De Facto: The Creeping Shadow

in 73rd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Elena Rubashevska

Two men talking on a screen. No emotions, no visual triggers, no action. Nothing we didn’t know or hadn’t heard before. Yet many people were leaving the screening indignantly; others covered their eyes, incapable of bearing the humanistic torture they were experiencing. In her experimental documentary De Facto (presented in Forum), director Selma Doborac ruthlessly exposes the audience to the dark side of our nature. Will we be strong enough to stand up to this thought-through psychological provocation?

Nowadays, the world is often divided into black and white. We know perfectly well who the good guys and the bad guys are. We know which messages are right and which should be condemned and prohibited. We conform and abide in complete confidence that we’re making our world a better place. Yet numerous times, history has proven that civilization is fragile and that individuals and nations can descend into barbarism in a blink of an eye. Is it time to turn to the denied – thus suppressed -parts of our personalities? To acknowledge this means to prevent the worst from happening, but that might require a great deal of courage. In an impressive and strikingly impersonal manner, for 130 minutes, actors Christoph Bach and Cornelius Obonya will talk about crimes against human dignity and life. Their voices will chant an intimidating lullaby composed of the description of atrocities human beings are capable of. This sheer violence they are discussing is not new: we read about it in books, watched dozens of films, and revealed top-secret documentation. But have we learned the lesson that will make up for the trauma and prevent a new catastrophe from happening? Agreeing to watch this film means constantly asking this unpleasant question (whose answer becomes evident once you read the daily news). The time is pressing, and the answer should be given – by each of us individually and as a society.

Indeed, to sit through the screening experience of De Facto might be quite a challenge: it’s excruciating, it requires 100% presence, it is repetitive. The legitimate commentary would be, “I get it. People sometimes behave like animals toward each other! Why do I have to sit through it? To listen to rape details? To murder details? I know it already, and listening to it is unbearable!”. Well, we can assume that for the victims of those crimes, it was not a pleasant experience either. And to share this utter discomfort and pain might be a way of paying tribute to innocent lives that perished because someone was never interested in being analytical towards themselves.

If we are talking of the Berlinale as a ‘soft political power,’ De Facto is an excellent example of how cinema can still become a tool for changes in an era of overwhelming content. Especially with the numerous films about the Ukrainian war at this year’s festival (which explicitly showed battles, destruction, and death to no avail), De Facto, using strikingly scarce means, becomes a perfect example of how cinema can cross the boundaries of art and transcend to the realms of psychology and social sciences. Its radical artistic choices are forcing us to start a public dialogue about often silenced topics.

In this regard, the article by Carl Gustav Jung called “The Fight with the Shadow” comes to mind. Here is a short quotation: “He [Hitler] represented the shadow, the underside of everyone’s personality, on a staggering scale, which was another reason why people followed him. What could they do? In Hitler, every German had to see his own shadow, the greatest danger to himself. To realize your shadow and learn to manage it is the fate of all people. The world will never achieve order until this truth is recognized by all”.

Instead of being self-righteous, we must be cautious and vigilant. The shadow creeps in gingerly, takes roots, and establishes itself when we least expect it, making it easy to blame the Other, not noticing that what we are afraid of reflects our souls and desires. Art can stand on guard; Selma Doborac and De Facto have already put up an impressive fight.

Elena Rubashevska
Edited by Anne-Christine Loranger