Journalist Patrick Harley was our roving reporter at Document 2016. Here he recounts his experience through the weekend.
This time last week, the Document International Human Rights Film Festival had just called time on its 14th edition, one that chairman of the board David Archibald described as being “one of the best, if not the best” years for the festival he’d ever seen. The chairman, of course, has no input on the programming side of things (that having been overseen by co-ordinators Eileen Daily, Sam Kenyon and Sean Welsh), but if that still seems too biased, I can give my own opinion: this year’s Document was the strongest and most thought provoking I have attended, both as cinematic showcase and call to action.
When planning this write-up, I originally considered separating it into distinct parts, each with its own theme, thread or angle. Yet the more I thought on my experience of the weekend, the more I realised the overarching heart of this year’s programme – and that, simply put, is freedom.
Because I still love a subheading though, let’s look back and break things down a bit.
The freedom to have a safe home
Before the festival’s opening film played to a near full house in the CCA Theatre, co-ordinator Sam Kenyon emphasised how Document seeks to expose people not only to socials issues, but also to the “poetics of documentary” itself, and just how powerful it is for us to be able to receive these images at all. Kings of Nowhere could not have followed this mission statement more perfectly.
Beautifully and hauntingly shot, the film tells of the waterlogged Mexican village of San Marcos. With the few remaining occupants transporting themselves around the half-destroyed settlement by boat or by mule, the decaying and overgrown buildings lend the visuals a dreamlike quality, yet their quietness also betrays a sense of loss. For those villagers still living there, San Marcos is a literal ghost town. Flooded by the government’s construction of the Picachos dam in 2009, the population has shrunk from 300 families to three, and the ones that remain live surrounded by both the spirits of the past and the dangers of the present.
Fearful of any passing vehicle, the exact nature of the threat plaguing the villagers’ psyches is never clarified (and with the line between police force and cartel in parts of Mexico becoming increasingly blurred, it’s unlikely to make a difference), but statements like “they chopped Ricardo into little pieces” leave us in little doubt as to its seriousness. “When it gets ugly, it’s scary,” one woman tells the camera, “locked doors won’t do you any good.”
Yet perhaps what’s most striking in Kings of Nowhere, is not what its subjects have lost, but what they have retained. In one moment, a woman affectionately argues with her rancher husband about his ability to lasso wandering souls in the town’s moonlit graveyard. In another, a second couple explain their mission to fix up the local church, showing thanks to God for letting them survive. “What we went through isn’t so bad,” they say. It seems that, despite everything, one thing the people of San Marcos will always have is their humanity.
But holding onto that sense of self can be struggle, particularly in the face of constant displacement – a battle the festival’s focus on the ongoing refugee crisis often showed. In Dreaming of Denmark, director Michael Graversen follows the journey of Wasiullah. An Afghan native who has spent his formative years awaiting asylum in Denmark, when he turns 18, Wasi’s request is rejected, leaving him no choice but to accept deportation or travel illegally to Italy in hope of better fortune. With post-traumatic stress disorder clouding memories of his birthplace and neither European state making his resettlement easy, Wasi’s past ties him to multiple nations, yet he can safely be citizen of none. He is quite literally homeless.
With Wasi finding himself reliant upon the kindness of strangers, the film showcases the power and importance of human connections: ones that transcend borders and, at times, laws (indeed, Graversen admitted during a post-screening Q&A that his time spent travelling with Wasi often placed him in those grey areas of legality where being humane becomes a crime). Moments where Wasi and his Ethiopian-born friend Mussa simply act like teenagers on camera are beautiful to watch, yet with the latter having been granted right to stay in Denmark, there is always a sense of sadness in the air. As his stresses grow, the effects of Wasi’s PTSD worsen. Suddenly he forgets Denmark and even forgets Mussa. To see that bond severed is tragic: how can a young man feel accepted by society when he has not only no home, but also no memory of ever having had one?
A fact brought home by Wasi’s story as well as the short films presented by GRAMNet (Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network) is that isolation and dehumanisation can often go hand-in-hand. In Frederik Subei’s Transit Zone there is a heart-breaking progression in which a young Sudanese man, Teefa, moves from an idealisation of England to hatred of its very being. Having dreamed of living there his whole life, his struggles to leave Calais leave him reflective and angry. “Why would I want to go somewhere that doesn’t want me?”, he announces in frustration. Meanwhile, in Anne-Claire Adet’s Bunkers we find ourselves plunged into Geneva’s subterranean refugee camps. With the structures originally built to withstand nuclear war, we hear from one resident who was a journalist in his native Sudan and now isn’t even deemed deserving of a home with a window. It’s difficult to retain a sense of belonging when your life is so hidden, it has literally been pushed underground.
The freedom to be who you are
That feeling of forced concealment was a major theme in this year’s films, with Micah Fink’s The Abominable Crime shining light on two stories from Jamaica’s LGBTQ community. With anti-gay discrimination woven so deeply into the nation’s fabric, the title is taken directly from Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law – the only one in which the crime is given moral judgment within the wording of the document itself. There is no “ghastly crime” of murder, no “fiendish crime” of rape, but there is the “abominable crime” of homosexual sex. With this as a starting point, it’s no wonder that Jamaican MPs such as Ernest Smith feel comfortable standing up in parliament to express concerns that “homosexuals have become too brazen”.
With 82% admitting that they are prejudiced against homosexuals, much of Jamaican society agrees with him, Fink’s film telling the stories of Simone Edwards, a lesbian single mother forced to flee the country following an attempt on her life, and Maurice Tomlinson, a lawyer and activist whose principals have spurred him to put his own safety aside in order to return. Also appearing at this year’s festival In Conversation, Tomlinson’s inspirational work has seen him spearhead the first ever legal challenge to this discriminatory law – but with some of Jamaica’s most influential religious bodies registering themselves as “interested parties” in the case, he’ll have his work cut out. After all, it’s difficult to argue against an opponent that believes their position is ‘essential to avoiding the potential extinction of the human race’.
As remarkable as such statements may seem to those of us on the outside, however, Tomlinson was keen to emphasise that an air of high-and-mightiness is never the most productive route. Using the acronym “ARE”, he encouraged Document attendees to consider that, if we want to help constructively, we must first:
- “Acknowledge” that Britain and America are responsible for importing homophobia to Jamaica through religious and cultural colonisation;
- Show “Respect”, treating both Jamaica’s local authorities and its activists with manners, not Holier-than-thou haughtiness, and accept that they can do the work themselves. Help is appreciated, a saviour complex is not.
- And finally, “Engage” with the positives by realising that Jamaica is successfully moving toward such things as a reduction in homophobia and a decrease in HIV. Do not focus on what you might see as “backwards” – nobody likes to be patronised.
Indeed, the fight against belittlement took a central role in one of the weekend’s other standout black queer films, Marlon Riggs’ seminal Tongues Untied. Originally released in 1989, it plays as a statement of empowerment: a call to arms by a group of men no longer willing to accept the idea that to be both black and gay is somehow laughable. Through a mix of spoken testimonial, poetry and potent editing, Riggs’ film states that no black gay man should feel a need to prioritise just one of either their race or their sexuality, and that nor should they remain silent, bottling up their sadness as if agreeing that their two-fold marginalisation makes them the lowest of the low.
Closer to Tomlinson’s sentiments still is Tongues Untied’s central message that black gay men should not be reliant upon their non-black counterparts for salvation. Fetishised by the homosexual community, several contributors state that their first open sexual encounters came from white men with less obstacles to contend with. “To trust passion again: what a joy,” one speaker relates, “that it should come from a white boy with grey-green eyes: what a curse.” Bookended by its repeated refrain of “brother-to-brother”, Riggs’ film is structured as – and calls for – a progression from silence to acceptance, not just of oneself, but also the unique community these men form. As a result, an extended sequence of uninhibited group dancing toward the film’s close feels not just like an act of enjoyment, but also one of defiance. A statement that carries us toward what should be the most prevailing of all human freedoms…
The freedom to be part of the world
The most admirable thing about this year’s Document programme was its diversity. On the festival’s final day, I watched Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side, a controversial American docu-fiction hybrid exploring the lives of both drug addicts and Second Amendment defending militia men, as well as Closing Gala film, Plaza de la Soledad, which provides voice to Mexico City’s ageing prostitutes. They were, of course, entirely different, yet what stands out about both is the complete absence of judgement. Despite dealing with topics as difficult as violence, abuse and childhood sexualisation, Plaza de la Soledad is at points joyous to watch, taking its tonal cues not from the directorial outsider, but from the strength and positivity of the women onscreen. In The Other Side, meanwhile, many viewers would likely experience revulsion as they witness a man inject drugs into the breast of a pregnant stripper, and bafflement as they listen to a gun toting conspiracy theorist offer legitimately insightful commentary on American interventionism. What Minervini deftly captures, however, is one universal truth – these people are human beings, just like us.
Whatever our experience, all of us have the right to exist. Perhaps this is partly why Jury Prize Winner, Tempestad, left such an impression. Though not my personal favourite film of the festival, its story of two women caught in Mexico’s invisible war is an essential one. Imprisoned without reason or trial – Miriam Carbajal’s ordeal reminds us of the horrifying fact that many still live in a world where somebody can say the words: ‘we know you didn’t do anything, but somebody has to be punished’. There is no better illustration of humanity’s innate fear of freedom, a word still frequently seen as a synonym for disobedience, or even disorder – a threat to some perceived sense of harmony.
To borrow once more from the words of chairman of the board David Archibald: “Document stands not in that tradition, but absolutely swims against it.” Long may it continue.