Documentaries about Survival

in 54th International Film Festival for Short and Documentary Films, Krakow

by Pierre-Simon Gutman

A man is sitting against a wall. He is thinking hard, maybe about his life, or where he is at the moment. Around him, bullets are flying. He is in fact in the middle of a battle. Suddenly, his cell phone is ringing. He answers, and talks almost casually to his sister. At some point, he utters those surprising words: “I can’t hear you very well”, reminding himself that all this noise around him is indeed a genuine and bloody war. This image, which seems to capture the absurdity of war like the Hollywood blockbusters never really could, was one of the climaxes of the Krakow Film festival, and of its documentary competition. The movie is The Return to Homs (Al awdaila Him), a stunning picture where a DV camera follows a bunch of Syrian rebels in the midst of the ongoing conflict in their country. The Return to Homs shows, with a cold eye, how a group of young idealists slowly turn into heartless warriors, pushed by the horrors around them, the necessities of a war that engulfs everyone.

Documentary, at its best, can capture moments impossible to show or even imagine in a traditional fictional piece. The festival has been, this year, quite apt at collecting those moments and movies, giving an intriguing and panoramic vision of the modern world. The scope was quite large, going from intimate portraits of garden lovers sharing both their passion and intimacy to a vision of war, of the immigration problem or those of lost souls in search of a romantic soul mate (Do You Believe in Love). There also were a couple in crises or a man almost killing himself with his passion for deep diving. If there was one unifying theme, it was the way private lives and professional matters tangle themselves. It was evident in one of the highlights of the competition, Domina Effect (Effekt Domina), where the sports minister of a very small country has to balance between his failing relationship and his sometimes absurd work. This film captured the essence of the fascination that some documentaries can have by allowing the camera to go to places and to look at some people that would otherwise never be looked at in other circumstances. These films sometimes show us a world we simply don’t know or see, like the ‘heroes’ of Where Time Stops (Endzeiten), folks in a small French village that try to live without giving themselves to the rules of modern society and technology.

Other places normally closed are visited: behind the scenes of a highly important diplomatic negotiations in The Agreement, an amazing look at how human frailties and small details can suddenly play a part in the big scheme of history; the days of a an American family waiting for the execution of one of their own, or the complex realities of immigration in the stunning Borders. That picture is part of a field that some other documentaries have already occupied. But the strength of Borders is the scope of its vision, and the way it manages to show almost every point of view involved in the situation, from the cops that hunt illegal aliens to the young man dreaming of a better life in faraway countries. Borders shows maybe more than any other film how this drama is played out in everyday life, by people who don’t have any idea they are taking part in a debate or a tragedy. There is, of course, no good or bad guy in Borders. There is, instead, this incredible feeling that can make us understand how a situation has become so complex and trapped in violence that nobody can even dream of finding a solution. They are all just too busy trying to survive. This drive, the will to stay alive even in the middle of war, of an unfair economical world, of death, a lonely sentimental life or a small country trapped by its traditions, is the one human notion that manages to unify all the different lives glimpsed during the festival.

Edited by Steven Yates