A new film movement on the rise

Most of us have heard about the famous Czech New Wave film movement of the 1960s, but few have woken up to the fact that there is a strong new generation of Czech documentary filmmakers, making a new wave into film history. Pleasingly to see, this movement is well represented by a substantial group of strong female directors and they build their language on a rich cultural heritage. What characterizes their films is the playfulness of their storytelling that is pungent with a great amount of self-irony and humor. The graver the topic, it seems the more surrealistic the storytellers’ approach.

Apolena Rychlíkova’s The Czechs Are Excellent Mushroom Pickers is a great example of this. It is a movie that could easily be defined as a «classic» upon first viewing if it hadn’t been for that quirky title, but then again, that is the daring beauty of this film. It wasn’t made with the eye for reaching the gold mine of Netflix, nor was it marketed for the world public, although it definitely could have, considering it is a gaily summarization of how horrible the state of our planet is.

Inspecting the human species

If you ever fantasized of watching a David Attenborough program inspecting the human species and their absurd behaviors, with the same scrutiny as he has studied ants or apes, then this film is a witty take-off of just that. The film is wrapped up like a typical Czech children’s television program, with a kind, nice male voice commenting on what we see, although this time the male is in a dialog with a female machine. He has just returned from an expedition on planet Earth where he made a study of the Czech sapiens (a metaphor for Homo sapiens) and he feels really tired, actually, almost too tired to comment the whole film as he says himself. When asked by the machine if he would like to return to planet Earth he says definitely not as he sees the human situation on the beautiful planet rather futile.

The graver the topic, it seems the more surrealistic the storytellers’ approach.

The naive questions from the female machine and his answers describing the absurdity of human actions brings not only humor to the picture, but it also enables us to digest some dreadful truths about our existence. Told with an anthropological point of view, as if he had studied a far-off exotic tribe, he is stating simple stark …


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The fishermen’s last stand

«You can have the rich life; I prefer the cheap one,» laughs a fisherman, clearly in no thrall to the allure of city ways as he sorts a net’s thrashing, a mound-high haul of octopi, fish, and crustaceans. He is a member of one of the few surviving communities of Caiçara, traditional inhabitants of the southeastern coast of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, which stands only in remnants after massive deforestation for timber, cattle ranching, and the construction of cities over five centuries of colonisation.

Descended from indigenous Tupinambá Indians, colonisers from Portugal, and escaped slaves from Africa, the Caiçara live on trapping animals, fishing, and sustainable agriculture, and face ever-greater pressure from real estate speculation and violent intervention at the hands of the government. A lack of access to education and the criminalisation of practices based on traditional knowledge (hunting is now illegal, and fishing is regulated by environmental agencies) is compounding the push to move into the cities. Beyond roads, they lived in relative isolation until recently, though Rio de Janeiro is only fifteen miles away. Brazilian director Emilia Mello sets out most of this factual information only at the end of her debut feature documentary No Kings, just before the credits roll. For most of the film, which has its world premiere at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, she prefers to simply immerse us in the rhythms of the life of the community.

No Kings, a film by Emilia Mello

Poetic drifts

No Kings is a dynamic and poetic drift of a portrait, that feels guided by the romance of the idea that there are free enclaves that still exist, holding on, in a planet of aggressive capitalist encroachment teetering on the verge of environmental collapse. There is no air of inevitable doom, as Mello gently alights on sparks of vitality and the innocence …


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Nostalgia for public places

Some say nostalgia for past cultural epochs has been speeding up in recent times; that a decade barely finishes before we recycle its fads. Even so, it’s a jolt to feel misty-eyed for the cinema-going times of a mere fortnight ago, when the Berlinale was in full hectic flow and the coronavirus, already sadly ravaging Central China, had started to register on most attendees’ radars but had not yet shut down festivals and theatres as physical gathering places across many parts of the globe. That western complacency did not last long. With wild uncertainty prevailing around how long the pandemic and its disruption to normality will last, derailed festivals have been tentatively rescheduling dates, in fragile hope rather than confidence.

Cancellations & postponements

Cannes has forecasted late June as a potential alternative. Israel’s Docaviv and Czech Republic’s Finále Plzeň have picked new slots for September, and others, including Thessaloniki, have postponed to an as yet undecided date. There is also an urge to find alternate models by which called-off festivals can still happen right now; to bring their programmes to audiences who need cinema’s capability of expanding worlds more than ever as daily life shrinks to the home quarantine couch and its immediate vicinity, and to find a home for the long hours of creative work that have been tripped up just as theatre curtains were about to open. It makes perfect sense, then, that some festivals, such as Denmark’s CPH:DOX and Switzerland’s Visions du Reel, have moved their festivals online, with audiences in their countries (and in some cases, further afield) able to stream the selections.

Some say nostalgia for past cultural epochs has been speeding up in recent times; that a decade barely …


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Burlesque and carnivorous satire

The ten-minute Norwegian animated film Farce won the Grimstad Terje Vigen Prize (which is regarded as the festival’s prestigious «second prize») at last year’s Short Film Festival and was also awarded with the Fredrikstad Animation Festival’s prize for the best Nordic-Baltic Short Film. Now it has been selected for the short film program at Sundance.

The film’s exemplary «tagline» reads as follows: A man, a woman and a meat grinder. Love is bloody serious. And where it’s usually just called «a movie by», it says at the beginning that it’s «a terrible movie by Robin Jensen». The film, which is produced by the company Microfilm, holds absolutely what it promises in that way – well to note when it comes to content, not quality.

Decadent environment

Admittedly, it all starts out pretty innocent where we meet a male reindeer herder who falls in love with the woman in the nearby house. However, when her herd is stolen – and he himself inadvertently ends up among the thieves – he discovers a brutal and decadent environment in the big city – because that’s where the brutality and decadence thrive. Here, it is milled into meat by questionable sources while rape pornography is being produced in the basement – with the kidnapped neighbor as an involuntary participant.

Farce is a burlesque and wonderfully grotesque little sequences of a movie, which successfully combines a naivistic animation style (consisting of various techniques) with disturbing close-ups of real meatloaf, abrasive mouths, and other parts of human anatomy.

One should hardly attach too much heartfelt content to the film, but it is just as fresh a bit about today’s unrestrained quest to satisfy absolutely every desire – with the occasional ironic hint of the innocent and politically correct animated film tradition it relies on. And in the midst of all this, it tells a relatively sweet love story. It’s basically terribly well done.

Translated from the original via NY TID


Dissidence and the disappeared

It was pouring rain in Iguala on the night of 26 September 2014. Students from a teachers’ college had hijacked or «borrowed» a bus, as they routinely did, to get to a march in Mexico City, when six were shot, and 43 abducted and disappeared. In the confused aftermath, the government set out an official account it declared to be the «historic truth» — that police had handed the students over to a local drug cartel, who’d killed them in a garbage dump and disposed of their incinerated remains because they’d mistaken them for members of a rival gang. The state’s version has been widely disputed and declared «scientifically impossible» by a panel of experts assembled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Vivos, the latest documentary from Chinese dissident, artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei, which screens at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, portrays the impact of the fateful night on the victims’ families, and a society in which trust in authority has been entirely corroded.

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Vivos, a film by Ai Weiwei

Bedrooms-turned-shrines

As a documentarian, Ai is ever the artist, with an eye for evocative detail, and an ear for deep, commonly shared humanity within a person’s retelling of their own experience. Investigative rigour is not his strong suit, and on this level, Vivos feels somewhat superficial alongside more extensively researched, recent documentaries on the topic. Julien Elie’s Dark Suns (2019), for instance, transmitted in its devastating sprawl some sense of just how totalising and entrenched the architecture of collusion between organised crime and state institutions is in Mexico. It is not so much the facts or socio-political context Ai is wishing to elucidate in his foray into this single, tragic chapter of Mexico’s contemporary reality, but something more ineffably universal. Ai came to the topic while on a residency at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City in 2016 when he met family members of the missing students through a human rights …


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The last battles for democracy

What brings 2 million people from a population of 7,3 million to the streets, fighting for democratic elections? What leads students to kill themselves as a symbolic act for their desire for sovereignty? What makes Hong Kong’s inhabitants so special in sending out a global message on the worth of democracy, while other society’s democracies fall into recession, often even unnoted?

The 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) offered a large «Focus» program with over 40 historical and actual works, to reconstruct the phenomena of Hong Kong. One of them, We Have Boots by Evans Chan, offers a huge quantity of information from an inside view, bringing key figures, who – this needs to be pointed out – don’t want to be leaders, in front of the camera.

Inequality

First, let’s remember that Hong Kong is the most populated territory in the world with 6763 hab./km2 (2017). It’s also the 9th most unequal «country» in the world having the most expensive housing market nine years in a row. In 2018, a 4-bedroom house became the most expensive such home in the world, sold for $446 million.

Tens of thousands of families live in cramped rooms about the size of a parking space, with lower-class people managing different jobs simultaneously, adding time needed to study for some of them. With this, Hong Kong is confronted with a politic praxis of non-sustainability.

On the other side, China’s propaganda already starts to alarm against «universal» western values, calling them a time bomb. Hong Kong’s relative sovereignty starts to, even for China’s mainland intellectuals, be a model to follow. China’s strategy over the last years was not to answer any political liberation request through simultaneously rising political and social pressures. The candidates for Chief Executive started to not be freely elected anymore, as guaranteed to the British government during its passing over the administration power to


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By the light of a mobile screen

When social networking sites such as Facebook popped up and became popular around the globe, few could have imagined the extent to which they would transform the way we interact with each other — and their capacity to manipulate our behaviour. With the addiction that comes with the dopamine hits a «like» brings built into their very design, the reality has emerged that they were built not, perhaps, to bring us together, but to distract and control us. The revolution could not be starker than in Bhutan, and its isolated village of Laya, nestled 4,000 feet up in the Himalayas, and until the turn of the millennium without even electricity. French filmmaker Thomas Balmès documented lights and television sets coming on in Laya as cables were laid in his prior documentary Happiness (2013), named in reference to a comment by King Jigme Wangchuck that the «gross national happiness» of the masses would shoot upward as a result of the development. This was seen through the eyes of Peyangki, an eight-year-old monk-in-training. With Sing Me A Song (2019), gorgeously shot with a clear reverence for Laya’s ritual-punctuated simplicity, Balmès returns to the village to determine whether the king’s prediction has come to pass and to see how Peyangki has responded to this seismic shift, as the outside world is now beamed in daily.

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Sing Me A Song, a film by Thomas Balmès

Second-hand simulation

Footage of Laya a decade ago, and Peyangki as an eight-year-old, is shown at the beginning of Sing Me A Song. The boy, whose temple study sprung from his own interest in Buddhism, expresses excitement about electricity, but also fear, as he has heard it is «one of the main causes of houses catching fire.» The fact that the impact may be greatest in its psychological and social aspect, of course, does not occur to him, for how could even an adult grasp the ramifications of a kind of second-hand simulation they had never before known? The site of a picturesque temple far removed from the bustle of the capital Thimpu, Laya has enabled prospective monks to …


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To ask questions that are intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging

 What were the biggest challenges in following these often emotionally precarious protagonists Barbora and Karl-Bertil over so many years?
 The biggest challenge was to watch people suffering emotionally and to film that. I think that’s a huge dilemma for a documentary filmmaker. Should you give the person a hug, or should you continue filming? Most of the time I continued filming, before I gave a hug towards the end. The reason I did this was that we had a common understanding that it was important for us – Bertil, Barbora and me – to document the uncensored, rough reality they were facing.

 The film is not only strikingly cinematic but unusually structured. How did you decide on the overall aesthetic?
 I thought a lot about wanting to show Bertil as the complex and intelligent guy that he is. I couldn’t achieve that without seeing the world from his point of view.
– I got the inspiration from a particular therapeutic, practical exercise – where you are challenged to see the world from your own and another person’s perspective. You change this many time during the exercise. This therapy (perceptual perception) has made a huge impression on me. I tried to apply that to the film. The same with the voiceover – they were very inspired by how people talk in psychoanalysis, with the stream of consciousness. I tried to «interview» them in this way and hope they would feel free to speak in an open and introspective way.
– I was also inspired by the silent films Man with a Movie Camera  and The Phantom Carriage – how they dared to find a form and structure that worked well with the theme and story. This they did already in the 1920s.

 Considering how artistic this film is, I was surprised to learn that you actually began your career with the BBC and Reuters.
– Filmmaking for me is to try to ask questions that are intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging in a cinematic way by observing human behavior. Since my background was from journalism, I had to learn film language and relearn what I thought about storytelling. That I could transfer the interviews to a …


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It’s a rich man’s world

Call it a harbinger of doom or a necessary wake-up call, but Carmen Lossman’s ingeniously disturbing journey into the dark heart of economic and monetary illusion is a must-see for anyone grappling with the sheer madness of life today.

Economic growth has become the Holy Cow of late post-industrial capitalism, where – to mix metaphors – the elephant in the room is the way money is created literally out of thin air by a few computer strokes of double-entry book-keeping when a bank advances a loan to a customer on which it expects to make a profit.

Madness

Lossman’s genius in Oeconomia is to pin down in simplified, relatively easily understood statements, the sheer madness of system built on the notion of infinite exponential economic growth in a world of finite natural resources.

It’s a challenging subject to bring to life visually, but Lossman manages to build an impelling argument built around computerised diagrams and interviews with masters of the financial universe that include the chief economist at the European Central Bank, Peter Praet, and leading financial executives at, among others, a German luxury car firm and a bond trading company that manages assets worth trillions of dollars.

Lossman establishes the intimate link between credit and debt; the way in which profit is created; and the political power wielded by private finance that demands profit from increasingly indebted countries.

The secretive nature of so many within this world of smoke and mirrors is reflected in the number of closed doors institutions show Lossman. She gets around refusals to talk on camera by having actors voice transcripts of her – at times – bizarre calls with people who surely should be able to answer simple questions such as «where does profit come from?»

When Praet admits on camera that the bank simply creates money electronically – using the analogy of «printing money» – an off-camera press flunky tries to protest. When he offers his own interpretation of what is sometimes called «quantitative easing» – Praet bats him away, telling him he is talking nonsense. It is a victory for the filmmaker, where the gatekeepers of powerful financial …


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Lucid dreaming: animated documentary at Thessaloniki

If fumbling for a definition of documentary, the «observation of reality» might initially spring to one’s mind. But the idea of simply pointing a camera at the world around us and recording it, as if seen by our own eyes, barely scratches the surface of attempts to represent what is true — and how little of it is rawly visible before us. In the ‘20s, animation was turned to as a way to illustrate abstract concepts in educational films such as the Fleischer brothers’ The Einstein Theory of Relativity. These days, non-fiction exists in an ever-more complicated dance with the acknowledgment of subjectivity and unreliable perception. Animation has proved an effective tool in breathing life into, not only, testimonies of the past, but also the inextricability of imagination, emotion, and the hallucinatory plane of dreams. This year, a tribute programme at 2020 Thessaloniki Documentary Festival explores ways in which animation has enriched the documentary form, creating a hybrid sub-genre. Below, we revisit several selection highlights.

Tower


On August 1, 1966, a sniper opened fire indiscriminately from the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower, shooting 16 people in a 96-minute campus siege, before he was shot himself. It was the first mass school shooting in U.S. history and left the nation shaken. Director Keith Maitland does a fine job of tapping the meaning and collective catharsis to be found within a recreation of the day’s events with Tower (2016), filtered through the first-person accounts of seven survivors. Realising they would most likely not be permitted to film a reconstruction on campus, the team used rotoscopic animation, deftly blending it with archival footage of Austin in the ‘60s and the massacre, to create both a textured sense of the lived era and an immediacy that immerses viewers into the dramatic moment alongside its witnesses.

The danger of glorifying the perpetrator that comes with this kind of reconstruction is admirably avoided.

The danger of glorifying the perpetrator that comes with this kind of reconstruction is admirably avoided. We are never taken inside …


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The Czechs Are Excellent Mushroom Pickers

ENVIRONMENT: Humans are extraordinary in how they manage to isolate themselves away from their problems. [Director Apolena Rychlíkova]
No Kings-documentary

No Kings

TRADITION: 150 miles from Rio de Janeiro exists a hidden community descended from indigenous ...
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets-Las Vegas Documentary - featured

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

COMMUNITY: In the shadows of Las Vegas, real people, in an unreal situation, face an uncertai...
Farce-animation-short film-featured

Farce

SOCIETY: A grotesque, unrestrained and entertaining satire of the modern-day decadence and de...
Vivos-documentary-Ai Weiwei-MTR

Vivos

REPRESSION: Through intimate interviews and meditative photography, Ai Weiwei provides visual...
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