The Jihlava Doc Festival of 2017 was focussed on political film. Several films took on the theme of state leaders and the election processes that led to their victory.
SK and CZ/FR/USA
The Jihlava International Film Festival is a unique event where the East and the West of the documentary film world meet. In 2017, the festival also released hybrid films (documentary films as well as fiction-feature films with a documentary feel), something new that will likely create a trend for similar festivals in the future. Documentary films have an increased influence on TV shows and feature films, or the “audio-visual landscape”, as the festival director, Marek Hovorka, described it. Nevertheless, the program mainly consisted of classic documentary films. Political film was a major focus at the festival that mainly took on the theme of state leaders and the campaign process behind their election victories. The opening film The Lust for Power is a portrait of former Slovak Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, and the final film–having its world premiere at the festival–was the French The Candidate: The Rise of Emmanuel Macron. The film Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time, was also part of the program of the festival.
The Lust for Power has a promising start. The director, Tereza Nvotová, varies the narrative methods in her sincere attempt to investigate the mechanisms behind Mečiar´s popularity and power. Nvotová says, “I consider Mečiar to be a key person in the recent history of Slovakia. The film is also a portrait of an archetype that can be observed several places around the world today, dressed in different disguises.” Mečiar is an example of a standard type of leader that can be seen in former East Bloc countries. He has developed into an ideal in parts of the western world as well. The film´s opening scenes consist of beautiful air shots of Slovakia´s capital Bratislava as it wakes to life in the early morning. Nvotová´s own voice is heard talking on the phone: “Hi, this is Tereza. Can I arrange a meeting with Mečiar?” The film soon changes into a reportage format when the director rings the doorbell at the former prime minister´s house, and the door is opened by a charming elderly man. No, he can´t really comment on his political life. It´s as if he doesn´t quite understand the questions, and he answers with a boyish smile.
We then go on to follow Nvotová´s thoughts through a voice-over: she tells us that she was one year old during the fall of the Berlin Wall. The personal form is kept throughout the film, and with the help of home videos clips and photographs, we are introduced to the director´s family, several of whom are young, sympathetic theatre people. Through taking part in these people´s life journeys we become familiar with the political and historical events that have taken place in the country and how they have affected the country´s citizens.
The story goes back to the 1990s during a period of time when several political leaders in power (who were former members of the Communist Party) ignored the ideological distinction and embraced the capitalist system in a way that is more reminiscent of the Wild West. Their political patterns resembled the methods we witnessed in the Godfather movies, among other films. The secret police wore face masks and nonchalantly carried machine guns over their shoulders in public; abductions and extortion attempts took place every single day. The nation was divided.
The Slovaks did not wake up until Madeleine Albright declared, in clear speech, that the country would not be invited to either NATO or the EU if Mečiar continued to stay in power. Only then did they take action to remove Mečiar from the political scene. Significantly the director´s parents are delighted by their prime minister at the beginning of the film, but towards the end of the film they are active opponents.
The personal story at the start of the film is followed by an extensive use of material collected from news archives, as well as stories told by people who witnessed this politically troubled era. The most interesting quote from that time is the marketing manager behind Mečiar´s election victory. He states what is known to be true: “People would like to think that they are engaged in the political positions of the candidates, but that´s not what matters. People choose depending on their feelings. Voting in elections is simply an emotional act.”
Nvotová has obviously wanted to tell the story on several levels. She presents a well-made portrait of the political predator Mečiar, but, through its leaping form, The Lust for Power loses its visual continuity and therefore feels disharmonic. PJONI´s soundtrack makes a brave attempt to keep the narrative in place, but all in all The Lust for Power does not succeed in becoming the large-scale movie it apparently has ambitions to be. Nvotová´s film could nevertheless become an important historical film for future Slovak citizens.
Cut and Paste
Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time follows the last US presidential election in chronological order. The documentary is based on the material of Showtime´s news documentary series The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth. Throughout its 26 episodes, using three different hosts, it commented on the campaigns, election meetings and debates during the election. The series ended with Trump´s election victory in November 2016.
It was a fast-paced decision the television producers Ted Bourne, Mary Robertson and Banks Tarver made when they decided to edit a film consisting of the thousands of hours of recorded material they had been collecting. Already two months after the decision was made, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, though the response of the audience was rather lukewarm: the audience had obviously followed the electoral process carefully themselves, and so they were previously familiar with the film material. In other words, the movie didn’t tell them anything new. For us, on the other hand, who don’t follow the US news broadcasts on a daily basis, Trumped is both an exciting and entertaining documentary film.
It all starts in a quite humorous manner: the programme hosts cannot hide their mockery when they discuss Donald Trump´s ambition to run for president. However, the tone of the film becomes more serious when Trump wins. The editors of the film Brad Buckwalter, Alicia Ellis and Benji Kast should be applauded for their ability to maintain a classic narrative structure throughout the chaos. Trump´s election meetings are growing from small gatherings to filling huge sports arenas where fanaticism prevails: “It´s having the flavour of a music concert,” is what we learn–the comments do not go more in-depth. Trump´s journey of popularity is being watched with a certain fascination. “I´ve been a politician for six months,” Trump says, and the voters roar in excitement. For us that can still remember, this does not resemble the dry political debates of the 70s; this is a show.
Lack of Analysis
One large drawback about the film is that it does not even try to analyse the phenomenon we are observing. Trump´s outrageous attacks on individuals, as well as the judicial system, are so sensational that the media coverage follows suit. The strategy–to distract us from the important topics through sensationalism–works optimally.
«“I´ve been a politician for six months,” Trump says, and the voters roar in excitement.
Much remains to be said about the power game behind Trump and the role of the media in today´s democracies.»
Russian intervention and WikiLeaks are only mentioned briefly before the issues are swept aside. As an example, why do we not get a brief introduction about Paul Manafort when he enters the stage as Trump´s campaign leader? On WikiLeaks´ website we can read that Manafort was a counsellor during the Presidential Campaigns of Ronald Reagan, as well as George H.W. Bush, although in Washington D.C. he is more known as a lobbyist for foreign dictators from Somalia, Angola, Kurdistan, Ukraine and a number of other lawless countries. This would have been interesting to learn more about, especially now that he is (by many) characterized as a betrayer of the country.
As a matter of fact, it is shocking that a news program like The Circus failed to go into these topics more in-depth during its 26 episodes about the 2016 United States election. How can a television audience be content with such a simplified news program that is more reminiscent of a sports program than a political debate? What strings are being pulled behind the scenes, what power elites are behind Trump, what social and political trends in Europe have influenced the election, and what role does the media play? Through only scratching the surface, Trumped gives the impression that Trump´s unexplained charisma brought him to presidency. The film helps to maintain the Trump myth by not examining the causes behind the man´s success. Much remains to be said about the power game behind Trump and the role of the media in today´s democracies. Let´s hope that a film that goes into this matter in a serious way will appear in the near future.
French Yann L’Hénoret’s film The Candidate: The Rise of Emmanuel Macron is classic cinéma vérité. With the use of an observing camera, we follow a team of four people who, together with Macron, create a plan to win the French presidential election. The film provides a good insight into their intense cooperation, depicting loyalty, commitment and unity in every decision made. The four are barely passed thirty-years-old, and maybe that´s why their camaraderie is felt so strongly.
«The team behind Macron are barely passed thirty-years-old, and maybe that´s why their camaraderie is felt so strongly.»
The story evolves chronologically, and our hero Macron is transformed from a youngster into a mature adult during the campaign process. Other than the main character´s internal development, there are few, if any, real moments of thrill in the film. The music, which is free jazz, covers the clips that lack direction, but as a whole it all becomes too simple and monotonous. Using music as the only dramaturgical aid, The Candidate does not succeed, despite Macron´s great ability to fascinate.
The film could have been used in Macron´s own PR-campaign as it only focuses on his positive side. Macron appears empathetic, hardworking and extremely ambitious. He convinces us all about his good intentions without revealing his political views. By the closing credits, we still know absolutely nothing about Macron or his party En Marche! besides the fact that he is the opponent to his political rival Marine Le Pen. At one point, the camera sweeps over a poster showing a picture of John F. Kennedy, the only poster at the team´s headquarters. How is this supposed to be interpreted? John F. Kennedy does not belong among America´s best presidents, but his popularity was huge, and he was young and Catholic. At that time, a Catholic could not become president in the United States, but against all odds Kennedy won the election anyway. And that´s exactly what Macron did in France.