloc countries, a sort of showroom aiming to “promote the achievements of true socialism and support the peaceful efforts of progressive Western filmmakers” – with apologies to a Brezhnev-Era quotation. Nevertheless and in spite of political intrigues, many true masters of the documentary have succeeded here – Ivens, Marker, Karmen to name a few. After stagnation in 80s, the festival has rid itself of political censorship and is flourishing once again. The only holdover from the past is maybe a slight but visible bias to the East. Understandably so, as the cultural traditions of east European cinematography are unintentionally dominant among the members of the selection committee and the jury.
Nevertheless, there were many interesting works in both the competition and the rest of the programme, and this review covers the films that were most liked or disliked by the audience and therefore generated discussions.
First of all the main prize – the Golden Dove – was awarded to Old Men by Tian Yi Yang. It is the first full-length film by the young Chinese director. The story develops in the style of the classic Chinese novel – long and unhurried. There is almost no action. Old men just meet each other every day on the street corner near where they live. The Chinese do not have a tradition of spending time in bars, cafes or kneipes as we do in Europe. Or maybe ordinary people cannot afford such places? So they come to self-appointed meeting spots and chat there. What about? Nothing significant, at first glance. “How are you, Old Liy?” “Had your lunch already?” “Where is Little Song? Is he going to come today?” “I’d better sit here”.” Thank you, I am quite comfortable”. Gradually, you understand that this is not conversation but a sharing of information – merely signifying, ‘Look, I am still here, I am among you, I am still alive’. The newcomers to this old men’s club try to use conventional communication forms – telling and asking about children and grandchildren, provoking political discussions. (Mao was not bad, his only mistake was the Cultural Revolution!) But nobody follows up the discussions, and the club returns to its sleepy idleness. This viscous narration is enlivening by humorous dialogs between one of the characters and his paralysed wife. Old men feel ill, useless and forgotten, but they do their best to stay alive. The club exists in summer and winter, in good weather and bad, nothing changing, until finally you understand what the film is about: vanity vs. eternity.
The Swedish film My Mother Had Fourteen Children received the Silver Dove. It is also an unhurried narration, but told in a Northern style – durable, reliable …and slow. The film is based on photos telling us a family story. With films like this, the director always risks turning from cinema into a slide show. The film has a story in there somewhere and an intriguing subject, but unfortunately the film was so slow that only half the audience endured the theatre screening to the end.
Another family story was told in Angelos’ Film by Peter Forgacs (Hungary). The film is based on the material recorded in Nazi-occupied Greece during World War II. There were two types of reels used: one was his amateur family movie – new-born baby, her first steps, family celebrations and so on. The second type was recorded on the streets – from military parades to public executions and other atrocities. This second type is well-known, it was used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials. Was the first type interesting to anyone except family members? Together, they have a synergetic effect: I felt myself deeply involved in the everyday life of occupied Athens.
The Falling Kite by Mei-Ling Hsiao (France) was awarded honourable mention “for artistic achievement and sensitive depiction of memory”, which should be encouraging to novice filmmakers. Apart from the subject of the film, I would like to point out the brilliant camerawork. Artistic education and years of artistic work as a painter are visible in the film’s pictorial contents – almost all genres and styles of painting are recognizable here – portraits, still life, landscapes, genre scenes, even abstraction and calligraphy. Quotations are hard to decode so the film stimulates your thinking.
The jury decided not to award a Golden Dove for best short documentary, as there were only seven films in this category. The lack of praiseworthy films reflects the general situation in shorts world-wide: with no TV slots for short documentaries, directors are forced to stretch out their short works – to the detriment of quality. Chekhov once said, “Shortness is a sister of talent.” Strictly speaking, adaptation to the market is not an artist’s business, it is the task for commission editors and distributors. They should cut off all unnecessary programming and compose interesting programmes. It makes no sense to blame everything from world trends to standardisation; we have to learn how to cope with it.
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