An unexpectedly dry mid-October in an Oxford mildly affected by bird-flu terror, with the dramatic photo of a Romanian chicken on the cover of “Newsweek”. In a small restaurant, a woman dances while carrying a whole fried chicken adorned with colourful ribbons: it’s a Romanian wedding “hen dance” and the hen is part of a folk custom meant to secure the well-being of the newlyweds. “My hen from Bacau / was denied a visa in Heathrow,” sings the woman about the (frozen) Romanian chicken lost at the airport with the rest of her luggage and replaced at the last minute by a British, and incidentally organic, bird.
I’m starting with the chicken not only because it took place just a block away from an OXDOX venue but also because it points at the practices employed by diasporic communities to assert their mutating identities. Subtitled “Worlds in Transition” (here identified by the New Accession States), OXDOX was greatly focused on notions of identity, particularly given its position as a relatively young festival attempting to build its own tradition.
“European films are films produced in Europe and reflecting European values. These films are directed by European directors and are produced with European funding in order to be distributed in the countries of the new Europe,” states an EU official in Jan Gogola’s film from “Across the Border”. As a central issue of the “new Europe”, cultural identity sells. The past decade has seen a growing interest, from both commissioning/funding bodies and academic film studies, in films that visualise experiences of mobility, border-crossing and identity-hyphenation. Film scholars refer to a ‘cinema of duty’ emerging in areas where cultural policies become too abrupt and filmmakers are tempted to concentrate on representations meeting the priorities of the funding bodies.
Most of the OXDOX films were much more than a “cinema of duty” inspired by bureaucratic definitions. But there is still a need to think beyond performances of duty on both commissioning and programming levels to avoid ending up with maps of the imagination that would fetishize either “difference” or “similarity”. “There has to be more to the New Accession States than Kirsty Wark’s “Tales from Europe,” remarked a member of the audience about his reason for attending OXDOX – and indeed there was. OXDOX presented richly textured accounts of life within different communities prone to ambiguity and confusion of values (e.g. “Dancing Bear Park” or “Georgi and the Butterflies”) rather than by-products of abruptly inclusive euro-optimism. Although the former communist countries of East Central Europe are the usual suspects when it comes to “transition”, let’s not forget that the existing EU states are themselves “worlds in transition” in their own right.
Another modern buzzword is “hybridization”, i.e. a rapidly evolving broadcasting environment that leads to the crossbreeding of previously separated documentary traditions. While Western Euro-American documentary was commonly perceived as the imprint of various instances of freedom (i.e. liberal democracy, liberating technology), the documentary output of the former communist states still comes with the “censorship” label attached by default and mainly acknowledged on a thematic level. The Q&A with Lithuanian filmmaker Valdas Navasaitis (“Autumn Snow” and “Spring”) at OXDOX was a good reminder of the ways in which stylistics is not only an inventory of tropes but also the imprint of social and political processes that inform filmmaking in unexpected ways. The discussion revealed the process through which the prestigious Lithuanian “school” of poetic documentary took shape not only in response to technical and political restrictions but also to spaces of freedom allowed by the system. It also exposed the distinct expectations constructed in relation to documentary practice within differently situated professional cultures, when a filmmaker, impressed by what he perceived as Navasaitis “remarkable access” to a funeral, asked him about his specific strategy to ensure that access. The Lithuanian smiled, “We didn’t need access or papers signed at the time, we just placed the camera and shot.”
OXDOX has grown from 20 to 100 films over the past three years. While acting as a showcase for challenging films and filmmakers (Grigsby, Longinotto, Phillibert), the festival did not attract the audience that might have benefited from the picture of diversity it enabled. It also didn’t include one of the (now customary) pitching sessions. While that may be a sign of the festival’s focus on the audience, there is still a question about the viability of a documentary festival conceived almost in the absence of the industry. If OXDOX decides to stay on the same track, it will need a more coherent strategy of boosting the appetite for documentary of a primarily academic urban community potentially satiated with factual TV formats and which does not regularly benefit from a venue specialized in documentary programming. What may be needed for the next OXDOX is precisely an examination of festival’s own, still unclear, identity in transition.