Documentaries in Locarno: Queens and Killers By Valentin Rabitsch

in 59th Locarno International Film Festival

by Valentin Rabitsch

What did Günter Schwaiger do wrong — or right? — to make some viewers abandon his documentary Hafner’s Paradise (El Paraiso de Hafner)? For some of them, the portrait of the former Nazi Paul Maria Hafner did not seem critical enough: They suspected the film gave its 84-year-old subject too much space to defend himself with Nazi propaganda. In defense of Schwaiger, one may say that he expresses his strategy at the very beginning of the film: He is out to reveal Hafner — who denies the Holocaust — with the man’s own words. For instance, Hafner is introduced in the film as an inventor of a yoghurt machine and as a German hog farmer in Spain: “Nobody seems to know that there are still plenty of German pigs in Spain,” the old man says confidently, obviously unaware of the double meaning of his statement. Schwaiger uses such monologues to expose the naïveté (and, perhaps, senility) of the speaker, creating an image of an almost tragic-comic, lonely person. Hafner looks somehow ridiculous, though his significance to present-day neo-Nazi networks should not be underestimated.

The film is less convincing, however, when Schwaiger’s intention to compromise his opponent turns into blunt indiscretion. Even though Hafner may have agreed to be filmed while changing into his swimwear, most spectators are presumably not interested in the exposure of Hafner’s body, and would prefer a focus on his weird vision of history and society. Of course, Hafner tries to avoid certain issues: In an arranged meeting with a survivor of the concentration camp at Dachau, he starts to complain about severe pain in his jaw. This attempt to escape into an illness — after he had just boasted of himself being in rude health — is very telling. Nevertheless, the director should not be content with such effects and should not allow Hafner to get away so easily.

Locarno’s “Semaine de la critique” was founded by the journalist Jean Perret in 1990. Currently, Perret is the director of Visions du Réel, the Swiss non-fiction film festival at Nyon. The “Semaine de la critique” of the Locarno festival has always focused on documentaries — in deliberate contrast to the fiction-dominated main sections of the festival — and has succeeded in capitalizing on its alleged marginality within the festival. Whereas the fictional sections of the festival are under pressure to present outstanding films in competition with the bigger festivals of Cannes, Berlin, and Venice, the “Semaine de la critique” — limited wisely to seven films — can choose its films out of the less contested pool of documentaries.

The programmers of the “Semaine de la critique” have repeatedly discussed whether they should favor documentaries that derive their impact mainly from their subject matter, or those which put a strong and distinguishable voice of the author at their centre. Films that fall in the first category proved to be more popular and were favored this year. As expected, The Queen of the Condom (La Reina del Condón) was very successful, selling out two screenings due to its surprising and — probably more important — sex-related topic. Swiss directors Silvana Ceschi and Reto Stamm tell the bizarre story of a German woman in Cuba who found herself assigned to be the nation’s official sex educator in the 1970s. Hafner’s Paradise is another example of a documentary with a strong subject but with a relatively weak directorial signature: Schwaiger’s film certainly attracted attention because of its subject’s scandalous denial of the Holocaust.

Los Ladrones Viejos, on the contrary, bears the distinct signature of the Mexican filmmaker Everardo González, as he interviews aged prisoners about their adventurous careers as thieves in Mexico City in the 1970s. They represent a milieu of criminals who took pride in a “code of honor”, and their nostalgic tone in the interviews cannot be overlooked, as we learn that crime has not only become much more frequent in today’s Mexico City, but much more violent. There is a lot of stock footage in this film, obtained from police and television archives, and also provided by private individuals. This material, intercut with the prisoners’ interviews, creates a suggestive effect: “El Carrizo”, the most famous thief of his day, is portrayed almost in a romanticized fashion. There is a clear attempt to capture the poetic aspect of this “zorrero”-era, when thieves committed “clean” crimes — exclusively burgling the homes of the wealthy, without the need for weapons or violence. After four years of labor, González has realized his film with a strong vision, presenting a remarkable documentary which is on its way to small-scale distribution in Mexico.

Even more impressive is Alexandra Westmeier’s Allein in vier Wänden, a documentary about a home for young delinquents in the Ural region of Russia. (As was expected, the film won the competition.) In six weeks of filming, Alexandra Westmeier captured a world of contrasts — juvenile and tender faces, bodies and gestures inhabited by injured souls with a ruined past and a tough future. Brilliantly photographed by Inigo Westmeier, the film follows the daily routine of the home, rendering visible the tensions between the enforced discipline of the community and the needs and desires of the stunningly compliant inmates. Westmeier has gained the trust of the portrayed boys, establishing an intimacy that never becomes indiscreet. Consequently, all the boys speak for themselves. The few adults shown in the film are their fathers and mothers, interviewed in their mostly miserable homes. Despite the extremely pessimistic statistics about the presumed future of the inmates, the film portrays them and their hopes with great respect.

The film One Minute to Nine, by the young Texan filmmaker Tommy Davis, is driven by a completely different dynamic. Looking for someone who is about to be jailed, he encountered Wendy Maldonado, a mother who slew her violent husband with a hammer after 18 years of severe abuse. Almost the same day the filmmaker learned about Wendy, he went to her home to film the remaining five days before Wendy’s scheduled imprisonment. His shaky, Handycam-shot footage, intercut with the Maldonado family’s home movies, reveals an unspeakable drama of domestic violence that ended only with Wendy’s desperate action. One Minute to Nine — which gets its title from the precise time Wendy must report to prison — raises a lot of questions about justice. The most disturbing question, however, concerns the passivity of Wendy’s neighbors and of the police, who obviously did not respond appropriately to Wendy’s explicit cries for help. This question may provide material for a second and more investigative documentary which most viewers of One Minute to Nine will want to watch, aware that Wendy’s fate is unfortunately not a singular case.

After The Queen of the Condom, the second Swiss production screened in the “Semaine de la critique” was On Foot to Santiago de Compostela (Zu Fuss nach Santiago de Compostela). Director Bruno Moll shows the blisters of a young teacher walking 2200 km on the Route of St. James, from Switzerland to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. Unfortunately, the film never becomes more than the uninspired journal of a wanderer on his lonesome pilgrimage through harsh and beautiful landscapes, uttering the usual stereotypes of getting closer to oneself by facing nature and solitude.

Another portrait of a single person — the famous director David Lynch — was the seventh film of the “Semaine de la critique”. It is credited to the pseudonymous director “blackANDwhite”, and while this is not a nom d’ecran for Lynch himself, Lynch is still a product of the director’s intimate entourage. It consists, however, of material compiled far too casually, showing and celebrating the master at his work as a photographer, as well as a director of films and other artistic projects.

To name the aesthetic parameters that define the choices made by “Semaine de la critique” one could probably speak of “originality”. The films shown in the “Semaine de la critique” are not exceedingly innovative, not really cinematographically ambitious and not highly politically committed, but they surprise with the manner in which they have been made. Often, the realization of such films has a history which seems to be as exciting as the film itself. Should one ask for more documentaries about documentaries?