The post-Soviet city where dancing is political

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Raving Riot

Stepan Polivanov

Sergey Yahontov & Pavel Karykhalin

Russia, Georgia

A documentary about clubbing in Georgia, Raving Riot, premiered to an entirely sold out, 1,500-seat auditorium of filmgoers at Beat Film Festival in Moscow this month. The vibrant flourishing of a young creative scene in the former Soviet nation’s capital, Tbilisi, has made the city in vogue around the world, and in spite of ongoing geopolitical tensions, Russia is no exception. But that’s not all that drew Muscovites to Raving Riot, the directing debut of Stepan Polivanov, produced by well-established independent Moscow collective Stereotactic. The film centres on the May 2018 police raids on Tbilisi’s biggest club, Bassiani, prompting thousands to protest in front of Georgia’s parliament, dancing in defiance to blasting techno music. This has parallels to an August 2017 raid on Rabitza, a DIY techno club in Moscow, where police also made heavy-handed arrests of partygoers and staff. But rather than sparking a response of collective resistance, Rabitza simply closed down — and Muscovites wanted to see what was so different in Georgia’s situation that made a public rave of resistance possible.

Evening abandon

Raving Riot unfolds over several chapters. The first ones set out the rise of clubbing culture in Georgia against the incongruous backdrop of a conservative, not highly urbanised society (footage of the countryside plays up the anomalous nature of techno, usually so connected with industry, thriving there). Much of the film was shot at night. A subset of the young generation have made the hours after sundown their playground of free expression and time to commune with one another («day is for people who are scared», says one clubber). Polivanov found many of his protagonists through Tinder, and his loosely impressionistic style, tagging along with groups of random friends through carparks and clubs, suits the feel of sprawling, hedonistic nights out. These scenes might be reminiscent of Michal Marczak’s fever-haze portrait of Warsaw youth All These Sleepless Nights — were it not for the politically charged intensity piercing through. «We are just so lost,» says one partygoer, escapism from the nihilism of social tensions an undercurrent that drives the abandon of evenings without defined beginning or end.

raving-riot-bassiani-documentaryThe film then focuses in on the May 12 raid and subsequent demonstrations, turning to archival footage to show the clash between authorities and clubbers as it played out, with the mood turning darker on the second day as far-right counter-protesters arrive threatening violence. While the film does an admirable job of setting up the milieu of the youth scene, the political context is thin (there is a sense the film was somewhat rushed and cursorily researched to get it out quickly), and those not already well-versed on the events may struggle to grasp the deeper roots of the confrontation. Moreover, what is left out or glanced over are the more incendiary and controversial aspects of the divide between conservative and progressive forces in Georgia, namely the Russian funding of far-right groups there (which, for a Russian production company, may have been too touchy to explore), the heavy influence of the Orthodox Church, and Bassiani’s connection to particular activist groups for drug decriminalisation (the White Noise movement, which battles Georgia’s draconian laws and sky-high incarceration rates for drug offences), and LGBTQ rights (the integral role of Bassiani as a safe space for minorities is sidelined). Stereotactic’s typical preference for the impressionistic over the drily journalistic has its strengths in creating stylish atmosphere, but when the political stakes are so high and the relation between the major players so complicated, the value that would be added by informing viewers with a more comprehensive understanding of the facts is not to be underestimated.

A subset of the young generation have made the hours after sundown their playground of free expression

Divided activism

What Raving Riot does especially well is end with an ambiguity that does justice to the mixed results of the demonstration. While the western press has tended to portray the very news-photogenic protest in front of parliament as an unmitigated victory for progressive values and a loud indicator that there is no going back from increased societal tolerance, the reality is that the aftermath saw the activist community bitterly divided. Negotiators from Bassiani and its community had succumbed to pressure from the government to send protestors home, having been told they would otherwise be responsible for any violence, and having been given assurances that their demands for drug reform would be addressed. The film shows archival footage of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia apologising to a crowd that cheered him and addresses the way in which activists came to realise that the state had been able to cynically play them. In one of the most memorable sequences of Raving Riot a youth expresses his disillusionment that the protest didn’t achieve anything at all. But, reliving the protest for the camera, he recalls throwing water over the hot, dancing crowd, and the joy of freedom and communion he felt — and we capture a sense that, despite its failure to overturn systematic oppression, the rave showed what was possible, even for a moment, and could be again.


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The real deal: two new documentaries present sharply contrasting faces of social interaction.

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Swatted/Black Bus Stop

Ismaël Joffroy ChandoutisKevin Jerome EversonClaudrena Harold

France, USA

«Cyberspace», as William Gibson defined in his seminal science-fiction novel Neuromancer, is «a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters, and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…»

Gibson’s book was published in 1984 when the word «cyberspace» would have been unfamiliar even to the majority of his readers. Spool forward to 2019—a plausible juncture for early-80s speculative fiction to be set, where for billions, it is the place (as Gibson also put it, famously) where banks keep your money, where emails are exchanged, where social-media proliferates — is in effect as much a part of their daily lives as the actual physical environment.

Swatted

The myriad liminal zones where cyberspace and reality intersect, meanwhile, have developed some bizarre and even hazardous anomalies. One particularly troubling fault-line is imaginatively probed in Ismaël Joffroy Chandoutis’s Swatted, a 21-minute artistic documentary which premiered at the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) last November, and whose quality has been recognised at numerous subsequent events around the festival circuit.

For billions around the world, cyberspace is in effect as much a part of their daily lives as the actual physical environment.

Swatted, seemingly «filmed» without a camera in the traditional sense, is primarily comprised from two sources: found-footage from internet streaming-sites (in which multiple gamers experience, view and comment upon their shared play) combined with dreamy, hallucinatory «Machinima» animations created by manipulating the software of the popular 2013 computer-game Grand Theft Auto V. The latter conjures spindly quasi-cities populated by militarised cops: SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) divisions engaged in gravity-defying patrols.

Ismaël Joffroy Chandoutis (b.1988) made the film at Le Fresnoy, a French film-school notably open to experimental and radical approaches. He plunges us into the world of «swatting»: an elaborate, dangerous offshoot of cyber-bullying by which gamers surreptitiously obtain their rivals’ addresses and then fake emergency calls, resulting in the hapless victim receiving a visit from gung-ho SWAT personnel.

The film features audio and video extracts of «swatting» incidents dating back to 2014; it begins with a recording of a phoney 911 call from a teenager who has supposedly shot his father, confined his mother and brother in a «closet» and «poured gasoline all over the house. I might just set it on fire». It’s an arresting opening for a work that provides a chilling snapshot of an activity that combines prankishness with near-psychopathic disregard for others. We’re into a dark realm of «games without frontiers,» as players of GTA and similar entertainments (several of those depicted are «first-person shooters» including SWAT-based scenarios) find edgier, illicit kicks from tormenting others from the safety of their bedrooms.

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Swatted, a short documentary by Ismaël Joffroy Chandoutis

Chandoutis eschews commentary, instead opting for an immersive impressionistic survey of the swatting phenomenon. His intricately constructed virtual cityscapes, with buildings reduced to spindly outlines and the ground beneath our feet vertiginously erased, become a fragile backdrop for first-person testimonies. These movingly explicate the trauma experienced by the «swatted.» He delves sensitively into a complex social phenomenon of the digital age, within a context of American gun-violence—all of the examples chosen are from the USA—which makes the faked brutality all the more horribly plausible.

The myriad liminal zones where cyberspace and reality intersect, meanwhile, have developed some bizarre and even hazardous anomalies.

What really makes Swatted stand out is Chandoutis’ flair for composition and the editing of sound and image: the pulse-pounding suspense and urgency of the swatting incidents alternates with ethereal CGI nocturnes including the one with which it exhilaratingly concludes. Chandoutis cuts to black with his SWAT operative treading water mid-air; his own next steps should be closely followed.

Black Bus Stop

Kevin Jerome Everson (b.1965) is by contrast well established as a prolific, important voice on the global documentary scene, much of whose work addresses aspects of the historical and current situations of African-Americans. Always political, sometimes angry, sometimes reflective and often formally daring, Everson’s work spans the entirety of the duration spectrum: his Park Lanes (2015) observes the full shift of a group of factory workers and thus runs eight hours, while he has also directed more than a hundred shorts, some of them just a few minutes long.

He is perhaps best known for Tonsler Park (2017), an 80-minute record of four polling stations in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is the Professor of Art at the state university (UVA). Since 2013 Everson has occasionally collaborated with his UVA colleague Claudrena N. Harold, Professor of African American and African Studies and History. The latest fruit of their partnership is Black Bus Stop, a fiery, angular, unruly nine-minute celebration of the eponymous location on the UVA campus. Like Swatted, it played at the Vienna Shorts* festival in Austria in June; Everson and Harold received the jury prize in the international Fiction/Documentary competition.

Charlottesville achieved unwanted international notoriety in August 2017 via «Unite the Right», a gathering of various extremist-reactionary and white-supremacist groups eager to publicly flex their muscles in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration seven months before.  The rally, ostensibly organised to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate leader General Robert E Lee from a public park, proved a predictably ugly affair whose tense atmosphere ultimately took a tragic turn when a member of the «Alt-Right» deliberately rammed his car into a group of anti-fascist protestors, killing a 32-year old local woman, Heather Heyer.

the people involved are flesh and blood, engaged in a joyous interaction with their concrete, sometimes hostile surroundings.

But as former UVA student JT Roane later wrote on the website Cassius Life, this «eruption of violence in Charlottesville is no aberration… The fabric of the city and the University consistently recall and replay the history of white vitriol and mob violence that will continue unabated so long as white folks, including the liberals who are «shocked,» avoid reckoning with the violent totality of this whole god-damned country. But in my time at UVA and in Charlottesville, I also knew of other possibilities. I also came to taste the fruits of Black resilience, beauty, and power staged right there in that evil space. We had the Black Bus Stop—a place on the on central grounds where you could find Black people any time of day chatting, listening to music, stepping, romancing, flirting, laughing, living in our fullness.»

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Black Bus Stop, a short documentary by Kevin Jerome Everson & Claudrena N. Harold

Everson and Harold’s film begins with vérité-style footage of young students sitting on the bus stop benches during the daytime, the soundtrack an overlapping polyphony through which we glean fragments of dialogue which attest to the location’s importance, especially back in the day when those present «didn’t have social media.» The importance of al fresco face-to-face interaction is emphasised, the protagonists here the diametrical opposite of the avatar-toting, bedroom-bound computer-addicts of Joffrey Chandoutis’ Swatted.

After this lively and slightly discombobulating introduction, the bulk of the work comprises choreographed dances and anthems performed by members of black sorority and fraternity houses (Marjani Forté is credited as the choreographer). The sun has now set: proud and defiant, the students enact elaborate, rigorously controlled rituals which bond them to their current peers and link them back to their forerunners in the early part of the 20th century. A humble bus stop is thus transfigured into a kind of ad-hoc agora, a stage where dynamic expressions of exuberance speak loudly and positively about how African Americans embody and perpetuate their heritage. Like Swatted, Black Bus Stop climaxes with transcendent exhilaration—but this time the people involved are flesh and blood, engaged in a joyous interaction with their concrete, sometimes hostile surroundings. They shall overcome.

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* note: the author heads the Austrian National Competition section at Vienna Shorts, but had no role in the selection or presentation of Swatted or Black Bus Stop.


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The «right» to be high: Colorado’s cannabis experiment

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Pot Luck: The Altered State of Colorado

Jane Wells

Jane WellsSimon BrookNadia Zilkha

USA

When citizens in Colorado voted to amend their state’s constitution and legalise marijuana for recreational use, many were thinking it would simply grant freedom to the casual user who grew a plant or two in their garden shed, unwind on the couch with a joint, and enjoy their pastime in peace. They didn’t reckon, however, with the aggressive commercialisation of cannabis as a product, which quickly took hold when the laws came into effect in 2014 and has seen neighbourhoods of colour exploited by unscrupulous profiteers. At least, that’s the argument presented in the documentary Pot Luck: The Altered State of Colorado by British filmmaker Jane Wells, which is weighted on the negative side of the cannabis legalisation debate and is more cautionary tale than endorsement. The laws on marijuana in the U.S. differ from state to state, and Colorado was one of the first of eleven states to opt for legalisation. Wells surveys the ramifications through interviews with an array of experts, enthusiasts, members of law enforcement and industry players.

The opening sequence takes us inside the International Church of Cannabis in Denver. Housed in a converted century-old Lutheran church, its eye-popping interior is wall-to-wall neon psychedelia, painted by an artist from Madrid. Church co-founder Lee Molloy guides us through, his demeanour the cliche of the spaced-out stoner, explaining how the organisation, whose members call themselves Elevationists and use cannabis as a sacrament, began. The sequence is played for laughs rather than as a dire warning about any perceived harms of the drug, the director seeming to be under no illusion that cannabis is a scourge on society in any way comparable to America’s opioid crisis, even if she doesn’t trust smoking as a source of tasteful inspiration or productivity (further in, a so-called «old-school pot smoker» in a T-shirt that reads «What Day Is It» archly plays further into the stereotype of the slacker stoner stereotype).

The majority of cannabis dispensaries in the state are concentrated in poor neighbourhoods of colour

The uneven dosages of THC in edibles that persist due to inadequate regulation are referenced as problematic, but the real damage being done in Colorado since the law change, Pot Luck contends, is not so much related to health, but to structural inequality. The majority of cannabis dispensaries in the state are concentrated in poor neighbourhoods of colour, and managed by white people who are unfairly advantaged in dealing with the red tape and background checks required to go into business (tens of thousands of criminal records related to marijuana in the state remain uncleared). In other words, the legalisation of marijuana is benefitting big business and not the marginalised communities whose members have been disproportionately jailed as a result of the war on drugs. The recreational market has hijacked the medicinal market, in the sense that recommendation scripts for marijuana are being sold for one hundred dollars a pop and are regarded as easy money by physicians, according to one medical professional.

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Pot Luck: The Altered States of Colorado, a film by Jane Wells

What is more, legalisation has seen violent crime go up, rather than down, because institutional frameworks such as banking have not kept pace with the speed the cannabis industry has taken off in Colorado, so it «still has the overtones of a street hustle», we’re told. Before ex-military personnel were enlisted to guard dispensaries, there were seven to eight armed robberies of them per week. The reluctance of banks to offer them basic services, since marijuana is still classified by the federal government as a narcotic, placing financial institutions who take their cash at risk of prosecution for money laundering even in states in which cannabis is legal, has left dispensaries in a «money-in-a-shoebox» type of predicament similar to transactions in the crime world. The air of criminality attached to the business despite the law change persists in many moral attitudes as well — one addiction recovery specialist refers to the legalisation as «putting lipstick on a pig», since «drug dealing is drug dealing».

legalisation has seen violent crime go up

While we might come away from Pot Luck convinced that the legalisation of cannabis has done more harm than good in Colorado, it is a change that is likely here to stay, a police chief says, since it has now been enshrined in the constitution and pro-marijuana citizens have very quickly become vocal that possessing pot is not only no longer illegal, but a «constitutional right». Taking that right away then becomes a challenge to their fundamental freedom as Americans, according to the rhetoric.

While many citizens of Denver object to having so many cannabis billboards in their face as a result of the new law, it has brought a regret of a different sort to one woman. «When it became legal it took the fun out of it a little bit,» she says, nostalgically recalling the illicit thrill lighting up used to bring her. It’s hard for any legislation to keep everyone happy, might just be our biggest takeaway from this film.


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A midnight meeting with Kiri Dalena

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With the recently presented «Profile» program, Germany’s «Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen» put a spotlight on Filipino visual artist, filmmaker, and human rights activist Kiri Dalena. Here, Modern Times Review sat down with the renowned transmedial artist. Also read – Looking at the Philippines today: Survey and Resistance

Have you ever thought about leaving your country
My situation is not so bad that I am compelled to leave for economic reasons, which is the case with the millions of Filipinos who leave to become workers overseas. My situation is also very far from that of political personalities and high-profile activists who face grave threats and attacks on their lives and reputations. When I am in a different country and I see that the rule of law operates and that everyone possesses the opportunity to build decent and meaningful lives, I grow sad for my country. But, at the same time, it is an inspiration, I see that it is possible to live differently. So while it is still beyond my imagination to see how we can turn our conditions around, given that at present what is right is wrong, and what is wrong appears to be right, I tell myself that there has to be a reason why I was born there and not anywhere else.

Who is especially under attack?
Human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, judges. Those who file complaints against the government, specifically against those who abuse their power, or rather those who repeatedly and systematically commit abuse because they have power. Those who speak up against the erosion of democratic processes and institutions in our country. Those who take the side of the vilified and demonized sectors of our society who are most vulnerable to extermination and exploitation.

When I am in a different country and I see that the rule of law operates…I grow sad for my country.

What can be done?
If we speak specifically about the «drug war», we need to have an evidence-based dialogue and education campaign in the communities, in the grassroots. People who remain quiet should not look away just because it is not happening to their families. Those who accept and welcome the «drug war» narrative need to be informed and understand that killing and executions will never be the solution to the drug problem. While I continue to believe that drug use and addiction is not the root of poverty and criminality in communities, we need to examine the real reasons why drug consumption, specifically of crystal meth, exists in the first place. Drug users should not be deprived of their human rights and drug abuse should be handled as a health rather than a criminal problem. We artists should not isolate ourselves when examining this issue and assessing what needs to be done. We need to connect with academics, researchers, doctors, lawmakers, civil society, and also look towards other societies that have faced or are facing similar conditions. Find out the best and most humane practices and alternatives on an international level and see what we can learn and apply in our own country.

What is the reason for president Duterte’s popularity?
In my opinion, Duterte, a city mayor, emerged as a politician to Contend with on a national level because he came at the right time. The desperate situation of the masses has not been thoroughly addressed and resolved by the previous governments. Duterte introduced himself as someone who is different from the previous presidents who were from families of powerful landlords and oligarchies; he distanced himself from the ruling class and presented himself as an alternative. His campaign was to end criminality, and he built a narrative wherein drug use and abuse became a central and urgent problem which needed to be eliminated to truly effect change, even if it meant killing millions who stood in his way. I suppose Filipinos were truly desperate to believe in someone and something, and in this case that became Duterte. But sadly, for those who do not realize it yet, this will never be the path to real change.

We artists should not isolate ourselves

What can be done on the level of international relations?
The Duterte government’s widespread and systematic dismissal of what should be inalienable and universal rights and its descent into dictatorial rule should be condemned by other governments and international groups who have a concern not just for the Philippines but for humanity as a whole. Specific to the anti-drug campaign, evidence-based, and scientific and humane strategies to approach drug use and abuse problems should be taken on. A «drug war» approach will never succeed. The work and advocacy of human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, religious and civil society leaders are critical and should be defended. Also, the families and children of the killed and incarcerated should be cared for and protected. Various groups including Church-based organizations have been giving support, but it is still not sufficient given that we are faced with an overwhelming number of victims. I fear for our future, but at the same time would like to take this as an opportunity for Filipinos and the world to once more come together to collectively right a wrong.

What is hope for you?
Hope is the resolve to remain steadfast in defending what our fathers, mothers, and forefathers have devoted and given their lives to so that we can have better futures. It is still knowing what it means to be human and humane even if you may appear to belong to a very vulnerable minority.


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Looking at the Philippines today: survey and resistance

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Enraged protesters on the road, signs in hand, yet with no writing or slogans on them. What may have been written seems unsayable, inaccessible, and risky as the unsaid message and the forced silence only gets sensibly more painful.

This scene, from Kiri Dalena’s documentary Erased Slogans (Philippines, 2008), represents the necessity of alternative forms of protest. Here, the historic demonstration was a protest against former president Ferdinand Marcos, who declared martial law in 1972 and held power for over two decades. Kiri Dalena erased the slogans through digitally modified scanned photographs. Against all attempts to erase history and censorship, Dalena returned two more times with blanked-out words on signs in public protests with Recent Slogans (2014) and In Our Image (2015).

In 2010 she dealt with the Maguindaneo massacre and the subsequent funeral ceremonies by presenting the events in anti-chronological order, pointing out the desire to resist, to escape from the threats of death, and to return to an unbowed state of vitality (Requiem for M).

What may have been written seems unsayable, inaccessible, and risky

In Farmer (Mag-uuma) (2014), a young woman sings about social injustice and the extremely harsh living conditions in the Mindanao area. Again, the minimalism of the form creates a huge emotional impact.

In 2018, Dalena visited farmers rebelling against injustice and corruption in their homes and hiding places, masking their faces. Again she created an impressive work of solidarity and is evidently trusted by people who take great risks (Life Masks – Peasant Leader).

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Erased Slohans, a film by Kiri Dalena

Human suffering, of course, transcends political realities. In Lullaby for a Storm (Tungkung Langit) (2013), Dalena presents a portrait of two children who have lost their parents and survived a disastrous typhoon, which wiped out houses and families. Here as well, her empathic view does not create a depressing work; on the contrary, she presents the lively children discovering their surroundings with curiosity and hope, incarnating the will to live in the most beautiful way.

In one of her latest works, From the Dark Depths (Gikan sa Ngitngit nga) (2017), she masterfully connects documentary footage of communist resistance fighters somewhere in the forest with street demonstrations, curfew threats, a ritual of mourning, and overwhelming symbolic images of resistance and vitality, showing a frail woman powerfully waving a red flag underwater on the ocean floor. Aesthetic beauty and political resoluteness are here celebrating a rarely seen unity.

Human suffering, of course, transcends political realities.

In addition to her experimental documentary film corpus, Kiri Dalena has realized sculptures and installations, which have been presented in key exhibitions – mostly in Asia – over the last few years. Living in Manila, she is also engaged in human rights organisations such as Southern Tagalog Exposure (2001-2008) and currently RESBAK (Respond and Break the Silence Against the Killings).

With the recently presented «Profile» program, Germany’s «Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen» offered an enjoyable return to cinematographic political statements, which had been so important for the image of the festival in its first decades.

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Lullaby for a Storm, a film by Kiri Dalena

Kiri Dalena’s work is situated in a country where, during the Mindanao Civil War (1970 – 2002), counted 120,000 victims, most of them civilians. Targets of government harassment include environmental activists, journalists, defenders of human rights, unionists, small farmers and members of indigenous communities, and supposedly leftist NGO’s. In Mindanao alone, around 500,000 people were delocalised during military conflicts between 2008 and 2009. Executions and disappearances were a daily reality even after the Marcos dictatorship, during the term of president Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010). The human rights organisation Karapatan counted 1,206 political killings and 206 missing during her administration. During the Maguindanao massacre (2009), Human Rights Watch numbered 58 civilians killed by paramilitaries, among them 30 journalists. 33 more journalists were killed in the following years. Since 2003, Reporters Without Borders has placed the Philippines among the five most dangerous countries in the world. Current president, Rodrigo Duterte, successfully presents drug trafficking as the main problem of the country and the reason for its poverty, leading a war against drug addicts and dealers, mostly executed by death squads. He denies any human rights to drug victims through a policy of propagandistic demonization. Lawyers, police officers, and members of the military have also been accused as co-perpetrators. The freedom of the press is under greater and greater pressure. Estimates speak of 20,000 already killed in this ideological war. 5,000 have been officially confirmed as being killed «in self-defense».


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He killed because he could

Chasing_Yehoshua

Chasing Yehoshua

Shay Fogelman

Assaf Amir

Israel

One morning in 2004 it all went terribly wrong. A Palestinian, Sael Jabara al Shatiyam, was in his old blue Ford Transit minivan. Earlier on he had lost his job in Israel and now worked an unofficial taxi service in the West Bank. With eight passengers in the car, he spotted an Israeli checkpoint on the road. Convinced that the soldiers would stop him he did what Palestinians usually do – took a dirt road to circumvent the checkpoint.

Approaching the main road again, Sael Jabara al Shatiyam had to speed up to negotiate a steep climb through the gravel. There he was seen by Yehoshua Elitzur from the radical settlement of Itamar. The settler opened fire with his M16 rifle and fatally wounded the Palestinian driver. The settler was arrested and charged with manslaughter, but surprisingly the court decided to put him in house arrest. By the next court meeting, Yehoshua Elitzur had disappeared.

Ettal Convent

Shay Fogelman, a journalist from the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz, got interested in the story. The court’s lenient attitude puzzled him, and he wondered why the authorities seemed to have done next to nothing to find Yehoshua Elitzur. He launched his own manhunt, but what he expected to be a one-month assignment for the paper turned out to be an over ten-year ordeal. Now he has turned his many travels into a captivating documentary that was screened at the 2019 DocAviv, the Tel Aviv documentary film festival.

One morning in 2004 it all went terribly wrong.

Fogelman has a good story to tell with the film becoming a psychological portrait of Yehoshua Elitzur. He lived alone in a makeshift cottage in Itamar. He worked in a nearby settlement, and in spite of being part of the community, nobody seemed to know him well. It turns out, Elitzur hails from Pfarrkirchen, a small town in lower Bavaria. In his earlier life, his name was Johannes Wimmer, but he converted to Judaism and became Yehoshua the radical settler. The family is staunchly Catholic and deeply conservative. His mother does not want to meet Fogelman, and the brother claims to have lost contact to Johannes. But in spite of this wall of feigned silence, a certain picture comes together. At the local archives, he learns about the killer’s grandfather, Hans Wimmer, who was a well-known sculptor with a dark Nazi past. Fogelman also visits the Ettal Convent, where Johannes attended school as a child. As it turns out, in 2010 Ettal was the epicenter of a scandal involving child molestation and sadistic monks.

Murky picture

«If God gave me the gift of sight and I saw him, I would turn blind again,» says the victim’s daughter, Yasmin, who is blind. Her brother is also, which only adds to the picture of a family in dire straits. We get an impression of Sael Jabara al Shatiyam as an honest man who struggled to keep his family afloat, and who would never try to run over another human being with a car.

The picture of Yehoshua Elitzur, on the other hand, gets murkier. Why did he stop his car, get out and shoot a Palestinian, Fogelman asks over and over again? Because he could, was able to, and had the power, seems to be the clearest answer.

«If God gave me the gift of sight and I saw him, I would turn blind again»

Those that get close to describing him in detail look at a highly complicated person with lots of mental issues. He came from a very constricting environment, burdened with Nazism and a victim of pedophilia, who found freedom, as one observer puts it. More likely, he found another framework and a total break from his own past. 2004 was the most violent year of the Al Aqsa Intifada. More than 800 Palestinians were killed and a hundred Israelis, so to a certain extent there was nothing exceptional in his deed.

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Chasing Yehoshua, a film by Shay Fogelman

And still, this is a classic case of radicalization. As a youth back in Germany, he was already a loner, having a problem with strict rules in a conservative society. He broke free and joined the freewheeling nightlife of Tel Aviv, earning a living by modeling, finally finding solace by joining another religion and going to new extremes.

At ease with fate

«It is a film about several victims,» said Fogelman after the screening, and one could see that as an attempt to whitewash radical settlers. Yehoshua Elitzur could be seen as the exception, whereas the rest are rational citizens. But he actually says that Elitzur might be an unpredictable loner and, at the same time, an archetype. There are many like him among the radical settlers, and deadly violence can strike at any moment.

Yehoshua Elitzur gets caught in the end. Interpol traces him to Sao Paolo and he is brought to Israel to face justice. He gets 15 years behind bars, having no justification whatsoever to open fire on that fateful day, says the verdict.

Fogelman meets him in prison afterward. Elitzur seems at ease with his fate. He laughs heartily and sticks to his lies. Still convinced that the eight passengers in the blue Ford Transit were terrorists wearing explosive belts, he maintains his right to defend himself and prevent disaster. He is a confused and dangerous man living his own fantasy – seemingly triggered by a traumatic childhood and youth in another world – one that could happen anywhere.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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