I am in the capital of Macedonia, Skopje, at the documentary festival MakeDox. I have been invited to be a member of the jury and decide on a winner.
Festival director, Kirijana A. Nikoloska, wrote in the foreword of the catalogue that we would experience the hospitality of the Macedonians. We are therefore spending most of our time in the little backyard under the fig tree of the old Ottoman ruin from the 1600s where the festival is being held. In a way, the films are secondary. The meals and discussions around the big, low table are never ending. Ditto the food on the table and the influx of new people arriving throughout the week. The directors behind the festival films, festival directors from all over Europe, producers and film enthusiasts. What do they all talk about? Like in documentaries, it’s about life itself, about the things each individual finds meaningful in this existentially seen very short life, and how life is lived in the Balkans, in the old empire of Tito. Or about photography in film, scriptwriting, film criticism or video activism. Or the different reasons why people want to make films, sometimes explained by stories from one’s childhood, the desire to create, to protest – these are the reasons as adults we strive for years to make a work of art. Our conversations sometimes last until sunrise in this warm atmosphere. Direct speech sharpens our minds; we search for explanations, wonder about the things we do not know, and are often surprised about how little we do know. Isn’t this the self-same objective as that of documentaries? To make us think, to react emotionally, and raise our political awareness?
In Skopje, the festival needed the darkness of night to show the films on the screen in the ruin, open to the sky. The groups around the table often start during the night. We talk about how people in the Balkan region have been affected by the conflicts of recent years: Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania – the nationalism, propaganda, ethnical cleansing, the deaths of relatives. Macedonia is also struggling with an identity problem. Her neighbour, Greece, refuses to acknowledge her as a nation. One symbol of identity is the new, 35-metre high bronze statue of Alexander the Great on horseback that has been erected in the centre. Statues of brave men are scattered around the city. But the Disney-like monument to Mother Teresa, who once lived here, only adds to the kitschness of these sculptures. Also the big new buildings – like the classical copy of Greece’s columned parliamentary building, still surrounded by scaffolding – look kitschy to us Northern Europeans. It stands out in contrast to the bazaars of the old town, where the festival is located. But I am writing about documentaries. My protestant consciousness takes the task of the jury seriously. Our jury will concentrate on “new filmmakers” – the other juries cover human rights, environmental issues, shorts for young people, and “morality”. The latter consists of a Macedonian Orthodox priest from the Holy Transformation Monastery, a local anarchist painter and a female judge from Slovenia.
All of us also became friends with the artistic curator Petra Seliskar, her husband with the Ibsen-like name Brand, their lively five-year old daughter and their ubiquitously “welcome-dog”. Petra writes in the catalogue that the selection of films forms “her own mix-tape” of films “that will never again be made.” She also writes that she believes in “animals, water, our little planet and our children.” Here we see the declaration of a belief in ethics and mutual respect between human beings – which, to my mind, is far from the form of governance the former Yugoslavia had recently been subjected to. The hospitality of the Macedonians I met was also underlined by festival director Kirijana: “We will introduce you to our friends.” That is why space had been cleared in the overgrown garden of the Ottoman ruin, so we all gathered there together.
So, what about the films? A film Unfinished, is about the Warsaw ghetto, constructed from Nazimade archives as propaganda to vilify the Jews and legitimize their extermination. We see Jewish people looking into the camera, emaciated human beings, as yet unaware of their imminent eradication. In the footage from 1940, the director staged the living conditions of the Jews, presenting them in huge apartments with ample food. Some were also dressed up in fashionable clothes. These examples of filmatic propaganda were unearthed some years ago, and edited together as a documentary on the discovered material. The theme is interesting but does not add much to what is already known.1 In What’s in a Name we follow a transvestite in New York City, a drag queen with his own nightclub show. The man in the film is charming. We see him in the furniture workshop where he works, in a health studio where he receives a lot of glances from other men – and as he meditates in his little room in the back of the workshop. He is often naked in intimate situations. He gets real breast implants to replace the fake breasts that just hang on his body; later on he shows the new to his family, who all have their own opinions about the way he is. They all love him. This sensitive man with a somewhat tragic need to be stared at, in combination with his delicate kindness, makes this film memorable. His female persona remains. By studying this individual destiny we come close to the transvestite, but in a rather more sensitive and nuanced way than in another well known documentary on the same subject, Paris is Burning (1990), which followed a group of transvestites preparing for a transvestite beauty contest in 80s New York.
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