Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

ALTERNATIVE REALITY: The diffident return to key questions by the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen.

The term “experimental documentary” indicates a certain hesitation, if not doubt, about the concept of reality. How can reality itself be captured and represented? What are the right structures, concepts and patterns to exhibit reality? The term “documentary” refers to a “real” event, which is examined. So in one sense, “experimental documentary” questions our traditionally accepted patterns of reality, presented in logical, homogenous and narrative structures, which are able to capture and represent a reality. In another sense, the experimental documentary can be seen as an illusion, a suggestion and, in the best of cases, a diminution, directed by simplified intentions.

How can documentaries deal with events that, for example, were never officially documented either in writing or with audiovisual aids? Is this the limit of true representation?

Experimental narratives. South African filmmaker Simon Gush defies such a limitation in his work Invasion. His film re-enacts eyewitness statements in a simple and understated fashion: Actors sit on a chair in an empty, uncomfortable room, and read the accounts of those who wish to remain anonymous. An image of a landscape surrounding an artificial lake is shown on-screen. The landscape itself is insignificant, and difficult to locate. The texts speak of a South African military attack against a water resort in Lesotho, the small, land-locked kingdom surrounded by South Africa on all sides. The lake in question is the result of a contract, signed 12 years prior, between representatives of both South Africa and Lesotho – and voted on in dubious circumstances. The population of Lesotho did not want to lose their water resource to a South African industry complex. Their peaceful resistance was answered with brutal armed attacks. In comparison with other “world news” events, however, this was considered marginal.

Invasion by Simon Gush

“How can documentaries deal with events that were never officially documented?”

Insisting on telling this specific story is in itself somewhat “experimental”, proving the limits of sensitivity in an international public that’s already overwhelmed by violence and daily atrocities. By insisting on a detail, marginality is brought into question.

Reconstructing reality. The experimental reconstruction of reality could be composed by just a set of sensations and dispersed details avoiding any forced suggestions. The focus may simply be reduced to nameless voices telling their stories, beyond the delivery of specific details such as times and places.

In The Separate System, British filmmaker Katie Davies demonstrates one example of this approach. Her camera only shows specific details – like the eyes of a speaker, their notes on paper, or simple house structures, parking spots and advertisements. An empty living space is established, and it is this emptiness that becomes the main focal point of the narrative. Davies offers a space to prisoners – most of them veterans – who struggle to find their way back into civilian society. Too many years were spent in an environment where violence was stimulated and constantly practiced. Ill prepared for any kind of job or working capacity and with few personal belongings, they find themselves isolated and often mistrusted. Confronted with such frustrating situations, the occurrence of a violent outbreak is often just a question of time for some of these individuals. As such, a return to prison might be regarded as a homecoming; at least inside the prison walls they have some sort of daily structure and obligations to meet.

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