Documentaries at goEast 2016

in 16th goEast - Festival of Central and Eastern European Film, Wiesbaden

by Maria Ulfsak-Sheripova

The competition programme of goEast includes both features and documentaries from Eastern and Central Europe. In 2016, six documentaries were selected to compete with ten features; they came from Estonia, Russia, Slovak Republic, and included a co-production between Ukraine, Latvia and Germany and two Georgian-German co-productions.

The award for the Best Documentary (Award of the Federal Foreign Office for Cultural Diversity) went to Not My Job (Chuzhaia rabota) by Denis Shabaev from Russia. Shabaev’s film takes place on the outskirts of Moscow, where the Tajik Farrukh lives with his brothers and parents. His big dream is to become an actor, but on the whole he makes ends meet with odd jobs. Farrukh can’t see a future in Tajikistan (“Has there been anyone famous in Tajikistan in the past 50 years?” he asks), but neither can he find himself a place in Russia, where things take a bad turn for him. Not My Job is a delicate and empathic study of the loss of roots and the hardship of a deeply religious Tajik minority trying to build their lives in modern Moscow.

One of the central topics of goEast in 2016 was “othering”: thinking in categories of “us” and “them”, or “the others”. This categorization is an important theme everywhere in Europe, especially in the context of recent events in Paris and Brussels, and concerns also the difficult relations between Russia and the West, as well as the refugee crisis. The festival had a section “Beyond Belonging” focused on racism, LGBTQ matters, and the marginalization of certain groups in society. But as “othering” has become increasingly important in Europe, it was also reflected in quite a few of the documentaries in the Competition Programme.

The concept of the Other is often discussed in the works of philosophers and psychoanalysts. One of the best-known theories of the Other comes from Simone de Beauvoir, who described a male-dominated culture that treats women as the Other in relation to men. Waiting Room (Cakaren) by Palo Korec (Slovak Republic) blurs the lines between feature and documentary. The film’s centre is the waiting room at a Bratislava train station, where time seems to stand still. All the main characters of Korec’s film – seven women – also seem to stand still in their lives. Symbolically, the train station’s waiting room is also life’s waiting room: their lives seem to go nowhere and they seem to want nothing. The film tries to capture the in-between time of life, when nothing important is happening. All the main characters are women and we are not shown if there are men in their lives, but the director seems to suggest they are not. We can look at Waiting Room in the cultural context of the male/female binary relation and see the women here as Others. Intentionally or unintentionally, the director seems to suggest that a woman without a man is (metaphorically speaking) a woman in a waiting room.

Russians, no doubt, are a subject of Othering in Estonia: their community is large (a quarter of the population), but their voices are not heard in society, and they are often left out from the mainstream media, culture and politics; quite a lot of them live still in the past where the grass was greener. Anthill (Sipelgapesa), a brilliant documentary by Vladimir Loginov from Estonia, takes a look at life in an enormous parking lot on the outskirts of Tallinn, where the local Russians have built a microcosm that takes us back 25 years in time.

The young heroes of the documentary When the Earth Seems to be Light (Rotsda dedamitsa msubukia) by Salome Machaidze, Tamuna Karumidze and David Meskhi set themselves apart from the mainstream of Georgia’s conservative society and want to take no part in it. The visually stunning film focuses on a group of young skateboarders, whose parents want them to cut their hair and go to school, but the boys want to be free and have absolutely no intention of becoming “normal”. Their goal is to stay away from the rules of society, the education system and also, in a way, from reality; they spend their days just skating, partying, dreaming and listening to music. To emphasize the freedom and tolerance of the young skaters and their non-conformity to Georgian society, the directors added sequences from the local news to the film; this footage shows how a throng of people led by priests in black robes broke through police cordons in downtown Tbilisi in 2013 and attacked a group of gay rights demonstrators – events that happened during the documentary’s shooting.

Another Georgian-German co-production at goEast competition was The Dazzling Light of Sunset (Daisis miziduloba) by Salomé Jashi about a reporter and a cameraman working in a small Georgian town. Through the everyday work of the news crew we see the small community and the lifestyle of the local people. The film captures the conflict between traditional and modern life as it unfolds in Georgia. Ukrainian Sheriffs (Ukraine-Latvia-Germany) by Roman Bondarchuk is also set in a small isolated community. Viktor and Volodya, two sheriffs, try to maintain order in a Ukrainian village in a troubled region close to the war zone. Their everyday lives shown in the film give a tragic-comical insight into a time and place, where there appears to be absolutely no hope for a better future.

The documentaries competing at goEast were mostly observational films that attempted to look at life with a minimum of intervention, without any intention to change the world or the state of affairs. But almost all of them, in one way or another, told stories about people who have trouble fitting in: groups of society who are different, or far from what we are used to, either geographically or mentally. Issues of Othering, as well as stereotypes and prejudices were raised here. We all need a constant reminder that just the acceptance of different forms of life and people can make this world a better place.

Edited by Birgit Beumers