The death of democracy by a thousand cuts

The 2020 Filipino-American documentary A Thousand Cuts directed by Ramona S. Diaz follows President Rodrigo Duterte’s vocal critic Maria Ressa who has placed her freedom on the line in defense of her country’s democracy.

The film opens with Rappler journalists, Ressa included, at the company’s headquarters as Duterte delivers his 2018 State of the Nation Address (SONA). The viewer is offered only a fragment of Duterte’s speech, which nevertheless illuminates the president’s singular focus on his war on drugs. During the address, Duterte vows that the war on drugs will be «as relentless and chilling […] as on the day it began,» his voice is uncompromising, and so is his resolution to rid streets of alleged drug addicts and pushers with brute force.

«Your concern is human rights. Mine is human lives,» Duterte says to the dismay of the Rappler CEO. The camera zooms in on Ressa as we hear her utter, «Wow». However outrageously crooked, Duterte’s statement about his «concern» for human lives is hardly surprising. When a country is in the thrall of a populist leader, the concern for human lives of is largely exploited to gain a stronger foothold in the political arena and eventually usurp all power.

Not an exception

Fears, hopes, and genuine grievances about the policies of previous governments become a fertile terrain for the rise of …


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Jammed

The Sky Is Red is a necessary documentary, but it’s a tough one to watch. It is also a difficult story to explain. Perhaps that is why Francina Carbonell decided to stick so closely to the court files of the case investigation on the incident.

Focused on the scandalous trial for the death of 81 inmates in the fire of Tower 5, in the San Miguel prison in 2010, The Sky Is Red reveals the infamous living conditions of the penitentiary facilities in Chile.

Starting the painful procession of facts from the judicial analysis of the incident, on the fourth floor of Tower 5, the black walls, the flooded floors, and the closed, windowless, empty rooms, presage a monumental catastrophe.

Only the sound montage is allowed certain licenses, setting up the dead to yell among the living with a clamor that makes the hair stand on end. It seems that indignant ghosts lurk in the dark.

An expert test on a mattress and some sheets carried out by the fire services transports us to the hecatomb that must have been the fire inside the prison. The claustrophobic overcrowding of dozens of prisoners sharing a single room, separated into small groups by curtains made of blankets, bunks, and sheets looms the worst. The voracious fire licks over the bunks and in a few seconds, black smoke takes it all. For the first time, we glimpse the remains of the disaster, only the gnawed iron of the metal bunks remains. The rest is a sooty …


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Under the skin

One does not have to look far to find racism in Brazil, Tony Venturi’s hard-hitting documentary In My Skin shows. A glimpse at the racial profile of the country’s biggest metropolis São Paulo demonstrates how neatly centre – a reserve for wealthy white people – is ringed by poorer slums – the favelas where most black and indigenous people live.

The last country in the western world to abolish slavery – in 1888 – policies to exclude blacks from education remained on the statute books far into the 20th century at a time when white immigrants from Europe were offered subsidized land priced to be beyond the reach of poor blacks.

The country’s first Racial Equality law appeared on the statute books in 2010; an educational quotas act reserving half of all places at federal universities to black, indigenous, and low-income groups followed in 2012, and similar positive discrimination in government jobs – a 20% quota not until 2014.

The evidence

None of this has had much impact on a militarized police force that still routinely collates «poor, negro and vagrant» with «suspect» or reduce the high ration (70%) of blacks killed by …


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The killing joke

When it hit the news in February 2017, it seemed the most bizarre assassination in recent memory. Kim Jong-nam, the elder half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was walking through a busy Kuala Lumpur International Airport in broad daylight when two young women smeared VX nerve agent — a deadly chemical weapon — on his face. One of the women was wearing a T-shirt with «LOL» printed in large letters across the front and claimed afterward that she had been duped into believing she was participating in a harmless comedy prank for Japanese TV. In Assassins, documentarian Ryan White presents in straightforward, methodical terms (with a crime this outlandish, who needs any spectacular embellishment?) a convincing argument for the assassins’ innocence; for the idea they were the unwitting pawns of a brutal regime eager to purge and deter through fear any potential threats to power.

Assassins-documentary-North Korea-MTR2
Assassins, a film by Ryan White

Common hallmarks

White does not draw parallels to other recent assassination attempts, but, as wacky as Kim’s killing was, it also bore …


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A saviour complex

A photograph of a woman, kept by her former lover, appears at the start of Love, It Was Not, set up brilliantly by documentarian Maya Sarfaty as our key into the film’s world. What is so curious about the picture is that its owner copied it numerous times, carefully cutting the woman’s head out with scissors and placing it upon a differently clothed body, and against a more scenic backdrop. Helena Citron’s striped prisoner smock and the barracks behind her clearly indicate that in the original she is in Auschwitz. Austrian SS officer and camp guard Franz Wunsch had become smitten with the inmate shortly after she arrived among a trainload of one thousand Slovakian Jews — the first women to ever enter the camp — in March 1942, and he frequently intervened to protect and keep her alive during her time there. It’s telling that after the war he sought to conveniently erase the horrific context in which their relationship had played out as if it was incidental to their love, and as if his complicity in the atrocities and power abuses of the camp need not taint his romantic feelings. Sarfaty echoes Wunsch’s visual cut-out method throughout the film with archive imagery, emphasising the selective, subjective nature of memory, and its reliance on the slippery terrain of emotionally charged, biased personal perspective.

Outside the scope of experience

Could the …


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Deeyah Khan conquers hate with a camera

BAFTA-nominated, Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentarian Deeyah Khan, who was also the inaugural UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Artistic Freedom and Creativity, can now add the 2020 Fritt Ord Foundation Prize to her mantle. The Norwegian-Pakistani filmmaker was recently honored «for her intrepid, methodical and innovative documentary films on extremism.» Indeed. Beginning with 2012’s Banaz: A Love Story, which detailed the life and untimely death of a British-Kurdish woman murdered by her own family in a senseless «honor» killing, and on through 2015’s Jihad: A Story of the Others and 2017’s White Right: Meeting The Enemy – which involved Khan embedding with those on diverse sides of the extremist divide – the UK-based activist-artist has proved to be an uncompromising talent with one heck of a fearless gaze.

And most recently, Khan has trained that gaze across the pond with not one but two films out this year, America’s War on Abortion and Muslim in Trump’s America. How she’s found time to tackle these explosive topics while also running Fuuse, the media and arts company she founded in order …


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The deceptive glitter of gold

In Tudor Shaft, a community just outside Johannesburg, the children vomit a lot. They live with their families in makeshift houses without concrete floors — and the earth they live and play on is radioactive. A mining waste dump stands right beside them, and when the wind blows its uranium-heavy dust, once dismissed as harmless «nuisance dust,» coats the settlement. The evidence and anecdotes of health problems are numerous, but the former mine owners have been reluctant to acknowledge a link to a century of mining practices without formal scientific proof from local studies, despite radioactivity levels being fifteen times over the regulatory limit. The dump is just one of 380 radioactive mine residue areas around Johannesburg. The mines of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest metropolis, have produced a third of all the gold mined in human history. The industry fell apart as the gold started running out, but its dreadful legacy persists, as the city is the world’s most uranium-contaminated.

A threat to humanity

Filmmakers Fredrik Gertten and Sylvia Vollenhoven raise awareness of the problem of mine pollution — which South Africa now officially recognises as a national crisis — in the documentary Jozi Gold, screened at festivals including


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Between two stools

Through a slow and eloquent cinematography, the director of Frontera, Paola Castillo, places us at the center of the daily life of a peasant family, while explaining a drama result of the Mapuche people’s tensions within the conflict with the state of Chile.

The film is captivating and profound, but it is not easily deciphered without some knowledge of the Mapuche and their conflict. However, the narrative is skillfully stitched together so that audiences can transition from a more humane first layer to gradually read subsequent narratives, provided that one is willing to gain deeper knowledge about the tensions in the region.

A libertarian disposition

The Mapuche are about 200,000 people and about 300,000 speakers and currently occupy a region in the less meridional south part of Chile. The occupation of the Mapuche territory is relatively modern, started militarily between 1860 and 1881, but the last attack and perhaps the most vicious came with the division of lands during the military dictatorship from 1973 to 1989, which only allowed the Mapuche to rent for 99 years, definitively carrying out the legal dispossession of their lands and eliminating their status as an indigenous people.

Our main protagonist, Juan Carlos, is a local leader attached to a project of the Indigenous Land and Water Fund that …


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«We should try to rediscover the essence and the importance of the physical event»

For its 23rd edition, the 2021 Thessaloniki Documentary Festival meets from 4 to 14 March 2021. Though not 100% decided on a format, screenings will occur in cinemas and/or online given the current state of health and safety regulations in Greece. In 2020, the 22nd Thessaloniki Documentary Festival was one of the first festivals to be postponed moving its Agora Market activities online, while holding a physical festival later in the year.

Now, as we wrap up 2020, Modern Times Review spoke with the Artist Director of Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Orestis Andreadakis, on how 2021 will differ from 2020 and to see if we can get some extra information on next year’s edition.

I have seen a data-driven infographic that states documentary and horror films are the fastest rising genres in terms of popularity? Why do you think this is the case for these two particular genres?
What you say is interesting, because, if this data is accurate, they make evident that horror gives us the opportunity to feel fear from a safe space, with something that is not real, while documentary gives us the ability to think and to become engaged with reality. In the last few years, there are huge issues in the world:


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Station to stationary

Seven years in the making, shot entirely on glorious 35mm, running 131 minutes and boasting a «cast» of several hundred, Thomas Imbach’s Nemesis is a swaggering philosophical beast of a documentary which makes most other new productions this year—regardless of category — suddenly seem that little bit smaller. Filmed from Imbach’s own window in Zürich, it starts in 2013 with the demolition of the city’s much-loved 116-year-old freight railway station, the colossal Güterbahnhof. It concludes in January of this year with the building that controversially took its place — a bluntly blocky police/prison facility — nearing completion.

Macro to micro

Working as his own cinematographer and camera-operator, Imbach observes each stage of the transformation in a manner that combines god-like, detached surveillance — frequently taking a transcendently cosmic, panoramic perspective — with a very human, super-inquisitive nosiness. Life’s rich pageant unfolds before his, and our, eyes in ways that are often beautiful, cumulatively hypnotic, and which taken in toto feel strikingly original.

Having premiered at the online-only Visions du Réel in April, then enjoying public big-screen showings …


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Latest articles

A Thousand Cuts-Ramona S. Diaz

A Thousand Cuts

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