This Saturday, we team with our good friends Africa In Motion Film Festival for a special screening of Action Kommandant (Nadine Angel Cloete, 2016). Action Kommandant is the untold story of the South-African anti-apartheid freedom fighter, Ashley Kriel. Known as the ‘Che Guevara’ of Cape Town’s notorious Cape Flats, Kriel became an icon of the 1980s youth resistance before being murdered by apartheid police at the age of twenty. Through a mix of animated sequences, previously unreleased archival footage, and intimate testimony from family, comrades, and his closest friends, this captivating biopic offers a necessary confrontation with South Africa’s fraught past that finds particular relevance today as a new generation of young activists – both in South Africa and beyond – demand historical redress.
This screening is part of AiM’s newly inaugurated documentary competition, sponsored by Scottish Documentary Institute, which aims to encourage and support young and talented African filmmakers. The winner is selected by their jury of acclaimed film practitioners and academics and will be announced after the screenings on the second day. The audience will also have the opportunity to vote for their favourite film with the Audience Award winner announced on AiM’s website at the end of the festival.
Action Kommandant | 05/11 | 8pm | CCA Glasgow | Tickets here, or by phone: 0141 352 4900.
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.
On Tuesday 18/10 we hosted a free Document 2016 preview event in the Govanhill Baths. The audience were treated to homemade soup, drinks and a sneak peak at the festival line-up, including a screening of Michael Graversen’s Dreaming of Denmark. Thanks to Michael for allowing us to screen his film (twice), to Stevie and all at the Baths for hosting us and of course everyone that came along to check out the programme. Hopefully see some of you again this weekend!
Yasmine’s Moroccan soup
Bread courtesy of the Freedom Bakery
The audience arrives!
Co-coordinators Sam + Eileen serving soup, bread, beer + soft drinks to the audience
Film Journalist Patrick Harley on his picks from Document 2016’s programme.
With over 40 events taking place across three-and-bit days, the Document 2016 programme is as densely packed as it is varied. Document, of course, is a festival that reveals facts and, sadly, one fact is that it’s just not possible to see everything. So, if you’ve browsed the brochure, but circled all of it, or scanned the website, but found too many favourites to count, here are my personal festival picks. I can’t promise you a list with zero overlap though; some decisions are so difficult, even I haven’t made them yet!
Bringing together seven separate stories, Maxì Dejoie and Virginija Vareikytė’s film deals with unanswered questions, unresolved pain and life-changing decisions. From freedom fighter to KGB officer, exiled writer to former interrogator, this examination of a difficult and complex past is conducted from both sides – something mirrored by the contrast of archive and new footage; the stories told during the Soviet Era are markedly different from the stories told today.
When news of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony’s 20-year reign of terror became a viral sensation in late 2012, the world seemed certain it had uncovered a modern monster, hiding in plain sight. What, then, does that make Yoweri Museveni, the dictator that has overseen the displacement and destruction of Uganda’s Acholi people, yet regularly rubs shoulders with both US presidents and UK royalty? Engrossing and important viewing in its own right, the film will also serve as a keynote for Document’s critical forum discussion, Looking for Truth: Programming Documentary Film Festivals, which will follow directly afterward.
With the need for America’s Black Lives Matter movement currently seeming to be demonstrated on a weekly (if not daily) basis, there is no better time to address Britain’s own problems with discrimination and law enforcement. In 2011, riots tore their way across London – The Hard Stop traces things back to the moment that sparked it all: the murder of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police and the atmosphere that allowed it to happen.
Though opening and closing galas Kings of Nowhere and Plaza de la Soledad might bookend festival, it would be remiss of me not to draw equal attention to their Desaparecidos strand stablemate. Reflecting on the nightmarish inescapability of a system that allows those in power to act with impunity, Tempestad gives voice to the haunting and human journey of two women struggling against the tides of corruption.
One telling of Jamaica’s fierce anti-gay laws and the other of New York’s fiercest teen subculture, in some ways The Abominable Crime and Kiki may seem at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet both revolve around concerns of prejudice, identity and equality for LGBTQ people-of-colour. With black queer voices still vastly underrepresented, this year’s Document finds multiple opportunities to place them at the forefront. Indeed, I could have filled most of this list with the festival’s Marlon Riggs: Freaky Free retrospective, but some things go without saying: see everything you can.
Activist Maurice Tomlinson will also be attending the festival In Conversation following Saturday’s screening of The Abominable Crime.
Literal fire and brimstone fuel this meditation on the destructive effects of the Chinese mining industry. Viewing both society and the environment as under threat, director Zhao Liang’s visual poem draws directly on Dante’s The Divine Comedy, seeing both the flames of hell and the never-ending toil of purgatory in his country’s grimly insistent march toward industrialisation.
Two years ago, Document hosted a screening of Nowhere Home. A festival highlight, it shone heart-breaking light on the situation facing Norway’s underage asylum seekers, often kept in a state of perpetual waiting until they reach 18, before being sent home to a near certain death. Despite unfolding in a different part of Scandinavia, Dreaming of Denmark seems a natural companion piece: the story of what happens to those 18-year-olds that would rather disappear than die.
Something of an anomaly in the programme, the latest from Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini has been openly described by its creator as treading “the fine line between documentary and fiction”. A mix of observation and re-creation, Minervini employs a level of cinematic technique he deems necessary to tell a story that is testament to the lives of his subjects – drug addicts and militia members who inhabit the fringes of society. Surely an intriguing and provocative way to round-off a weekend where the conveyance of truths promises to be just as captivating as the truths themselves.
Patrick Harley is a freelance film journalist who has written for TVBomb, VirginMedia and the Directory of World Cinema: Scotland.
I have known Miriam, the protagonist of Tempestad, for twenty years. We have shared all kinds of experiences, joys and sorrows throughout our lives. She has always struck me as a strong, inquisitive and rebellious woman, possessed of an unusually intense joie de vivre.
Miriam was imprisoned in a very violent jail in northern Mexico. She was accused of people trafficking even though there wasn’t a single piece of proof to demonstrate her guilt.
When she got out of prison and we met again, I felt that something vital in her had died. Miriam couldn’t look me in the eyes. And although, on that occasion, we spoke of simple, everyday things, she had a facial tremor that she could not control.
Shortly after that meeting, a package arrived at my house, posted from Cancún; it was from her. It was a box full of scraps of paper she had written on while in prison: poems in which she vomited out all the fear and sorrow of her experiences. The darkness and sadness in her words struck a chord in both my head and my heart. Never before in the twenty years we had known one another had I seen such a dense shadow cast over her, such a profound, immeasurable wound.
My perception of the damage that had transformed Miriam brought me into violent proximity with my own fragility, my own fear.
I proposed to Miriam that we should work together to make a film using her story, and she agreed to share her testimony with us. She told me that breaking her silence about the violence she had suffered in jail returned to her a sense of her own life.
This film explores what fear means in the life of a human being, and what it is we lose when we are faced with impunity. Parallel to the process with Miriam, I embarked on an in-depth research project to seek out other stories that could, in some way, be intertwined with Miriam’s, accompanying the testimony of this film with a second voice. That was when I met Adela, a woman from a circus background who was looking for her vanished daughter. Adela conveyed to me, with the same force as Miriam, the irreversible transformation her life had suffered. Ten years before, her daughter Mónica had left home for university and had never returned. The ineptitude of the authorities and their collusion with the criminals have made Adela and her family doubly victims. They have now gone into hiding after receiving threats, and continue to search for Mónica alone, trying to stay sane despite the uncertainty over whether their daughter is alive or not.
When it came to the formal construction of Tempest, I decided that the narrative device should be a journey across Mexico from north to south. The story therefore begins in Matamoros, northern Mexico, evoking the day on which Miriam was set free and began her journey home, more than 2,000 km away. I followed the route she took, travelling on buses, stopping at sleazy hotels, bus stations and on the highways of Mexico – these days full of police and military roadblocks.
The fact that we do not see the image of Miriam in the film but only hear her voice was one of the most crucial formal decisions in the construction of Tempest. As a result, in this case, her voice is not related directly to a single face but to many faces along the way, creating the sense that what happened to Miriam could happen to anybody living in Mexico today.
I believe that in this country, somebody else has taken control of the course of our lives, of our future, of our desires and our dreams.
The story of Miriam is intended as a mirror in which we can see ourselves reflected not only in her pain and fragility, but also in the dignity displayed by her and the other characters along the way, all of whom – in different ways and from different standpoints – resist accepting that they must live with the fear created by the violence in Mexico.
Tempestad screens during Document 2016 at 8:30pm on Friday 21 October in the CCA Theatre. Buy tickets here.
Our 2016 brochure is hitting the streets! Keep an eye out for it in venues across across the city (and drop us a line here if you’d like to know where to find one). Tickets for all our events are available from CCA.
And if you can’t wait to pick up a physical copy, check it out now via Issuu:
Your first three films, The Passage, Low Tide, and Stop the Pounding Heart, comprise what you have called the “Texas trilogy”. Your last work, The Other Side, explores and tells the stories of the people and places of Louisiana. How did you make contact with these communities?
I came to Louisiana thanks to Todd Trichell, the patriarch of the bull riders you see in Stop the Pounding Heart and the father of Colby, the boy who is the protagonist of the film. For me Todd was a sort of guide, introducing me to the ways and places of the south of the US. He has a difficult story of his own which resonates with the people of Louisiana. He saved himself, left the poverty and ruins of Louisiana to try his luck in fertile, rich Texas, and made a life for himself there. He’s the only one of his circle who succeeded in getting out. The family we see in Louisiana is related to Todd: his sister, Lisa, is the girlfriend one of the protagonists of The Other Side. Because of this, I started working in West Monroe in north Louisiana to get to know Todd’s and his family’s roots. The initial idea was to explore Todd’s past so I could better understand his present and then work backwards. But once I got to Louisiana I discovered an entire world, and I never left. I began to see this place was not a starting point for understanding the characters in Texas but instead a destination. I had to launch a new exploration. What I had thought would be the final stretch of a long cycle – meaning the trilogy – had become a new beginning.
What did you find in Louisiana?
In north Louisiana, unemployment is 60 percent. The people are ravaged by amphetamines and poverty. Initially the film was going to tell small, intimate, family stories but then the scope widened because the common denominator of all these communities is anger at everyone who isn’t like them, especially the institutions that abandoned them. The film began to take on a political cast, and this led me into the paramilitary communities. As the scope of the film widened, so did its ambition of telling a larger and less known story: the story of the Midwest, a region in freefall, jobless, anti-government, anti-free market, anti-institution, and where public opinion and government policy had been completely delinked. This was the story not just of the Trichells but also of the events that were affecting a very important area of the United States. For me, this meant a shift from an approach of observation and personal analysis to one that was more political.
Given this change in approach, why did you choose to tell the stories of Mark, Lisa, Jim, and the other members of the community?
It was a gradual process that began in the summer of 2013, when I travelled to West Monroe to meet the extended Trichell family. In contrast to Texas, and Texans, in Louisiana the first thing you sense is anger. The people I met immediately took me in, made me a part of their lives, and making absolutely clear their desire to be heard and seen.
I remember well meeting the future protagonists of the film for the first time at a diner. They said right off, “We never set foot in places like this. Everyone’s looking at us, rich whites and poor blacks. We don’t belong to either, or any other group, because we’re poor whites. We were cast out of this society. We’re in limbo, we’re angry about it, and we don’t want to stay this way.” The discussion immediately became political, and the film did as well.
After the first meetings, I went back between October and December 2013 to deepen my understanding and make sure that they would remain open to me in the presence of a movie camera. They did. Their desire to make themselves heard came across genuine, pure, and clear, camera or no camera. The difference between this project and the Texas trilogy is that I was led by hand, even dragged by force, into this world. The final choice of characters thus happened naturally. The characters emerged because they wanted their stories to be heard, each in his or her own way: some spoke of their suffering, others merely wanted to be seen, like the pregnant woman or the boy who dreamed of being a soldier. The actions and bodies alone of these people speak with disarming eloquence.
How did you end up among the paramilitary group, which is the second community featured in the film?
After a year of establishing contact, gathering material, and exchanging ideas, the members of the community of drug addicts made real progress in their process of self-discovery, grew more courageous, and understood that they were subversives in their own way. What had been anger was transformed into a need for insubordination. I don’t mean armed insubordination, in part because some of them cannot legally own weapons – which they feel is a violation of their constitutional right, as serious as denial of the right to vote. Unable to own weapons, they feel vulnerable. I discussed this subject with them at length, and in our discussions they made frequent mention of “the other side”, meaning, the community of those who had weapons. And thus, in what had turned into a sort of sociological study of a deep and forgotten zone of America, I sought out “armed groups” that were animated by the same rage and insubordination. This was possible, again, thanks to certain members of the extended Trichell family, who introduced me to the paramilitary world.
The paramilitary group is very different from the West Monroe group. Their ideology seems so extreme they could be considered fanatics.
The paramilitary group made radical life choices. It transformed itself into an insular community fortified by powerful ideals. Becoming the other side, crossing to the far shore, barricading themselves against other people, all this is a question of survival that is explicitly stated in the film. For these warriors, their struggle is not about politics or class or society or immigration but simply about themselves and their families, which represent the last bulwark for them. Without family, for them all is lost.
It is important to note that after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the concept of National Security changed drastically in the U.S. The 2002 National Security Plan of George Bush gave the federal government significant new powers, legitimised the use of force to resolve conflicts, even domestically – like the recent escalation of police violence against black Americans – and eroded privacy protections of citizens. These changes threw into crisis the unity of the country by bringing into sharp relief the social, economic, and political differences between the various states and regions.
If the premises that American society was founded upon are in crisis, then the rhetoric of the paramilitary groups no longer sounds fanatic but is instead an expression of discomfort, the valid concern for a society that is breaking apart. They feel abandoned by the institutions and think their ancestral rights are being trampled. The paramilitary groups like white power (Mark and Jim) are on the other side of an island that is breaking away.
Your mode of filming is characterized by a closeness, almost an intimacy, with the people you are lming. Even when the subject matter is very difficult, and you are showing the characters in extreme situations or expressing repulsive ideas, the humanity of these characters emerges. Can you talk about that?
Respect and trust are born and grow image by image. I shoot just 20 percent of the time. In the rest I build up a relationship of a kind of love with the characters, a love without promises or vows, a love that takes you by surprise, that forms moment by moment. The relationship that developed with these people is honest and very mature, and obviously is not one formed in a few days. I have known the Trichell family since 2011. We have worked together on three films. That is why they introduced me to their extended family in Louisiana as someone who could be trusted completely. Then when we began shooting, my crew and I spent entire days and nights together with the characters of the film, sharing very intimate and personal situations in which we put ourselves on the line, openly stating what our intentions were. Without this initial straightforwardness, this candidness, the truth and the humanity of these characters would not have emerged.
I’d like you to say something about the question of the “fiction of the documentary”. Your films show real people in real situations. These “witnesses” are transformed into “characters” the moment that in the film they become protagonists in the story of their lives.
I want to capture the real, what I see. I have no orthodox film making training. I studied documentary film making but I am not a “master” of the language of documentaries, or the language of fiction. What I probably know best is the language of the still image, of photography, reporting. That’s why I say I try to capture what I see.
There is no acting in my films. There are renderings of the real chosen together with the people I am filming, selected to best represent the characters. They are not moving images but rather still images that I combine in a sequence. My eye is photographic. This sequence of photograms shares somewhat the rhythm of fiction films, one the one hand, and the content of cinema verite on the other. It lies in between the two.
Could you share something of your approach to making a film?
I’d say the essential element of the way I make films is getting out of the way. This means above all that we, the crew, come across as a non-crew, and melt into the environment.
The camera is stripped of all accessories. In fact we use a single lens and one small monitor that we all share. There is little else, a few cables, maybe a camera without a mic. This lets us come across as amateur film makers, as if we were just making a home movie. And it lets me recede as author, as omniscient film maker. This is the most important element.
The other crucial element is the length of each take. We shoot without interruption for at least 20 minutes, normally in total silence, because with such long takes the relationship between me and the characters is no longer merely visual and aural but almost olfactory. The camera essentially disappears. Ultimately this submersion in the scene also involves a loss of control over how the shots turn out, and an almost complete passing of the baton from myself to the subjects of the film.
Until now I always recorded sound with a boom, never wireless, to keep from interfering with the organic flow of the scene. In this film the situation is slightly different. Certain characters have become an integral part of the creative process; I work together with them on building the scenes, so in a way they are also the authors, directors, and film makers. Perhaps I went too far.
Had you written out anything in advance of starting to shoot, or did the structure emerge in the editing process?
During the shooting of The Other Side, Denise Ping Lee, the co-writer of the film, was always taking notes, which we would look over together at the end of each day as we analyzed each situation. It was a daily process of seeing where the stories we were telling converged or diverged, and deciding where they would go from there. We shared all of these decisions with the characters right away and adjusted them together if necessary. Denise and I are spider-writers, meaning we are happy spinning a web however intricate and complex it is. This became the basic structure of the film.
Interview by Dario Zonta
The Other Side screens during Document 2016 at 6:10pm on Sunday 23 October in the CCA Cinema. Buy tickets here.
When we started filming, almost three years ago, the attempt of the Viome workers to take over their abandoned factory, neither us, nor them knew the extraordinary experience that lied ahead of us. What we ended up documenting was an intense adventure that brought mixed feelings of uncertainty and frustration with excitement and hope and provided us with a powerful story with many layers.
The case itself is extreme; workers with no work experience outside the production line, driven by despair, decide to start a small revolution, just for a chance to win back their lives. They want to establish an island of utopia in a capitalist environment and of course they meet a thousand obstacles and conflicts at every level.
They are going against the law, the judicial authorities and the factory’s ex-owners, while they fight to gain some kind of legal status. There are conflicts within the group as well; practicing direct democracy among people with different attitudes, convictions and ideas can be very hard. But what proves to be the hardest, is the inner conflicts each individual has to face as the times are calling for a deep personal transformation. These people in their fifties are forced to develop a new identity, one that will allow them to survive in dignity and withstand the sufferings of an “outrageous fortune”. The giant shifts they have to perform can sometimes seem comic and tragic at the same time.
As a filmmaker I felt the need to present, as deeply and as respectfully as I could, characters with opposing point of views. In a way they all represent pieces of a collective social mosaic that is not indicative only of the Greek case, but reflects most European societies today. Ultimately this is a bittersweet tale of real people whose lives cross with history. I am deeply grateful to all of them for honouring me with their trust and letting me tell their story as an adventure of our times.
Next Stop: Utopia screens during Document 2016 at 5:30pm on Friday 21 October in the CCA Theatre. Buy tickets here.
I visited the town of San Marcos, Sinaloa, for the first time when I was 13 years old with a theatre company (TATIU) that organized plays in rural and hard to reach communities. In 2009, after enrolling in the CUEC-UNAM film school in Mexico City, I heard that this town of more than 200 years was flooded due to the construction of the Picachos dam. I decided to go back to San Marcos to spent some time there and began to get to know the people that had stayed in the flooded town. With the support of the entire community, we produced the fiction short film Venecia, Sinaloa (Venice, Sinaloa), which was inspired by the families that endured the flood.
During my time there, I often asked myself why did some decide to stay in a town that was flooded with not only water but also with fear. After the construction of the dam, the submerged town became a breeding ground for violence. From being a town with 300 families, it eventually went down to only three. It would seem that the flood had arrived as a metaphor of fear.
I then made the decision to take some time off film school to make a documentary inspired by the stories of the people that had stayed there even in the most adverse conditions. Pani was ambushed and shot while driving his truck, but instead of leaving, he decided to stay and rebuild the town. “In life there are no handles… We are floating in the universe”, says Pani, who tries to grab on to life through faith. Everyday, Miro takes food to a cow that was stranded in a small island with the rise of the tide and feels just as trapped in San Marcos as the animal in the island. He feels the urge “to float away” and that the town is doomed to be buried in the mud. After the exodus of most of the inhabitants, Jaimito and Yoya moved from a wooden shack to the town’s biggest house and live day to day enjoying life as it comes. They all have has their own stance concerning the flooded town and life in general: whether it is idealist, pessimistic or realistic. Los reyes del pueblo que no existe (Kings of Nowhere) is their story.
Kings of Nowhere is the opening gala of Document 2016 at 20:00pm on Thursday 20 October in the CCA Theatre. Buy tickets here.
I spent more than three years shooting in the Romany settlement of Sajókaza. The first thing I had to learn was humility. Those people hate cameras. Permission to shoot was eventually granted by some families, albeit reluctantly, and was often withdrawn all of a sudden. I learnt to take things as they happened. I was told to fuck off, experienced pompousness, was bitten by a dog, but was also shown unexpected warmth and humiliating hospitality and got to know – some stereotypes contain a core of truth – a lot of music and partying.
I am not a helper and no activist. I do not claim for myself to lend my voice to the suppressed or to share their fate. I am a guest, a stranger, an outsider. I observe and try to distil a story from the many conflicting impressions.
People in the west tend to believe that everything can be mended by providing enough money and sending experts. But centuries of exclusion are part of many Romany people’s lives. They cannot be helped by money or experts only. But hopefully, they can be helped by the persistence of people like Teacher János – people who have experienced the stigmatization first hand. János and his colleague Tibor have no ready-made recipe. They try something out, they fail, they arouse hostility, they try again. They are revolutionaries who would continue their fight even if they had three fighters and a semi-functioning gun only. Their gun is education. India has proved that education works. There the untouchables simply left the caste system behind by becoming Buddhists. János and Tibor ask themselves why Romany people cannot do the same.
I take my hat off to such stubbornness.
Angry Buddha screens during Document 2016 at 2:30pm on Saturday 22 October in the CCA Theatre. Buy tickets here.