HUMAN RIGHTS DOC CONFERENCE 2000: Only Time Can Change the World

Powerful films that have difficulty reaching an audience were presented, accompanied by the filmmakers who, regardless of this fact, continue drawing attention to political oppression and social inequality.

The recipe is highly recommended – sometimes the simplest ideas work best: Ask filmmakers from Western Europe and Eastern Europe to bring their films to a secluded location for screenings and discussions, on the only condition that the films are good and interesting and that they deal with ethnic and/or human rights issues.

This happened in October at the Bulgarian Filmmakers’ beautiful conference venue far away from the big cities and near the Balkan Mountains. For three days, the screening room was filled with pictures and words. As time progressed the discussions steered more and more away from content toward form and style. Why? One explanation could be that you can only stand talking about poverty and hopelessness for so long. Another that the group was becoming more and more open to each other and therefore dared to discuss ethical and moral questions.

From Opium to Chrysanthemum

Poverty and hopelessness, but also optimism and humour. From the shocking Bulgarian film on Roma, Life in the Ghetto by Eldora Traykova to the cinematically powerful Amerasians by Sweden’s Erik Gandini, and From Opium to Chrysanthemum on the Hmong people by PeÅ Holmquist. From the poetic Estonian film on the Khanty people in Siberia, Flight, by Valentin Kuik to the retrospective portrait of the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra’s survival of the war, Light in Darkness by Denmark’s Torben Glarbo and further on to the mild and positive Act of Faith by Britain’s Toni Strasburg about a health train in South Africa.

Life in the Ghetto by Eldora Traykova

The general message from the discussions was clear: Though the east European films travel to national and international festivals, they rarely reach …


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LEIPZIG 2000: The cultural traditions of east European cinematography

For a long time, the documentary film festival in Leipzig was renowned as one of the most significant events in the cinematographic life of the eastern Bloc countries, a sort of showroom aiming to “promote the achievements of true socialism and support the peaceful efforts of progressive Western filmmakers” – with apologies to a Brezhnev-Era quotation. Nevertheless and in spite of political intrigues, many true masters of the documentary have succeeded here – Ivens, Marker, Karmen to name a few. After stagnation in 80s, the festival has rid itself of political censorship and is flourishing once again. The only holdover from the past is maybe a slight but visible bias to the East. Understandably so, as the cultural traditions of east European cinematography are unintentionally dominant among the members of the selection committee and the jury.

Nevertheless, there were many interesting works in both the competition and the rest of the programme, and this review covers the films that were most liked or disliked by the audience and therefore generated discussions.

Film Review

First of all the main prize – the Golden Dove – was awarded to Old Men by Tian Yi Yang. It is the first full-length film by the young Chinese director. The story develops in the style of the classic Chinese novel – long and unhurried. There is almost no action. Old men just meet each other every day on the street corner near where they live. The Chinese do not have a tradition of spending time in bars, cafes or kneipes as we do in Europe. Or maybe ordinary people cannot afford such places? So they come to self-appointed meeting spots and chat there. What about? Nothing significant, at first glance. “How are you, Old Liy?” “Had your lunch already?”  “Where is Little Song? Is he going to come today?” “I’d better sit here”.” Thank you, I am quite comfortable”. Gradually, you understand that this is not conversation but a sharing of information – merely signifying, ‘Look, I am still here, I am among you, I am still alive’. The newcomers to this old men’s club try to use conventional communication forms – telling and asking about children …


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INTERVIEWS: The Young Ones

Jasmila Zbanic, (b. 1975), Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Director and Producer at Deblokada. Recent documentary: Red Rubber Boots.

What documentaries will you be making in the future?

We at Deblokada are working on three documentary films. New Old Bridge is about the reconstruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar. We are documenting the process of the bridge reconstruction, and concurrently documenting the film crew and me go through the same experience asking “Is it at all possible to ‘reconstruct’ ourselves?”. The second film involves digital research about young people from Sarajevo who were wounded during the war. I record their memories of those extreme moments of injury and work on that. The third film is a compilation of the huge collection of home-video material from the time of the Sarajevo siege. For me, this film is an X-ray of a specific human experience.

To sum-up our work: it is obvious that we are still dealing with the war and post-war experience. This need comes from our necessity to tell the stories we have gone through, but not really worked over, and to make the research of our own emotions and thoughts, questioning the new reality. One might say that we use documentaries as a tool to overcome what is recognized as “trauma” (though I dislike this word). Well yes, but to me this post-war period of making documentaries is like learning about the world as a newborn, exploring life and world for the first time. This time with the weapon: camera.

Who is your biggest inspiration? Which documentary traditions do you approve of? What would you like to renew?

My inspiration comes less from films and filmmakers and more from people I meet and their energy. It is them who make me go through the walls. Films come as a luggage, or sandwiches for the trip. To mention some of the main dishes, desserts, appetizers… I would take Kiarostamy, Macmalbaf, Lars Von Trier, Lozinski, Makavejev …with their documentaries, fictions, documentary-fiction or fiction-documentary pieces.

When I receive the reply from festivals saying, “Sorry, your film is a documentary and is not eligible for our festival,” I feel sad for this superficial and traditional approach to …


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Somehow we don’t feel like leaving


During summer and autumn, when the film was shot, the houses get covered with sand that constantly is blown in by the wind. What used to be a prosperous fishing town is now a quiet desert, but both young and old people are still living there, and even want to stay. “What keeps us here?” a young man asks, and answers his own question by saying, “Somehow we don’t feel like leaving”.One reason for that is the universal need to feel that you belong somewhere, the love for one’s birthplace. It is the incredible nature and, for some, the longing for seclusion. As the film advances it draws us into this exceptional landscape and the lives of its inhabitants. The special beauty is stunningly captured by the camera: The formations in the sand, constantly shifting in the blowing wind, the sea and the abandoned fishing boats like sculptures on the beach.

The open vistas give the inhabitants a feeling of freedom, even if they are unable to leave. One of the characters, a young woman, settled down here to ‘find herself’ and the meaning of life. It is certainly a good place to philosophize, since there is little to disturb you  – except the sand.

One more pragmatic reason for staying is also brought up by one of the inhabitants: the fact that many Russian people are not paid their wages. In the city you are lost without money,but in Shoina it’s easier to survive; you can catch fish or hunt wild geese.

More than half of settlement already buryed under sandy dunes coming from the West Aug. 2005
More than half of settlement already buryed under sandy dunes coming from the West
Aug. 2005

The destiny of the people in Shoina is shaped not only by the rugged landscapes, but also by Russian history. The old people have lived in severe poverty and endured wars where they lost husbands or family. They have also lived through times when Shoina was a flourishing fishing village. This is depicted in footage from old Soviet propaganda films that shows the happy, hardworking men of Shoina working on the fishing …


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Missionary zeal and colonialism


In his tribe in Papua New Guinea, wives don’t always come cheap – he had to pay forty pigs for his. But which wife has to go is just one of the dilemmas facing Ghini, as he and his tribe puzzle through Christianity.

Introducing The Gospel According to the Papuans at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, Director Thomas Balmes said he is proud it has been called a “reverse anthropological film”. Although Westerners hardly make an appearance, the viewer learns as much about Western religion, missionary zeal and colonialism as about the Hulis tribe.

[ntsu_youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=peFhx46JzkY

Filmed on DigiBeta, the film is a feast for the eyes, as the Hulis in full tribal dress contemplate the new set of rules facing them. When the film opens, they are well on the way to embracing Methodism, having finally succumbed after enduring a steady stream of crusading missionaries descending upon their once remote tribe. (“First we had the Methodists. Then we had the Catholics. Then we had the Seventh Day Adventists. Then we had the Evangelicals,” Ghini recalls.) As the tribe’s elder statesman, Ghini is putting his all behind the efforts and pays 17 pigs to build a church on his land. The opening of the church – celebrated by a big feast – is the occasion for the film’s best scene, as Ghini and his remaining wife tensely discuss, through tight-lipped mouths, how to ensure that the party crashers don’t eat all the food.

peyangkiandmother_happiness

But the Hulis’ religious conversion is to have profound consequences on their way of life as they are required to not only give up extra wives, but also bows and arrows in an adoption of the ten commandments as their law. A follow-up to the main film one year on shows that rather than proving a temporary impulse, the Hulis’ new religion has fundamentally altered structures in the community, for good and for bad. Indeed, Balmes says that the infiltration of religion in Papua New Guinea is so widespread, that “belonging to a church is now more important …


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DUBROVNIK 2000: Looking for Trouble

Prologue

Once upon a time there was a film festival on an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. The island was known as Bornholm and the festival town as Gudhjem, in English meaning “God’s Home”. Peace was exactly what everybody wanted when the festival started, and people travelled from the countries around the Baltic Sea to show their films. Some were suffering from an ideology called Communism and needed to meet a quieter world. Others were bored in their democracies and came to seek out drama and conflicts. Which they found in many of the films in the early 1990s when a wall in Berlin came tumbling down and many people in Eastern Europe felt what freedom was like after struggling in the streets. Dramatic pictures were shown in God’s Home in the country called Denmark. A fairytale it was, has been and still is for many of the people who came to the Balticum Film & TV Festival year after year.

A New Adventure

1_dubrovnik_pano

After eleven festivals in God’s Home, the people who gave money to the film festival found that everything had become too peaceful. The countries that used to have Communism now had Democracy too, and their films had become like all the others. They decided that the festival should again include films from places with conflicts, suffering and no Democracy. Therefore people came from south-eastern Europe to Gudhjem in year 2000 to show films and talk with the people from the North. After their talk, they all decided to make a festival together. One year the South-easterners could host the Baltics, while every other year the Baltics could host the South-easterners. The people with the money were happy and called it international cooperation.

Dubrovnik

A small group of people from the cold Baltic region changed planes several times before finally arriving in a town called Dubrovnik in a country called Croatia. They saw how a civil war had done much damage to the buildings and …


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POV: Including Vérité in Your Toolkit

Wiseman thinks the term is pretentious. On the one hand we have the style imitated and emulated and emasculated across all media platforms, up to and including mass market teevee and the internet. One the other hand, the style is under attack by cinematic purists and poets who feel it is illegitimate, unsophisticated or out of date. These critics would rather be “informed” by values of extreme personalism, obscurantism and formal formalism which characterise much post-modern non-fiction. The egofilm essays, diaries and digidocs which are the rage and flavour of the festival and critical set. But whatever hand you juggle with, ‘factually’ speaking, we all must admit that most of the socially relevant contemporary documentaries which are successful today, and do reach large audiences, in cinemas and broadcast, are really mutant cousins to a cinematic style which began more than forty years ago.

For me the Cinéma Verité Revolution was an upheaval of an old order of image-making which had a tremendous impact on both sides of the camera. It has also had a tremendous impact on current media practice and, in many measurable ways, is a precursor to the fourth cinematic revolution – the 21st Century Digital one. Verité has shown its marks on music video, on advertising, on current affairs and on fiction film, beginning with the French New Wave, all the way up to the New American Independent Movement embodied by films such as The Blair Witch Project. Vérité is also the major fountain of form for ‘reality-based’ broadcast television: clones and spawns like TV’s “Survivor” and “Big Brother” shows.

Cinema Vérité filmmakers were part of a wider, radicalized movement which challenged orthodoxy on all levels. They were committed interpreters of the modern, human condition, and informed and formed by their times. They took on social issues and political agendas, gave us impassioned, behind-the-scenes looks at institutions and at the extraordinary daily lives of so-called ‘ordinary’ people. They used their newfound ability to record and create, in their own images, the visual memory of their era. They represented a two-way mirror on an increasingly mediated, one-way world. In their quest to define their own truths, they might provoke situations to their own ends, or could remain as unobtrusive observers. It was not a machine, but the filmmakers …


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The Director’s Turn

That was the clear message emerging from the discussion about training in Bardonecchia, at the Documentaries in Europe conference.

Eurodoc, EAVE, Media Business School, Vertical Strategies…  a wide variety of European professional training courses are available on pitching, packaging, financing, co-production, and promotion. All very useful and necessary, but all geared toward producers. Documentary directors wanting to improve their skills and keep up to date on professional developments in an international context do not have many places to go. Most of the participants at the Documentary in Europe session on training agreed on that.

Claas Danielsen

But why would directors who have already spent many years at film schools need more training? Claas Danielsen, a German filmmaker and Head of Studies at Discovery Campus, argued that the market and the industry are changing so dramatically that education received several years ago is no longer adequate. That applies to both directors and producers, so both need to work constantly to stay up to date. But if only the producers are able to do so, the gap between producers and directors begins to widen. As veteran Dutch filmmaker Hillie Molenaar pointed out, this differentiation is problematic. The result, she finds, is that producers become increasingly professional and develop international contacts, while filmmakers still lead a sheltered life as “artists”. Another aspect of this one-sided professionalization was brought up by Caroline Cooper, acting director of the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival. She finds that producers are taught how to deal efficiently with budgets, commissioning editors and pitching, but not how to work with directors – the central core of their occupation.

Nick Fraser

The repercussions of this trend were also recognized by Nick Fraser, BBC commissioning editor, who often meets “producer whiz kids” presenting very professional projects with sales potential but no content. According to Fraser, one of the obstacles that must be overcome in order to improve the situation is that MEDIA should acknowledge …


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Longing for the Future
Country: Brazil/France 2000, 90 min.


It’s mesmerizing to watch musicians doing live improvisation: bedazzled by the creative flow, you can’t help waiting for them to miss a beat or blow a line. It’s a tribute to the new feature documentary by Cesar and Marie-Clemence Paes that you get almost the same nail-biting sensation watching their film of Brazilian “cantadores” making up songs on the street, with the quick-witted fluency of a Calypso singer or a hip-hop star. The lyrics jump from bathos to insult, from “Though São Paulo steals your shirt/You can rise out of the dirt” to

The itch he has on his behind
Is of a special kind
It’s burning him badly,
Like a red hot chilli
If you sit where he sat
Your arse will deflate.

The last is from a feisty middle-aged woman singing against a macho youth in a competitive play-off in front of a male audience; her opponent throws in the towel.

[ntsu_youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-zygwrMJio

True to the maxim that the genuinely local is also universal, this study of the hardships of poor immigrants flooding from Brazil’s downtrodden drought-ridden Nordeste to the bright lights of São Paulo leaves you reflecting on the experience of immigrants and asylum-seekers here in Europe. The same themes sing out: hope, loss, rejection, nostalgia for the homeland, pride in your roots, a blend of suspicion and admiration for your new home.

Determined to reflect the Nordestinos’ presence at every layer of São Paulo society, the film meanders among an anthology of characters, from a maid to the mayor. But it’s the singing troubadours who give the film its backbone and its real charm. Frankly, I could have skipped much of the ‘survey’ of Nordestinos in different social strata in exchange for more footage of Sonhador and Peniera, a pair of busker musicians who dominate the film with their artistic finesse and their affectionate banter. These cantadores use their own rich Nordeste tradition of street poetry and music to survive in and to comment on the mean streets of São Paulo; they find singing pays a bit better than labouring on a building site. Back home people are simply too poor to put money in the hat for their own contemporary folklore, hence the migration to the city.

The film’s visual sequences are such classics of the “portrait of a city” genre that they run the risk of being hackneyed. Speeded-up …


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The gleaners and the female gleaner
Country: France 2000, 82 min.


Times change, and the members of various “New Waves” are not so young anymore. Many rebels of yesteryear have become the conservative critics of today. Agnès Varda is not one of them. The most prominent woman filmmaker associated with the French “Nouvelle Vague,” she has been active since the 1950s, signing her name to both documentaries and fiction features. Although she is now over seventy, she has not lost any of her curiosity about the world or her enthusiasm for new filmmaking technologies.

In September 1999, delighted with the mini DV camera’s potential for intimacy and flexibility, she set off on a road trip around France. Her subject: modern-day gleaners, people who live from what others have discarded or left behind. In the 19th century, women gleaning in the fields was a favourite subject of realist painting. Varda begins her film by looking at the most famous of these canvases and talking to people who still gather the leftovers of the harvest: potatoes, apples, grapes, and more. But the film soon broadens its subject to include many other kinds of gatherers and recyclers who live off the spoils of post-industrial society.

Travelling around the country, Varda encounters a variety of scavengers, ranging from artists who incorporate found objects into their work, to homeless people looking for food in the garbage bins outside the supermarket. Among these “heroes of everyday life” Varda discovers many surprising acts of generosity. People share food, help each other, stick together. One extraordinary man, whom she finds eating parsley off the ground at a marketplace, teaches reading and writing to the illiterates at the homeless shelter where he lives. Originally trained as a biologist, he seems to prefer this unpaid, but more fulfilling, work.

By turning her focus on people living on the margins, who have rejected – or been rejected by – society, Varda gently raises some unfashionable but crucial questions. What is “success”? “Satisfaction”? How does our society of over-consumption depend on the existence of these people on the margins? What can they teach us about the value of what we throw away? Varda also takes an honest look at …


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