Docufictions in Karlovy Vary

in 51st Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Ohad Landesman

One of the most striking developments in recent documentary cinema is the emergence of films that blur or simply ignore the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, staking out instead a territory in-between real facts and fabricated fiction. In films from different geopolitical contexts, both from the documentary competition in the festival and outside of it, truth and fiction were systematically intermingled this year. Here are three striking examples.

Neon Bull (Boi Neon), the second narrative feature of Brazilian filmmaker Gabriel Mascaro, is one exceptional piece of filmmaking that was screened as part of the Variety Critics’ Choice program. Depicting the macho world of Brazilian rodeo, while at the same time turning its gender roles upside down, Neon Bull explores the connection between human beings and animals, how they interact with each other and in what ways they may resemble one another. Its main protagonist is Iremar (Juliano Cazarre), an ultra-masculine tough guy who works at the rodeo, shovelling horse manure and marking tails before the animals enter the ring. Iremar holds an intriguing infatuation with fashion, designing fancy costumes for an exotic dancer named Galega (Maeve Jinkings). While the exact nature of their relationship is left untold, Mascaro maintains a latent sexual tension between them throughout. Neon Bull interconnects stories of sexual desire with images of beasts living in mud. Nonetheless, it always portrays carnal knowledge elegantly and passionately. Puzzling and memorable moments like passionate lovemaking in a clothing factory, an exotic dance with a colourful horse mask, or an attempt to perform masturbation on a stallion, may hint at some political significance, but they are also quite arousing in a peculiar manner.

While it is tempting to pigeonhole this film as fiction, Mascaro’s background as a documentarist is very dominant in it. Many of the scenes are filmed in long takes and from a far-away distance, employing close-ups only rarely. Director of Photography Diego Garcia (who is also responsible for the intoxicating camerawork in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour) is performing wonders with his camera, granting a painterly quality to the images. For his part, Mascaro is not really interested in telling a story in the old-fashioned way. Using a non-linear, fragmentary and minimal narrative, he strives towards the experiential. Neon Bull shows us how characters live in its bizarre diegesis, while at the same time making us viewers an essential part of it.

An official entry and one of the highlights of the Documentary Competition this year, Michal Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights is one of those films that feel so fresh, unique and original, that the catchphrase “hybrid” becomes insufficient and too broad to describe them. Focusing on two young men in their twenties as they tour around Warsaw to seek out moments of love and excitement, the film is an exploration of youth, with all the feelings and emotions attached to it. Not interested in big issues or problems, Marczak documents Krzysztof and Michal, as they flirt around in house parties, dance the night away in rave concerts, and make early walks during sunrise. His camera is always curious, lusting for some unreachable satisfaction, observing with a latent wish to interact. Marczak, who shot the film himself, is continuously trying to be in sync with his characters, adjusting the camera to their pace and movements until it feels like it becomes another participant on its own. It never stops swinging and swirling around Krzysztof, Michal and the young people they hang out with, giving the viewer the impression he is out there with the characters.

While Marczak is interested in observing, he gives little respect to sound synchronicity, the traditional hallmark of such documenting strategy for the past few decades. The ecstatic soundtrack, embellished extensively with house and techno music, does not so much attest to a lived experience, but simulates creatively some kind of reality on the liminal zone between document and fiction. All These Sleepless Nights feels too intimate and contrived to be a documentary, but also too spontaneous and immediate to be purely fiction. While it becomes hard to tell what is staged and what is documented there, its poetic succession of images produces, if nothing else, an immersive experience. With a thin plot and only a very basic dramatic skeleton that is subsumed in observation, the kinetics of this movie never cease to impress. Occasionally, and not only during parties, All These Sleepless Nights feels like a cinematic dance, an exchange of loving gestures between a documentarist and his subjects. Marczak never shies away from the irresponsible hedonism of his characters and always manifests his shameless infatuation with their lifestyle. Such lack of pretence infuses his film with honesty and authenticity, making it extremely real and highly cinematic at the same time.

Žiga Virc’s Houston, We Have a Problem! (Houston, imamo problem!), which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this April and slotted as an entry into the East of the West competition in Karlovy Vary, is a unique docufiction co-produced by Slovenia, Croatia, Germany, the Czech Republic and Qatar. It is also HBO Europe’s first production in the Adriatic region.

According to the historical baseline of the film, neither grounded convincingly by evidence nor explicitly contested by sceptics, in the late 1960s the CIA discovered that Yugoslavia already had an operational space-flight technology. A few months later Yugoslavia sold all of its space equipment to the United States and secretly moved it there. Slovenian Filmmaker Žiga Virc creatively tackles this myth of Yugoslavia’s secret multi-billion-dollar space program, keeping us puzzled and bewildered from the beginning until the end. Did such an infrastructure, worth three times the annual budget of NASA, ever exist during the Tito’s regime? Was it really sold to the Americans, making Yugoslavia in return the most prosperous communist country in Eastern Europe? Maintaining a continuous line of ambiguity between what is real and what is fabricated, where every piece of archive material or testimony from the Cold War era is suspected of being digitally manipulated, Virc requires us to embrace a critical perspective towards what we are watching. While the film gives us sufficient reasons to presume that most of what is shown to us may formulate an elegant lie, we still cling to its possible reverberations with reality.

Slavoj Žižek’s background ruminations about the blending of truth and fiction in our contemporary culture keep us wondering about what sense we can make, if any at all, of conspiracy theories. “Even if it didn’t happen, it’s true”, Žižek pontificates paradoxically, redeeming the value of such theories beyond being merely a simplistic solution to make sense of the world. Whether what we see in Houston is real or not, its story functions as a fascinating parable to the rise and fall of Yugoslavia, from the end of the Second World War to the end of communism in 1991.

Edited by Demetrios Matheou