How do you evaluate one film against another? And why do women often fade into the background in documentaries?

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

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.

Kirijana A. Nikoloska

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.

Petra Seliskar

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.

Cena tra amici.

The body is also a topic in Autumn Gold, where we follow a group of old people in Northern Europe training for the Track and Field World Championships: the 100-metre sprint, the discus throw, the high jump. A charming documentary depicting their preparations in the run-up to the competition in Finland – but as in a lot of “sentimental” documentaries, there is a onedimensionality that lurks here. The will to keep their bodies in shape is too much. But as a man in the film says: “Without exercise, I would not have survived another month.” Feathered Cocaine is actually two films. The first of these is about an American who has converted to Islam, and breeds falcons. Again another lonely guy – like the transvestite – alone with his birds. The birds are sold to rich Arabs for as much as one million dollars; the gyrfalcons are valuable, but are often abused and end up stuffed, as this turban-wearing American tells us. We also see him mourning over the birds that eventually die. The “other” film is about how some “falcon-loving” Saudis met out in the desert, using playing with gyrfalcons as a cover – in which a certain Osama, son of Laden, also participated. The conspiracy or assertions presented in this film is that in late 2001, leading Saudis, with the US in the background, were very good friends with bin Laden and his people. Bin Laden is supposed to have lived for some time in Iran after 2001 too. Is this investigative journalism that could have gone a lot further?

As a jury member, I am left with two films to decide on. The first is the one about the ageing José Saramago, his wife Pilar and their unique love for each other. It conveys an atmosphere that reminds me of the lovely old town of Skopje. In Miguel Gonçalves Mendes’ José and Pilar, we follow the old writer and his wife (thirty years his junior) and her continuous management of him. She takes care of the “Saramago” book business, and, from 2006, the foundation established by the Nobel Prize winner. It is a traditional, observational documentary, but it depicts so many heart-warming moments of a caring life – which reminds me as a lesson to the warriors who ravaged this  area of Yugoslavia some years ago. An olive tree is planted at the entrance to their home in Lanzarote; it grows over the course of the years the director observes the couple. We can see the admiration of the author, the people standing in long queues to thank him and get their books signed. We see the couple – mostly Pilar – looking through their mail from all corners of the world, from all the people who want a piece of him. She drags him around the world; it looks as though they only get brief moments of rest in-between before embarking on another trip.

The Elephant’s Journey

As viewers, we are privy to their thoughts; to some extent, we get inside the mind of the shy writer. The wife is the outspoken one. Some moments in the film are really atmospheric, like when the author listens tearfully to a melancholic piece of Portuguese music. Or when he falls ill and his entire extended family stands outside his hospital window. The old man gets out and finishes writing his last book, The Elephant’s Journey – about an elephant tragically removed from its natural surroundings. Interestingly Pilar, the wife, is very prominent in the film; sometimes it looks like she is almost staging things in cooperation with the director. She makes the decisions about the couple’s life inside and outside the house, but not about José when he writes. However, she writes the Spanish version of the Portuguese work he is writing, so the two versions can be published at the same time! She is also prominent as an intellectual when she holds a talk – highly aware and politically incisive. She also shows a strong rhetorical drive when interviewed by a chauvinistic journalist in the film. Her feminism is also apparent when the couple discuss (or argue over) the best candidate (Obama or Hilary Clinton) for the US presidency. This scene also reveals a decades-long tension; her secondary position behind the author.
My dilemma as a jury member is if I should recommend a film that really talks to your heart, or one that is more society oriented. The jury ended up choosing a new documentary about a country that no longer exists.

Mila Turajlic

In Cinema Komunisto, the Serbian director Mila Turajlic shows how Yugoslavian Tito used fiction and documentary as propaganda. Tito, his old projectionist tells us, saw more than 8000 films at home during his presidency – close to one film a day. At first, he loved Soviet films, but when breaking with Stalin after World War II, he turned to the West and Hollywood. He decided which films Yugoslavia would produce and he signed the checks. They were very often partisan films with anti-German heroes. He also allowed real bridges to be bombed for the sake of films, and gave away tanks to be burned if necessary – they could do anything with Tito’s consent. They also made propaganda to inspire the citizens, by showing eager young people at work, helping to build up their country etc. We see Tito worshiped by stadia full of people, complete with colourful parades – highly reminiscent of what we were to see later from another statesman in today’s North Korea. Tito surrounded himself with important people, and he governed sternly and decisively. But he was loved. A humorous sequence in the documentary shows Tito asking for Richard Burton to play him in The Battle of the Sutjeska (1973) – in which he unites Yugoslavia. He is of course sitting beside the stage, following the director at work. Director Turajlic worked singlehandedly on all the archival material. Her film is masterfully edited, cut with music in the right places, and contrasted with people from the film industry who are still around today. Importantly –  in what was supposed to be another film – we are brought to the old Avalas Studios, before the area was demolished. The huge studio was abandoned long ago, but was still full of props that evoke the cinema’s long-distant past. But as in both Yugoslavia and the old Ottoman Empire of our ruin, the megalomania of men dies eventually. This festival was headed by two women, and we gave the prize to a woman. Still, the selected films for our jury, let the women stay in the background, the protagonists were predominantly male. So my conclusion must be this: I would have much preferred to award a Jury Prize for both best director and best festival.


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