Despite well-chronicled advances in the current century, documentary cinema unfortunately still continues to lag behind its fictional counterpart in terms of international exposure and renown. Latest evidence: an international poll of respected critics conducted by BBC Culture this October resulted in a list of the top 100 films made in languages other than English. Astonishingly, only two documentaries made the cut: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) at #73 and the late Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half hour Shoah (1985), which narrowly scraped in at #96. At the opposite end of the duration scale, shorts fared even worse: Chris Marker’s 28-minute La Jetée (1962) was the sole representative, a lowly #86.
These results bring up wider issues: shorts and documentaries seldom obtain the exposure they deserve and need, this neglect doubly compounded in the case of short documentaries. When it comes to non-fiction works of intermediate or medium length the situation is even more grim. Such productions, which don’t fit the narrow requirements of television channels or theatrical distribution networks, have minimal commercial potential, and they very often struggle to find suitable berths even on the film-festival circuit. Curators regularly bemoan that «mid-lengthers» – productions clocking in between, say, 30 and 60 minutes – are «difficult to programme.»
Where there’s a will, however, there is usually a way. Enterprising festivals such as FIDMarseille, IDFA in Amsterdam and CPH:DOX in Copenhagen not only find room for mid-lengthers, they regularly slot them into their highest-profile competitions. That mid-lengthers can frequently pull their weight and then some when given the chance was once again illustrated at the 16th Doclisboa film festival, which ran from the 18th to 28th of October in the increasingly hip Portuguese capital.
In an eclectic main competition, the 48-minute Topo y Wera by Jean-Charles Hue was a diamond-in-the-rough standout. At the age of 50, writer-director Hue is still comparatively little-known beyond his native France and a small coterie of switched-on cinephiles around the world. But at home his rising-star status was cemented in 2014 when his second fiction feature Mange tes morts (Eat Your Bones) won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo, bestowed annually to a French production by an emerging director.
Mange tes morts and its 2010 predecessor La BM du Seigneur (The Lord’s Ride) are both shot and set in the Yéniche community of Beauvais, 80km north of Paris, relating stories in which members of this Roma-like community – into which Hue himself was born – play fictionalised versions of themselves. His big find (who dominates both pictures) is Fred Dorkel, a non-pro actor of singular talent and presence.
Drugs and deprivation
In addition to his fictional forays, Hue makes documentaries, and has found the Mexican border-city of Tijuana an especially fruitful source of material. Topo y Wera is the latest result of his engagement with the poorest residents of an area that has long thrived on its proximity to California, but is also marked by crime-ridden deprivation. It’s a two-part work, the first section introducing us to the eponymous twenty-something lovebirds. Topo (i.e. «Mole») is an ex-gang-member whose narcos period left him scarred mentally and physically – there’s a bullet lodged in his brain; Wera, originally from Los Angeles, is a vivacious motormouth.
Hue observes the duo at close quarters as they hustle on the streets, hang out with pals, and do (lots of) drugs. Crack cocaine is our protagonists’ psychological escape route of choice from their financial woes, and Hue – operating his hand-held camera, often in cramped surroundings – never flinches from showing the practicalities and consequences of addiction. This is tough, unvarnished stuff; a glimpse into lives on the hardscrabble margins of society that many may find too much to stomach.
«Hue never flinches from showing the practicalities and consequences of addiction.»
Just after halfway, however, there is a sudden break: following a black-screen pause Hue resumes the story after a gap of years. Topo is now alone, and in circumstances so utterly reduced that his previous existence now seems in retrospect like idyllic comfort. Sustained by memories of his time with Wera, he lives in a literal hole in a wall, tucked away in a rubble-strewn sub-ghetto, which looks like the aftermath of a nuclear assault. Clearly suffering from undiagnosed and untreated mental illness he spends much of his time literally wallowing in garbage. The impact of all this is cumulatively moving and chilling.
A work of empathic humanism and brave reportage, Topo y Wera provides further confirmation that Hue ranks high among France and Europe‘s most accomplished and adventurous filmmakers – uncompromising and uncompromised, an independent intelligence with an acute social conscience. While Hue does not yet enjoy the international prominence his accomplishments warrant, he is now sufficiently established to make a mid-lengther if he so desires. To make a mid-lengther at the start of a career, however, is a risky gambit, but it’s one achieved by the 29-year-old Serbian Ivan Marković, whose quietly auspicious debut Centar premiered in Doclisboa’s New Visions sidebar.
A constructed environment
While Hue focuses on individuals in their socio-geographical context, Marković is primarily concerned with the constructed environment, especially one particular edifice in the middle of the Serbian capital Belgrade. Designed by architect Stojan Maksimović, the Sava Centar, a colossal facility on the banks of the Sava River, is a grand relic of Yugoslavia’s final, late-seventies days of confident glory under its long-serving ruler Josip Broz, a.k.a. Tito.
Host to countless major music events, congresses, festivals (including Magnificent Seven, showcasing documentaries on a gigantic screen) and contests over the decades, the Sava Centar – which extends over 100,000m² and seats 4,000 in its Great Hall – finds itself in an uncertain position in terms of finance and future status. It’s owned by Belgrade city council, but the municipal authorities are keen to share this honour with private partners – none of which have proved willing to come on board. Maintenance on such a structure is a costly business, and while the Sava Centar continues to be regularly used for events, certain areas have gradually slid into disrepair.
«The Sava Centar is a grand relic of Yugoslavia’s final days of glory under its long-serving ruler Josip Broz, a.k.a. Tito.»
Marković’s film Centar is a stately portrait of a stately landmark seen almost exclusively from the inside. In what he admits is an editorial choice («it’s not always so empty,» he conceded in a post-screening Lisbon Q&A, having earlier introduced the film as «an abstraction of reality»), he emphasises the vacancy of these imposing interiors. Tripod-fixed cameras observing with robotic detachment the day-to-day practicalities of upkeep: a small army of green-shirted workers go about their tasks with quiet efficiency, although, given the Serbian tendency to gregariousness, the viewer senses that there’s a certain «look professional, the boss may be watching» air about proceedings.
Through Marković’s lenses – his images have a compellingly sharp clarity throughout – the Sava Centar takes on the contours less of some bygone, socialist-era edifice and more of a 21st century spaceship as imagined by the filmmakers of previous decades. In one striking sequence, hangar-like doors in a grand chamber slowly open onto a pitch-black void, looking like a portal into deep space.
The second half of the film moves closer to the Sava Centar’s human «inhabitants» including close-ups of morose-looking employees passing the time between shifts. End-title cards relate certain key details of the Centar, but otherwise Marković eschews explanation or narration just as he dispenses with soundtrack music. The images and sounds of this bizarre place – bypassed by history but surely worth maintaining for future use and future generations – are left to speak for themselves in a 49-minute film that feels as though it runs an appropriate length: Just this – no more and no less.