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.

Film Review

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.

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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.

Serguei Loznitsa (Russia) deserved The Silver Dove for short documentary for his The Halt. It was the first public screening of the freshly-made film, and I asked Serguei what his film is about. “People sleep,” he said briefly. “Is that all?”- I asked. No answer, no explanation. After the screening, I understood that the film does not need any explanations. Imagine a small railway station in Central Russia, a waiting room with wooden benches, and people sleeping. All 25 minutes the camera shows sleeping passengers – old and young, men and women, in winter clothes or in T-shirts. For the first five to seven minutes you wait for the action to begin, but there is no action. Only once when a train runs past the station with a hoot and clattering wheels, but nobody wakes up. After ten or twelve minutes you feel yourself somewhere in another dimension – as if you have been meditating for many years. At the end you start to understand this mysterious country with all its contradictions, like lost victories, rich poverty, religious blasphemy and so on. There is no music, only snoring accompanies the whole film. The shortage of final conclusions is obvious – open questions are Loznitsa’s trademark. Should a sleeping bear get a wake-up call, or it is better not to touch it?

The problem of proper timing is relevant to many filmmakers. As a spectator I know how unbearable is to watch a film which has already finished emotionally, but the tape is still turning. God, bless the engineers who invented the ‘fast forward’ button! Shorts like Enkidu (Italy) or Firestation (UK) show interesting camera work – wonderful colours! But they have no story, no dramatic development, no conflict. After the first ten minutes everything has already been said, and the finale is perceived as kitsch for tourists.

Kitsch in itself is neither good nor bad, just sort of a handicraft of mass culture. I find a good example of the artistic usage of kitsch in Beautiful America by Peter Roloff (Germany). A group of historians in the future in year 5627 reconstruct a film about the journey of Russian merchant Igor Gruzeveyich from Russia to America and Germany in 1899. The film is based on Igor’s letters to his wife Elena. Letters read with a Russian accent seem real, but people who speak Russian know they are faked. The footage is also faked – some cheating is visible (Karl Marx Allee in Berlin, full of Trabis, is presented as Las Vegas!), some are hidden too deep, despite the fact that all shootings were done in the 1990s. I watched this film three times (once at the screening, twice in the videotheque) and cannot guarantee that I managed to find all the tricks. Mixing up places in Germany and the US creates the first level of fakery. The second level appears by mixing time – letters of 1899 combined with the images of the 1990s  perceived by the people in 5627. The third level is a language mix. Then comes a mess with lifestyles. All the clichés resemble a teenager’s way of perceiving the world. One of the specific features of adolescent conscience is that they see a small part of reality and think it is the entire reality. I do not think the general public would accept this film – normally, people do not like to be fooled – but film buffs would enjoy it.

Strictly speaking, people do not like to be fooled if it is done openly. When they are unaware they are being fooled, they enjoy it. The Russian film Unknown Putin by Serguei Miroshnichenko is well-executed professional PR work. It is an excellent political advertisement made and shown just before the presidential elections. We see the Russian president in informal situations – with his old schoolteacher, for example – and it helps create an image of an open and honest man, a new human face among the governing elite. The recently unknown politician gains the sympathy of the audience, underscored at the March elections. But is this portrait true? What is hidden behind stone-faced Mr. Putin? Are the human feelings he shows real or is he just a talented actor? The falsifications are visible with the naked eye. For example, on his way to the airport, Putin suddenly decided to visit a place where terrorists detonated a bomb in an apartment building in September 1999. Only a naive observer who does not know about unprecedented security measures taken at least two hours before presidential visits could believe in this spontaneous change of the route. And standing before the memorial cross reminded me of a painting entitled “Comrade Stalin vows fidelity to communist ideas before the coffin with Lenin’s body” – same expression on their faces – sorrowful and resolute. I understand that the average Russian voter was fooled, but how was MDR (Central German Broadcasting corporation) fooled enough to honour the film as an outstanding east European documentary? They lived 40 years under the communist regime and should be immune to such propaganda tricks!

Special Events

Besides the main programme, the festival in Leipzig had organized some interesting subsidiary programmes. A retrospective of Jürgen Boettcher – famous east German documentarist – included fifteen of his films from the 1960s to the 1990s. Retrospectives of films from Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg) were screened, but unfortunately the tapes were of such poor technical quality that the audience could barely make out what was happening on the screen.

A tribute to Aleksandr Medvedkin (1900 – 1989) – veteran of the Soviet cinematography – started at the opening ceremony with his film Happiness (1934). One of the last classic silent films to be restored by the Gosfilmofond (State Film Archive) in Moscow. The screening was accompanied by Ensemble 4’33’’ – a band led by composer Alexei Aigi, who is a master of creating music for films – both new and restored. Next day the tribute continued with Last Bolshevik (1993) by Chris Marker – a film about Medvedkin’s life and works. It is symbolic: the first time Marker met Medvedkin was in Leipzig in 1967, and they became close friends. Now the film festival in Leipzig organized their meeting on the screen to commemorate Medvedkin’s 100th birthday. Russian film historian Nikolai Izvolov was invited to Leipzig to provide a workshop on the reconstruction of lost films. He said that about 90 per cent of films – regardless of nationality – are lost because of imperfect technical means. After years of archives research, Izvolov has found dozen of stills, some original sketch drawings by Medvedkin and his shooting plans. That was enough for computer aided film animation. It was not a restoration of the film – lost is lost forever – it was a reconstruction of the author’s idea. Izvolov does not speak about authenticity (Alexandra Ripley is not Margaret Mitchell), his reconstructions are just a version, but after all the previous true lies and lying truths, he convinced the audience, or me at least.

I asked selection committee member Tamara Trampe about this Eastern bias, Eastern Europe or the Far East, which is evident in Leipzig. She answered:

“It is also my personal approach. The cinematic language in these countries is close to my attitude. The main components in their documentaries – screenplay, lighting, space – are common with feature films. That is why we organized the Yekaterinburg retrospective, and the Medvedkin tribute. I like these old films, our history, our memory. It is impossible to live only in the present, the past is also important. I feel myself responsible for showing my grandchildren how it was thirty or sixty years ago.”

Leo Isiemine is a Russian-born independent filmmaker and journalist, based in Cologne, Germany. He produced Kitchen-garden Cop and Old Photoalbum for Alex Shipulin (Estonia) and Journey to the Youth for Alexander Gutman (Russia).

Modern Times Review