Docutragedies on Screen

in 8th Documentarist - Istanbul Documentary Days

by Bojidar Manov

Docudrama, a well-known genre in screen art, is on the borderline between documentary and feature film. Two films from the international selection of the 8th DOCUMENTARIST Istanbul Documentary Days (13 – 18 June 2015), however, have made a step towards the still unformulated, yet real docutragedy. It surrounds us in real life, alas, and hence, may rightfully appear on screen.

A famous aphorism says that “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic”, yet when statistics do light up the screen with staggering, real human destinies, docutradegy blows the minds of normal thinkers and confronts them with harsh documentary truth – in painful silence.

The film Colony (Koloni, Turkey, The Netherlands, 2015, dir. Gurcan Keltek) sheds light on such an overwhelming truth from all the way back in 1974. It tells the story of uncovering 951 mass graves and the exhumation of the remains of more than two thousand (previously anonymous) victims of illegal murders. Long before the creation of the film, the famous Cypriot journalist of Turkish origin, Sevgul Uludag, conducted her own investigations, which lifted the veil on these events for the first time, and she rightfully won the 2014 European Citizens’ Prize. Her objective documenting of facts ascertained that the victims belonged to the two nationalities – Greeks and Turks – who were in the wrong place when the country was being divided. This indisputable human tragedy served as the detonator of the film, which permeates the screen with very vivid cinematographic language, revealing the shattering truth. The black-and-white production of Murat Tuncel Kurgu features magnificent landscape shots with a unique raw impressionism, and very good sound gives a magnitude and unsettling dynamic to these otherwise static impressions. Against this dramatic backdrop, the screen reveals the sad human faces of the families who have just learned the truth about their relatives, gone missing 40 years earlier. The dead files from the archives expose intense human tragedies, with no statute of limitations in time. The memory calls for knowing the past and not forgetting its tragic lessons. In the words of the director, Murat Tuncel Kurgu, “Colony is a film about psychogeography, the memory of trauma and remembrance”. We can believe him, after having watched his powerful film.

Another docutragedy, with a topical contemporary plot, is Those Who Feel the Fire Burning (The Netherlands, 2014, dir. Morgan Knibbe). Old Europe is faced with a difficult situation, for which it is unprepared. Thousands of refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East board boats headed for Europe every day, and hundreds of them find their deaths in the deep waters of the Mediterranean. Everyone has seen horrific scenes in a number of documentaries and TV reports on the topic. In this case, however, the young director goes beyond the reporting dimension – with no social or political analysis, no examination of the roots of the problem, and no forecast on its future development. The director is much more interested in the personal drama resonating in the refugees’ souls. Moved by the tragedies of overloaded boats, he looks into the traumatized memory of their surviving relatives. The plot is built upon the death of an old man who fell overboard in high sea. Later on, in a fictional storyline, his perception shifts into another dimension: a dark, hallucinatory place. Driven by a mysterious power and in desperate search of his loved ones, his soul passes by the everyday reality of many castaway refugees at the border of the so-called paradise, Europe. The old man’s spirit observes people on the street being chased away like dogs, it follows an illegal worker and a drug-addicted mother, and slips inside crowded refugee shelters. The young director bravely and convincingly goes beyond the purely documentary approach and unleashes his imagination, aimed at prompting viewers to go beyond the pure facts of everyday life and seek answers to universal issues of humanism, the meaning of existence, and the future of humanity. With such a task, screen language naturally transgresses standard documentarism, the camera flies over and under the water, and night-time shots evolve as in an action/thriller film. Yet, at the end of the day, viewers have been won over by the film’s human pathos. While this docutragedy is certainly at the borderline of documentary filmmaking, it may also rightfully seek diverse artistic approaches to reach the audience.

Edited by Alison Frank