East Meets West, and Themes Emerge By Marcin Gizycki

in 50th Leipzig International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Marcin Gizycki

The 50th Leipzig International Documentary and Animation Film Festival was a traditionally big event. As is usually the case at festivals of this size and significance, it was interesting to see how films tended to group themselves around a few major themes and issues.

The post-communist landscape of former Soviet republics and other Eastern European countries still attracts festival programmers and filmmakers. In this year’s competition, at least five films fell in this category.

Antoine Cattin and Pavel Kostomarov’s The Mother (La Mère), a Russian-Swiss-French production, is a moving portrayal of a woman struggling to make sense of her life as a worker at a rural farm that hasn’t changed since Stalin’s era. The proud but deeply unhappy woman cannot prevent her daughter from repeating her own mistakes — marrying a local drunk, getting pregnant and finding herself stuck without perspective. The vicious cycle repeats itself.

The heroine of Victor Aslyuk’s Belarus drama Maria is another woman worn down by life on the outskirts of the Soviet empire. In her better days, she was a celebrity, a deputy, a model collective farm worker.

Marcin Sauter’s The First Day (Pierwszy Dzien), a Polish film shot in Russia, follows a group of children whose simple, happy country life is interrupted by a new duty: Going to school. From the very beginning, they’re indoctrinated in patriotism and nationalism, learning about Mr. Putin, who works hard at the Kremlin to make their lives better.

Salome Yashi’s Their Helicopter, from Georgia, is the most joyful of the group, set on a mountain landscape where what looks like a spaceship from another galaxy has just crashed. In fact, what we see is the wreckage of a food-delivery helicopter, and the local villagers make clever use of all the parts scattered around the crash site.

And while Thomas Heise’s German-made Children: As Time Flies (Kinder, wie die Zeit vergeht) has been shot in a big Western city, the film presents a haunting image of a former Communist housing project, and its effect on the people still living within.

Another theme-related cluster of films from the main program dealt with the issue of disappearing communities. In the case of Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmuskallio’s Traveling (Matka) the community is the Eskimo — “eaters of raw flesh”, as the Finnish narrator constantly reminds us. But we do not have to travel this far to encounter other vanishing groups. They can be found in Belgium: Tom Fassaert’s Doel Is Alive (Doel Leeft), where the small town of Doel, with its cheerful old inhabitants, is being slowly consumed by the city of Antwerp. They can be found in North Dakota, in Kelly Neal’s How to Save a Fish from Drowning, where a once-prosperous fishing settlement is now inhabited by a handful of men — and probably women, too, though we never get to see them.

Documentaries also force us to remember that some people disappear because other human beings kill them: Women in Afghanistan are murdered by their own relatives for being unfaithful to their husbands in Krzysztof Kopczynski’s Stone Silence (Kameinna Cisza); the corpses of innocents in the Middle East, crushed beneath bombed houses in Maher Abi Samra’s Merely a Smell (Moujarad Raiha), and so on. Two films reminded us that children can commit crimes, too — not resorting to murder yet, but as Mehrdad Oskouei’s It’s Always Late for Freedom (Hamishe Baraye Azadi Dir Ast) and Maria Augusta Ramos’ Behave (Juizo) suggest, that’s bound to happen soon enough without radical changes to the world’s penitentiary systems. But maybe it’s the whole world that needs a radical change.