Documentaries on the Illegible World

in 14th goEast Wiesbaden

by Radovan Holub

The main task for the FIPRESCI jury at this year’s festival was to watch, discuss and evaluate feature films from the Competition section. The competition section consisted of two parts, feature and documentary. I would like to discuss the documentary section, which shared equal billing with the feature competition. There were seven long documentaries in this section. However, other documentaries could also be seen in the section Beyond Belonging: Socialism — Utopia Revisited, which included films on the identity struggles of Middle and Eastern European countries moving towards democracy.

A documentary called Velvet Terrorist (Zamatoví teroristi) by the Slovak filmmakers Pavol Pekarcík, Ivan Ostrochovsky and Peter Kerekes was screened in this section. It features portraits of three rebels who attempted an assault against socialism, and speaks about their endeavors from a contemporary point of view. One of these is Vladimír Hucín, probably the most popular Czech dissident to organize armed resistance against the so-called socialist regime. He gathered explosives. In this, he was unlike many Croatians today, who are impoverished due to loans and do not collect explosives; they just published a “black book”. What else can they do? Following on from this subject, I will later conclude my piece with a closer study of the Croatian documentary Married to the Swiss Franc.

There was one really special documentary called Judgment in Hungary by the young Hungarian director Eszter Hajdú. The film was shot as a Hungarian-German co-production from 2011 to 2013, and it won the Documentary Award for “Remembrance and Future” from the main jury. The documentary deals with the attack on several Hungarian Roma villages in a murderous spree by far-right extremists in 2008 and 2009. Six people died, including a child. Some were “only” injured. These events were widely discussed in the Hungarian media and led to discussions about why resentment against Roma and Jews in Hungary is so intense today. The film does not focus on the violent events themselves, or reenactments of them. It briefly sums up what happened: beginning in July 2008, Árpád Kiss, along with his brother István and a man named Zsolt Peto, driven by István Csontos, carried out nine brazen nighttime assaults on Roma living in villages in north-eastern and central Hungary. They had hatched their plans in a pub in Debrecen. They were hard-core football fans with neo-Nazi links. In one of the most gruesome attacks, a Roma father and his five-year-old son were gunned down as they tried to flee their house, which the gang had set on fire. The gang’s motive was to provoke a violent reaction from the Roma and spark inter-ethnic conflict. The documentary pays a short visit to the original sites of the murders, and we focus largely on the trial and court process which took place from 2011 to 2013. The trial took 167 days, over 2.5 years. The camera only occasionally ventures outside the relatively small courtroom, where the victims’ relatives are squeezed together with the criminals. The camera inspects the face of the main judge, and his personal involvement in the case (we can assume he was eager to solve it). It also follows the witnesses’ speeches, expressions and gazes (we can assume some of them sympathized with the criminals). The viewer sees a court filled with judges, prosecutors, defendants, witnesses and experts at the forefront. The courtroom is packed with visitors and journalists on the first days and last day of the case. Other than this, most of the seats reserved for visitors are empty. It seems to me that (according to the footage) even the guards were somehow on the side of the perpetrators. They do not say anything but this is what their faces suggest.

The film consists of thrilling moments when it seems that the defendants have succeeded in crushing the prosecution in the middle of the case. There are other surprising moments: for example, when we see that the police search and detective work performed after the killing spree were minimal. One perpetrator even attacks the court, saying that the judge is encorcing “mental terror” on him. But the judge himself, even if irascible, becomes a champion of law and order. At the end, in the packed courtroom, he sentences brothers Árpád and István Kiss and Zsolt Peto to life, while their driver István Csontos receives 13 years as an accomplice. The perpetrators show no emotion as the verdicts are handed down; the films ends, and we are encouraged to think about everything which has happened and what may happen in the future.

Nepal Forever is a Russian documentary by Aliona Polunina. It touches on a hot issue of today; for instance, we see that Gregor Gysi interprets the Ukrainian crisis differently from most Czech Communists. Why is this? Traditionally there has been a Communist International organization, which unites Communists all over the world and gives them a directive on how to interpret important issues. What has happened to this Communist internationalism? The film centers on a group of Communist hardliners from St. Petersburg who try to bring the movement back to its Marxist roots. Similarly, in Nepal, there are harsh tensions between two groups of Communists, a leftist workers’ party and a second, Maoist-like party. Sergjej Malenkovic and his comrades visit Vim Kadack in Nepal, assuring him of their support in the fight against Basmachi groups. They support the endeavors of the former Communist leader and Prime Minister of Nepal, Madhav Kumer Nepal. They also visit the Embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in Nepal. North Koreans also support the true principles of Marxism-Leninism. The film is partly a serious journey into the roots of Communism, and partly a farce. It shows that the Communist movement has now split into antagonist groups which lack the perspective to build a united leftist front. Unfortunately, the essence of the Sergjej Malenkovic doctrine is not properly explained. In the film he tends to play the part of a clown. The director wanted to entertain us with this group of hardliners traveling to Nepal for fraternal reconciliation, but she does not give us clues about the essence of the group’s motives. The film becomes a series of amusing pictures and scenes without a common underlying thread. We do not find out what the group wants, plans and thinks in relation to the future of Communism. Still, I consider this documentary for important for its main concept and for its endeavor to shoot without artificial reenactments.

Let me talk a little about a third documentary, Natalia Michailova’s debut Zelim’s Confession (Zelims bekenntnis). Michailova studied in Russia and lives in Berlin. Her film was made as a German production (HFF Potsdam-Babelsberg). Zelim is a Chechen refugee in the Republic of Ingushetia, Russia, and he speaks from his shelter in Oslo, Norway. Zelim is a Muslim from an unsettled region between Georgia and Russia. The story is simple: Zelim was hitchhiking in Nazran when a car stopped, took Zelim on board and departed from the main road. Zelim was seized, locked up, released, arrested again, beaten with iron sticks, and tortured with electric shocks to his legs and mouth. He was near death, and he had been asked to disclose the names of his collaborators and the sites of their guns. The hijackers must have known that Zelim knew nothing and had no friends in the underground. But they needed to report high numbers of investigations to their superiors. “The police has to report that it is successfully fighting against terrorists”, says one witness at the court in Karabulak. The film shows how the business of terrorism began in the North Caucasus. The film is grey and painful in the parts set in Ingushetia and colorful, even playful, in the Norway scenes. These two parts, however, do not quite stick together. The film is just 60 minutes long and it occupies an uneasy place at the festival.

Three films, three examples of chaotic life in the post-Communist region. There is no clear path forward, no clear opinion, just a gloomy dream of democracy. Dogmatism and scurrilous ideologies reign, as regular citizens become victims in the fight between elites. Documentary filmmakers travel to unsettled places to record what is going on. They work with great intensity, but have little exposure. Documentary films are generally still shown mainly on television. Documentaries about important issues must seek viewers through festivals, online distribution and web platforms. It also seema that events take place much faster than cinema is able to record. However, I did notice that most of the people at the festival did tend to come together because of the documentaries and their political urgency.

Finally, the semi-absurd and semi-tragic world of uncontrolled elites and ideologies was well-depicted in the film Married to a Swiss Franc (U braku za Švicarcem) by the Croatian director Arsen Oremovic. The film shows how 150,000 regular citizens in Croatia were encouraged by banks, politicians and loan sharks to fall into a debt trap, since their mortgages were handled in Swiss currency. There is no guarantee from the Central Bank for the Swiss franc in Croatia. People who borrowed money for apartments, houses or cars are now in deep trouble, especially as the Swiss currency rate flies up. We meet a man who will be making payments on his flat of 50 square meters for the next 30 years. He signed, so he must pay. As the former Croatian prime minister Jadranka Kosor comments in the film, “The banks are stronger than politicians”.

The documentary section of the goEast Film Festival proves that we live in extremely fragile times. The outside world has become so crabbed and illegible that we can hardly cope with it. So these documentaries are important to watch.

Edited by Lesley Chow