Breaking the silence about the Lebanese civil war

About a War

Daniele RugoAbi Weaver

Masahiro HirakuboDana Abi Ghanem

Great Britain, Lebanon

Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, still lives up to its reputation as the Paris of the Middle East. Street cafés, young people in fancy clothes, exciting culinary traditions and a varied cultural life attracts tourists from all over the world. But behind it all lies a hidden pain and a bloody past rarely talked about. The documentary About a War allows a unique glance into the near history and character of this city and land. In essence it portrays three warriors, a nation, justice and hope.

What makes certain people take up arms and go to war? What life awaits these people when the war is over? These are the questions posed by the filmmakers.

According to estimations, the Lebanese civil war, which raged from 1975 – 1990, cost 170,000 lives, while it turned a 1 million people into refugees. As yet, 17,000 people remain missing according to records. The war nearly tore this little, lively country asunder, a fact many Norwegians are well acquainted with. Norwegian peacekeeping forces were stationed in South Lebanon from 1978 – 1998.

One country, many cultures

Lebanon is a result of the heyday of colonialism, followed by imperialism, first under Ottoman rule and later under the French. Neighboring Syria has always voiced claims for the country, yet in 1946 Lebanon was established as a separate state, with several ethnicities like Druzes, Christians Maronites, Shias and Sunnis. The precarious balance between Christians and Muslim groups led to armed conflict in 1975, soon escalating into full-blown civil war.

Neighboring Syria has always voiced claims for the country, yet in 1946 Lebanon was established as a separate state.

The substantial Palestinian population of refugees, who had seeped into Lebanon from 1948 onwards, took part in the war through separate guerrilla groups. This led to interventions from both Israel and Syria, ending with the massacres at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982.

About a War. Director(s): Daniele Rugo, Abi Weaver

The so-called Taif Agreement from 1990 signaled the end of the war, and the warring parties were integrated through an ingenious system of government, where all religious groups were allotted their positions according to meticulously calculated fractions of power. An amnesty was instigated and many of the guerilla soldiers found their way back to society, although no follow-up was offered.

Today, Lebanon remains a deeply segregated society. On top of this, they suffer a great deal of foreign intervention in their internal political affairs. New military groups have appeared, like Hezbollah, with close links to the regimes of Syria and Iran. Added to their challenges are 1 million Syrian refugees within Lebanon’s borders.

An important contribution to the documentation of recent history

The war remains as a wound in the Lebanese soul. Thus, this film is important, both as an impression of an epoch and as a reflection. As the film progresses, interviews with academics provide us with the necessary historical context.

The filmmakers Daniele Rugo and Abi Weaver have spent 3 years continually commuting between London and Beirut, where they have gathered testimonies from victims, NGOs and veterans.

About a War is a good «sequel» to one of last year’s most interesting movies, the Lebanese film The Insult.

The film is a continuous conversation and reflection focusing on three partakers of the civil war: The intelligence officer Assad was part of the Christian militia, Ahed, a Palestine refugee and guerilla warrior, whereas Nassim is a communist commander and warrior.

Right away, we get an intimate understanding of their respective motivations. They harbor a blind faith in the righteousness of their groups, their unique histories, and that what they do is the best choice for Lebanon. It all gets mixed in with pan-Arabian movements, particular Palestinian needs and a separate Lebanese identity.

About a War. Director(s): Daniele Rugo, Abi Weaver

Nassim, the former communist warrior says: «It was as if the war came to me. I felt that this was my opportunity to make a change. An opportunity to escape the eternal struggle to escape problems and to shake the recurring feeling of failure.»

About a War clearly depicts the personal motivation that once drove the three participants into war. Today they are traumatized. Their initial understanding of «the Other» has changed. They see no glory in war, just destruction.

About a War is a good «sequel» to one of last year’s most interesting movies, the Lebanese film The Insult.

Today, all three veterans are involved in different kinds of civil social projects. For instance, they work with young people to warn them about negative and partial opinions about others. In a country that has shrouded the past in silence, this film is a significant contribution to historical records. The main characters appreciate how much more complex the story is than what they grew up believing, This understanding has become their «salvation».

A difficult reckoning with history. About a War is a good «sequel» to one of last year’s most interesting movies, the Lebanese film The Insult. The director Ziad Doueiri made an incendiary film where it all starts with a row between two men on the streets of Beirut, which turns into a national Lebanese affair. The film provided an emotional and artistic insight into the touchy relationship between cultures, and received an Oscar nomination for best foreign film.

About a War. Director(s): Daniele Rugo, Abi Weaver

The Insult is a fiction film that demonstrates how hard it can be to deal with the ghosts of the past. We follow the character Tony Hanna, a proud Christian Lebanese who is spiteful towards the Palestines, and the Palestine Yasser Salameh, both enmeshed in an escalating situation.

The war remains as a wound in the Lebanese soul.

The past is still controversial in Lebanon. When the Paris-based Doueiri returned to his home country to celebrate the premiere, he was imprisoned at the airport in Beirut. He was charged with unpatriotic conduct on the grounds that he had been filming in Israel. Some wanted to take him to court for treachery. Many held the opinion that the film itself was an insult.

The Insult was a fiction film. It showed how banal details can keep nurturing a continuing tragedy. About a War, on the other hand, is based on truth, giving it an even stronger impact. It shows us how self-reflection and striving to understand oneself and history can contribute to consolidation and progress. Hopefully it can also help the Lebanese people to further self-knowledge and openness about the war.

Film is a strong medium. Sometimes it can be like a truth serum.


-

A human perspective

– Barbara Orlicz-Szczypuła, what is the overall theme or focus of 2019’s edition of Krakow Film Festival?

­– We try to present good new cinema and we have four competitive sections. We will present new documentaries, a student program and a conference about the documentary landscape in Poland – discussing the ways to co-produce and so on. The opening film is Gods of Molenbeek directed by Reettaa Huhtanen [see page XX], and we will screen films like Eastern Memories (directed by Niklas Kulstromm and Martti Kaartinen) and Power of Yoik (directed by Paul Simma) among many others. This year the country in focus is Finland, but we don’t have an overall theme for the festival.

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

– We want to show new films so first and foremost we pay attention to that. We are interested in special topics and characters – therefore we try to choose films that take an individual perspective. In a nutshell, we try to screen films portraying global issues from a human, individual perspective. Generally, we don’t screen reportages – but if we see a film on a very strong and relevant topic, even if the approach is not very artistic, we might decide to screen it.

Films that take an individual perspective.

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

– Yes, I think the Maysles brothers’ films Salesman (1969) and Grey Gardens (1975) made an impression on me because of their way of telling the story. I watched them a long time ago. That is how I started to be interested in documentary films.

– Can you think of a film that had political or social impact in recent years?

– Our Polish foundation is now releasing Of Fathers and Sons (2017) by Talal Derki in Polish cinemas. This film and Derki’s previous Return to Homs (2013) are both about an important conflict. They made people feel and care. I remember the Q&As – people were very touched by the topic and situations shown in both films. The value of documentary in general is to open the viewer’s eye to problems and stories they never thought about.

– Where do you see the documentary landscape progressing in the next decade?

– I believe that some things won’t change: I think the filmmakers will still be looking for interesting stories and very unique characters, just like they are doing now. But perhaps the way of telling these stories will change. A few years ago it was all about hybrid formats, combining animation and documentary, fiction and documentary. I expect filmmakers to use new technology in the future, making interactive documentaries and VR.


-

Rebel with a lost cause

Palestinian offenders facing trial in Israel make for losing cases from the start. Defending them comes with a stigma, but Lea Tsemel is used to that. A fierce and fearless Jewish lawyer, she has made defending Palestinians her life and mission. For almost five decades, Tsemel has been at the forefront of the fight for justice and human rights for those who seem lost and indefensible in society’s eyes. Advocate is a portrait of her courage, her battles – old and current – and also her dream. Hers is a fight for social and political justice, not for the sake of individual court battles, but for Israel’s future and past.

A game ball

A young Arab man gets on a bus, stabs the driver and eleven of its passengers. Thirteen-year-old Ahmad and his cousin go on a stabbing spree in a Jerusalem neighbourhood. A depressed mother named Israa sets her car on fire yelling Allah Akbar. If the victims are Jewish people, Palestinian offenders are quickly labelled «terrorists» by the media, and their cases become a game ball in the on-going political battle between Israeli and Palestinian authorities. Their cases are judged with a double standard, as the balance of power does not favour them from the start. The occupier is judging the occupied, making it impossible for justice to be blind.

It takes a certain kind of strength to see behind the surface

Through Tsemel’s eyes, her clients are, first of all, just people – people who did things, people in trouble, and people who have families and stories behind them. Beyond the violence and labels, what becomes clear through these cases is how the whole of Israeli society is bleeding, how fear and suffering affects everything and everyone.

This reality is what fuels Tsemel’s work. Through interviews, photographs and archive footage, Advocate dives into Tsemel’s past. Her story goes back to an awakening period of the Israeli conflict’s real nature, and travels through her landmark cases, defending feminists, non-violent demonstrators, armed militants and fundamentalists alike. All of these, building blocks toward the person and lawyer she has become.

Advocate. Advocate. Director(s): Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Bellaiche

After the 1967 war, Tsemel woke up with the realization that most of what she thought of politics and the country’s future was wrong.  She saw Palestinians fleeing, entire neighborhoods being destroyed, and it was clear to her there was no «country without people for people without a country», as the slogan went. She joined Matzpen, a revolutionary socialist and anti-Zionist organisation, and boarded on a life of activism against what was then tabu to name, and now common sense to call «the occupation».

What she knows to be right

It takes a certain kind of strength to see behind the surface, to see the causes and the pain, and to take a stand. Throughout the years, she has been demonized and threatened. Yet, equal parts heart, determination, and courage, nothing seems to defeat what she knows to be right.

The occupier is judging the occupied, making it impossible for justice to be blind.

«I don’t understand you», says a TV presenter interviewing her in 1999. «You should try to understand me, because I am the future», she replies. «The political questions we are facing in Israel today, we will face them for many years. So if you try, you will see I have a point». Twenty years later, the reality that surfaces throughout her story is that in looking back, some things have changed but not that many. «Me, I’m a lost cause», she says in the beginning, already used to being seen as «a rebel with a lost cause».

Advocate. Director(s): Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Bellaiche

We see Tsemel now in her cluttered office; a veteran lawyer meeting the families of the accused, watching heavily framed media reportages of the cases, and dragging suitcases of files to court. A handful of a woman now in her 70s, she seems to never rest or lose her sense of humour, not even when everything seems to fall apart. Armed with a witty and occasionally filthy mouth, she goes through a continuous circle of frustration and outrage, never afraid to let her heart be broken in the process. And after all these years, despite the small wins and the struggle, she never doubts her convictions and her role.

Beyond the violence and labels, what becomes clear through these cases is how the whole of Israeli society is bleeding

The film is not militant but it is infuriating. It is also inspirational and full of heart. It ends in hope that, as long as there are people still living with compassion, there is still a chance for resolution, even if that resolution is – for now – nowhere in sight. It captures the humanity and pain that lays behind agression and labels, building an insightful picture of a flawed judicial system. One that brings no justice and more pain for those living in what seems a hopeless conflict in a part of the world we choose to see as very far away.


-

A crescendo of unease

The Wind. A Documentary Thriller

The Wind. A Documentary Thriller

Michał Bielawski

Maciej KubickiAnna Kepinska

Poland

The foehn wind, known as the Halny, shatters the Polish and the Slovakian Tatra mountains several times each year. It is a wind that blows from the south, causing a rise in temperature and a drop in air humidity, and comes with sudden gusts causing an incredible amount of damage. Trees – even entire parts of forests – collapse, bridges fall and houses are destroyed. Beyond the material destruction, locals also believe it holds the power to play with people’s minds.

Following the lives of three main characters in the Polish part of the Tatra mountains, Michal Bielawski’s film is an intense and atmospheric portrayal of nature’s incredible force and how it relates to people’s lives. Their lives seem structured around the wind’s coming, from the tension that builds for its arrival, when hell breaks lose and disaster strikes, to the calm of its aftermath.

Beyond the material destruction, locals also believe it holds the power to play with people’s minds.

In a subtle way, Halny is also a charater. It is a force to reckon with, but in the region it is revered as if supernatural. Its coming is felt with anticipation. The locals fear it and brace accordingly. They believe these times also increase the suicide rate. This belief is so deeply rooted in the local culture, it has promted researchers to study it, finding that Halny did not change the probability of suicide, yet it increased its risk in summer and autumn.

A long anticipated prophecy

A middle-aged poetess, a grandpa with a mustache and a shell decorated hat, and a young woman working in an ambulance, all go about their lives. We see fragments of their days and moods, both uneventfull and intense. As the number of ambulance calls increases, the man manages his farm, and the poetess buys a piece of the region’s beloved forest, there is sense of iminent danger in the air, ready to materialize at any moment. The force of nature is preparing something, and all three characters prepare for it. The unexpected lies in the details – the moving clouds, the closeup on the trees texture, the earth moving just a bit today and then again a little bit tomorrow.

The Wind. A Documentary Thriller, Director: Michał Bielawski
The Wind. A Documentary Thriller, Director: Michał Bielawski

By the time the snow and darkness comes, the arrival of Halny feels like a long anticipated prophecy. Trees start to fall, emergency calls come rolling in, the wind is fierce, threatening, and seemingly without end. The grandpa’s house burns down, people collapse – the world seems to fall apart.

By the time the snow and darkness comes, the arrival of Halny feels like a long anticipated prophecy

Halny destroys all that is safe and lovely. It hits humans at the core of what makes them feel at home. After the wind has passed, the grandpa has to clean his farm from the remains of the fire, while the poetess’ piece of forest is all but destroyed. Yet, there is a sense of peace after the disaster, the moment of respite, to put all the shattered pieces back together.

Bielawski’s film feels like finding cinema in reality, but not reality put in the mold of cinematic form. His shots have atmosphere and texture, following the characters’ lives and  nature’s changes, all mixed with alarming emergency calls.

But a matter of time

The film could be mistakenly understood as simple, although it is anything but. Each scene and element are carefully curated and combined, to build the overall crescendo of unease at its core. In fact, watching The Wind is not so much about the story as it is about feeling and exploring through the senses. It is an emotional journey with a sense of increasing danger that feels both real and unreal at the same time.

It is but a matter of time until the wind comes back.

Through Bielawski’s shots, nature reclaims its mystery and might. The forests, the wind and the snowstorms are impressive, and they seem possesed by something bigger – something untamable and overwhelming. Its moods are unpredictable, with strength beyond human control. This force calls for humbleness in front of nature, and a sort of reference in front of what its mighty strenght might or might not do.

Overall, The Wind is a metaphor for power. The world where Halny rules is a world in itself. A world where time is cut into three parts: before, during, and after. Watching it shakes the feeling of nature being home, of us having power over nature. This fear works as a reminder that nature could change its aparent benevolent ways, moving from nurturing us, to destroying us in the blink of an eye.

Bielawski brings forward these ideas through a visual and emotional journey, and the unsettling feeling of this truth remains after its conclusion. In the aftermath of Halny, the community – and the viewer – need time to heal from the destruction and the emotional wounds it has created, all while knowing it is but a matter of time until the wind comes back.


-

The big censor is inside

The renowned, many times awarded Lithuanian director Audrius Stonys is in focus at this year’s edition of DocsBarcelona. The film Bridges of Time is shown, that he has directed together with Latvian Kristine Briede. It is an essay on the Baltic Poetic Cinema, a tradition that Stonys himself continues.

The festival arranges every year a masterclass with the title «7 Shots 7», where a director is asked to pick clips/shots from his/her oeuvre. Audrius Stonys does so following in the footsteps of names like Talal Derki, Pawel Lozinski, Michael Glawogger, Sean MacAllister and Avi Mograbi.

Modern Times Review will in this respect publish here some extracts from notes made by Tue Steen Müller meeting Stonys some years ago (see below)

In response to a seemingly perplexing question: «Who makes your films?» Stonys said: «Recently, I visited a doctor because I had problems with my back. And for only fifteen minutes of work he asked for a lot of money. Sure, he fixed me up, but he is my friend. So I wondered why the heck he was asking so much. This is what he said: ‘Look, those fifteen minutes contained all the years of my practical training, all the books I have read plus the experience of my professors who have shared their knowledge with me.’ And my films are also the result of the work of many souls.» (18-02-2013)

Stonys portrays empathy

«No words, I don’t trust them.» Audrius Stonys made a lecture this morning. I have heard him doing so many times and have written several praising sentences on filmkommentaren.dk – about this filmmaker who is for sure to be considered as a national poet in his own country, and from a world perspective as an excellent representative of a different documentary cinema.

Audrius Stony

The biggest censors are inside yourself, Stonys said, who grew up in a country occupied by the big empire and who did not really see films in general getting better after the independence. He said so after another pleasant view of the Herz Frank film 10 Minutes Older (1978). «I truly believe that film is a conversation between equal partners», Stonys continued, «the audience takes part in the creative process, as this meeting is the most important part of the filmmaking.»

«I don’t believe in films without mistakes», he said and went on to show a clip from his own Flying over Blue Fields, where a sport aeroplane lands on a field, a man gets out, parks the plane and goes inside, while the camera observes chicken and bushes accompanied by music. «No words, I don’t trust them», Stonys said, and showed another clip, from his early work, Earth of the Blind, that has no words at all. I want to catch the impossible. He could also have said the invisible and the emotions in a face, like he demonstrated in the film from 2000, Alone, a film in many layers. This one is about a girl that visits her mother who is in prison, a film crew that is (the director’s words) «using» her, and an atmosphere of melancholy – a feeling that is present in most of Stonys films. He did not show films from recent years. He could have done so – and demonstrated that he can also cope with words as he did in The Bell. (25-06-2009)

The sorrow of reaction

Alone by Audrius Stonys

– A film that leaves me so utterly incapable of objecting, of imagining other solutions. By colleague Allan Berg Nielsen.

In 1995, Stonys came out with Antigravitacija («Anti-gravitation», 1995)  –  about our longing to overcome what keep us on the ground. For a long time, Stonys had wanted famous Lithuanian cinematographer Jonas Gricius to photograph a film for him. He had finally succeeded.

And what wonderful pictures! We are moved into the beautiful old tradition of large black-and-white 35 mm film sequences where every shot is considered down to the last detail. Stonys subsequently pursues this artistic deliberateness by putting every single scene into a perfectly harmonious context, whose authenticity I thoroughly accept. A soundless work. I have rarely experienced a film that leaves me so utterly incapable of objecting, of imagining other solutions. This film is definitively finished.

But what’s it really aboutAn old woman who forces her way up the longest ladder I have ever seen.?

Like his previous films, Stonys portrays empathy. At the 1991 festival, he brought his film called Atverti duris ateinanciam («Open the Door to Him Who Comes», 1989). Like Neregiu Zeme, it is photographed in the same dignified and old-fashioned manner, 35 mm film, black and white, features shared by subsequent films.

Harbour by Audrius Stonys

With Harbour from the 1998 festival, he finally brings colour into his meditation on body and water. The film’s setting is public baths. Its plot is purification. It also describes a pastor in a remote parish who is visited by people, from large cities too, because of the peace of mind and answers the big questions he gives them. The other film portrayed people without sight in a world of sounds and dim contours, and changing degrees of light and darkness. Reflecting, almost wordless, states of mind. Dreaming, they yearn for existential relics. Dismal tones, will the project succeed?

Dreaming, they yearn for existential relics.

Stonys’ manuscript for the gravitation film demanded that the crew had to shoot sequences for at least a year, because as a matter of course the scenes jump from snow-covered landscapes to sweltering village streets in spring, from spring floods to a sleigh in crunchy frost. And the young director pulled the fine old cinematographer, who here made his first documentary, up to heights, on roof scaffolding, on high railway bridges and at the very pinnacle of church towers. Because the pictures must show us how the world looks from these man-made structures reaching to the heavens. The film’s heroine is an old woman who forces her way up the longest ladder I have ever seen to the tip of the spire on the village church. At the very top she gazes out on summer landscapes. The next clip shows us, very correctly, the scene from her angle, but now it is in the bitter cold of winter. She climbs up there all year round. We don’t know why, she does it out of necessity.


-

Hidden Corners Illuminated By Nyon Lights

visions-reel-nyon-featured
Diary of Cattle, a film by Lidia Afrilita & David Darmadi

Wound/Diary of Cattle

Arthur SukiasyanLidia AfrilitaDavid Darmadi

One of the longest-running and most influential documentary-oriented festivals on the circuit, Visions du Réel (VdR) celebrated both its 50th anniversary and it 50th edition this year (it skipped one edition somewhere down the line), the second under the artistic direction of French-born Emilie Bujès, only the sixth ‘AD’ in the event’s half-century. Her first predecessor, the Exeter-born Moritz de Hadeln, who founded the event with his wife Erika, went on to run the festivals of Locarno, Berlin (for more than 20 years) and Venice. Under de Hadeln, the «Nyon International Documentary Festival» became renowned for showcasing works from behind the Iron Curtain at a time when international exposure for such endeavours was relatively meager.

«cinéma du réel»
Taking place over nine April days in the small Swiss city of Nyon, on the affluent shores of Lake Geneva, the festival was effectively relaunched with its current name in 1995 when critic and theorist Jean Perret took over the creative reins. The new name reflected Perret’s ongoing interest in and championing of «cinéma du réel» (cinema of reality) as opposed to traditional, narrow definitions of non-fiction.

The programming was increasingly opened up to «hybrid» works of a sort which may involve re-enactments, narrative elements and multiple modes of address. In a 2009 interview, Perret observed that «from the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s, one could perceive a certain ‘breathlessness’ (un certain essoufflement) of fiction film which was struggling to find rich themes or innovative stories. The cinema of the real brings solutions with stories showing real people, staged in narrative forms and (thus) a renewed aesthetic.»

«from the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s, one could perceive a certain ‘breathlessness’ (un certain essoufflement) of fiction film which was struggling to find rich themes or innovative stories.»

This stance is now the default mode of successfully adventurous festivals such as Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, FIDMarseille (acronym derived from former moniker, «Festival International du Documentaire de Marseille»), Montreal’s RIDM («Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montreal») and the closest North American parallel, True/False (Columbia, Missouri). These events’ titles may specify a particular interest in documentary and non-fiction material, but whose content nevertheless spans a wide range of artistic approaches.

Two of the more effective short documentaries at VdR this year profitably occupy different positions on the documentary spectrum. Arthur Sukiasyan’s Wound is a 25-minute «fly on the wall» study of two brothers, who appear to be in their late sixties at least, and who live in the Armenian countryside near the regional capital Gyumri. This area has, as various rubbly vistas make plain, yet to fully recover from a devastating 1988 earthquake. Diary of Cattle, by the Indonesian duo David Darmadi and Lidia Afrilita, devotes its 17 minutes to a detached survey of a landfill site in the Sumatran city of Padang, upon whose mounds of trash a herd of cows grazes daily. The bovine protagonists occasionally show mild interest in Darmadi and Afrilita and their camera, but otherwise preoccupied, largely go about their business as they would if the directors and their equipment were absent.

Wound
Wound ostensibly depicts the quotidian reality of Suren and Levon Sukiasyan—who share a surname and thus presumably a family bond with director Arthur Sukiasyan and his close collaborator Martin Sukiasyan. This kinship allows A. and M. Sukiasyan intimate access to the living quarters of the brothers Suren and Levon (aka Olan) Sukiasyan, where we see them cooking, working on intricate wood-carvings, shooting the breeze with friends, drinking, and bemoaning their lot.

visions-reel-nyon-wound
Wound, a film by Arthur Sukiasyan

At no point are A. and M. Sukiasyan’s cameras addressed or acknowledged, and there are moments emphasising the solitude of S. and L. Sukiasyan which require a certain amount of indulgence from the viewer: the well-established rules of the documentary «game» require us to conveniently and temporarily forget the fact that other people are present in the room, and that the subjects of the film must to some degree be conscious of the requirement they behave «naturally» in front of the lens.

This is not a significant distraction in Wound, which functions as an empathetic immersion in a bygone backwater where, in many ways, time seems to have stood still: the dwellings appear to date from the 19th century, and to have been relatively little-changed in crucial details, their sturdy construction presumably helping them withstand an earthquake which, opening titles inform, killed at least 25,000 people and damaged 1,500 villages. The film is at its heart a study of dogged resilience, with the bonds of family and friendship becoming even more crucial given the post-USSR breakdown of social and administrative infrastructure amid burgeoning inequality and corruption.

The film is at its heart a study of dogged resilience

Much of the dialogue consists of these aging fellows (women are conspicuous by their absence; one of the brothers was widowed by the quake) voicing their discontents. They look back through rose-tinted spectacles at the Soviet era, whose chaotic end was already in sight at the time of the 1988 disaster. «Try to complain today? Who will you reach? If you don’t have money, you are nobody.»

Wound thus seeks to probe and depict the ongoing aftershocks not only of the temblor but also of the upheavals and traumas suffered by Armenia (among numerous other eastern-bloc states which regained their independence in the 1990s) and its long-suffering residents. It’s a clear-eyed vision, often decidedly bleak («in this country and this state there is no future»), of a forgotten and overlooked corner of the world whose economic prospects appear to have caused most of the young people to flee: we see children and the elderly, but no one in between.

Religious faith provides consolation to some: the film ends with one of the brothers reflecting on the story of Job, clinging to the possibility of a heavenly reward after an earthly lifetime of hard knocks and affliction.

Diary of Cattle
The four-legged protagonists in Diary of Cattle likewise have found a way to eke out a form of rudimentary existence in decidedly unpropitious circumstances. Evidently, the property of farmers, who are seen walking the animals to the landfill under the morning sun, the small herd is brought to the rubbish-dump every day in order to forage for whatever scraps of edible material can be found. There are disturbing images of the creatures munching on non-nutritious items such as plastic bags and pieces of moldy rubber, but while occasionally showing signs of disease they do not (apart from one unfortunate cadaver) bear the marks of starvation or serious malaise.

visions-reel-nyon-diary-cattle
Diary of Cattle, a film by Lidia Afrilita & David Darmadi

Eschewing commentary or title-cards—the only dialogue heard comes in the final couple of minutes, as the cow-herds appear to round up their charges—Darmadi and Afrilita let their remarkable, almost surreal images speak for themselves. Their film is audaciously direct, stripped-down to the bare essentials, which amass a considerable cumulative impact. The cows wander placidly through piles of disgusting trash, behaving as they would in more «natural» or traditional farm surroundings.

Darmadi and Afrilita let their remarkable, almost surreal images speak for themselves.

Perhaps surprisingly, no humans scavenge here (several documentaries and fiction films in recent years depict desperate people living on and from very similar dumps): large white gull-like birds are the cows’ only «competition» for the scraps of food and greenery which provides their daily diet. This is a dystopian man-made landscape of a depressing and even harrowing kind, the brief run time—which condenses a typical day into a quarter of an hour—more than enough to give us a pungent flavour of this noxious wasteland. The fact that «cinema of reality» has never extended to olfactory simulations is, in this case, a significant blessing.


-

Is Catalonia in need of fewer smiles, and more action?

smile-revolution-docsbarcelona

And With a Smile, the Revolution!

(Avec un sourire la revolution!)

Alexandre Chartrand

Alexandre Chartrand Eric Piccoli Marco Frascarell Philippe Allard Félix Rose

Canada, Spain

«With the October 1st referendum results, Catalonia has won the right to be an independent state. And it won the right to be heard and respected. At this historic moment, as head of the Catalan government, I hereby formally present the results of the referendum to Parliament and to our fellow citizens: the people’s mandate that Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic.» – Carles Puigdemont, Former President of the Government of Catalonia.

With simplicity, emotion and steadfast factual adherence, director Alexandre Chartrand and team accompany us on a journey through the heart of Catalonia, reliving the events leading to the self-determination referendum of October 1, 2017. In front of the camera, the streets are teeming with people who gather, talk, organise, disobey, and teach their children how to defend their dignity and rights.

But the mobilisation did not start in 2017. The pro-Independence movement took shape 9 years ago, becoming a consistent wave resonating with growing sectors of the Catalan society ever since. At the same time, the movement attunes people around basic common ideals: human rights, democracy, pacifism, direct action, self-determination, popular organisation, and assembly.

The Catalan independence movement has found its most populous foothold in the Spanish State’s fundamental lack of democratic tradition and sore disrespect for the people. Contrary to common belief, the Catalan independence movement is not particularly nationalistic. With 80% of the Catalan population in favour of holding a mutually agreed referendum, the discussion is not who would win, but why is voting not allowed?

Contrary to common belief, the Catalan independence movement is not particularly nationalistic.

Thoroughly immersed in the effervescent days of autumn 2017, Chartrand dissects the Catalan self-determination operation, portraying a transversal, peaceful and popular grassroots movement – not by chance named «The Smile Revolution». With access to crucial personalities – politicians, artists, and social leaders – the film manages to portray Catalan society in depth during these convulsive moments.

Marked by authoritarianism

It is difficult not to empathise with the Catalans. The film is full of smiling, happy people. They are non-violent, organised, and occupy a space belonging to them: the public space.

But even though Catalans are mature and well-organised people, every attempt at emancipation seems unavoidably plagued by adolescent mistakes. The film’s narrative arc transports us from the hopes of a society who wants to be better – who understands and explains itself in modern terms – to the painful surprise in discovering how uplifting songs and smiles are not powerful enough before those who own the tools of repression.

It is difficult not to empathise with the Catalans.

The Spanish State is marked by authoritarianism, by the acknowledgment of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship as the restorer of the Bourbon Monarchy over the ashes of the Spanish Republic, and it does not seem willing to subside. There is an increasingly forthright adherence to fascist National-Catholicism, which is obvious in King Felipe VI primetime public television statements celebrating the State’s security forces violence against defenseless and peaceful people.

No one in Catalonia expected the bitter and gratuitous brutality of these forces and, under closer scrutiny, even fewer currently share its actions. European MPs, intellectuals, and politicians from all over the world consider the trials against political prisoners as totally unacceptable, and the use of force – resulting in over 1000 injured civilians – in Catalonia as disproportionate. The images collected from those fateful hours should be a slap in the face of any reasonable person.

Refusing dialogue

This film is an essential document in understanding the tenacity and vigour of the Catalan people’s claims. It is also a bare exposé of the Spanish State for all to see – demonstrating the true face of the only fascist dictatorship that avoided purging.

catalonia_smile_revolution_2

It is not a coincidence that the prosecution against the political prisoners is headed by VOX – an openly Francoist, xenophobic, and misogynist party. This same party, which calls for 25 year prison sentences just for having a popular vote, while also imprisoning people for over a year without trial, speaks blatantly of expelling tens of thousands of Africans, repealing protections for battered women, equality laws, and protections for the LGBT collective … and maintains Franco was not a dictator! With trials against the referendum’s «leaders» – one organised with no leadership – currently underway and occurring in such a fashion, they are sure to be discussed in law universities for years to come.

As And With a Smile, the Revolution points out, the refusal for dialogue on the part of the Spanish State has been unwavering. The answer is – as always – more repression.

Uplifting songs and smiles are not powerful enough before those who own the tools of repression.

The appearance of modern democracy in Spain is dismantled. The festive spirit – peaceful, cheerful, full of dignity, a bit naïve – can prove to be the most effective strategy in appealing to the shame and responsibility of democrats and good people but has little to come up with against an authoritarian body that does not obey fundamental rights and public treaties.

And yet, it is very likely this strategy of asserting and collecting grievances – turning the other cheek – might be the best course of action from all the bad-to-worse options at hand; certifying the attitude and determination of the Catalan people and – as the 130th president of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont suggests in the film’s opening – its right to be heard and respected.


-

The key point will be the distribution

– What is the overall theme or focus of 2019’s edition of DocsBarcelona?

– DocsBarcelona is not centered on a theme, but we have a focus on Latin America in a section called «Latitude». We, therefore, had two editions of the festival in the past – one in Valparaíso (Chile) and one in Medellin (Colombia). Our mission is to help documentaries reach a wide audience in Spain – but also in Latin America which we historically have a strong connection with.

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

– We want to have films from different countries, but the main criteria are their cinematographic value. But also an audience appeal. We have films that are very cinematographic, but also films that perhaps are less so, but that touch on a subject we feel is very appealing for the audience.

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

– In the 70’s I watched a Spanish film called El Desencanto (1976, Jaime Chávarri). It is a portrait of a family and I think I watched it eight or nine times. I will always remember it because it made me realize that one film can portray not only its characters but also the soul of a family. This film was for me a turning point.

– Can you think of a film that had a political or social impact in recent years?

– I believe that most films help to change something for their audience. In the space between the beginning and the end of the film people change, they discover and learn something, and that can change their point of view on a subject.  But one concrete example that had a great impact is Give Up Tomorrow (2011, Michael Collins) – this film changed the death penalty in the Philippines.

– Where do you see the documentary landscape progressing in the next decade?

– The key point will be distribution. The viewer sees more and more films through individual channels, like digital platforms, paid TV and so on. And I think documentaries will occupy different spaces – for example to be used more in education.

– From our experience, access to docs through digital platforms has grown spectacularly and we expect it will grow more. Perhaps this will be the main way to discover films. The value of seeing films in a community will also grow. For the last 13 years DocsBarcelona has built a network – DocsBarcelona of the Month – and every month we premiere a film in 90 venues. In 2018, 130.000 people watched documentaries – that is including the online platform. And we stimulate the audience to not only watch but also to get involved in discussions, because they love to discuss – not to make a cinematic analysis but about the subject of the film.

 


-

A descent into the realm of torture

privacy-wounds-syria-docsbarcelona

Privacy of Wounds

Dalia Kury

Jonathan Borge LieVictor Edé

Norway, France

«Can you believe I was right there, in Aleppo? We were drinking tea with a family at their house. They were such kind people. What is happening there now is so dreadful.»

Ten years ago, my mother – now over 80 – went on an exciting guided holiday to Syria. These days, every time she sees images from cities like Aleppo and Homs flash across her TV it upsets her. She shakes her head in bewilderment at how an ancient civilisation can turn into ruins and ash so rapidly.

How though, do Syrians perceive the situation in their country? What do people who have been locked in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons have to say? How can we find the answers? Films can offer a way in, with one such film having been made – in Oslo.

Inside a makeshift prison cell in an Oslo cellar sit three men. They have been «forced» to spend three days together in the sparsely furnished room with nothing but three single mattresses on the floor and a covered window. We hear the sounds of traffic from outside. The men have been brought together to talk about their experiences inside some of the worst prisons in Syria. There are no interviews – the men are the only people in the room, with cameras that have been set up beforehand. Director Dalia Kury – herself from Jordan, now living in Oslo with family in Syria – sits in a control room outside, making sure food is provided through a hatch in the door. Occasionally her voice breaks in asking the men to do something, but otherwise it is just the three of them. Privacy of Wounds is true to its title, sharing personal stories and scars.

The world of torture

 «There are so many things I want to say, but I don’t know where to begin,» Hasan says early in the film. He currently lives in Norway and along with Mazen, who lives in Germany, belongs to the younger generation of Syrians. The third man, Khaldoon, is a few years older and lives in Switzerland. Of the three men, Khaldoon has spent the most time in prison – twelve years for hanging up protest posters. The other two have spent between six to eighteen months behind bars.

We hear the sounds of traffic from outside.

Their stories resemble a descent into hell. Gradually the men open up, and they begin with the topic of torture. Oddly enough this seems to be the easiest topic of conversation. In an almost business-like manner, they talk about water hoses, electric devices, beatings, kicks, and knocked out teeth. Watching the film, I shudder. How would I react?

Privacy of Wounds. Director: Dalia Kury

All three talk about a certain numbness as if they cannot feel the pain. Instead, they wonder whether the torturer had a family. How could one of their fellow citizens have become like this, capable of literally pissing all over them?

The worst form of torture was perhaps being deprived of sunlight or hearing a wedding party pass by outside the prison walls. At these moments they would cry in their cell, cry for the Syrian people. Their sense of pride, they say, is everlasting, while their pain is temporary.

Everyday Syrians

The three men keep their heads held high. They are not heroes. They are everyday Syrians.

In the film, we see them lying on thin mats, eating, drinking tea, and talking. They go from talking about torture to talking about masturbation, the fear of never having children again, and the people and things they miss the most. The tough masculine attitude eventually softens, and we get glimpses into their family life. Khaldoon, who was already an active dissident in the 1980s, was soon arrested. His father visited him in prison and said, «I am broken by your absence», with the tears dropping on his son’s face. «I would sell my own skin to set you free.» It is a powerful story – they all cry.

All three talk about a certain numbness, as if they cannot feel the pain.

It is no less powerful to hear Mazen tell the story of meeting his young son for the first time, after months of solitary confinement and a year of torture. Or when Hasan shows us how he used a chicken bone to sew up small wounds he got while in prison. He describes what it was like to see the sun again after 200 days underground – where he slept on a pile of corpses.

Democracy for the next generation

 Arabic seems to render itself to a poetic form of expression. The words of the three «prisoners» certainly have a poetic quality, and their use of the language comes across as beautifully translated through the English subtitles. It is important for them to be portrayed as dignified individuals. According to them, they are now fighting for the next generation of Syrians – one with democracy and human rights – and the film offers a fascinating insight into how, despite all odds, these oppressed citizens persevere and look to the future.

Their stories resemble a descent into hell.

The director is successful in making us oblivious to the cameras in the room, as the main characters also seem to be. The genius here is that they ask their own questions. When the director interrupts sparsely, asking them to talk about a certain topic, it is almost disruptive. The great strength of the film is that it shows the three men confronted both by their memories and each other in such close confines. In one particular section they even «play around» by torture, slapping, and hitting one another.

The healing process

 Privacy of Wounds can play an important part in the healing process that will have to take place in Syria one day. The film can also inform and inspire political activists and intellectuals in other repressive countries if it can even be shown in them. For the rest of us, it offers a powerful portrayal of the dignity of everyday Syrians.


Translated from Norwegian by Sigrid E. Strømmen


-
X