Rolling thunder in Africa’s wild, wild west


«One might imagine travelling through the Sahara by train to be a zen-like voyage. In some ways it is – but it is also an unforgiving and ceaseless assault on the body and senses… a constant elemental symphony of heat, wind, and noise.» — Alastair Gill

Mauritania is one of those countries that take up rather a lot of space on the map but somehow flies right under most people’s radar. A blocky chunk of West Africa, this Islamic Republic is larger than Egypt but has a smaller population than Nairobi: just under 4.5 million. A fifth of those reside in the capital Nouakchott, on the Atlantic coast, which was a mere fishing village until selected to be the metropolis of the newly-independent state that emerged from French-colonial rule in 1958-60.

But the most remarkable statistic about Mauritania — apart, perhaps, from it being the last country in the world to outlaw slavery, via a 1981 ruling belatedly enforced in 2007 — concerns its railway lines. Or rather railway line: it has only ever had one, a sideways-L-shaped affair connecting the country’s second city Nouadhibou, also on the Atlantic, with an iron ore mine some 704km away at Zouerate — roughly the distance from Paris to Turin.

You fall, you die

Planned from 1940 and finally constructed between 1960-63, the «Mauritania Railway» is easily the most palpable infrastructural legacy of the colonial era. Built to European specifications and bearing some of the longest (3km) and heaviest trains on the planet, clanking their way back and forth on a 20-hour journey mainly through inhospitable (and sometimes war-torn) desertine land. This railway, which routinely carries passengers in a somewhat hazardously ad-hoc manner, has proven quite popular with the most audacious exponents of ‘extreme tourism’ such as Calvin Sun.

«No tickets, no bookings, no cash, no reservations — you’re supposed to just …


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FestDocsNetwork announces new details on newly launched collaboration

FestDocsNetwork, the collaboration between DocsBarcelona, FIPADOC, MakeDox and DOK.fest München, has released new information on the newly launched strategic collaboration.

In establishing a bridge between Germany, France, Spain, and the Balkans, FestDocsNetwork will coordinate collaborative activities and ensure the internationalization of their respective cinematographers for both industry and audience. This means an annual exchange of at least two documentary films from each respective territories between the member festivals. So, as the announcement comes out of DocsBarcelona, as an example there will be guaranteed two Spanish productions at FIPADOC, MakeDox, and DOK.fest München.

Furthermore, the network will facilitate the circulation of key industry figures amongst each other, as well as the exchange of festival knowledge and management.


Doclisboa unveils new, extended format for 2020 festival

The 18th Docslisboa International Film Festival will take a very different form in 2020.

Taking place in six different moments, between October 2020 and March 2021, Docslisoba 2020 responds to the unique challenges of the year. These challenges are not just a result of the Coronavirus but also from the “insufficient cultural and labor policies, which lack due respect for the professionals of the sector” as the festival team puts it. With that, “each Portuguese film shown at this year’s festival will intrinsically be, through their very fact of having been made, an act of resistance.”

The first phase of the 18th Docslsboa edition will go from 22 October to 1 November. Then, from November to March programming will be presented one week a month, in the usual venues. Accompanying the screenings will be a greater number of debates and conversations. Furthermore, Docslisboa 2020 will not be structured through the usual sections and competitions but will maintain the plurality of looks, languages, and ways of thinking in each moment.

On the unique nature of the 2020 festival, its team says: «Resistance is also the act of going to the theater. We conceive of cinema as an art of collective experience. By extending in time the presentation of our programming in Lisbon’s various venues, we hope to contribute to the reconstruction of a gesture that brings those who watch and those who make films together.»

Submissions will remain open until 30 June 2020


Nothing to envy


If you look at the map of Japan, and you put your finger on the northern island of Hokkaido – just 14 km of its north-east shore lays Kounachir, one of the two main islands of the Kuril Archipelago. Kounachir used to be Japanese territory, with all the traits of traditional Japanese life. But in 1945, at the end of WWII, the flow of life on this fishing island was severed and forever changed, as the island was annexed by the Soviet Union. Since then, Kounachir remains under Russian control, and no peace agreement has been signed.

Almost 75 years later, Vladimir Kolzlov’s film, Kounachir, creates/builds a bittersweet lyrical portrait of island’s story and of the official «winners» life – the Russians inhabiting now a stagnant island, living a disillusioned life, in sharp contrast with the delusional official Russian narrative of military might and glory.

Decades past

Decades have passed since 1945, but on Kounachir time is standing still. An underdeveloped island, its inhabitants live a simple and uneventful life marked by Russia’s WWII win, and the ghosts of the life the island had when the Japanese were still there. After a short year of cohabitation following its occupation, its 17000 Japanese inhabitants were deported, forced to leave behind anything of value and beauty, including photos and cultural traces of how life was. Stalin brought new inhabitants to take over, coming from Krasnodar and Belarus, people that had never seen the standard of life the Japanese had. In a mix of state policy and ignorance, they destroyed almost everything the Japanese left behind, and except for a Lenin statue surrounded by flowers, nothing came to replace it.

Decades later, the camera sees some of the current aging inhabitants scavenging for both a life and the remaining artefacts of the Japanese culture. Decaying remains of temples, of fishing infrastructure, and tiny objects found in the earth remind of better days on Kounachir. Reading behind the lines of the stories the Russians tell, one can feel the bitter admiration these people hold for how the Japanese managed to …


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Katya and Vasya go to school


Yulia Vishnevets’ debut documentary feature, Hey! Teachers!, has a much better, more meaningful title in Russian: Katya and Vasya Go to School (Катя и Вася идут в школу).

The pop title in English – with its Pink Floyd overtones in a tagline reading: «Leave the kids alone?» – does no justice to the subtleties of the Russian title, which carries the sense that the learning curve for these two young Moscow intellectuals taking on a class of rough, tough teenagers in a grim industrial town, is going to be a steep one.

The teachers

The hard clash with Russian reality comes from the very beginning of a film that starts out with a comic undertone: Katya goes to her hairdresser to change her hair colour from a punk mix of different colours to mousy brown.

Something of an introvert, Katya’s task is to impart the finer points of Russian literature and language to a group of kids who know how to swear, but little more.

Vasya, a more ebullient, extrovert character, who will teach geography, clearly has the measure of the group of attention-deficient striplings from the start: «Geography is not the most difficult subject. You don’t need to be super intelligent to understand it,» he tells his charges.

Russian Education-documentary-featured
Hey! Teachers!, a film by Yulia Vishnevets

The year

Structured around the natural cycle of a school year, Hey! Teachers! opens with the start of autumn term – cue images of crying kids entering their first «big» school, and Katya doing her maternal best to comfort them – and concludes with the traditional «last bell» in May, a day of much pomp and ceremony in every Russian school (even Nika, the class joker and hooligan-in-chief looks smart and solemn, carrying a fluttering Russian tricolour aloft).

Whether Katya and Vasya understand it, as they bravely step into the uniformly concrete corridors of the school, it is this very formality that will chew them up and spit them out, as much as the truculence of a classroom of urban social terrorists jumping and jiving with the hormone …


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Thessaloniki Documentary Festival 2020: The winners list

The 22nd Thessaloniki Documentary Festival moved online for 2020 and ran from 19 to 28 May.

Below is the complete winners’ list for this year’s festival.

The winners

  • The Golden Alexander Award: Welcome to Chechnya (dir. David France) – USA
  • Special Jury Award: Acasă, My Home (dir. Radu Ciorniciuc) – Romania, Finland, Germany
  • The Golden Alexander Newcomers Award: Walchensee Forever (dir. Janna Ji Wonders) – Germany
  • Τhe Special Jury Award (Newcomers): Lady Time (dir. Elina Talvensaari) – Finland
  • The Golden Alexander Film Forward Award: The Year of the Discovery (dir. Luis López Carrasco) – Spain
  • The Mermaid Award (Best LGBTQI-themed film): Welcome to Chechnya (dir. David France) – USA
  • Special Mention (Mermaid Award): Madame (dir. Stéphane Riethauser) – Switzerland
  • Hellenic Parliament Human Values Award: The Self Portrait (dir. Katja Høgset, Margreth Olin, Espen Wallin) – Norway
  • Greek Film Centre Award: Poems on a Tape Recorder (dir. Yannis Karpouzis) – Greece
  • Amnesty International Award: Aswang (dir. Alyx Ayn Arumpac) – Philippines, France, Norway, Qatar, Germany
  • FIPRESCI Award: Welcome to Chechnya (dir. David France) – USA
  • FIPRESCI Award (Greek Film): The Music of Things (dir. Menios Carayannis) – Greece
  • WIFT GR Award: The Fourth Character (dir. Katerina Patroni) – Greece
  • Best Film Award (Youth Jury): Good Morning, Mr Fotis (dir. Dimitra Kouzi) – Greece
  • Special Jury Award (Youth Jury): Inmates (dir. Iakovos Panourgias, Nikos Voulgaris) – Greece

We Are One: A Global Film Festival – the complete documentary selections

We Are One: A Global Film Festival, the virtual film festival organized by the Tribeca Institute and Youtube, has announced its full programme. The event, which starts on 29 May and runs to 7 June on YouTube.com/WeAreOne will feature selections curated by a who’s who of international film festivals including Berlinale, Cannes Film Festival, IFFR, Sarajevo Film Festival, Sundance, and Venice Film Festival (amongst 15 more).

With a programme full of screenings, talks, talks, VR content, and musical performances, we put together a list of all the relevant documentary content that will be on offer.

Feature Films

  • 45 Days in Havar (dir. César Aréchiga) – Guadalajara International Film Festival
  • Beautiful Things (dir.Giorgio Ferrero) – Venice Film Festival
  • Bridges of Sarajevo (dir. 13 European directors) – Sarajevo Film Festival
  • The Epic of Everest (dir. Captain John Noel) – BFI London Film Festival
  • Grab (dir. Billy Luther) – Sundance Film Festival
  • The Iron Hammer (dir. Joan Chen) – We Are One: A Global Film Festival
  • Love Chapter 2 (dir. Sharon Eyal) – Jerusalem Film Festival
  • Mugaritz Bso (dir. Juantxo Sardón, Felipe Ugarte) – San Sebastian Film Festival
  • Ricky Powell: The Individualist (dir. Josh Swade) – Tribeca Film Festival
  • Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records (dir. Nicolas Jack Davies)- BFI London Film Festival
  • Wake Up: Stories From the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention (dir. Nate Townsend) – We Are One: A Global Film Festival

Short Films

  • Blood Rider (dir. Jon Kasbe) – We Are One: A Global Film Festival
  • The …


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Sarajevo Film Festival announces 2020 Docu Rough Cut Boutique projects

Sarajevo Film Festival and Balkan Documentary Center‘s Docu Rough Cut Boutique has recently announced their 2020 selections dedicated to documentary projects in the advanced editing phase.

The Docu Rough Cut Boutique workshop includes editing tutorials, group sessions, and individual meetings with renowned industry professionals. Participants will present their projects to the CineLink Industry Days guests at the 2020 Sarajevo Film Festival. This year the films come from: Georgia, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, and the Czech Republic.

The select 2020 projects are:

  • Lana, Anuka and the Whole Football Team: (Director: Ketevan Kapanadze; Producer: Salomé Jashi; Editor: Eka Tsotsoria) – Georgia
  • Bigger Than Trauma: (Director: Vedrana Pribačić; Producer: Mirta Puhlovski; Editor: Marta Broz) – Croatia
  • Museum of the Revolution: (Director: Srđan Keča; Producers: Vanja Jambrović, Srđan Keča; Editor: Hrvoslava Brkušić) – Serbia, Croatia, Czech Republic
  • Factory to the Workers: (Director: Srđan Kovačević; Producers: Sabina Krešić, Luka Venturin; Editor: Damir Čučić) – Croatia
  • Tobias: (Director: Alexa Bakony; Producers: Gábor Osváth, Ildikó Szűcs;Editor: Marianna Rudas) – Hungary

Ordinary people. Ordinary activities


Tomasz Wolski’s impressive short film, which had its World Premiere at the online version of Switzerland’s Visions du Réel late April and is now screening in competition at Poland’s Krakow Film Festival, is likely to be compulsive viewing in its home country.

Found footage

An Ordinary Country is entirely made up of carefully – and cleverly – edited footage from the 1960s-1980s shot by Poland’s secret service, as they went about their business of catching ordinary people engaged in ordinary activities the communist state deemed criminal.

Here is a litany of grainy black and white visions of often shabbily dressed Poles coming and going from crumbling, unkempt buildings, and being caught for crimes of trying to find a little joy in a state who dictated that poverty for all (except the fat cat officials, of course) was the ultimate aim of socialism.

There is the drab middle-aged housewife – probably not much more than 40, but looking older – questioned about how much she paid for various household appliances, and how she could afford them on the money her husband, who worked onboard cruise ships docked in foreign (ie capitalist) ports, sent home each month.

She lists the car, the washing machine, the vacuum – the sort of consumer goods any Pole takes for granted today – before she is quizzed on what is in her weekly shopping basket. For anyone who was not alive during those days – either behind the Iron Curtain or looking on from the west, aghast at the privations and pettiness of communism, the scene is surreal. For those of us who remember, we know where this is headed: how could she afford all this opulence?

The punchline comes as the interrogator, having established that she only bought cheap cuts of meat, goes for the kill. What had happened to the expensive foreign goods, the nice blouses and other items her husband had been able to purchase with the small amounts of foreign currency he was allowed during visits to foreign ports? She …


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We are movie cameras, lucidly dreaming

Recently, I re-watched the classic experimental film, Man With A Camera (1929), written and directed by Russian Dziga Vertov (and marvelously edited by his wife, Elizaveta Svilova). Voted the number one documentary of all time by the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine, it’s a gem of a flick, the vibrancy of an early industrialized city on full display (actually, four cities spliced together: Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow, and Odessa) and flaunting every known (and, until then, unknown) cinematic technique in the book — fades, reverse angles, crane shots, train shots, trick photography, panoramics, close-ups, nudity, births, deaths, marriages, divorces. And leitmotifs of self-referentiality: cameras filming cameramen at work (clambering, risking), or slyly turned on the audience, as if winking at us, camera to camera.

It is not only full of the visual surprises its editing brings but has subtle humor and suggestive juxtapositions. The cameraman setting up in the beer mug is an amusing sequence. But there’s even anticipation of horrid things to come, such as when we see a woman shooting at a target — «Uncle Fascism» — a man with a swastika. Hitler had made the swastika his symbol of choice in 1920. And when he wrote, «The Slavs are born as a slavish mass crying out for their master,» he had in mind Ukrainians. This is poignant: We know what the director behind this camera doesn’t know: behind the vibrancy depicted is a near future that includes a Ukrainian holocaust (Holodomor) and the Nazi onslaught of WWII.

In an essay in his book, Film Form, the highly-lauded filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein assailed Vertov and his use of slow-motion: «Or, more often, it is used simply for formalist jackstraws and unmotivated …


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