More than any political agreement

When Colombia‘s president Juan Manuel Santos signed a historic peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC) in November 2016 it was heralded as an unprecedented move in the country’s long march to peace.

The deal, which ended 53 years of civil war, earned Santos a Nobel Prize and brought hope to millions of Colombians, where GDP hovers around $700 per capita annual – far behind its southern neighbour’s Brazil‘s $3,200.

But, as this eloquent and sensitive Finnish documentary shows, the peace deal did little to quell violence or inequality in the country of 48 million, where a small elite – mostly descended from Spanish settlers – controls the lion’s share of its resources.

Colombia In My Arms, a film by Jenni Kivistö, Jussi Rastas

«Liberated»

The directors open with a lengthy and poignant sequence that introduces FARC guerrillas in their jungle base as they prepare to give up their arms. A long opening shot shows one of them cradling a «liberated» government semi-automatic rifle as he tells of his love for his weapon.

Camp is struck and bonfires made of all the equipment the mixed group of armed men and women will not be taking with them.

Sadness and anxiety are evident in the ranks – even if one of the senior men, self-educated, tries to quell their concerns. Privately, in a conversation with trusted colleagues, he later admits that demobilised FARC members are already being taken off buses by paramilitaries and shot.

There is a resignation about FARC’s standing down after more than half a century of conflict. The men and women recognise that the war cannot be won, and they know that peace is the only way forward. But, as they traverse vast distances by canoe along deep and wide forest rivers, they instinctively know that the ruling class will fight to ensure they are sold down the proverbial «river».

Paper-thin

Having established the way the water is flowing, Colombia In My Arms has a dream-like quality, interrupted by occasional bursts of violence (seen in mobile phone footage recorded by coca-plant farmers attacked and killed by government forces) and the statements of right-wing politicians opposed to the peace accords.

FARC’s failure to switch from a guerrilla group to a political force capable of gaining democratic office has a depressing inevitability about it in an age fast becoming accustomed to the overwhelming power of billionaire-backed populism throughout the world. The swift resumption of assault on poor farmers who are forced to grow coca as a cash crop by heavily armed U.S. backed paramilitary forces, shows how paper-thin the commitment of Santos and his government to a real peace actually was.

healing the divisions will take much, much more than any political agreement.

In an ellipse that feels just a little forced, the filmmakers bookend the film with two characters from opposite ends of the socio-political spectrum – a FARC commander and an urbane member of Colombia’s landed gentry. All the former FARC man wants is an honest life for himself and his wife and children. Having swapped the verdant jungle for a small house in a poor district of an urban sprawl, the former revolutionary soldier speaks of his dream for a Colombia where respect and equality rule.

Far from the madding crowd, in a beautiful stone-built villa where white-uniformed liveried servants discretely pour wine and fetch ice for whiskey, the handsome squire talks God and «love thy neighbour» and expresses a remarkably similar philosophy. It may not have been forced – there is no reason to believe these are anything other than the genuine views of our characters. But perhaps the intention is to signal through that common vision just how far apart Colombia’s opposing social classes really are.

Colombia In My Arms, a film by Jenni Kivistö, Jussi Rastas

Work to be done

For a country where – by one measure – targeted violence against community leaders opposing destructive environmental projects has vastly increased since the 2016 peace accords. With a global record of 106 such murders in 2019 alone, healing the divisions will take much, much more than any political agreement.

It is with a nod to this that the film – which screened at Helsinki’s DocPoint 2020 in January – closes with an on-screen statement: «In memory of those who have lost their lives as a result of the armed conflict or while defending the peace in Colombia».


A tiger in the glass house

The General Motors plant was shuttered just over a decade ago in Dayton, Ohio, amid a financial downturn and less demand for the fuel-guzzling vehicles coming off its production line. More than 10,000 locals were left without jobs. Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert documented its closure for HBO in their 2009 short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, and the precarious future faced by its soon-to-be-redundant employees. Now, the pair have returned to the scene, for the feature American Factory.

The plant was bought by Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang, and the directors chart its 2014 reopening as an automobile glass manufacturer, Fuyao Glass America. The film was picked up, after the fact, by the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company for Netflix, and is now entering the last stages of the Oscar race as a feature-length best documentary nominee.

Those days are over

«We’ll never make that kind of money again — those days are over», says one former General Motors employee, resigned to the realities of his new climate. As the film opens, many starting at Fuyao are simply delighted to have a new prospect. Jill, a forklift operator, had been living in her sister’s basement after the bank foreclosed on her house, struggling to keep afloat since redundancy. Still, the pay discrepancy between the past factory and today’s is huge. Shawnea, a glass inspector, is on $12.84 an hour at Fuyao — less than half her rate at General Motors, and she feels the pinch sorely, no longer able to just go out and buy new gym shoes for her kids whenever they are needed.

American Factory is a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall study of a new era of globalised capitalism, in which workers are increasingly seen as dispensable as their jobs are taken over by machines. The tension between the competing interests of employee rights and the pursuit of profit above all is greatly exacerbated by a clash of cultures around values as fundamental as individualism vs. dutiful submission to the collective effort. It «needs to be an American company», but «successful», we hear, raising the question of just what is negotiable in squaring these expectations. Faced with Chinese norms of factory culture, the American workers might as well be on Mars.

Faced with Chinese norms of factory culture, the American workers might as well be on Mars.

Cao Dewang (known as «Chairman») is quite hands-on, with frequent visits to the Ohio plant. His frustration with the Americans he deems unmanageable rises to the fore as the company initially fails to make a profit. Initial breakdowns in understanding are played as comedy (a U.S. team ordered to change the opening direction of a door on the revamped building, bemused at anything beyond pragmatism, struggle to disguise their exasperation at the added expense.) But it’s soon clear that there is such a gulf in operational styles, deep-seated problems and resentments are all but inevitable.

Proverbs

«Stroke donkeys in the direction their hair grows, or they’ll kick you», is a proverb by which one consultant hopes to attune Chinese staff to the manner by which good performance can be coaxed from their U.S. counterparts. Since Americans «love being flattered to death», and have grown up over-confident, they need to be pandered to with encouragement, the argument goes. Results so far have been disappointing. «They’re pretty slow — they have fat fingers», comes the judgment from the factory floor.

American Factory, a film by Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert

While the Chinese think the Americans as simply lazy, negative consequences of the normalisation of grueling, unsafe work conditions hit. Fuyao takes a number of its American managers to observe workings at its plant in Fuqing, Fijian Province. Workers stand to attention and number off with an army-like precision (a shift supervisor’s awkward attempt to implement this back in Ohio is comically shabby). Their readiness to receive orders extends to the obligation to do overtime whenever asked. «I’m tired, but I have no choice», says a mother whose shift is already 12 hours long, and who can get home only once per year to see her child. At a company celebration, a synchronised troupe sings the praises of «a corporation with lean manufacturing» in a propaganda-style spectacle which suggests every aspect of life is subsumed by an idealised imperative to work. All employees are members of the Union, we hear — but, as it’s closely aligned to the company and communist party, it is another organ of control.

Back in Ohio, the spectre of unionisation compounds division. Bobby, a furnace off-loader, worked 15 years at General Motors with no injury. It didn’t take long at Fuyao, where safety measures are regarded as indulgent pampering by the Chinese owners, and routinely flouted. In a strategy to avoid the United Auto Workers gaining any clout, a union avoidance consultant is brought in to scare the staff before the pending vote.

«A mountain cannot hold two tigers»

American Factory does show cultural exchange positively a handful of times. Furnace supervisor Rob says engineer Wong, who taught him new skills to enable his middle-aged re-entry into the workforce, is «like a brother». He recalls fondly having Chinese workmates over for Thanksgiving and letting them fire his guns. This is not, however, couched as a saccharine tale of global harmony. It’s a curious-minded, yet cautious vision for our times; of a polarised world cramped with rival needs and interests. «A mountain cannot hold two tigers», is another Chinese proverb that is voiced. Fuyao now turns a profit — but the vote to unionise for worker strength was lost. Not everyone can win, it seems.


«We aim to showcase the diversity of documentary as much as we can»

FIPADOC International Documentary Festival meets across 6 days each year in Biarritz, where industry and audiences convene over exceptional non-fiction work.

With its 2020 edition occurring 21-26 January 2020, Modern Times Review spoke with the festival’s Executive Director, Christine Camdessus.

This year FIPADOC presents a strong selection of documentary films focused on women in positions of power. Why this theme?

This theme revealed itself organically. When you make a selection, you don’t know from the very beginning what the final selection will look like. In a way, it is like being in the flower shop, you pick the nicest flowers, but in the end you have to make a bouquet and you choose the flowers that go together. And what we discovered was that we had so many good films focused on a leading female character, and that was something surprising. We did find such films last year as well, but this year, the films we selected are especially powerful. FIPADOC is not a women’s film festival, we certainly don’t look only for films directed or dedicated to women, but in a time in which gender equality is an important issue, we decided to introduce this year’s selection around this theme.

And this year’s guest country is Sweden. Why Sweden?

Sweden has an amazing documentary production and a very high level of creativity. We also chose Sweden because they are very good in co-producing with other countries. Besides this, they certainly have a lot of important know-how. For example, Sweden has been facing competition for the platforms earlier than in other parts of Europe, and they had a very strong response to that. There is a lot to learn from the way they responded.

Are there some particular criterion or aspect you look for in the selection process?

We are always searching for the best – the best of what has been produced the previous year that is, and mainly films coming from Europe. We are only in the second edition but we had many more submissions than in the previous year, and we are very happy with that. And we aim to showcase the diversity of documentary as much as we can – whether focused on politics, culture, music, it doesn’t matter. We are open to any kind of documentary and in search of films that take you to a different mental space, make you think, laugh, cry and raise awareness.

Do you have a documentary that was seminal to your interest with the genre?

When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996) and One Day in September# (Kevin Mcdonald, 1999) are the first two that come to mind, and that is because they are like good books: they stay with you. And both make you look at the world in a different way.

What is to you a film that matters?

A film that matters is a film that opens your mind and heart to others. And a film that makes you a better person. It seems like a very moral approach to it but yes, I think a film that matters makes you a better person.


«the rhythm of documentary is close to the pace of real life»

FIPADOC International Documentary Festival meets across 6 days each year in Biarritz, where industry and audiences convene over exceptional non-fiction work. With its 2020 edition occurring 21-26 January 2020, Modern Times Review spoke with the festival’s President, Anne Georget.

Can you explain the overall theme of FIPADOC 2020? Why is this theme relevant now?

I would speak of goal rather than theme…and that would be to showcase films with the greatest variety in narratives, formats (we have a shorts competition for the first time), screens of destination (and a new digital documentary experience competition). That being said, besides the classic international and national competition, we present a competition of musical films and we have a major emphasis on Impact, a competition of films dealing with human rights, the defense of the environment and social justice.

As it’s never too early to enjoy documentary, we also devised a selection for the 8+, citizens of tomorrow and their family.

For the first year, our Industry days comprise of two labs: Impact Lab to learn about Impact producing, which is poorly known in Southern Europe, and a Smart Lab to help bridge linear and non-linear production (VR, 360, etc.).

After Germany last year, Sweden is our guest country in 2020 with a selection of the best Swedish films from the last two years and a focus on the Swedish documentary professionals (producers, funds, festivals…).

What do you see as attributing to documentary’s stark increase in popularity?

I think the rhythm of documentary is close to the pace of real life. It bears the complexity of feelings and emotions, the silence, the depth of memories that make the fabric of our existence. By sharing the fate of neighbours, as well as those of faraway fellow humans, documentary brings a grid to both comfort and shake our sense of being. This is why the public is so eager to watch docs, it really makes you feel your own life, in connection to others.

What would you say is the future of the documentary genre? How does this affect the way film festivals will be curated?

It’s a bright future! Because documentaries offer a pause in the fury of facts and images, whether stemming from news or entertainment, which threatens to overwhelm us.

As a consequence, I think curating a festival bears a great responsibility. It can’t just be about good taste. If this is where people can recoup, grow and feel, as I believe they can while watching docs, then we have to make the right choices that offer the material to do so. It goes beyond the film we love, it’s a necessary but not a sufficient condition! I think openness and a certain degree of kindness in this very competitive world are required. It’s a fine line to draw in an immense pool of films, but so much worth the effort!

What was a seminal documentary for you? Was there one that you consider to be integral in your own relationship with the genre?

That’s a tough one! If really I have to pick one, I will cheat a bit and say Patricio Guzman’s trilogy about Chili – Nostalgia for the Light, The Pearl Button (I haven’t seen The Cordillera of Dreams yet). I think the films achieve this portrayal of what we, humans, share: although we come from two opposite end of the world, with very, very different realities and landscapes, our hearts beat at the same relevance of needs for love, awe, truth, nature… It is so hard to convey and so powerful when it is achieved!


«All about that action»

In the vast US sporting landscape, the month of January is unique. It is the month seemingly overrun with a singular professional athletic event: the NFL Playoffs. Though admittedly rusty on the current ins and outs of the National Football League (perhaps a result of the perpetual heartache bestowed unto me by my beloved New York Jets), I’ve noticed that the month has already seen many of the game’s marquee names from the (last) decade spattered across airwaves and sports pages: Tom Brady, Aaron Rogers, Richard Sherman, et al.

Another such name from the season’s playoff conversation is Marshawn Lynch. Otherwise known as «Beast Mode», the talented, ferocious-on-the-field Lynch has been nothing short of a bonafide enigma throughout his decade+ career. Now on his second stint with Seattle’s Seahawks organization (with whom he won the 2013 Super Bowl and returned to in a losing effort the next year, alongside the previously mentioned Richard Sherman), Marshawn Lynch remains one of the games most colourful characters (look no further than his affinity for Skittles, for example). Beloved by many, reviled by others (including US President Donald Trump), the reclusive, yet imposing 1.80m/(98kg) Running Back has consistently found himself the center of many current ideological and experiental battles fought across the United States media, political, and sporting spheres.

Interestingly enough, it is in this constant media-specific discourse where the off the field Marshawn Lynch perhaps holds his most influential actions. Back in the aforementioned Super Bowl run 2013 season, Lynch decided to stop talking to the media altogether (at least, on the record). In the US, of course, not treating your media obligations, especially as a star athlete, is met with severe financial consequences and an invitation for the abundance of speculation that comes with it. Most of Lynch’s public press responses were single words or succinct phrases: «Yeah», «I’m Thankful». His 2015 response Super Bowl media scrum, «I’m just here so I don’t get fined, bro», cut deep into the media’s insatiable hunger for narrative control, and with Lynch being a prominent African-American figure, exacerbating the underlying, unspoken racial and class dynamics that lay the foundation of all American life.

«I’m just here so I don’t get fined, bro»

Unlike his football peer Colin Kaepernick, the anti-police violence activist and former San Francisco Forty-Niners’ Quarterback at the center of the countries national anthem kneeling controversy, Lynch has preferred a (trying to) stay out of the headlines approach, using relative silence as his revolutionary tool of choice. Of course, any such behavioral anomaly coming from African Americans ultimately brings forth the exact opposite reaction from those who write the headlines. Those like Lynch and Kaepernick’s actions are always considered political in nature and, therefore, yield constant vitriol. In the case of Lynch, however, he himself does not offer an iota of insight regarding his actual mindset on the matter. Theorists, scholars, journalists, they can all assume, which they do. However, it is Lynch who controls his narrative from this space of silence, privileging the work of his Oakland rejuvenating Fam 1st Family Foundation to the futility of media feuds.

A history

The new documentary Marshawn Lynch: A History from Director David Shields and Executive Producer Danny Glover, premiered last year at the Seattle International Film Festival before heading over to Amsterdam in November for IDFA. Constructed entirely from archival footage, the kaleidoscopic visual essay is a powerful and multi-layered look at the power of silence as protest, tracing the controversial career of the (then retired) NFL star, drawing parallels with the wider history of the United States itself. In placing hundreds of clips from thousands of hours, tracing Lynch’s days as University of California, Berkeley’s second all-time rusher through his days in the snowy terrain on the field for the Buffalo Bills to his career prime championship seasons in Seattle to his Oakland Raider «homecoming», Marshawn Lynch: A History cuts deep into a media complex all-too-often profiting from the embedded dynamics of racial oppression.

all about that action-post1
Marshawn Lynch: A History, a film by Davd Shields. PC: Andrewtat94

This oppression of the black activist class is an approach that dates back to the country’s original sin: slavery. To draw parallels, one can simply look to the life of the NBA’s Allen Iverson. He, a brash NBA superstar with talents exceeding mosts, had been subject to everything from false assault accusations to the more deceptive depths of racially motivated control like the politics of Black hair and dress. In Marshawn Lynch: A History, Shields explores this reality, as well as interjecting its peripherals of gentrification, oppressive capitalism, and cultural suppression, with figures across the gamut of discipline and time. Tupac Shakur, Alice Walker, Gertrude Stein, Ryan Coogler, Boots Riley, and Bill Russell are but a handful of the film’s interviewees. These interviews cut together with the film’s archival use of racial violence, current, and past. Everything from H. Rap Brown to the shooting of Walter Scott, often juxtaposed against footage featuring the very real violence of American Football (racial dynamics aside, the NFL also deals with the serious issue of player health and safety, particularly coming int he form of traumatic brain injury later in life), plays a role in constructing Marshawn Lynch: A History thematic narrative.

«All about that action»

In a racist society looking to oppress, suppress, and exploit its citizenry, the historically vulnerable pay the majority of its price. And, in this day and age, of armchair activism and «woke» culture purity tests, counter approaches have varied drastically, frequently settling within the inherently divisive, loud space of social media. Yet, in silence, Marshawn Lynch lives up to one of his most famous succinct interview responses, that he’s «all about that action». Through a legacy of silent eloquence, Lynch stands as the ultimate in contemporary dissent. Where an approach requiring as much consistency as self-imposed public muteness, Marshawn Lynch is a singular figure whose very existence alone acts as a demonstrative act of defiance. «All about that action» on the field and off.

Featured Image: Dave Sizer


Moneyed but mortal: Russia’s ‘90s «Wild West»

The Russia of the ‘90s is frequently referred to as a «Wild West». Its sudden transition from communism to free-market capitalism was brutally rocky, on a path uncharted. With legal structures unable to keep up, a handful of canny, self-styled entrepreneurs were able to grab astronomical amounts of wealth, while the majority of disoriented citizens, used to leaving everything up to the state, struggled to adapt. With this dynamic, Russia’s experiment in democracy very soon began to crack.

Alex Gibney’s documentary Citizen K looks at the era that succeeded the Soviet Union’s fall through the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who commandeered a number of Siberian oil fields to become Russia’s richest man, and one of the seven oligarchs controlling half of the nation’s economy. Crucially, on top of cash and ruthless entrepreneurial vision, Khodorkovsky had something his peers did not: political ambition. Increasingly perceived as a threat by the Kremlin, he was imprisoned for fraud and tax evasion in one of the country’s most remote penal colonies, near the Chinese desert. Gibney shows how the ‘90s made, not only, Khodorkovsky, but President Vladimir Putin, with the power struggle between the two elucidating much about the autocratic political landscape of Russia today.

Gangster capitalism

Whether Khodorkovsky was guilty or not is far from a simple question, and Citizen K does a fine job of explaining why. Under «gangster capitalism,» the law was in such a fluid state, that there even came to be a popular saying: «The strictness of laws is compensated by the lack of obligation to follow them.» All of the oligarchs amassed former state assets in a similar manner of backroom deals and creative accounting. The new appearance of private wealth became a target the likes of which the mafia had never seen under communism, and Moscow quickly became a murder capital.

Footage from these chaotic transition days shows a young Khodorkovsky freely admitting, in an early television interview, to the pursuit of greed — a novel concept that had not yet had time to acquire the taint of shame. The opportunities of capitalism were still a game to those with the cutthroat acumen to bend and bleed profit from the voucher scheme the state had intended would entitle citizens to a share of the national wealth. The average citizen could be persuaded to sell vouchers for ready cash at a huge discount before they could grasp their value. Khodorkovsky was attracted to the oil industry «because of its scale,» he says, reflecting back on his boundless ambition. And, after creating Menatep, Russia’s first commercial bank, it was not long before he got his hands on state oil firm Yukos for a bargain, by means of a sham auction.

«Oligarchs 2.0»

For all the vaunted idealism of the possibilities of democracy as the Soviet Union transitioned, president Boris Yeltsin’s government threw democratic processes out the window when his approval rating plummeted and it seemed the communists might return to power in 1996. As the television media conspired to hide his failing health, he cut a deal with the oligarchs for loans to pump into the dry coffers, in return offloading state enterprises to them at a steal and ensuring the prospect of a government that would protect their right to private billions. Citizen K does not attempt to make any case for moral legitimacy for the mass wealth the oligarchs accrued, in what was a free-for-all of cunning and naked power, but shows the complicity of politicians it suggests were more than happy to strike a deal with the devil to save their own skins. This all paved the way for Putin, who used the mass resentment against the oligarchs to leverage his own popularity. He made a show of bringing them to heel and renationalising firms including Yukos while fostering a new class of loyal «oligarchs 2.0.»

Public opinion shifted markedly in Khodorkovsky’s favour as he was tried again in 2010, just as it seemed he might get parole after seven years in prison. Released along with other high-profile prisoners in 2013 just before the Sochi Winter Olympics, he promised Putin he would stay abroad. Meanwhile, Russia’s increasingly autocratic president allows only an illusion of competition in the spectacle around election season. Saddled with a new charge for the 1998 murder of a Russian mayor, Vladimir Petukhov, who had come into conflict with Yukos, Khodorkovsky remains effectively out of Putin’s way. We hear he gained humility and a new perspective in prison, where he undertook several hunger strikes. He still commands a fortune of around half a billion US dollars and has founded the pro-democracy movement Open Russia.

MTR Review-Citizen K-Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Citizen K, a film by Alex Gibney

Villain or dissident?

Is Khodorkovsky villain or dissident, exploiter or exploited? The question of what kind of figure we should consider him now to be is the most fascinating, and ultimately elusive, of the film. Despite the high level of access Gibney taps for long conversations plumbing the London-exiled oligarch’s thoughts, the mystery persists. This says much about Russia itself, that land of radical upheavals so disorienting none but opportunistic chameleons last long. It’s a traditional Russian historical habit, we’re told, that the people sympathise as soon as power starts stomping, with the underdog it creates. One of Khodorkovsky’s most memorable comments in the film is a loose quote from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, that satirical, Stalin-era classic about the visit of the Devil to the Soviet Union, that a man is «not only mortal», but «potentially mortal at any moment». The precarity of fortune in Russia is such, that today’s winner might be dead tonight — and it doesn’t pay to commit too definitively to any one role.


Under the rubble, vital signs persist

How to film the human toll of war? As technology proliferates and the means to record one’s own experiences are more accessible than ever, each new hostility and crisis of displacement brings with it a deluge of documentaries. It’s perhaps only natural that there has been a move away from the pretense of making the definitive film of any conflict, toward more personal, fly-on-the-wall windows into the lives of those afflicted, given the sheer volume of output. Such films often leave political analysis in the background, but become all the more devastating for it, as we are immersed in the experiences of individuals we are brought to intensely identify with, in their most basic desire for the fundamental conditions of sustained community and security.

Some of the year’s strongest documentaries on the Syrian war are of citizens under siege, each as compelling and heartbreaking as the next in depicting fortitude under desperate conditions. It’s not a case of choosing between them for «the one» to see — each in the very singularity of their protagonists grabs one’s worthwhile attention. Tim Alsiofi shot his short Douma Underground while sheltering in a basement with loved ones from barrel bombs. Waad al-Kateab recorded five years of resistance in For Sama (on which Edward Watts shares directing credit), getting married and giving birth while holding out in Aleppo under constant danger. And, from director Feras Fayyad, following his film on the White Helmets Last Men in Aleppo, there is now The Cave , which shows the daily struggles of a female doctor and hospital manager in rebel-held eastern Ghouta, in the suburbs of Damascus, as bombardments strike and Russian planes swarm overhead.

Dr. Amani Ballour

If cinema is indeed an empathy machine, coaxing us into a greater understanding of the humans we share the planet with by exposing us to their way of seeing, one would be hard-pressed to find a more sympathetic subject than Dr. Amani Ballour. In her late twenties at the time of filming, she is the manager and lynchpin of a tight-knit team operating a hospital in a subterranean network of tunnels dubbed «the cave». She trained as a pediatrician, and her sensitive affinity with children as she treats and reassures them is touching, but she now dives headfirst with unwavering, level-headed compassion into dealing with anything and everything that comes at the crew as the heavily injured pour in and the 40,000 citizens under siege in the vicinity lucky enough not to be hit, suffer malnourishment on top of the usual ailments. The gritty resourcefulness of the staff as they contend with the ongoing carnage and lack of supplies is humbling, from surgeon Salim cranking up classical music on his iPhone to ease the lack of anaesthetic in the operating room, to nurse Samaher surprising Amani despite the scarcity of food with popcorn for her 30th birthday, which they all have a laugh with pretending that it’s pizza.

Violent conflict threatens all, but other forms of oppression persist, too, under bombs.

In addition to the trauma of dealing with the war-wounded and the threat of airstrikes (the team are on constant edge, jittery at the sound of any plane above), patriarchal bias means Amani’s work can be thankless, with her very right to work called into question, and demands made upon her to justify her obviously high capability. The husband of a woman she’s been treating blames her gender rather than the supply shortage on his wife’s lack of medication, saying she is not cut out to be a manager, despite the fact she has been re-elected by her colleagues, who trust in her guidance. Amani’s father frets over video chat that women are often used as tools in war. Violent conflict threatens all, but other forms of oppression persist, too, under bombs.

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The Cave, a film by Feras Fayyad

«Damn you, Bashar»

The hospital team’s profound humanity amid the suffering is left to speak for itself, the calling to preserve life being so essentially anti-war. Injured are rushed in for treatment in a daily onslaught until one day in 2018 something different occurs: chemical attack. The bone-deep disquiet of the team as they ascertain that this is not a normal assault, as citizens without apparent injuries are struggling to breathe and a smell of chlorine is detectable, shakes one to the core. «Damn you, Bashar,» says Amani, a reference to the Syrian regime that carries a people’s heartache in its simple utterance.

The real choice the film interrogates is not one of political affiliation, but of the near-impossible dilemma of whether to stay or to flee; to hang on and work to maintain life, culture and identity in a city rendered all but inhabitable, with the bare essentials of shelter and sustenance lacking, or to continue the struggle from afar. «Who would have a baby here?» Amani exclaims in total exasperation at the decimation of the city. She persists as long as she can to keep the city alive before evacuation. The director Fayyad, imprisoned and tortured by the Assad regime in 2001, now lives in Denmark. Given the inaccessibility of besieged Ghouta, he enlisted three camera people to shoot inside the hospital, with the footage smuggled out — to be edited into a document of the boldest, heartfelt commitment to what Syria once was, for future generations who may yet return to rebuild.

The Cave will screen at FIPADOC and several other festivals.


Stay on these roads

Ibarska Highway, Flânerie 2.0

Aleksandrija AjdukovićChloé Galibert-Laîné

Serbia, France

Ibarska Highway

As the song says, «the road is long, with many a winding turn…». Serbia’s magistrala 22 is widely regarded as the single most notorious and dangerous thoroughfare in the ex-Yugoslavian state, a Balkan nation where hazardous driving conditions are—for various interconnected, socio-economic reasons—regrettably far from uncommon.

Stretching some 298km from the suburbs of the capital Belgrade to the border with Montenegro, «State Road 22» (S-22) is an especially busy and important ribbon of tarmac. It nevertheless stubbornly remains an old-school single-highway affair in each direction; the margins are dotted with busy rakija-dispensing bars and meat-oriented restaurants as well as a myriad of domestic dwellings.

Ibarska Highway, a film by Aleksandrija Ajduković

Dubbed the «Ibarska Highway» because of the way it partly follows the contours of the Ibar river, this legendary piece of infrastructure is now becoming better known beyond the region thanks to a new short film bearing its name. Directed by Aleksandrija Ajduković and edited by Miloš Korać, #Ibarska Highway is a frenetic and vibrant variation on the venerable «city symphony» sub-genre of creative documentary of which Dziga Vertov‘s silent classic The Man With A Movie Camera (1929) remains the best-known example.

Here, however, the focus is strictly on suburban and quasi-rural locales—such as the small town of Meljak, which S-22 bisects. Locals attending a wedding feast pose in front of Ajduković’s lens, showing off their finery. Their exuberance is contrasted with calmer glimpses of roadside residents enjoying their gardens, senior citizens evidently long accustomed to blocking out the sounds, smells, and sights of the huge trucks thundering past with juggernaut intensity. An elegiac note is provided by images of flower-garlanded memorials to the many victims of the so-called «Black Highway» through the years.

Serbia’s magistrala 22 is widely regarded as the single most notorious and dangerous thoroughfare in the ex-Yugoslavian state

Despite the deceptively brief 12-minute running time (including two minutes of credits, in which all 101 on-screen «participants» are alphabetically catalogued), there’s a real sense that all human life is fleetingly depicted here. Korać’s rhythms zip along to the propulsive accompaniment of a jangling, electronic-flavoured score by Mangulica FM.

Fluently deploying different ratios and filming techniques (extra-widescreen «Lomokino» analogue film juxtaposed with sharp, conventional-framed digital video), Ajduković evokes an eclectic range of moods that, with only a few sparing words of dialogue, builds—with the noteworthy assistance of soundscape-creator Miloš Drobnjaković — into an engaging and immersive time-capsule.

Making much from limited resources, Ibarska Highway simultaneously commemorates, immortalizes, and transcends specifics of space and time, allowing the viewer to vicariously sample the chaotic delights of S-22’s trans-Balkan travel without risk to life or limb.

Flânerie 2.0

The borrowed-from-French word «Flânerie» is somewhat prosaically defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as «idle, aimless behaviour». But the term, especially in literary and philosophical senses, has come to encompass a much richer sphere of human activity: it is the means by which an individual sensitively explores a city without a set route, map or plan of any kind, achieving a psycho-geographic understanding of the space in which she/he moves and, ideally, stumbles across inner truths along the way.

Flânerie can, in theory, be conducted in any town or city in the world, but down the decades—at least since Charles Baudelaire strode the boulevards in the 1830s—it has steadily become almost synonymous with one particular metropolis: Paris, eminently walkable, café-strewn home of the flâneur. This connection has been celebrated and strengthened, indeed imaginatively extended into the new digital era, by filmmaker Chloé Galibert-Laîné and her multi-layered 11-minute work #Flânerie 2.0.

Flânerie 2.0, a film by Chloé Galibert-Laîné

Narrated by Galibert-Laîné in a detached, ruminative manner, it takes as its specific starting-point a semi-forgotten feature-length fiction film made in the French capital a full half-century previously. Paris Does Not Exist (Paris n’existe pas) was one of only two movies directed by Morocco-born theorist/critic Robert Benayoun (1926-1996). It boasts a supporting cast that includes chanteur-provocateur extraordinaire Serge Gainsbourg; lesser-known thespian Richard Leduc plays the protagonist, however, an artist whose dabbling with drugs causes him to become somewhat «unstuck» in time.

As this fashionably-attired, tousle-haired twenty-something wanders the late-sixties city, his experience oscillates between contemporary vistas and those of the pre-WW2 past: Benayoun interpolates black-and-white footage shot in 1935 to indicate the dichotomy. 1935 also happened to be the year when philosopher Walter Benjamin published his seminal work «Paris: the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,» in which he (among other things) interrogates and redefines the concept of the flâneur.

Galibert-Laîné draws upon the foundations laid by Benayoun and Benjamin; she also encompasses not only the dérive, a form of semi-deliberate urban navigation proposed in the 1950s by Guy Debord but also the analyses of academic Susan Buck-Morss in the 1980s.

The borrowed-from-French word «Flânerie» is somewhat prosaically defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as «idle, aimless behaviour».

In other hands, this may have been a recipe for an over-dense miniature text weighed down by the intellectual burden of illustrious forebears. But Galibert-Laîné not only sketches a useful primer and introduction to a complex topic but—via playful use of computer-desktop editing—updates it to a time when, thanks to the ubiquity of smart-phones and the like, becoming profitably lost or productively unmoored on the streets of Paris is a regrettably rare privilege.

– these two films were among five equal top prize-winners at Alternative Film/Video, Belgrade, Serbia, 11-15 December 2019, and have also been screened at other festivals.


Best Documentaries 2019

Thomas Heise: Heimat is a Space in Time
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4628/
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4631/

Alexander Nanau: Collective
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4662/

Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov: Honeyland
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4449/

Artemio Benki: Solo
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4542/

Sergey Loznitsa: A State Funeral
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4671/

Feras Fayyad: The Cave
Review with top marks will follow – in Danish – in connection with the cinema release in Denmark in a few days

Waad al-Kateab & Edward Watts: For Sama
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4626/

Jørgen Leth: I Walk
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4667/

Ksenia Okhapkina: Immortal
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4572/

Rachel Leah Jones & Philippe Bellaiche : Advocate
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4553/

Audrius Mickevicius & Nerijus Milerius: Exemplary Behaviour
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4648/

Alex Brendea: Teach
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4646/

Enrico Cerasuolo: The Passion of Anna Magnani
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4644/

Ellen Fiske & Ellinor Hallin: Scheme Birds
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4624/

Anna Eborn: Transnistra
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4475/

Arthur Sukiasyan: Wound
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4534/


Oscar Thoughts

The other day I read that Ingmar Bergman had returned his Oscar Nomination Certificate for ”Smultronsstället”. He apparently did not like the competitive circus. Nor did Francois Truffaut when he expressed no interest in sitting in film juries. To judge colleagues, to compete in arts…

You may have many opinions about this but these days, when we are – as the Americans call it – in the middle of the award season, statuettes and diplomas are given out to films and filmmakers, and pictures of happy people flourish on the internet. Who will win, who has won in all the competitions that lead up to the Oscar. Of course it is a circus and money is so much involved and even if it will always be an American film that wins, in the documentary section, that I am following, a shortlist and/or a nomination help good films to be seen by a big audience?

The announcement of 15 shortlisted documentaries, to mention the genre we mostly focus on at filmkommentaren, has taken place. I have seen 9 of them (AdvocateAmerican FactoryAquarelaThe CaveThe Edge of DemocracyFor SamaThe Great HackHoneylandKnock Down the House), and apart from The Great Hack and Knock Down the House, the films mentioned do confirm that documentaries are very strong today. The two that to my opinion do not qualify to be among „the best of the best”, I watched on Netflix, no doubt that this label has helped the films to be shortlisted.

Which brings us back to the money. Many of the 159 films, from where the15 were selected, did not have financial resources to perform the necessary campaign to make the voting members of the Academy see the films at screenings in the USA.

Money… I was almost falling down the chair, when producer/editor of ”Honeyland”, Atanas Georgiev from North Macedonia, as it is called nowadays, gave me numbers on what it had cost to do the campaign for this wonderful documentary around the world. Yes, around the world because this film has really travelled – to festivals, to theatrical releases. ”It’s a once in a lifetime we experience”, he said when we met in Copenhagen, ”we are just going to enjoy it”. ”We” meaning the whole crew and Hatidze, the bee-keeping protagonist. It started with three awards at the Sundance Film Festival in January and now the film is close to be nominated for an Oscar. And if that does not happen, the film has had and will continue to have a fantastic life.

With many awards…

 


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