Closer to Home

in 57th Krakow Film Festival

by Antti Selkokari

A number of works from the documentary film competition at the Kraków Film Festival attest to a growing tendency of keeping characters and contents closer to home, so to speak, and at a distance from the swiftly globalizing outside world, treating it as extraneous.

Turning their back to the rest of the world in the name of idiosyncratic ways of life within a close- knit community, is precisely what motivates the people depicted in Mikael Lypinski’s Desert Coffee (2017).

Lypinski shows us an anarchist squatter town, Slab City, in the Sonoran desert. The squatters have found there a patch of land that no-one seems to be interested in gentrifying. Their closest neighbours are the military, both The United States Navy and the Marine Corps, who are practicing aerial bombing and live ammunition shooting in the area. The squatters entertain the flattering idea of living in the “last free place in America.” Lypinski adheres to the documentary filmmaking tradition of featuring highly original characters, who perform for the camera. And is happy to keep the outside world and even hints of its existence at bay, letting the Slab City inhabitants’ voices and their isolationist mentality dominate the film.

Another case of isolationist mentality is offered by the German film Off the Tracks (Neben den Gleisen, 2017) by Oliver Schumann. The film chronicles the frequenters of a kiosk pub in Boizenburg, a small town in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The pub customers are shift workers, pensioners and unemployed, who share a sense of being cheated and mistreated by capitalism, the EU, politicians, and ultimately – by life. These people do not have much to be looking forward to but the next televised football game. The film consists mostly of pub talk records, containing a fair share of reminisces – which sound peculiarly like war-time stories – about the glorious days when the unemployed had jobs at the dockyards.

Off the Tacks remains focused on people’s discontent and their somewhat reserved attitudes towards the newly arrived refugees, who pass by the kiosk pub quite often. There are as many right-wing voices heard in the pub as could be expected, yet not all of the clientele are blatant racists. Despite a fair amount of resentment, they also have some empathy for the newcomers whom they believe to have lost everything.

Off the Tracks represents a snap-shot of familiar small town fringes, sustained once by a single mega employer – a dockyard or a factory – but fallen on empty when globalization took these traditional working class jobs elsewhere. The film never articulates any of this, yet it trusts its audience to connect the dots.

In the meanwhile, the rest of the western world lives comfortably enough to be able to entertain specific ordeals like extreme sports event, depicted in the Hungarian film Ultra (Ultra, 2017) by Balász Simonyi. The filmmaker himself has been a frequent participant in the long distance running event Spartathlon, where the athletes run in memory of Pheidippides, the legendary runner of Marathon in Ancient Greece. Simonyi justifies his unusual passion by mentioning in passing his need for an all-embracing pastime to balance out other problems in his life. Documenting a 246 kilometre Spartathlon race produced 249 hours’ worth of raw material, which Simonyi edited into an 81 minute film. Made as an observational documentary, Ultra is based on the principal trick of the trade – collecting footage of the athletes, shot by many directors of photography over several consecutive years. In itself, the race from Athens to Spárti is a punishing affair. Running along the presumed route of Pheidippides is to be done in 36 hours. This puts body and mind to a lethal test – would the runner get to the finish line or die trying? Almost all runners under scrutiny face the limits of their endurance. The film follows closely a few of them and their service teams which consist of mostly family members, parents or spouses. Ultra brings forth the intimacy between runners and teams, along with numerous questions of self-worth and character.

These and other films at the 57th Kraków Film Festival thus reflect individual but also national mentalities and their tendency towards closing off – when you feel the world is beating you down, your gaze turns to people and things closer to home.

Edited by Christina Stojanova