The foehn wind, known as the Halny, shatters the Polish and the Slovakian Tatra mountains several times each year. It is a wind that blows from the south, causing a rise in temperature and a drop in air humidity, and comes with sudden gusts causing an incredible amount of damage. Trees – even entire parts of forests – collapse, bridges fall and houses are destroyed. Beyond the material destruction, locals also believe it holds the power to play with people’s minds.
Following the lives of three main characters in the Polish part of the Tatra mountains, Michal Bielawski’s film is an intense and atmospheric portrayal of nature’s incredible force and how it relates to people’s lives. Their lives seem structured around the wind’s coming, from the tension that builds for its arrival, when hell breaks lose and disaster strikes, to the calm of its aftermath.
Beyond the material destruction, locals also believe it holds the power to play with people’s minds.
In a subtle way, Halny is also a charater. It is a force to reckon with, but in the region it is revered as if supernatural. Its coming is felt with anticipation. The locals fear it and brace accordingly. They believe these times also increase the suicide rate. This belief is so deeply rooted in the local culture, it has promted researchers to study it, finding that Halny did not change the probability of suicide, yet it increased its risk in summer and autumn.
A long anticipated prophecy
A middle-aged poetess, a grandpa with a mustache and a shell decorated hat, and a young woman working in an ambulance, all go about their lives. We see fragments of their days and moods, both uneventfull and intense. As the number of ambulance calls increases, the man manages his farm, and the poetess buys a piece of the region’s beloved forest, there is sense of iminent danger in the air, ready to materialize at any moment. The force of nature is preparing something, and all three characters prepare for it. The unexpected lies in the details – the moving clouds, the closeup on the trees texture, the earth moving just a bit today and then again a little bit tomorrow.
By the time the snow and darkness comes, the arrival of Halny feels like a long anticipated prophecy. Trees start to fall, emergency calls come rolling in, the wind is fierce, threatening, and seemingly without end. The grandpa’s house burns down, people collapse – the world seems to fall apart.
By the time the snow and darkness comes, the arrival of Halny feels like a long anticipated prophecy
Halny destroys all that is safe and lovely. It hits humans at the core of what makes them feel at home. After the wind has passed, the grandpa has to clean his farm from the remains of the fire, while the poetess’ piece of forest is all but destroyed. Yet, there is a sense of peace after the disaster, the moment of respite, to put all the shattered pieces back together.
Bielawski’s film feels like finding cinema in reality, but not reality put in the mold of cinematic form. His shots have atmosphere and texture, following the characters’ lives and nature’s changes, all mixed with alarming emergency calls.
But a matter of time
The film could be mistakenly understood as simple, although it is anything but. Each scene and element are carefully curated and combined, to build the overall crescendo of unease at its core. In fact, watching The Wind is not so much about the story as it is about feeling and exploring through the senses. It is an emotional journey with a sense of increasing danger that feels both real and unreal at the same time.
It is but a matter of time until the wind comes back.
Through Bielawski’s shots, nature reclaims its mystery and might. The forests, the wind and the snowstorms are impressive, and they seem possesed by something bigger – something untamable and overwhelming. Its moods are unpredictable, with strength beyond human control. This force calls for humbleness in front of nature, and a sort of reference in front of what its mighty strenght might or might not do.
Overall, The Wind is a metaphor for power. The world where Halny rules is a world in itself. A world where time is cut into three parts: before, during, and after. Watching it shakes the feeling of nature being home, of us having power over nature. This fear works as a reminder that nature could change its aparent benevolent ways, moving from nurturing us, to destroying us in the blink of an eye.
Bielawski brings forward these ideas through a visual and emotional journey, and the unsettling feeling of this truth remains after its conclusion. In the aftermath of Halny, the community – and the viewer – need time to heal from the destruction and the emotional wounds it has created, all while knowing it is but a matter of time until the wind comes back.
The renowned, many times awarded Lithuanian director Audrius Stonys is in focus at this year’s edition of DocsBarcelona. The film Bridges of Time is shown, that he has directed together with Latvian Kristine Briede. It is an essay on the Baltic Poetic Cinema, a tradition that Stonys himself continues.
The festival arranges every year a masterclass with the title «7 Shots 7», where a director is asked to pick clips/shots from his/her oeuvre. Audrius Stonys does so following in the footsteps of names like Talal Derki, Pawel Lozinski, Michael Glawogger, Sean MacAllister and Avi Mograbi.
Modern Times Review will in this respect publish here some extracts from notes made by Tue Steen Müller meeting Stonys some years ago (see below)
In response to a seemingly perplexing question: «Who makes your films?» Stonys said: «Recently, I visited a doctor because I had problems with my back. And for only fifteen minutes of work he asked for a lot of money. Sure, he fixed me up, but he is my friend. So I wondered why the heck he was asking so much. This is what he said: ‘Look, those fifteen minutes contained all the years of my practical training, all the books I have read plus the experience of my professors who have shared their knowledge with me.’ And my films are also the result of the work of many souls.» (18-02-2013)
Stonys portrays empathy
«No words, I don’t trust them.» Audrius Stonys made a lecture this morning. I have heard him doing so many times and have written several praising sentences on filmkommentaren.dk – about this filmmaker who is for sure to be considered as a national poet in his own country, and from a world perspective as an excellent representative of a different documentary cinema.
The biggest censors are inside yourself, Stonys said, who grew up in a country occupied by the big empire and who did not really see films in general getting better after the independence. He said so after another pleasant view of the Herz Frank film 10 Minutes Older (1978). «I truly believe that film is a conversation between equal partners», Stonys continued, «the audience takes part in the creative process, as this meeting is the most important part of the filmmaking.»
«I don’t believe in films without mistakes», he said and went on to show a clip from his own Flying over Blue Fields, where a sport aeroplane lands on a field, a man gets out, parks the plane and goes inside, while the camera observes chicken and bushes accompanied by music. «No words, I don’t trust them», Stonys said, and showed another clip, from his early work, Earth of the Blind, that has no words at all. I want to catch the impossible. He could also have said the invisible and the emotions in a face, like he demonstrated in the film from 2000, Alone, a film in many layers. This one is about a girl that visits her mother who is in prison, a film crew that is (the director’s words) «using» her, and an atmosphere of melancholy – a feeling that is present in most of Stonys films. He did not show films from recent years. He could have done so – and demonstrated that he can also cope with words as he did in The Bell. (25-06-2009)
The sorrow of reaction
– A film that leaves me so utterly incapable of objecting, of imagining other solutions. By colleague Allan Berg Nielsen.
In 1995, Stonys came out with Antigravitacija («Anti-gravitation», 1995) – about our longing to overcome what keep us on the ground. For a long time, Stonys had wanted famous Lithuanian cinematographer Jonas Gricius to photograph a film for him. He had finally succeeded.
And what wonderful pictures! We are moved into the beautiful old tradition of large black-and-white 35 mm film sequences where every shot is considered down to the last detail. Stonys subsequently pursues this artistic deliberateness by putting every single scene into a perfectly harmonious context, whose authenticity I thoroughly accept. A soundless work. I have rarely experienced a film that leaves me so utterly incapable of objecting, of imagining other solutions. This film is definitively finished.
But what’s it really aboutAn old woman who forces her way up the longest ladder I have ever seen.?
Like his previous films, Stonys portrays empathy. At the 1991 festival, he brought his film called Atverti duris ateinanciam («Open the Door to Him Who Comes», 1989). Like Neregiu Zeme, it is photographed in the same dignified and old-fashioned manner, 35 mm film, black and white, features shared by subsequent films.
With Harbour from the 1998 festival, he finally brings colour into his meditation on body and water. The film’s setting is public baths. Its plot is purification. It also describes a pastor in a remote parish who is visited by people, from large cities too, because of the peace of mind and answers the big questions he gives them. The other film portrayed people without sight in a world of sounds and dim contours, and changing degrees of light and darkness. Reflecting, almost wordless, states of mind. Dreaming, they yearn for existential relics. Dismal tones, will the project succeed?
Dreaming, they yearn for existential relics.
Stonys’ manuscript for the gravitation film demanded that the crew had to shoot sequences for at least a year, because as a matter of course the scenes jump from snow-covered landscapes to sweltering village streets in spring, from spring floods to a sleigh in crunchy frost. And the young director pulled the fine old cinematographer, who here made his first documentary, up to heights, on roof scaffolding, on high railway bridges and at the very pinnacle of church towers. Because the pictures must show us how the world looks from these man-made structures reaching to the heavens. The film’s heroine is an old woman who forces her way up the longest ladder I have ever seen to the tip of the spire on the village church. At the very top she gazes out on summer landscapes. The next clip shows us, very correctly, the scene from her angle, but now it is in the bitter cold of winter. She climbs up there all year round. We don’t know why, she does it out of necessity.
One of the longest-running and most influential documentary-oriented festivals on the circuit, Visions du Réel (VdR) celebrated both its 50th anniversary and it 50th edition this year (it skipped one edition somewhere down the line), the second under the artistic direction of French-born Emilie Bujès, only the sixth ‘AD’ in the event’s half-century. Her first predecessor, the Exeter-born Moritz de Hadeln, who founded the event with his wife Erika, went on to run the festivals of Locarno, Berlin (for more than 20 years) and Venice. Under de Hadeln, the «Nyon International Documentary Festival» became renowned for showcasing works from behind the Iron Curtain at a time when international exposure for such endeavours was relatively meager.
«cinéma du réel» Taking place over nine April days in the small Swiss city of Nyon, on the affluent shores of Lake Geneva, the festival was effectively relaunched with its current name in 1995 when critic and theorist Jean Perret took over the creative reins. The new name reflected Perret’s ongoing interest in and championing of «cinéma du réel» (cinema of reality) as opposed to traditional, narrow definitions of non-fiction.
The programming was increasingly opened up to «hybrid» works of a sort which may involve re-enactments, narrative elements and multiple modes of address. In a 2009 interview, Perret observed that «from the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s, one could perceive a certain ‘breathlessness’ (un certain essoufflement) of fiction film which was struggling to find rich themes or innovative stories. The cinema of the real brings solutions with stories showing real people, staged in narrative forms and (thus) a renewed aesthetic.»
«from the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s, one could perceive a certain ‘breathlessness’ (un certain essoufflement) of fiction film which was struggling to find rich themes or innovative stories.»
This stance is now the default mode of successfully adventurous festivals such as Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, FIDMarseille (acronym derived from former moniker, «Festival International du Documentaire de Marseille»), Montreal’s RIDM («Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montreal») and the closest North American parallel, True/False (Columbia, Missouri). These events’ titles may specify a particular interest in documentary and non-fiction material, but whose content nevertheless spans a wide range of artistic approaches.
Two of the more effective short documentaries at VdR this year profitably occupy different positions on the documentary spectrum. Arthur Sukiasyan’s Wound is a 25-minute «fly on the wall» study of three middle-aged men who live in the Armenian countryside near the regional capital Gyumri. This area has, as various rubbly vistas make plain, has yet to fully recover from a devastating earthquake in 1988. Diary of Cattle, by the Indonesian duo David Darmadi and Lidia Afrilita, devotes its 17 minutes to a detached survey of a landfill site in the Sumatran city of Padang, upon whose mounds of trash a herd of cows grazes daily. The bovine protagonists occasionally show mild interest in Darmadi and Afrilita and their camera, but otherwise preoccupied, largely go about their business as they would if the directors and their equipment were absent.
Wound Wound depicts the quotidian reality of fisherman Hovik, dove-keeper Ando and Ando’s son Arthur, a wood-carver. Director Sukiasyan, working in close collaboration with his own father Martin Sukiasyan (who edited the film), enjoys intimate access to the (separate) living-quarters of their three protagonists: we observe them at various times cooking, working (Arthur’s craftsman skills are amply showcased), shooting the breeze, drinking, and bemoaning their lot.
At no point are the Sukiasyans’ cameras addressed or acknowledged, and there are are moments emphasising the solitude of the men which require a certain amount of indulgence from the viewer: the well-established rules of the documentary «game» require us to conveniently and temporarily forget the fact that other people are in fact present in the room, and that the subjects of the film must to some degree be conscious of the requirement that they behave «naturally» in front of the lens.
This isn’t a significant distraction in Wound, which functions as an empathetic immersion in a bygone backwater where in many ways time seems to have stood still: the dwellings appear to date from the 19th century, and to have been relatively little-changed in crucial details, their sturdy construction presumably helping them withstand an earthquake which, opening titles inform, killed at least 25,000 people and damaged 1,500 villages. The film is at its heart a study of dogged resilience, with the bonds of family and friendship becoming even more crucial given the post-USSR breakdown of social and administrative infrastructure amid burgeoning inequality and corruption.
The film is at its heart a study of dogged resilience
Much of the dialogue consists of these aging fellows (women are conspicuous by their absence; one of the subjects was widowed by the quake) voicing their discontents. They look back through rose-tinted spectacles at the Soviet era, whose chaotic end was already in sight at the time of the 1988 disaster. «Try to complain today? Who will you reach? If you don’t have money, you are nobody.»
Wound thus seeks to probe and depict the ongoing aftershocks not only of the temblor but of the upheavals and traumas suffered by Armenia (among numerous other eastern-bloc states which regained their independence in the 1990s) and its long-suffering residents. It’s a clear-eyed vision, often decidedly bleak («in this country and this state there is no future»), of a forgotten and overlooked corner of the world whose economic prospects appear to have caused most of the young people to flee: we see children and the elderly, but no-one in between.
Religious faith provides consolation to some: the film ends with Arthur reflecting on the biblical story of Job, clinging to the possibility of a heavenly reward after an earthly lifetime of hard knocks and affliction.
Diary of Cattle The four-legged protagonists in Diary of Cattle likewise have found a way to eke out a form of rudimentary existence in decidedly unpropitious circumstances. Evidently, the property of farmers, who are seen walking the animals to the landfill under the morning sun, the small herd is brought to the rubbish-dump every day in order to forage for whatever scraps of edible material can be found. There are disturbing images of the creatures munching on non-nutritious items such as plastic bags and pieces of moldy rubber, but while occasionally showing signs of disease they do not (apart from one unfortunate cadaver) bear the marks of starvation or serious malaise.
Eschewing commentary or title-cards—the only dialogue heard comes in the final couple of minutes, as the cow-herds appear to round up their charges—Darmadi and Afrilita let their remarkable, almost surreal images speak for themselves. Their film is audaciously direct, stripped-down to the bare essentials, which amass a considerable cumulative impact. The cows wander placidly through piles of disgusting trash, behaving as they would in more «natural» or traditional farm surroundings.
Darmadi and Afrilita let their remarkable, almost surreal images speak for themselves.
Perhaps surprisingly, no humans scavenge here (several documentaries and fiction films in recent years depict desperate people living on and from very similar dumps): large white gull-like birds are the cows’ only «competition» for the scraps of food and greenery which provides their daily diet. This is a dystopian man-made landscape of a depressing and even harrowing kind, the brief run time—which condenses a typical day into a quarter of an hour—more than enough to give us a pungent flavour of this noxious wasteland. The fact that «cinema of reality» has never extended to olfactory simulations is, in this case, a significant blessing.
Alexandre Chartrand Eric Piccoli Marco Frascarell Philippe Allard Félix Rose
«With the October 1st referendum results, Catalonia has won the right to be an independent state. And it won the right to be heard and respected. At this historic moment, as head of the Catalan government, I hereby formally present the results of the referendum to Parliament and to our fellow citizens: the people’s mandate that Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic.» – Carles Puigdemont, Former President of the Government of Catalonia.
With simplicity, emotion and steadfast factual adherence, director Alexandre Chartrand and team accompany us on a journey through the heart of Catalonia, reliving the events leading to the self-determination referendum of October 1, 2017. In front of the camera, the streets are teeming with people who gather, talk, organise, disobey, and teach their children how to defend their dignity and rights.
But the mobilisation did not start in 2017. The pro-Independence movement took shape 9 years ago, becoming a consistent wave resonating with growing sectors of the Catalan society ever since. At the same time, the movement attunes people around basic common ideals: human rights, democracy, pacifism, direct action, self-determination, popular organisation, and assembly.
The Catalan independence movement has found its most populous foothold in the Spanish State’s fundamental lack of democratic tradition and sore disrespect for the people. Contrary to common belief, the Catalan independence movement is not particularly nationalistic. With 80% of the Catalan population in favour of holding a mutually agreed referendum, the discussion is not who would win, but why is voting not allowed?
Contrary to common belief, the Catalan independence movement is not particularly nationalistic.
Thoroughly immersed in the effervescent days of autumn 2017, Chartrand dissects the Catalan self-determination operation, portraying a transversal, peaceful and popular grassroots movement – not by chance named «The Smile Revolution». With access to crucial personalities – politicians, artists, and social leaders – the film manages to portray Catalan society in depth during these convulsive moments.
Marked by authoritarianism
It is difficult not to empathise with the Catalans. The film is full of smiling, happy people. They are non-violent, organised, and occupy a space belonging to them: the public space.
But even though Catalans are mature and well-organised people, every attempt at emancipation seems unavoidably plagued by adolescent mistakes. The film’s narrative arc transports us from the hopes of a society who wants to be better – who understands and explains itself in modern terms – to the painful surprise in discovering how uplifting songs and smiles are not powerful enough before those who own the tools of repression.
It is difficult not to empathise with the Catalans.
The Spanish State is marked by authoritarianism, by the acknowledgment of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship as the restorer of the Bourbon Monarchy over the ashes of the Spanish Republic, and it does not seem willing to subside. There is an increasingly forthright adherence to fascist National-Catholicism, which is obvious in King Felipe VI primetime public television statements celebrating the State’s security forces violence against defenseless and peaceful people.
No one in Catalonia expected the bitter and gratuitous brutality of these forces and, under closer scrutiny, even fewer currently share its actions. European MPs, intellectuals, and politicians from all over the world consider the trials against political prisoners as totally unacceptable, and the use of force – resulting in over 1000 injured civilians – in Catalonia as disproportionate. The images collected from those fateful hours should be a slap in the face of any reasonable person.
This film is an essential document in understanding the tenacity and vigour of the Catalan people’s claims. It is also a bare exposé of the Spanish State for all to see – demonstrating the true face of the only fascist dictatorship that avoided purging.
It is not a coincidence that the prosecution against the political prisoners is headed by VOX – an openly Francoist, xenophobic, and misogynist party. This same party, which calls for 25 year prison sentences just for having a popular vote, while also imprisoning people for over a year without trial, speaks blatantly of expelling tens of thousands of Africans, repealing protections for battered women, equality laws, and protections for the LGBT collective … and maintains Franco was not a dictator! With trials against the referendum’s «leaders» – one organised with no leadership – currently underway and occurring in such a fashion, they are sure to be discussed in law universities for years to come.
As And With a Smile, the Revolution points out, the refusal for dialogue on the part of the Spanish State has been unwavering. The answer is – as always – more repression.
Uplifting songs and smiles are not powerful enough before those who own the tools of repression.
The appearance of modern democracy in Spain is dismantled. The festive spirit – peaceful, cheerful, full of dignity, a bit naïve – can prove to be the most effective strategy in appealing to the shame and responsibility of democrats and good people but has little to come up with against an authoritarian body that does not obey fundamental rights and public treaties.
And yet, it is very likely this strategy of asserting and collecting grievances – turning the other cheek – might be the best course of action from all the bad-to-worse options at hand; certifying the attitude and determination of the Catalan people and – as the 130th president of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont suggests in the film’s opening – its right to be heard and respected.
– What is the overall theme or focus of 2019’s edition of DocsBarcelona?
– DocsBarcelona is not centered on a theme, but we have a focus on Latin America in a section called «Latitude». We, therefore, had two editions of the festival in the past – one in Valparaíso (Chile) and one in Medellin (Colombia). Our mission is to help documentaries reach a wide audience in Spain – but also in Latin America which we historically have a strong connection with.
– Are there some particular criterion or aspect you look for in the selection process?
– We want to have films from different countries, but the main criteria are their cinematographic value. But also an audience appeal. We have films that are very cinematographic, but also films that perhaps are less so, but that touch on a subject we feel is very appealing for the audience.
– Do you have a documentary that was seminal to your interest with the genre?
– In the 70’s I watched a Spanish film called El Desencanto (1976, Jaime Chávarri). It is a portrait of a family and I think I watched it eight or nine times. I will always remember it because it made me realize that one film can portray not only its characters but also the soul of a family. This film was for me a turning point.
– Can you think of a film that had a political or social impact in recent years?
– I believe that most films help to change something for their audience. In the space between the beginning and the end of the film people change, they discover and learn something, and that can change their point of view on a subject. But one concrete example that had a great impact is Give Up Tomorrow (2011, Michael Collins) – this film changed the death penalty in the Philippines.
– Where do you see the documentary landscape progressing in the next decade?
– The key point will be distribution. The viewer sees more and more films through individual channels, like digital platforms, paid TV and so on. And I think documentaries will occupy different spaces – for example to be used more in education.
– From our experience, access to docs through digital platforms has grown spectacularly and we expect it will grow more. Perhaps this will be the main way to discover films. The value of seeing films in a community will also grow. For the last 13 years DocsBarcelona has built a network – DocsBarcelona of the Month – and every month we premiere a film in 90 venues. In 2018, 130.000 people watched documentaries – that is including the online platform. And we stimulate the audience to not only watch but also to get involved in discussions, because they love to discuss – not to make a cinematic analysis but about the subject of the film.
«Can you believe I was right there, in Aleppo? We were drinking tea with a family at their house. They were such kind people. What is happening there now is so dreadful.»
Ten years ago, my mother – now over 80 – went on an exciting guided holiday to Syria. These days, every time she sees images from cities like Aleppo and Homs flash across her TV it upsets her. She shakes her head in bewilderment at how an ancient civilisation can turn into ruins and ash so rapidly.
How though, do Syrians perceive the situation in their country? What do people who have been locked in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons have to say? How can we find the answers? Films can offer a way in, with one such film having been made – in Oslo.
Inside a makeshift prison cell in an Oslo cellar sit three men. They have been «forced» to spend three days together in the sparsely furnished room with nothing but three single mattresses on the floor and a covered window. We hear the sounds of traffic from outside. The men have been brought together to talk about their experiences inside some of the worst prisons in Syria. There are no interviews – the men are the only people in the room, with cameras that have been set up beforehand. Director Dalia Kury – herself from Jordan, now living in Oslo with family in Syria – sits in a control room outside, making sure food is provided through a hatch in the door. Occasionally her voice breaks in asking the men to do something, but otherwise it is just the three of them. Privacy of Wounds is true to its title, sharing personal stories and scars.
The world of torture
«There are so many things I want to say, but I don’t know where to begin,» Hasan says early in the film. He currently lives in Norway and along with Mazen, who lives in Germany, belongs to the younger generation of Syrians. The third man, Khaldoon, is a few years older and lives in Switzerland. Of the three men, Khaldoon has spent the most time in prison – twelve years for hanging up protest posters. The other two have spent between six to eighteen months behind bars.
We hear the sounds of traffic from outside.
Their stories resemble a descent into hell. Gradually the men open up, and they begin with the topic of torture. Oddly enough this seems to be the easiest topic of conversation. In an almost business-like manner, they talk about water hoses, electric devices, beatings, kicks, and knocked out teeth. Watching the film, I shudder. How would I react?
All three talk about a certain numbness as if they cannot feel the pain. Instead, they wonder whether the torturer had a family. How could one of their fellow citizens have become like this, capable of literally pissing all over them?
The worst form of torture was perhaps being deprived of sunlight or hearing a wedding party pass by outside the prison walls. At these moments they would cry in their cell, cry for the Syrian people. Their sense of pride, they say, is everlasting, while their pain is temporary.
The three men keep their heads held high. They are not heroes. They are everyday Syrians.
In the film, we see them lying on thin mats, eating, drinking tea, and talking. They go from talking about torture to talking about masturbation, the fear of never having children again, and the people and things they miss the most. The tough masculine attitude eventually softens, and we get glimpses into their family life. Khaldoon, who was already an active dissident in the 1980s, was soon arrested. His father visited him in prison and said, «I am broken by your absence», with the tears dropping on his son’s face. «I would sell my own skin to set you free.» It is a powerful story – they all cry.
All three talk about a certain numbness, as if they cannot feel the pain.
It is no less powerful to hear Mazen tell the story of meeting his young son for the first time, after months of solitary confinement and a year of torture. Or when Hasan shows us how he used a chicken bone to sew up small wounds he got while in prison. He describes what it was like to see the sun again after 200 days underground – where he slept on a pile of corpses.
Democracy for the next generation
Arabic seems to render itself to a poetic form of expression. The words of the three «prisoners» certainly have a poetic quality, and their use of the language comes across as beautifully translated through the English subtitles. It is important for them to be portrayed as dignified individuals. According to them, they are now fighting for the next generation of Syrians – one with democracy and human rights – and the film offers a fascinating insight into how, despite all odds, these oppressed citizens persevere and look to the future.
Their stories resemble a descent into hell.
The director is successful in making us oblivious to the cameras in the room, as the main characters also seem to be. The genius here is that they ask their own questions. When the director interrupts sparsely, asking them to talk about a certain topic, it is almost disruptive. The great strength of the film is that it shows the three men confronted both by their memories and each other in such close confines. In one particular section they even «play around» by torture, slapping, and hitting one another.
The healing process
Privacy of Wounds can play an important part in the healing process that will have to take place in Syria one day. The film can also inform and inspire political activists and intellectuals in other repressive countries if it can even be shown in them. For the rest of us, it offers a powerful portrayal of the dignity of everyday Syrians.
Eric Motjer’s new feature film portraits four of the most prominent members of the Lebanese Christian elite, and is a fascinating look into a lifestyle most people never see, or perhaps never knew existed.
A degree of seclusion
About 40 per cent of Lebanon’s population is Christian. Seemingly numerous, this number is shrinking and so is its privileged community of wealthy people. They pass their wealth from one generation to the next, navigating the region’s instabilities by partying and looking for economic opportunities in its changing state of affairs. In their world, there is money to be made when disaster strikes and parties to keep spirits high. It is an approach that seems eccentric – if not outrageous – and is reserved for the few who can afford to stay safe, both from harm and from the need to secure daily necessities. Yet the benefits of their situation come with a degree of seclusion. Wrapped in beautiful clothes and inhabiting beautiful houses, they pass through common life realities only in transit, safe in their expensive bulletproof cars. They connect with each other and their common past, but seen in perspective, their existence is bittersweet, as their golden age has passed and is not coming back.
The opening scene sees the camera approaching from over the sea, reaching Beirut’s shore at sunset, while a man and a woman recall a story in voiceover. Soon we get to see them, a middle-aged couple looking well and tanned. They recall how when the war with Israel ended in 1982 – together with their friends – they made t-shirts with their names on the back, the front saying «Alive and tanned, Summer ‘82’», the text placed around an Israeli boat and a sunset. «War or no war, life goes on. Good life goes on, I’m sure», says the man. «Stay with us for a week and you will see how we live, just enjoying life. You won’t believe this is Beirut», he adds.
Except for the women’s Botox excesses, everything about them is good taste.
Indeed, for over an hour, their unbelievable life unfolds on the screen, aristocratic with Middle Eastern flavor. Their world is nothing like the Middle East usually seen in the media. Polyglots, elegant and preoccupied with all sorts of aristocratic pursuits, these people find it natural to reflect on things such as the importance of having a beautiful garden, with peacocks and gardeners to tend to it. Their pretentiousness and priorities are not even ostentatious, but rather fascinating. It feels incredible to see, for example, a lady recalling the time she was kidnapped. Of all things possible, she tried to convince her kidnappers to play music for her. It all feels like if the world came to an end tomorrow, the first thing these people would do is take out the silver cutlery and ask it be polished, just in case.
The film features members of the Edde family and Sheik Maurice Torbay, amongst others. Born and raised this way, they are all well educated and classy, and don’t have the need to show off what the newly rich have. Except for the women’s Botox excesses, everything about them is good taste. Their world is draped in an aesthetic of its own, one that Motjer captures in beautiful cinematic shots. One might be outraged by all this luxury and decadent freedom, but at the same time one cannot stop wondering what it must be like to live life this way.
An alien species
This need to grasp their reality, combined with their stories and luxury – and with Motjer’s cinematic shots – all feed a certain voyeuristic urge to keep looking. The camera enters their luxury parties, floating around in slow motion, looking through the layer that separates them from life outside. The images of women dancing and socializing in perfect attire and men smoking cigars feel surreal at times. It is this sense of floating in an exclusive world that creates a layering effect, an invisible coat separating this circle from the waiters and staff catering to their needs, looking at them from the side, just like the viewer. In a way, seeing them feels like looking at an alien species, a disappearing one, living a life that seems both desirable and odd.
Seeing them feels like looking at an alien species, a disappearing one, living a life that seems both desirable and odd.
Yet their existence is not all happiness. Belonging to a small circle and – most of all – to a world now only living in photo albums, gives them an air of solitude. From their privileged bubble they keep the spirit of the past alive and put their efforts into preserving and restoring the heritage of those days. Yet preserving and restoring will not bring that world back, but only keep alive the shadow of nostalgia. The world has already moved on and nothing can bring back the glory of those past days.
Millennium Docs Against Gravity abandoned the idea of having one main location (Warsaw) and has gradually added new cities. The festival is held in 6 major Polish cities, gives 14 cash awards, screens approximately 140 films and invites 80 foreign filmmakers. Against Gravity releases films in theatres, sets series of thematic screenings and has an education branch called «Akademia Dokumentalna», which provides programmes for schools and 3 major Polish Universities. It also sells approximately 100 films to various Polish TV channels and VOD platforms throughout the year. As its festival’s directors say to MTR, «We take care of the Polish premieres and work to secure the selected films’ long life in Poland.»
Is there any overall theme of this year’s festival – and why?
We have not set an a priori theme of this year’s edition. It comes naturally through the films we have curated since the time of Cannes Festival 2018. Historical memory interweaves with other subjects in several major films this year. Can we still use memory of the past for current decisions and evaluation of what is wrong? Or have we surrendered to living in a constant «the future is now» mode and neglected the experience of the past?
The documentary genre started believing in itself as a rightful part of the film industry.
A juxtaposition of fear and hope is noticeable in this year’s film program: co-existence with AI (Hi AI, More Human than Human), uncertain future of Europe as a common value (The Brink, Erasmus, Meeting Gorbacev) or neofascism on the rise (The Exit). On the one hand, the values of progress and rationalism are in danger, but on the other, we can see the seeds of hope when it comes to citizenship power, community or won battles for equality and justice (Belingcat, What you Gonna Do When the World is on Fire, Female Pleasure, Untouchable).
Nowadays, they often are film essays, aimed for cinemas, with elements of a thriller.
The programme provides the right mixture of a general perspective (Anthropocene, Push) and close ups of individuals as well as their daily struggle (Reformist, The Talking About Trees). Films on art (The Proposal, Architecture of Reality, Up the Mountain) reflect on our times too and sometimes offer surprisingly fresh approaches toward reality.
Documentary as a genre has steadily been on the rise on popularity over the past two decades – hasn’t it?
The documentary genre started believing in itself as a rightful part of the film industry. The conviction that fiction films and documentaries have one fundamental thing in common– they need to trigger emotion – makes also the latter attractive for young filmmakers and responsive young audience. Hybrid films by Michal Marczak (Fuck for Forest, All These Sleepless Nights) and their reception around the globe are a very good example of these tendencies. Another example of a documentary filmmaker who shows the genre’s values in the world of fiction landscape is Sergey Loznitsa. He has not stopped making documentaries and keeps presenting new ones in Venice and Cannes. His precision and passion depicting places, time and protagonists in his fiction films become a reference point in wider circles of the industry. This mingling of genres is one of the many reasons for a current high esteem of the documentary genre.
Any prominent changes over the past decade?
A decade ago, when films on science were made, an educational style was automatically assumed. They were 30-52 minutes long, to be easily squeezed into TV slots. Nowadays, they often are film essays, aimed for cinemas, with elements of a thriller.
Where do you see the documentary landscape progressing in the next decade?
There will be many paths. Victor Kossakovsky, with his Aquarela, has paved one of them. The new technology of 95 fps and Atmos sound 7.1 gives a documentary film the chance to become spectacular enough to reach young mass cinema audience. I am still waiting for a documentary version of House of Cards. In the period of the rapidest changes ever, documentaries are definitely going to grow in significance.
Finally, do you have a documentary that was seminal to your interest in the genre?
The documentary films of Krzysztof Kieślowski amazed me. When I heard he stopped believing in documentary as a genre, I found inspiration in films by Marcel Łozinski and Andrzej Fidyk. Neither was obsessed with the idea of the «fly on the wall», which is never is the filmmaker’s actual situation.
Isn’t it about enough by now, Norway? As it turns out, this tiny nation is actually the seventh biggest exporter of CO2 emissions.
The new global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion (XR) is now rebelling against governments who don’t take the consequences of climate change seriously. All the while, as our own government cluelessly keeps pumping up oil, we hear the clamor of XR activists worldwide: «No way, Norway! Turn around – help save the world!» No way, we prefer expanding to new oil-fields (LoSeVe, The Barents sea or the Australia bay). Norway’s official plan is to keep up the production until 2070 and the person who will finally close the valves may not even be born yet.
XR underscores that it is our «duty to act now, to guarantee our children’s welfare and safety, and to protect life on earth as such». We saw numerous campaigns this April. In Oslo, XR Norway ritually carried a black coffin filled with silver coins to the Department of Finance, to highlight their responsibility for Norway’s CO2 emissions. They planted an apple tree in front of the Parliament (see photo). Next, they conducted «die-ins» where XR members played dead: first in front of the Opera (a statement against overfishing, plastic, and acidification) and in Oslo City Mall (a protest against pollution by the clothing industry).
In London, XR blocked bridges with green plants; they stopped the traffic and barricaded embassies (including Norway’s) as an environmental protest. In the Guardian (23.04.) we could read about XR members around the world: protests against gas extraction in India; West Africans (Ghana, Nigeria, The Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Togo) finally experiencing some global solidarity – and their demonstrations in churches, market squares, and schools. In Columbia – a country where environmental activists are frequently killed – XR aims to protect the jungle and the rivers. Other XR activists in South America protest against logging in the rainforests. And XR members in Japan try hard to be heard, speaking about climate change, biodiversity and human rights – even if they are frequently ridiculed for being ishiki takai (which means something along the lines of «highly conscious» but with a negative connotation.)
XR is ambitious in its attempts at global mobilization – the goal is that 3,5% of the global population will be activated so that a new policy can be made possible. At least more and more people do participate in XR with civil disobedience, campaigns, artistic and theatrical performances, gatherings, workshops and establishing their own meeting points.
Ethics of responsibility
But will XR end up being criticized for being naïve, the way conservative majorities frequently are diminished by progressive minorities? And as many people will be arrested in these campaigns, what then motivates the individuals to rebel?
Let me briefly mention the ethics of responsibility expounded by Hans Jonas – since the long-term consequences of a globalized civilization. Jonas’ work The Imperative of Responsibility – In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (1979) can help us to better understand XR and other contemporary environmental activists. My old professor at The New School (New York City) wrote an ethics that included future generations – which is precisely the explicit concern of XR. Jonas based his argument on the responsibility of parents and the direct experience of concern for their children’s future. With this also comes the duty to attain knowledge about the long term consequences of our industrial society. Such research would come together in the discipline of what Jonas called «comparative futurology». The duty to act is no less valid even if parts of our current knowledge is hypothetical – granted that the damage is irreversible if the worst-case predictions should prove correct. As XR points out, our unsustainable civilization has disrupted nature, which has sustained itself perfectly for 400 million years.
So which facts have caused the outrage? If the Paris-goals of max 2 degrees are to be met, we will have to leave 80% of the earth’s reserves of oil, gas, and coal in the ground. Climate emissions must be limited and the carbon uptake must be increased. The oceans will rise, our supplies of drinking-water will be diminished, crops will fail, and we will be exposed to extreme weather, bushfires, migrations, diseases – all which will increase the risk of war and conflict.
In 1992 the Union of Concerned Scientists – among them several Nobel Prize Winners – issued The World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity – a warning that the ecosystems would break down due to over-exploitation. 25 years later, in 2017, without this warning being heeded, 15 000 scientists signed a new warning «To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss» reminding us that «Earth with all its life is our only home».
20 of the last 22 years have been the hottest on record on Earth. Extreme heat and drought is about to become the norm – and the last 100 years, climate-related catastrophes have doubled to about 220 a year.
More facts: Of all considered species, a loss of 40% of all amphibians is expected, 25% of mammals, 14% of the birds, and 33% of all coral reefs. The latter of which have existed for 14 million years. And fewer insects lead to reduced harvests – the total biomass of flying insects has been reduced by three quarters in only thirty years. And if you are one of those that like to spot butterflies, you’ll already be familiar with the fact that only a fifth remain from what we had a hundred years ago.
If global warming increases by 4 degrees, we will have corn harvests dropping by 85%. Antarctica will start melting and the ocean level will rise. The oceans are acidifying – CO2 emissions have increased acidification by 30%, and a 150% increase is expected before 2100.
And polluted air and the greenhouse effect is the cause of 268 million premature deaths, annually – the list goes on and on…
No wonder many people react. But what if some people feel so tormented and desperate that peaceful and non-violent protests are replaced by more forceful actions – to prevent more pollution and the disappearance of species?
This was the message implied in director and writer Nina Ossavis play Death doesn’t arrive with a sickle performed in a cabin in the Nordmarka forest north of Oslo last month – where the main topic was the terrorist Ted Kaczynski and his rage towards all destruction of nature. The monologue presented Kaczynski as a man marked by childhood trauma – someone who went too far. In the ensuing discussion we – a small audience of twenty – discussed what we would be willing to do if we were angry enough, filled by an ecological grief. No, terror was not a solution, but what about sabotage? Would one, as activist – where the social contract was experienced as broken due to the inactivity of the state – physically try to stop ecologically damaging activities?
At the same time, I wonder how much could be expected to change through a drastic break with our current ways of living? Could a better approach be to create new and local societies, ecological collectives that could be an ideal to others – aiming for long term responsibility? Is it better to act negatively or affirmatively? Should one claim the power to turn powerlessness into a slowing down of current exploitation and break the law – referring as XR does to a «responsibility to rebel»?
The last years we have seen extensive rebellions against governments all around the world, as one of our writers, Mikkel Bolt points out in his new pamphlet Occupy after Hegel (2019). We have seen Athens, Tunisia, Kairo, Madrid, Oakland, and Paris. Is a new far-sighted international resistance about to bring forth an enduring resistance capable of changing the current trends of capitalism, militarism and paralyzing governance? Will a more anarchistic, reasonable mentality, based on local communities and ethical cooperation on a global scale start settling for real?
what if some people feel so tormented and desperate that peaceful and non-violent protests are replaced by more forceful actions – to prevent more pollution and the disappearance of species?
Many are disillusioned and angry about political inaction after the Paris agreement of a 2-degree limit. When even a rich state like Norway only has concern for its own interests, ignoring environmental concerns dirtying the backyards of others, any upright person with a sense of ethical responsibility and a long-term understanding of our contemporary age, should raise their voice against our well-oiled, complacent and egoistic welfare-state with a «No way!». This can mean more direct democracy, internationalism, communism, more self-governance and friendly alliances between cities all over the world – and with many supra-national organizations, like the environmental one XR calls for.
Protests against bad government have been widespread in the last years. And why can’t civil society have more power to decide about their own lives and interests? A sense of «rebellion» has manifested itself in Greece (2008-2012), in the Green revolution in Iran (2009), the Arab Spring (2011) – or the Spanish Indignados, Occupy, Maidan in Ukraine, Nuit debout in France, Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter and new Black Panthers in the USA and the Yellow Vests in France. And Bolt supplies us with keywords like «Baghdad, Copenhagen, Hebron, Bahrain, East Jerusalem, Damascus, London and Charlottesville, all locations of powerful mobilisations of protest…»
Do we dare to be as optimistic as to hope for a new and united international movement powerful enough to take power from the world’s unethical and nihilist leadership, so that active parts of the global civil society can instead self-organize?
150 years ago, the German philosopher Nietzsche lucidly wrote: «The desert grows: woe to him who hides them!» The desert is the wasteland – die Wüste – and its significance is that of destroying, laying waste. Even if this was directed to the fact that nihilism was spreading in Europe, the result of such indifference and cynicism today is making nature desolate and creating new wastelands. The facts listed above can be read as charges against our society – with the ultimate crime.
«Woodstock Music & Art Fair presents An Aquarius Exhibition – 3 Days of Peace & Music» was the original name of what was to happen in upstate New York, August 15-18, 1969. The more one learns about the chaos and invention that became the Woodstock of common legend, the more astonishing, it seems, that it could have happened at all.
Today it seems amazing that 400,000 people would amass as they did on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York, without violence: there had been enough incidents elsewhere in the country for the risk to feel real. An incalculable amount of cannabis (and LSD) had something to do with keeping it peaceful, perhaps, but the energy drawing people together went deeper.
Today it seems amazing that 400,000 people would amass as they did without violence.
The idea to make an open-air music and crafts fair began to germinate three years before Woodstock happened. John P. Roberts and Joel Rosenman, both in their mid-20s, set out to make a buck. They had met playing golf; Roberts had inherited half a million dollars. Word got out across the country through underground newspapers and magazines.
There are now two Woodstock films, one from 1970 and one that will be launched by the American television broadcaster, PBS, in 2019 to celebrate the festival’s 50th anniversary. More than 25 years after the first film won big at the Oscars, film critic Roger Ebert wrote that Michael Wadleigh’s original Woodstock, a phenomenal documentary made out of 120 miles of film shot with 16 cameras and cut by seven editors, «created the idea of ‘Woodstock Nation’, which existed for three days and was absorbed into American myth.» The music alone filled a six-sided album that went gold a couple of weeks after it was released.
The new Woodstock (2019), directed by Barak Goodman, has a different spirit all together. It was made for the historical slot on PBS television, ‘American Experience,’ and hyped last year that it would be about the people who attended the festival, instead of mostly the performances. So what have we got now? Mostly voices from «now», and film archive from «then» laid out chronologically.
The film is loaded with shots wandering through the crowds, and on the peripheries where people found, made and shared food, and with old photographs of some of the people we hear as their much older selves, but who are portrayed only as they were then: kids and young adults. The director doesn’t want to leave the historical groove, but the words can be too didactic sometimes. We learn, but where is the emotion?
Turbulent times when love was the only answer
The new Woodstock is made from a lot of different voices, all off-camera, and often of the men who managed the event. They describe how the festival grew until no one could contain it anymore; other men talk about the war and the Draft; a few women describe what Woodstock meant for them. It’s hard to keep straight who is saying what, but in the end, knowing doesn’t really matter: these voices represent thousands more.
The film is loaded with shots wandering through the crowds.
At minute 12 someone says, «The one thing that affected everybody was the war in Vietnam.» A man describes how frightened he was of the Draft as a 17 year-old; a clip from television reports one week’s death and missing-in-action numbers and in another, reporter Dan Rather announces Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, then comes Bobby Kennedy’s murder.
Themes like the violence that cleaved class and colour then, the dramatic effect of the Pill on women’s sexual choices, and general rebellion against the Establishment, pass through this film like a bird coasting on air currents.
But for three days then, love was the answer: 400,000 lived on a trampled field and blankets, jamming the roads, and huddled around campfires at night. And then the food ran out and the storm came and communities around the field fed ‘the kids’ whatever they had. Farmer Max Yasgur’s conservatism, it seems, included respecting freedom of expression for people he didn’t necessarily agree with. He helped feed them as well; he was involved and supportive.
«The one thing that affected everybody was the war in Vietnam.»
Looking back over 50 years, it feels naive, and beautifully so, that 400,000 people expected music would connect them and love would shelter and provide for them. Some lived day to day without anyone who understood them, but here they found community: attendee Laureen Starobin said that «I could escape into my music… It was such a comfort to me.» Woodstock brought her together with people like herself.
Maybe it was Aquarian cosmic energy after all, that protected the festival from violence then, but Woodstock lives on because the film crews and recording professionals on site created the material that built Woodstock’s myth later. Their archive is a precious store!