What do you really know about Donbass? (Other than what you read in the news)

At the screening of Donbass – the latest feature film by Ukrainian documentary director Sergey Loznitsa, at the Ljubljana International Film Festival in November – two elderly persons were sitting in the row in front of me. Watching the closing credits rolling on the screen, the person on the right turned to the one on the left saying: «Wait, what? These were all actors? Wasn‘t this a documentary?»

Actually, it‘s quite the opposite. Loznitsa‘s new film explores the factual conflict raging in Donbass – a region in the Eastern part of Ukraine – between Ukraine and the Russian-supported Donetsk People’s Republic. But the film‘s thirteen segments are as fictitious as they can be: armed conflicts, crimes and looting perpetrated by separatist gangs are all mixed up. War is called peace, propaganda is erected to truth, and hatred claims to be love. Loznitsa’s journey through the Donbass region is composed of a series of crazy adventures in which the grotesque and the tragic merge.

Sergey Loznitsa is a former mathematician, an expert in artificial intelligence and a translator from Japanese, and recently also a prolific director of documentary and feature films. To be involved in both documentary and fiction production is a rather unconventional combination for a filmmaker, but for Loznitsa this seems the only logical thing since the thin line between fiction and facts is one of the main topics of his oeuvre.

In Donbass, he is applying documentary approaches (such as shooting on location by using a hand held camera, loose narrative structure, and the lack of main protagonist) in what is all a fiction movie. He is doing so to portray the notorious Donbass region as a reality where separating facts from fiction – or simply figuring out what is going on – is difficult, not only for the overall international community, but also for the people living there.

In this way, he avoids simplified denunciations of lies and manipulations, and the need of taking «the right» position. Instead he manages to visualise the film’s main point, that is: there is no «fake» news and no «true» news, because, simply, everything is scripted. Still, this does not imply that reality doesn’t matter.

Yugoslavian Black Wave and ironic «over-identification»

Documentary film scholars have recently been pondering the failure of the documentary, but in Donbass, Loznitsa has proved the opposite. The language and the methods of documentary film in general are even becoming increasingly useful for the feature film.

«There is no «fake»news and no «true» news because, simply, everything is scripted. Still, this does not imply that the reality doesn‘t matter.»

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Sugar: The sweetest poison?

We know it’s not good for us, but we’re not necessarily aware of just how damaging sugar actually can be. Two documentaries focus on the sweet stuff’s many negative effects and on the food industry’s work to maintain the general impression that the intake of sugar will not cause serious illnesses.

The experts interviewed in Sugar Coated and Sugar Blues do not dispute that a moderate intake of sugar might not be particularly harmful. However, it seems clear that our intake of the sweet substance is far from moderate: In the last 30 years the world’s total sugar consumption has increased by 46 per cent, according to the Canadian documentary Sugar Coated – directed by Michèle Hozer. During the same period the number of obese people has allegedly doubled to 600 million, while the number of people diagnosed with diabetes has tripled to 347 million. In other words, and to get started with the obvious puns, the consequences of our excessive consumption of sugar aren’t so sweet.

The biggest epidemic in history

Sugar Coated also serves as a disturbing reminder of how deeply sugar is rooted in our culture. Sweet products like cakes and chocolate have become means of expressing both affection and celebration – if not to say symbols of love itself. Sugar plays a usually unquestioned role at birthday parties and weddings, as well as on Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day. Also, the substance is to be found in far more food products than the typical sweets – for instance in cereals, sauces, bread and meat products. The documentary claims that Canadians have 56 different names for what is actually sugar: Fructose, glucose, agave, panocha, syrup, honey, table sugar, cane sugar – to name a few.

One of the film’s central characters is paediatrician Robert H. Lustig – a devoted combater of the sweet threat – who does not hesitate to say that sugar in high doses is toxic. Lustig has written the book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, and his lecture Sugar: The Bitter Truth has reached a wide audience online. Among his alarming claims is that sugar is a direct cause of heart disease, diabetes and obesity, probably also cancer and dementia.

He also argues that these illnesses have become more common than, for instance, HIV in African and Asian countries, as the sugar consumption has increased. The paediatrician also claims that 13 per cent of normal-weight children, and as many as 30 per cent of overweight children, suffer from so-called non-alcoholic fat liver disease – a disease that was not even diagnosed before 1980. According to Lustig, this is the biggest epidemic in the history of the world, which he believes to be directly linked to the intake of sugar.

«Sweet products have become a means of expressing both affection and celebration, if not to say symbols of love itself.»

In Sugar Coated, Lustig’s claims are supported by several less evangelistic voices than himself, among whom are research journalist Gary Taubes and dentist Cristin Kearns. Kearns has disclosed a number of classified documents that reveal how the food industry undermined the presumably ‘health debate’ in the seventies on sugar’s possible toxicity. Their methods are suspiciously similar to those used by the tobacco industry and their spin doctors one decade earlier, not far from how this was portrayed in the TV series Mad Men. How do you sell a product, which – according to scientific research – is directly harmful to the health of consumers? By silencing this research, and turning the attention over to something completely different – like Lucky Strike being «toasted».

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The houses we were, the cities we are

The Houses We Were / DIALOGUE

(Le case che eravamo )

Arianna LodesertoYuka Sato

Arianna LodesertoUgo AdilardiYuka Sato

This year, Ny Tid and Modern Times Review have shone a monthly spotlight on new short documentaries, a lively and vibrant format that is all too often overlooked in our feature-length-oriented world. Each month’s dispatch from the film festival scene has focused on two outstanding selections from one such event at a time, but as we near the end of 2018 we’d like to glance back and cover two outstanding works, which for various reasons slipped through the cracks but are much too important to ignore.

Two powerful films

Arianna Lodeserto’s The Houses We Were (Le case che eravamo) and Yuka Sato’s DIALOGUE (the title always written in upper-case script) run 18 and 17 minutes apiece, and their near-identical running times aren’t their only points of similarity. In both cases a female artist, whose output crosses the boundaries between photography and cinema, presents a specific, densely populated urban environment – Rome, Tokyo – and both directors handle writing, production and editing duties.

«The Houses We Were is a rousing kaleidoscopic survey of Italy’s chronic housing problems from the 1940s to the present day.»

The latter task of cutting is a further and crucial point of context: The Houses We Were and DIALOGUE are both a world away from currently fashionable «slow cinema» trends. Instead a relatively rapid-fire approach is adopted: few shots are held for more than ten seconds at a time. This results in compact, stimulating miniatures that, like many of the best short films of any type, manage to cover surprising amounts of ground in their restricted durations. But in nearly every other aspect the two films could hardly be more different, operating at near polar-opposite ends of the documentary spectrum and thus revealing the full diversity of the present day non-fiction moving image.

Of the two directors, Lodeserto is better known, having over the last half-decade staged several well-received photographic exhibitions in her native Italy as well as further afield. Lodeserto’s work across various media is unified by her engagement with cities and psychogeography and is notable for a strong social conscience. Her directorial debut, The Houses We Were, was made in close collaboration with Rome’s AAMOD, the Archivio audiovisivo del movimento operaio e democratico (Audiovisual Archive of the Democratic and Labour Movement), which was set up in the late seventies.

Kaleidoscopic images and sound

One of the AAMOD’s founders, and the president for many years, was the esteemed screenwriter Cesare Zavattini (1902-1989), a triple Oscar nominee whose credits include such Neorealist classics as Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. The AAMOD reportedly holds thousands of documentaries and newsreels, mainly from the collections of the Italian Communist Party. Enjoying all-area access to this treasure trove, Lodeserto has spliced together images and sounds from more than 30 films – many anonymous and fragmentary to begin with.

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The overlooked «in-betweener»

Despite well-chronicled advances in the current century, documentary cinema unfortunately still continues to lag behind its fictional counterpart in terms of international exposure and renown. Latest evidence: an international poll of respected critics conducted by BBC Culture this October resulted in a list of the top 100 films made in languages other than English. Astonishingly, only two documentaries made the cut: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) at #73 and the late Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half hour Shoah (1985), which narrowly scraped in at #96. At the opposite end of the duration scale, shorts fared even worse: Chris Marker’s 28-minute La Jetée (1962) was the sole representative, a lowly #86.

Long overlooked

These results bring up wider issues: shorts and documentaries seldom obtain the exposure they deserve and need, this neglect doubly compounded in the case of short documentaries. When it comes to non-fiction works of intermediate or medium length the situation is even more grim. Such productions, which don’t fit the narrow requirements of television channels or theatrical distribution networks, have minimal commercial potential, and they very often struggle to find suitable berths even on the film-festival circuit. Curators regularly bemoan that «mid-lengthers» – productions clocking in between, say, 30 and 60 minutes – are «difficult to programme.»

Where there’s a will, however, there is usually a way. Enterprising festivals such as FIDMarseille, IDFA in Amsterdam and CPH:DOX in Copenhagen not only find room for mid-lengthers, they regularly slot them into their highest-profile competitions. That mid-lengthers can frequently pull their weight and then some when given the chance was once again illustrated at the 16th Doclisboa film festival, which ran from the 18th to 28th of October in the increasingly hip Portuguese capital.

In an eclectic main competition, the 48-minute Topo y Wera by Jean-Charles Hue was a diamond-in-the-rough standout. At the age of 50, writer-director Hue is still comparatively little-known beyond his native France and a small coterie of switched-on cinephiles around the world. But at home his rising-star status was cemented in 2014 when his second fiction feature Mange tes morts (Eat Your Bones) won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo, bestowed annually to a French production by an emerging director.

Mange tes morts and its 2010 predecessor La BM du Seigneur (The Lord’s Ride) are both shot and set in the Yéniche community of Beauvais, 80km north of Paris, relating stories in which members of this Roma-like community – into which Hue himself was born – play fictionalised versions of themselves. His big find (who dominates both pictures) is Fred Dorkel, a non-pro actor of singular talent and presence.

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Taking down a regime

Light a Candle, Write a History – Candlelight Revolution

Nungcool

Record and Commemoration Committee / People′s Action for Immediate Resignation of Park Geun-hye

Many were horrified when Park Geun-hye took office as South Korea’s president in 2013: How could the daughter of a dictator come to power in times of democracy? Her father, Park Chung-hee, had taken control of South Korea by military coup in 1961 and ruled with authoritarian measures until he was assassinated by his own chief of intelligence in 1979.

Besides martial law and ruthless suppression of political opposition, Park Chung-hee also brought rapid economic growth to a country still struggling to recover after the Korean War. Thus, many hoped his daughter, who at an early age had become First Lady under her father due to her mother’s premature death, could retool South Korea’s economy.

«The secondary school students were sacrificed for the ruthless political economy of a country where multimillionaires systematically evade justice.»

Instead she ended up at the centre of one of the biggest political and economic scandals in South Korean history and is currently serving a 24-year sentence in a Seoul Detention Centre for abuse of power, bribery, coercion and leaking of government secrets. Even though the scandals surrounding her presidency were unravelling already from the spring of 2014, it took another three years for the parliament to impeach Park Geun-hye and remove her from office. And it happened only because the citizens took to the streets in unprecedented numbers.

The final countdown

The new documentary Light a Candle, Write a History – Candlelight Revolution, which had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in October, documents the mass protests that finally took down the president: 30,000 participated in the first so-called Candlelight Demonstration on October 29, 2016, and at the second demonstration ten times as many came. By the fourth Candlelight Demonstration almost two million people in Seoul alone went out into the freezing cold to demand that Park Geun-hye step down.

Flying above the crowds, the camera captures the breath-taking sight of millions of candles in the dark winter streets. In an impressive coordinated countdown everyone puts out their lights, and a moment later lights them again in a wave starting from the centre and continuing down the long straight main roads of Seoul.

The anger against the government had been mounting, particularly since the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol in April 2014, carrying 476 passengers from Incheon, Seoul to the island of Jeju. Most of the passengers were secondary school students on excursion and, though the ferry was close to the coast, only 172 passengers were rescued – not by the coast guard but by fishing boats and commercial vessels.

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The Cuban veteran for whom the Revolution lives on

To War

(Para la Guerra)

Francisco Marise

Francisco Marise

Andres is a Cuban veteran who never stopped being a soldier. He fought in Angola and Nicaragua, but even though his last mission ended more than 30 years ago, he kept the mindset of a soldier and never stopped believing in the communist cause. And while enchantment with the Revolution faded in Cuba in the long decades of scarcity and totalitarian rule, and his country is now slowly changing, Andres trains for a war he is certain will come. Inhabiting a past that was never truly that glorious, he lives in a world that only exists in his mind and in the modest apartment where he lives. Francisco Marise’s first feature film is a touching portrait of this devoted aging man, left behind by time and history to be an illustration of how the scars of war and the damages of doctrine have unexpected faces and can mark a soldier’s heart and mind for life.

Living in a time long past

The film borrows the uneventful pace of Andres’ life. Time hardly moves in his surroundings. He spends his life training and doing simple chores in his apartment. He demonstrates his combat abilities in front of the camera, becoming a live illustration of a soldier’s training manual with original training instructions appearing on the screen before each of his set of combat moves. And while these shots at first seem odd, almost surreal, the sadness of this man’s loneliness and the seriousness of his devotion soon take over the atmosphere in the film.

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Intimacy versus American convention

Reconstructing Utøya/ 22 July

(Rekonstruktion Utøya)

Carl JavérPaul Greengrass

Fredrik LangeLiv Ask

The multiple Utøya films are in danger of forming an excessively rich menu. Paul Greengrass’ film 22 July, based on Åsne Seierstad’s book One of Us, was launched with much bravado by Netflix close to the premiere of the Swedish-Norwegian documentary Reconstructing Utøya. Where the latter has an approach that offers healing and sincerity, Netflix follows the classic Hollywood conventions for an action film in 22 July. Interestingly, both films use the same story of two brothers as a focal point.

Where Carl Javér’s documentary narrates the terrorist attack minute by minute, the feature film makes use of a traditional American narrative arc, mixing in secondary characters (family members) and unabashed crosscutting to the terrorist. The structure is supposed to build tension and excitement but ends up compromising the realism as well as the intensity of the drama. The more understated and simplistic Reconstructing Utøya feels much more raw, bringing us close to the event, and using the younger brother’s story to invite us in.

Good intentions

Both films have an aim to oppose ideologies and attitudes that promote terrorism. While he was filming 22 July in Oslo, Greengrass explained why Norway’s encounter with terrorism became a topic of interest to him: According to him, the way in which the trauma was handled reflects a society that, despite facing atrocities like the massacre at Utøya, is still able to maintain hope.

«Torje tells us how he pulled his hair down over his forehead to make himself look younger, hoping the killer might spare him.»

Many non-Norwegian Netflix viewers have been positive to the streaming channel’s boldness in telling such a brutal story from real life. Personally, I object to the film’s use of narrative structure and techniques. The continuous crosscutting to the terrorist offers no new insight: All we see is the man sitting there with his ice-cold sneer, delivering cliché phrases. The attack itself also feels too easy. The films about the July 22nd attack that follow the actual timeline of events are better able to capture the unfathomable horror that took place in those 72 minutes – a horror that is still playing out in the lives of those who were affected. Diminishing the length of the terrorism attack is a diminishing of the events that took place.

In a cinematic depiction it only takes minor details to compromise the credibility of the story, and the poor English in 22 July did just this. When I muted the film it felt more real, but a whiff of American fast food still remained. Reconstructing Utøya, on the other hand, had me in tears – even good ones – despite being a difficult film to watch.

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A hilarious examination of the human condition

Mussolini’s Sister

Juna Suleiman

Juna Suleiman

There is something of The Odd Couple about Juna Suleiman’s cynically humorous docu-fiction portrait of the old, sarcastic Arab woman Haim’s life and loves (or perhaps hates) in Mussolini’s Sister. And – before you ask – the title is certainly eye-catching. But it’s left unexplained until way into this oddball snapshot of the life of an octogenarian Nazareth woman, when we learn that she really did have a brother called Mussolini … Oh, and one called Hitler, who died in infancy. Honestly. Or perhaps not. It is never quite clear where the fact fades or merges into fiction in what is at times a hilarious examination of the human condition.

An intimate portrait

We are used to seeing films about Israel, Palestine, the Middle East that focus on the politics, the wars, the rage, the violence, and the agony. Suleiman’s film touches on all those subjects, but only as incidental influences seen in television images (a political assassination, blood dripping from a ledge; Syrian cities being bombed to bits; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning electors to get out and vote for Likud to counter the «large numbers of Arabs voting»).

Instead, her subject is much more intimate and will be uncomfortably close to home to many viewers: the small, daily negativity, pettiness and bitter ego-driven projections that cause so much pain and harm between people and to ourselves.

«I remember everything in my life; what I have been through is a catastrophe.» – Haim

Initially there is not much to like about Haim, whom we first see in her neat and roomy apartment in Nazareth, lying in bed while reading a newspaper agony column that is full of despair for love’s labour’s lost.

She switches between stations on the radio, silencing the Voice of Israel, before muttering «whatever, fuck you» when the next, Arabic language station states «our seconds perish to embrace the past … thank you for listening».

Gradually we are introduced to Haim’s significant others: first her handsome hairdresser, next her 55-year-old son, whom she treats as if he is still a child – cooking for him and then scolding him for getting fat, or warning him against consorting with «loose women».

Mother and son are glued together by what almost amounts to a mutual loathing, with constant bickering over inconsequential matters: «When will you have mercy and grind the meat a bit thinner?» the son asks, adding «You, mother, are useless – you’ve been doing the same for 80 years».

It all seems a bit dreary until humour starts to creep in between Haim’s judgemental and bitter remarks.

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To set out for the Moon

Hamada

Eloy Domínguez Serén

Michael Krotkiewski and David Herdies

Galician director Eloy Domínguez Serén has a clear interest in existence in exile. Having moved to Sweden, his initial culture shock and difficulties establishing a foothold in the country swiftly became the focus of his debut feature film released in 2015, No Cow on the Ice.

For his latest documentary, Hamada, he turns his attention to one of the most inhospitable terrains in the world: the rocky, wind-eroded desert of the Western Sahara (the «hamada»), where the Sahrawi people have resided in refugee camps for more than 40 years, in what is now officially Algeria. This unresolved displacement occurred alongside decolonisation, when Spain divided control of its former colony, Spanish Sahara, between Morocco and Mauritania through the 1975 Madrid Accords – a treaty not fully recognised by international law. A sand wall separates the zones of control as the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi national liberation movement seeking self-determination, drags on.

Hamada Director: Eloy Domínguez Serén

 Hamada is little concerned with dry, factual analysis. Instead, it immerses us sympathetically in an atmospheric portrait of a people and their tenuous sense of belonging. The natural desert beauty of the location lends itself to gorgeous cinematography and shot-framing, but it has few practical attributes to sustain human life on the ground.

Resilience of hope

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Orwa Nyrabia – International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA)

1.What is the focus of the 31st edition of IDFA?

 «IDFA is big enough to carry multiple focuses, but if there is one I would mention

it would be that ‘inclusion’ is our overall focus. Our key priority now is geographical and gender inclusion.»

«Every time we look to the masters of documentary film, we come up with names of great male filmmakers. But if we challenge ourselves more, we find out that there is more to be found if we’re not enslaved by a [particular] system of perception.»

«The same applies to films from Africa, South East Asia, parts of Latin America, and the Arab world. If you look at the usual pool of films coming from these regions, the first impression is that there are not so many good films being made. But with more persistence you discover that there are films, but they are not seen in festivals, television or platforms, and that makes hunting them down harder.»

«Investing in finding these talents and meeting these masters we haven’t heard of is now a priority for IDFA. With this in mind, we expanded our viewing committee to include experts from around the world, and now our first filter is a truly wide and inclusive group. Through this filter we understand more about perceptions, ways of judging a film, and different ways of seeing. This all adds up to an interesting debate.»

2. What else is new this year?

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