“The governments will be forgotten but the masterpieces will remain.”
It’s too soon to say whether documentary films will dominate the decade, but the current flowering on view at the 3rd Chicago International Documentary Film Festival suggests they have not yet lost their bloom.
What’s driving this renaissance? Is it the new technology of digital cameras and editing equipment? Have the film schools finally produced a generation of filmmaker-adventurers (and that includes producers, editors, and other collaborators) who are smart, fearless, inquisitive, and able to convince strangers to open their lives to the scrutiny of the camera (and hence the world)? Or has the debasement of the news media finally hit bottom, so that the public is turning away from mainstream reporting of facts that are spun, positioned, and “contextualized” until up seems like down and round looks like square?
Documentaries, at least the ones that side with the powerless, do not let us forget the human lives that struggle under the crush of corporate greed and societal power. Each filmmaker makes his or her presence felt in terms of emotional commitment, clarity of argument, and balance of the public and the personal, the objective and the subjective views. Unlike the hectoring, wall-rattling narratives that take up space in the nation’s multiplexes, documentaries by and large leave room for the viewer’s response. Such films stand up to the traumas of the present, remind us how little we know about each other, and at their best seek to sabotage complacency.
Unreeling in eight locations around the city, Chicago’s DocFest crowded 86 features and 15 shorts across a ten-day schedule, plus several more rounds of victory lap screenings. Doc pioneer Albert Maysles attended in person for a retrospective of seven of his films, while hefty sidebars spotlighted Czech documentaries (eleven titles) and features dealing with Mexico (nine titles).
The healthy attendance bespeaks the vitality of film culture in Chicago, even as this event follows hot on the heels of the European Union Festival and overlaps the 9th Asian American Showcase and the 21st Chicago Latino Film Festival. The Docfest stands out from those because it is competitive, with three juries and a full table of awards to hand out, yet it has so far resisted full-strength corporate sponsorship with all its resultant marketplace pressures.
In the six films reviewed below (four of them prizewinners and two playing out of competition), the accent falls firmly on cross-cultural understanding, directing the focus away from America-centric obsessions.
One of several unforgettable shots in the searing Darwin’s Nightmare shows grinning fish heads, their mouths gaping with razor teeth, boiling in a hissing cauldron, a jolting image that comes as close to hell as anyone wants to get, in a film that cuts deeper into the hidden operation of globalization than the environmental concerns suggested by the title. Through four trips to Tanzania in as many years, Paris-based Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper gradually works out in surprisingly elegant filmmaking how the provincial town of Mwanza functions as a module of globalized capitalism and sticks his pitchfork into the thicket of lies and problems that now defines Africa.
Unlike conventional human interest narratives about Africa (Hotel Rwanda, Sometimes in April, In My Country) which reliably keep a middle-class distance from the afflicted, Darwin’s Nightmare‘s director casts his lot with the whores and outcasts, whether listening to the local prostitutes in the beer hall as their boozy European customers paw at them, or watching preteen street kids huff glue under cover of darkness. Viewers will not soon forget his nocturnal meeting with the scarily red-eyed Raphael, who guards a warehouse armed only with a bow and poison-tipped arrows (“The last guard was hacked to death. That’s how I got the job”), and who would welcome the outbreak of war.
Thanks to the proliferation of monstrous Nile perch that eliminated all weaker species and now reign unrestrained as the alpha predator of Lake Victoria, the local economy, helpless before the monetary might of the World Bank and the IMF, has changed from farming to exporting this fish. The genial Indians who run a fish-packing operation claim there’s a corresponding rise in the standard of living, but the advantages for a select few seem countered by new unforeseen depths of poverty for the defenseless many. The real horror of those cooking fish heads is that they constitute the paltry remains of the food resources left for the population to eat after Russian planes have hauled away tons of the flesh to foreign markets. Sauper underlines the grim irony that AIDS-ravaged Tanzania is feeding Europe while its own people are starving in a widespread famine.
With the nation’s lifeblood flowing out and its social structure distorting, Sauper investigates how Mwanza assumes a role in the globalized arms trade run by Dutch and Czech weapons mills. As living conditions plummet, he also shows Christian evangelicals arriving to soothe the blindsided populace with a film depicting a white Jesus. Following unexpected paths, allowing themes to emerge as he questions and listens, Sauper advances his narrative without pushing, just fitting one piece to the next. But it’s not about the fish: he is seeking to hook bigger and more rapacious predators. (Darwin’s Nightmare won the festival’s Grand Prix.)
Africa deals with its internal pressures in specifically African ways, as revealed in Allison Berg’s lucid and fascinating Witches in Exile, a wide-ranging study of how witch hunts break out at times of social and economic stress and how Ghana’s camps that provide a haven for women so accused and abused have been under siege.
Males terrorize women in this social melodrama that verges on mass hysteria but also clearly functions as a means of social control that plays out across the continent from Togo and Tanzania down through Zimbabwe to South Africa. Berg show that it’s a method for disposing of women after their childbearing years have ended, as well as a covert way to settle old scores (“A witch is someone you don’t like,” observes one victim dryly). A death in the community usually suffices to trigger an accusation, and young village men beat her in a trial by ordeal, forcing the woman to confess (a necessary step to absolve her accusers, who may then proceed to stone her, break her legs, and torch her house). If she survives and escapes, her only refuge is one of six so-called witches’ camps in impoverished and recently war-torn northern Ghana.
Using street corner interviews, with analyses from local journalists, academics, and government spokespersons, Berg unfolds her study without external narration, preferring to give voice to the participants. She follows women exiled to one camp, basically a collection of huts with no water, which means each inhabitant needs to make an arduous daily trek to the river. Though precious for its physical protection, the camp offers virtually no relief psychologically since the chief and village elders claim for themselves the power to neutralize the witches’ evil, thus neatly keeping a patriarchal grip on the women.
Intriguingly, the director hunts down and interviews the women’s children and former husbands (the religious excuse is predictable: one man says that these misfortunes are “the work of god,” so therefore only god can solve the problem) and listens to the police’s side of the story (investigations are useless because no one will talk). She even travels to death row for a statement from the first and only man convicted of murdering a witch (he claims it was a mistake).
Brutalities committed against women in Africa, the birthplace of genital mutilation, should surprise no one, but how is it that an association of women lawyers campaigned to disband the camps? Ashamed of the bad conditions there as exploited by the local tabloid press, these “professionals” sought to solve the problem by sending the women back to their home villages (for more abuse). In fact, myopic one-step thinking also extends to Ghana’s Human Rights Commissioner, who advises that Africa patiently wait for human nature to change.
Aiming for objectivity, Berg packs her vivid and compelling film with solid detail but pauses for a mordantly funny moment at a witch trial, where the long-suffering mother rolls her eyes and patiently finishes the sentences for the accuser, her son who proves too dense or too intoxicated to remember what he’s supposed to say. (Witches in Exile was shown out of competition.)
It’s fitting that Highway Courtesans opens with a clip from a Bollywood production number, a romantic image of a dancer groomed as a plaything for the maharajah’s pleasure, as Mystelle Brabbee’s film shows how such objectified pictures bring real-life consequences for women in India, in this instance for the daughters of central India’s Bachara, a clan that traditionally puts them to work as prostitutes.
Eight years in the making, this is a searching and fluently edited portrait of innocence bought and sold along a highway that links Calcutta to Delhi to the Himalayas, a conduit for long-haul vehicles and long-term HIV, where a girl’s power to earn money defines her value. Drivers park their diesel trucks outside a roadside stone house, and business then transpires on a pallet on the bare floor (and men cannot be forced to use condoms any more than these women can abandon their romantic illusions).
The film introduces 16-year-old Guddi, pretty and thoughtful and full of youthful high spirits, yet her only choices are marriage or prostitution. We ride in the backseat as sisters and girlfriends accompany her with optimistic giggles to a rendezvous with a new suitor who claims to love her and might be her ticket off the street if he proposes. This already once-divorced photographer woos her with romantic photo collages of themselves dressed as the lovers of the Taj Mahal, but later his true colors surface when he threatens to “knock your teeth out.” Questioned by the filmmaker, he says that “just because I love her doesn’t mean I should go easy on her.”
Ultimately, Guddi can hope for little better treatment from her family, not from her father (described by a social worker as essentially a pimp), and certainly not from a brother who’s a drunken lout, out of control, and dependent on her earnings. It’s a system where the male resorts to beatings to enforce his power, and Guddi’s happiness is not even a concept that arises. All pretend that tradition justifies this social setup, but everything we see spells exploitation
To the filmmaker’s credit, as she peels back the layers of reality in Guddi’s life, the theme that emerges becomes the slippery and even contradictory nature of truth. Various participants, including enabling women such as the girl’s mother and a local matriarch who rules four villages, tell the foreigner what they think she wants to hear (“It’s the women’s choice. Why else would they do it?”) and repeat the hollow lies they tell each other (“The customers are only from good castes”).
India has seen it all before, of course, and the same pressures will work on the children growing up in the Bachara community. This, along with the glimpses of Bombay’s brothel streets (where Guddi observes that “the girls are forced to work!”), suggests a natural double bill opposite Born Into Brothels, with its corresponding peek into the red-light district of Calcutta, although the digital video might pale next to the striking colors in Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman‘s Oscar-winner.
At the conclusion of filming, having survived to the age of 23, Guddi is groping toward a new life as a teacher in a village school while also setting up a kind of credit union, but her family considers her in limbo. How long can this shadowy status shield her, and what price has she paid? “There’s tension all around me,” she tells the camera. “I’m not sick. I just can’t eat.” (Highway Courtesans won the CIDY President’s Award.)
“There’ll be no end to this springtime” goes a misinformed song in Hitler’s Hitparade, Oliver Axer and Suzanne Benze’s diverting 2003 compilation of long-unseen rarities, reproducing everyday pop culture as it was experienced under the Nazis, while reflecting on some of the underlying realities. Not concrete history, but rather all the bits left out of solemn “specials” on PBS or The History Channel, it edits together such ephemera as home movies of seaside outings, early broadcasts from Third Reich television, and public service propaganda touting the Gestapo in action. Cartoon ducks enact the family values ideology of the fascists, and rows of TV sets march in stop-motion formation. There are high-kitsch production numbers from Nazi-era musicals involving powder puffs, negligees, and the hard-faced star Marika Rökk (like Ann Miller without a heart).
To the tune of German pop songs, some warbled by the lugubriously romantic Zarah Leander (others by co-director Axer), contradictions and blatant hypocrisies start emerging, with excerpts from an anti-Semitic fairy tale called “The Golden Tree.” Editing points out obvious parallels: for example, a “Millions Travel German Rail” commercial spot turns into transport trains loading up for the concentration camps, while a showcase for scientific advances admires a metal drum of Zyklon B gas and then touts the wonders of prosthetic limbs for wounded soldiers.
The regime paid considerable attention to manipulating its own images for the Thousand Year Reich, supplying ingenuous apple-cheeked toddlers; peasants in lederhosen gawking at the fast cars zipping down the autobahn; and Aryan Hitler Youths seeing visions of the Führer in their dreams. Bright Agfacolor rendered swastika-emblazoned red banners that look dipped in fresh blood, and color shots show Hitler himself romping amongst puppies at Berchtesgaden and addressing the nation among the massed ranks of the faithful at the Nuremberg Rally. The filmmakers use no spoken commentary and need none, since the footage speaks with unrivalled eloquence, bringing the immediacy of the postwar liberation of the camps before us, with shrunken heads on display and mountains of bloody corpses as witnesses. (Hitler’s Hitparade was shown out of competition.)
The Liberace of Bagdad opens not with music but gunshots. It’s nine months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Samir Peter is playing cocktail piano on an ill-tuned upright in a hotel for foreigners. He’s a pasty-faced, fifty-plus, whisky-slugging depressive, a cigarette constantly hanging from his lip, and he has every reason to be depressed: he’s living in a basement room with a bricked-up window, his wife left him to emigrate to America five years ago, and everyday life in his besieged country means constant vigilance, not least since a next-door neighbor was assassinated for consorting with foreigners. Into this existence comes naïve British journalist and filmmaker Sean McAllister with his camera, wanting to dog the Iraqi’s steps and risk both their skins to record his misery. “No electricity, no water, no fuel, only destruction” sums up both his and his country’s predicament.
As he growls through a blues song for an audience of South African mercenaries and shady American “contractors,” Peter shows little in common with Liberace, who probably never compared the merits of a Kaleshnikov versus a pistol. In nervous trips to and from the pianist’s seven-bedroom house, or a visit to a makeshift morgue following a suicide bombing, the filmmaker, clearly something of a danger junkie, keeps injecting pro-American interpretations about the chaos between lighting cigars and swigging whisky with his host and subject.
With its grainy but indelible images (color corrected to look stronger than the typically watery videography) ensuring the you-are-there immediacy of each scene, McAllister’s film supplies an intriguing and sympathetic counterpoint to Gunner Palace, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein‘s portrait of America’s troops in Iraq, all swaggering hubris as they barge and blunder through an unfamiliar culture. Keeping a cautious distance from Americans, Samir Peter embodies the ordeal of Bagdad’s residents, jumpy from constant bomb blasts and stressed from choppers incessantly flying overhead.
As kidnappings of foreigners escalate in the increasingly lawless situation, McAllister conceals his conspicuous camera-toting self under the dashboard for a harrowing drive down the notoriously dangerous landmine-laden airport road. With Peter at the wheel, they get lost in the darkness (no electricity, so no streetlights) that is ruled completely by the anti-American resistance. Even when the growing danger forces him to abandon filming, McAllister still asks Peter’s daughter whether now, in the post-Saddam reality, she feel greater freedom to express her opinion. She replies, “Who will I express my opinion to?” (The Liberace of Baghdad won the Grand Prix Special Jury Prize.)
One good movie deserves another, so the awkwardly titled I Am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth pays detailed and loving homage to history’s first (and only) Soviet-Cuban co-production, Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1963 Soy Cuba/I Am Cuba. Brazilian director Vicente Ferraz journeyed to Havana to search for the backstory among the surviving collaborators of this rapturous poetic vision, an attempt to transmit the burning fervor of the Cuban people’s revolution by showing the explosive tensions that fueled the struggle in both city and countryside. Far ahead of its time in visual originality yet indigestible as a popular narrative, the plotless and episodic I Am Cuba was rejected by both countries (“I Am Not Cuba,” griped a local critic), and was only recently rescued from obscurity by a 1995 video release sponsored by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
Conducting interviews with the producer, the co-screenwriter (who worked with Yevtushenko), the composer, various crew members, and a half-dozen of the main actors, Ferraz assembled his fascinating investigation with generous clips from the movie plus behind-the-scenes footage of the two-year-long production (shot in the midst of the missile crisis as the U.S. navy blockaded the island). This tribute also tracked down the Russian camera operator, who testifies to the rocky readjustment problems of returning from the sun-baked tropics to a grim Soviet reality.
In the early 1960s, flush with success and optimism, Castro and Che Guevara welcomed the international film community who flocked to witness the birth of an energetic new society, with planes bringing radical idealist Europeans like Godard, Chris Marker, Cesare Zavattini, and Joris Ivens. Into this charged atmosphere — one newsreel shows a crowd sledge-hammering the “Warners” name off a cinema — came Kalatozov and his collaborator on The Cranes Are Flying, the brilliant Sergei Urusevsky, innovative cinematographer famed for his extraordinarily fluid subjective camera style. We learn that Urusevsky would wear a blindfold and pull it off only moments before shooting, ensuring that his vision remained fresh as he captured the play of smoke billowing through sprays of water at vertiginous angles across the widescreen and manipulated infrared negatives to produce monochrome images of luscious tactility.
Everyone who has seen I Am Cuba‘s astonishing funeral sequence (included in this film) has held their breath throughout a single seamless shot that moves above protestors bearing coffins, then rises up the walls of a building and floats suspended in mid-air across the street to another rooftop, where it glides between rows of cigar workers until the camera tips out over a balcony and again descends to follow the crowds surging down the cobblestone pavement. Ferraz looks at how the Russians employed steel scaffolding and hanging cables to accomplish the vertical and horizontal switches of this shot, now celebrated as a masterpiece of engineering.
Despite the film’s dismal contemporary reception, Ferraz shows clips to demonstrate that the Russians’ work laid the foundation for an entire generation of Latin American cinematography (an American homage came in Boogie Nights, where director Paul Thomas Anderson reproduced another famous single-shot where the camera walks into a swimming pool, submerges and swims across, and then resurfaces to climb out again). In another sequence that still carries an incendiary sting, Kalatozov has student insurrectionists fire-bomb a drive-in, allowing the flames to burn the images of a Yankee film right off the screen.
As Ferraz contacts the various survivors, he brings news of the long-delayed appreciation for their efforts, eliciting some puzzlement (in the words of one actress: “They said it wasn’t good. Now they say it is.”), but mostly providing a gratifying emotional payoff for this film. As one Cuban wisely observes, “The governments will be forgotten but the masterpieces will remain.” (I Am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth won the International Press Jury Award.)