DocsBarcelona is a relatively new film festival, founded just three years ago. This year’s pitching session received 180 applications, 24 of whom were selected.

Bernard Dichek

Bernard Dichek is a Canadian-Israeli filmmaker and journalist living in Tel Aviv currently working on a film series about Africa.

The official screening programme screened its panorama films and offered a platform for young filmmakers called DOC! DOC! DOC!, in addition to sections highlighting social documentaries, historical films, films for young people and a good cross-section of Catalan-produced films. DocsBarcelona opened with a screening of Chilean filmmaker Fernando Valenzuela’s Las Ultimas Horas de Salvadore Allende. The film recreates the final solitary hours in the life of Chilean President Allende just before he was killed during the military coup d’état in 1973.

Salvador Allende
Salvador Allende

The film was chosen for the opening night, says festival director Joan Gonzalez, because of the original way in which the filmmaker tackles a major challenge in documentary filmmaking:

“One of the most difficult things is what you do when the camera was not there,” explains Gonzalez. “When I saw this film, I said ‘Wow, look at what the filmmaker has done to describe the spirit of the reality of that moment.’ I never thought it could be done that way.”

Valenzuela’s way of depicting those unfilmed moments is an impressionistic montage that combines a monologue performed by actor Ramiro Sandoval in an empty theatre in New York (where a play about Allende is regularly performed) with archival footage of tanks and troops outside the presidential palace, readings from Dante’s Divine Comedy and a haunting musical soundtrack.

Like most of the 28 films shown at the festival, the opening-night film was followed by a lively audience discussion where the director was present. Gonzalez tells us what he observed: “When I saw the loneliness of the president of Chile in the palace, surrounded by the army that was against him, it made me think of what it must have been like for my president (president Companys of the then autonomous region of Catalonia – ed.) in 1936 when Franco came to power.”

DocsBarcelona is a relatively new film festival, founded just three years ago to accompany a pitching forum that dates back twelve years. The forum, organised in association with the European Documentary Network (EDN), continues to be a major event on the global pitching circuit.

This year’s forum attracted 180 applications from 35 different countries, with 24 projects selected for presentation over a two-day period. About half of the projects were either pitched by Spanish filmmakers or related to Spanish subject matter.

One of them, 30 Years of Darkness, directed by Manuel Hildalgo Martin, touches on the political oppression of the Franco era, a subject that continues to haunt Spanish society. The film tells the story of Manuel Cortes, a fervent socialist who fought on the losing Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. Cortes, returning from the war front to his home town of Malaga, feared reprisals and went into hiding in a hole dug behind a wall in his own home. He stayed there, his whereabouts known only by his family, until 1969 when the government granted amnesty to him and others like him who were known as ‘moles’.

In his pitch, Hildalgo Martin likened the story to that of Anne Frank and presented a compelling trailer that showed a scene based on animation. In its striking graphic style and psychological tone, the scene was reminiscent of Waltz with Bashir, the award-winning animated documentary that also attempts to recreate memories. The young filmmaker in his twenties, and thus two generations removed from the period, says, “People like Cortes struggled during their years of hiding to keep from losing their own identity. I’m interested in getting the viewers to experience the feelings that Cortes and others must have experienced.”

Many of the other projects pitched also had a clear character-defined focus. Paco, Abdullah and I, directed by Spain’s Albert Sole, is about Paco, a colourful Barcelona street hustler whom Sole befriended. Years after losing contact with him, Sole discovered that Paco had converted to Islam and moved to Pakistan where he was arrested for heroin trafficking and now faced the death penalty. Sole describes the story as both a study of an unusual character and about “his own fascination with the darker side of life.”

Recipes for a Disaster John Webster
Recipes for a Disaster John Webster

Street Babies, directed by Koen Suidgeest, is a Dutch-Spanish co-production that follows the story of Sujeylin, a young, pregnant, homeless woman born and living on the streets of Managua, Nicaragua. In the unfolding narrative, Suidgeest will examine whether Sujeylin will use her venture into motherhood as a chance to prevent another generation from growing up on the street or simply raise her baby in the adverse circumstances.

On a more optimistic note, Africa is a Woman’s Name, is a Spanish-Zimbabwe co-production that tell the story of three African women determined to empower the lives of others. The characters include a Kenyan attorney teaching girls personal defence techniques, the director of a community project in South Africa and a Zimbabwean housewife-entrepreneur.

 

Not all of the projects pitched rely on a character-driven approach. A number of filmmakers offered cinematic visions that suggest lyrical or philosophical explorations: Parallax Sounds, Chicago on the Postrock, directed by Augusto Contento, France, is very much a mood piece with a strong ambience conveyed in his trailer. The disquieting urban landscape evoked through images and sounds recorded during a taxi journey “reflect the disorientation of the so-called X Generation,” says Contento.

In Plastic Years, Italian filmmaker Vanni Gandolfo adopts an ironic perspective in exploring the invention of plastic in the late 1950s and its early impact on society. “It’s really a story about the optimism that characterised life in the West for two decades, and that has not returned,” says Gandolfo when describing how the Nobel Prize winning Italian and German inventors and many others believed that a never-ending supply of the petroleum-derived substance would raise the quality of life for millions. “Until 1973 when the first global oil crisis occurred, many believed that industrial progress could never come to an end.”

In his treatment of the topic, Gandolfo uses TV commercials from the 1950 and ’60s which often have a family-oriented style to them. Ironically, this mirrors visual material incorporated into another film shown in the Panorama section, Recipes for Disaster by John Webster. It also deals with plastic but in a completely different way. In Recipes for Disaster, an ecologically-concerned filmmaker and his Finnish family attempt to live a green lifestyle and lead their lives without the use of any plastic products. The director, practicing what he preaches, endured a 48-hour train trip from Helsinki to attend the festival in Barcelona, rather than take a quicker but far less eco-friendly plane flight.

In addition to Recipes for Disaster, other major films shown in the Panorama section of the festival included Love, Sex and a Moped, an exploration of attitudes towards love and sex in Africa, directed by Christian Lelong and Maria Silvia Bazzoli of France, and Z32, directed by Avi Mugrabi of Israel.

Avi Mugrabi held a masterclass where he showed clips from Z32 and five of his other films. He analysed how his attitude has changed in the way that he leads viewers to believe that his films present “factual truth”. The seemingly objective fly-on-the-wall technique, he suggested, “can sometimes mask the biggest lies,” while other more manipulative techniques that meddle with the facts and incorporate staged theatrical elements, “can sometimes get at a bigger truth.” For example, in The Reconstruction, a 1994 film about the questionable circumstances surrounding a murder trial, he showed how footage of one of the accused murderers looking straight at the camera while making his confession may
not be as true as it seems. In Z32, on the other hand, the confession of a soldier involved in a revenge killing seems quite convincing, even though the soldier’s face is hidden by a mask and his confession is provocatively interrupted (in the editing) with a song sung by Mugrabi.

Another section of the DOC! DOC! DOC! programme provided a platform for young filmmakers at the start of their directing careers. One crowd-pleaser was Chilean-born UK filmmaker Estephan Wagner’s film Esperando Mujeres, about the remote Spanish village of Riofrio where most of the women have left. The lonely men organise a bus load of single women from Madrid to come for an evening of socialising. The light-hearted film, rich with humour and irony, has a Felliniesque brass soundtrack and is edited in a restrained way in which “every shot seems to count.” Wagner explained that even though he and his crew spent more than a month filming the story of the women in Madrid before their arrival in Riofrio, he decided to discard that material as he felt it would weaken the film’s impact.

Other sections at DocsBarcelona highlighted social documentaries, historical films, films for young people and a good cross-section of Catalan-produced films.

The festival screenings were dispersed among three different Barcelona theatres within walking distance of each other and in close proximity to cafes and bars. Attendees included a mix of local cineastes and filmmakers from many countries eager to meet up with commissioning editors and fellow collaborators.

Despite the festival’s international stature, this year’s event failed to provide English translations for all of the films shown, but the festival organisers promised that next year all screenings will have English subtitles. And there is no denying that Barcelona provides a wonderful setting for a diverse festival for professionals and locals alike.


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