As technological developments made this division impractical, however, the IDFA changed its competition categories, starting in 2001, to feature length and short docs – with sixty minutes as the dividing line.In the second year of this division, ULLA JACOBSEN followed the Silver Wolf competition to see what the shorter form could offer.
Sitting through the Silver Wolf competition at the IDFA was not a pleasant, leisurely activity as the documentaries were constantly confronting the viewers with the harsh realities in the world of 2002: like corruption, abuse of power, deadly violence, world conflict areas, the subjugation of women and loneliness. In addition, most of them were powerful and shocking – and merciless.
At the Silver Wolf competition, another line could be drawn in terms of storytelling. Approximately half the films were one television hour (50-60 min.) in length, and the other half were shorter. Whereas the TV-hour docs were definitely high quality and more cinematic than the average doc we see on TV, the shorter part comprised more experimental, playful and stylistic films.
Short Form with a Stylistic Concept
Sonia Goldenberg (Peru) has taken a sarcastic approach to the corruption scandal in Peru that led to the fall of president Fujimori. As the head of the secret service, Montesinos recorded his own briberies with a concealed camera over a long period of time, and the discovery of these recordings generated the scandal. In Eye Spy (35 min.), Goldenberg blends excerpts from the video tapes, showing briberies and undercover agreements, with news footage and children accusing the president of stealing their money. This is commented on by a sugary, but very sarcastic, second-person voiceover addressing the corrupt men as they carry out their affairs. The film is organised in chapters with individual titles to make the film a metaphor of the scandal: it presents it as an absurd, distasteful piece of fiction. Very effective.
The Norwegian My Body (26 min.) by Margreth Olin (see DOX#44) also explores a stylistic concept. It is told in a light and humorous tone, but manages to communicate a very personal trauma for the filmmaker and elevates her trauma into a general problem shared by women. Bravely she tells how she grew to be ashamed of various parts of her body due to the comments she received during her life from other women. This inflicted physical and mental pain on her, and only when she finally gave birth to two children did she actually come to terms with her body. With her personal voiceover as the guiding principle, the film is told through pictures of her body, showing her at various consultations and situations, and stylistically re-enacted dream sequences or montages that add comic relief to a film that reveals the self-subjugation of modern liberated women – without indulging in self-pity.
Village B. (33 min.) by Filip Remunda (Czech Republic) plays with the narration by letting the main character appear to direct the film. It portrays a small Czech town that has a premiere league football team – but not much else, and disillusion makes people long for the communist era. The film’s voiceover of the main character, a school teacher and amateur filmmaker, tells how he think a film about the village should be made, which is quite formal. The camera obeys him and uses some of his footage too, but by adding its own commentary in the style of filming and editing, the direction is retained by the filmmakers in a less formal and light tone.
In the The Ukrainian Cleaning Woman (Poland, 20 min.), Pawel Lozinski builds up his story very simply: he sympathetically portrays a lonely woman longing for her family and daughter she had to leave behind in Ukraine when she left to work in Poland for economic reasons. He simply films his own cleaning assistant while she cleans his house and cooks and gets her to talk about her life and about love. Even though she opens her heart to Lozinski, her face constantly reveals that deep down inside she is profoundly sad. A simple format that does a fine job of telling the story of many emigrants today.
Life as It Is (Russia, 20 min.) by Marina Razbezhkina is a poetic tale with no straight storyline or narration. It is about a lonely woman farmer who longs for someone to love. Filmed in black and white, we follow fragments of her everyday work in rain, wind and darkness and her leisure activities, which consist of singing along with romantic schmaltz from the radio, reading personal ads and magazine horoscopes. Her real contact with the outside world consists of tractors passing by on their way to another town, but she never takes a ride, until the end of the film, which suggests that she might be taking a new path, as she has finally taken a ride with a tractor. Though nothing is revealed. In nothing but pictures and sound with a soundtrack that adds an atmosphere alternating between loneliness and joy, the film drags you into her inner dream world as a contrast to her drab everyday life.
A total different pace typifies When the War Is Over (52 min.) by François Verster (South Africa). Filmed and edited in a fast, jump-cut style, its mood is nervous, which goes well with the theme – violence and killing among gangs in a Cape Town township. The two protagonists are friends, former members of a guerrilla branch of the ANC. What to do now ’when the war is over’ is the theme. Marlon has become a gang member and Gori an army captain who try to prevent gang killings. Verster cuts back and forth between the two men’s lives, meeting them in their private lives and at work/in their gang activities. Verster is at the middle of the action – even when the gangs plan their skirmishes and flash their weapons – and uses his intense style to suck the audience into the tension filled atmosphere along with him from the very first second of the film.
Another very cinematic TV-hour doc is A Man Aside (59 min.) by Bettina Perut & Iván Osnovikoff (Chile). It follows the rather sad life of an elderly Spanish immigrant, Ricardo Liano, who used to have a flourishing career as a boxing promoter. Now he is poor and lonely and never sees his family, but refuses to face reality. He initiates feeble projects to win back fame, money – and his family. He becomes obsessed with the idea of someone making a documentary about him; he even sees himself as a film star and wants to influence the script. He has conversations with a scriptwriter his own age, who constantly confronts Liano with his reality. They discuss his life by discussing the film plot. When Liano states the film is about a winner, the scriptwriter argues that it is about a loser. These conversations cleverly expose how Liano clings to his self-image. It is a sad moment when he is finally brought to the point where he admits he is a sad lonely man, and the last scene of him alone in the dark in front of the TV set is very moving. It is a beautifully made film.
The Israeli/Palestinian conflict was presented in two personal films. Yulie Cohen Gerstel made My Terrorist (Israel, 58 min.) about her own dramatic story. In 1978 she survived a terrorist attack in London made against Israeli El Al crew members. The terrorist is now imprisoned in London, and the film is about how Yulie contacts him and helps him to get out of jail. An amazing, courageous story, and she encounters both the opposition and support of fellow countrymen. After the September 11 attack, she almost succumbs to the wave of hatred against Muslims, but manages to overcome this feeling and stick to her conviction that Israel is also responsible for creating terrorists by its own policy. It demands great strength from the filmmaker to expose her own vulnerability and doubts in front of the camera.
Danielle Arbid, a Lebanese filmmaker who grew up in France, decided to make On Borders (France/Belgium, 59 min.) from Israel’s outer borders, to make Israel look as impenetrable as it does to Palestinian refugees. She travels through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt talking to the people who live along these borders, all of whom long for their lost land and many of whom hate Israelis with all their hearts.
Subjugation of Women
The two most terrifying films I saw were films in which women first were traded like cattle, then forced into a miserable life and subsequently killed. Against My Will by Ayfer Ergün tells the story of a Pakistani woman who escaped a failed marriage in which she was ill-treated. Yet after the family convinced her to return home, she was shot dead by a relative. At the shelter to which she ran away, the filmmaker hears similar stories told by fellow women who live in fear for their lives. And Along Came a Spider by Maziar Bahari reveals this same lack of women’s rights in Iran. A fanatic man, Saeed Hanei, killed sixteen women prostitutes as a self-proclaimed action to clean up society. He is punished and sentenced to death, but the attitude revealed by most of the men who are interviewed – including his son – shows that they support what he did. Both films are really well-made and shocking in their close-ups of the massive subjugation of women in the two countries.
The winning film brings me back to the issue of corruption. Interesting Times: The Secret of my Success (China) deals with corruption and abuse of power in a local village government in China. Filmmaker Jinchuan Duan gets incredible access to observe the – sometimes very questionable – actions leading up to the election of a new village head and committee. It is rare to get such insight into everyday life in China and even show things that criticise the democratic procedures. It is part of a series that will be dealt with in the next issue of DOX.