Around 40 film professionals from 13 countries met in Lesidren, Bulgaria this past October for the first edition of the conference ”Documentary Films: Ethnic Issues and Human Rights”.

Tue Steen Müller
Previous founder/editor of the DOX magazine.

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

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

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

From Opium to Chrysanthemum

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

Life in the Ghetto by Eldora Traykova

The general message from the discussions was clear: Though the east European films travel to national and international festivals, they rarely reach a television audience. The west European films have better chances with television. The east European films are produced on very small budgets; most west European films do all right in this respect. East Europeans go from shooting on 35mm directly to video; west Europeans can sometimes afford to shoot on super16mm. East European films often have a very direct approach and are not aesthetically striking, whereas the subjects they deal with often seem to be much closer to their own spheres, whereas West Europeans travel to distant places and conflicts.

Saulius Berzinis

But ten years ago, West Europeans did not necessarily choose a strong stylistic approach either. We were very fortunate to see two ten-year-old films that I recommend festivals to pick up again as retrospectives: Panc by Sabina Pop from Romania and The Brick Stone Banner by Saulius Berzinis from Lithuania. The former deals with a village that Ceaucescu ordered to be abandoned, the latter is a strong accusation against the inhuman Soviet army through the painful story of a young soldier who shot 5 fellow soldiers after they had abused him sexually. Both films were shot on 35mm with a strong sense of the appropriate cinematic expression for the subject matter.

The most convincing recent example of a perfect match between style and content came from Switzerland. I Killed People is an impressive stylistic tour de force through a story about child soldiers in Liberia. These veteran (!) child soldiers in their early twenties describe the brutality they have experienced to the camera. The sisters Alice and Margrit Schmid have made one of the strongest documents I have seen for years. They dare to get very close to and win the confidence of the children, and they elegantly mix pictures and sound so you are sometimes listening to one story while looking at another person. By so doing, the documentary becomes exactly what editor Margrit Schmid declared at Lesidren was the intent – ”We wanted to make a poem,” she said. It is indeed a cinematic poem and a declaration of love to youngsters in a forgotten war far away from us.

Some of the images from this film still haunt my memory, as do images of desperate Bulgarian Roma, mistreated Bulgarians of Turkish origin, Eritrean war victims and Slovenian sisters looking for their roots in ex-Yugoslavia.

I asked Lithuanian director Saulius Berzinis if documentaries could change the world. ”No,” he said, ”but they can change the minds of people. But the minds of people cannot change the world. Only time can do so…”

And time requires more important documentaries on what has always been and will always be the core of documentary filmmaking: Human life.


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