Equals among the First By Alexander Kiselev
The International documentary film festival Flahertiana — Russia’s biggest forum of this sort — takes place in Perm. One journalist enquired with the festival’s director, Pavel Pechenkin: “How do you see a documentary film viewer?” – “About 20-25 years old, non-apathetic, working intellectual, somewhat curious in things aesthetic”, answered Pechenkin.
The documentary film genre provides some of the sharpest instruments of criticism and analysis of social reality, as well as ways to observe it. Flahertiana traditionally offers a pan-world program of pertinent documentaries. This year’s main competition involved twenty films, each interesting in its own way.
All the films shown in Flahertiana share a common principle — their authors as well as their characters believe in the value of every individual’s world view. Indeed, this is Flahertiana’s essence — to offer viewers something of a multi-meaning, multi-layered, multi-dimensional world. Many of the festival’s disputes also arrived at this conclusion. The documentary film genre in the regions must develop independently from the center in order to express local views and cultural issues. Thus documentary — as an instrument of creative expression as well as a reflection of viewer interests – becomes a cultural broth, a societal foundation encompassing diverse individual and local perspectives. When stripped from independent individual expression, society becomes both impoverished and despotic.
Melodrama takes on shades of sarcasm in a picture about a couple in their nineties, who decide to finally formally marry after seventy years together. The resulting film Humoresque is by Diana Deleanu, a Romanian.
In Russian director Elena Demidova’s The Multiplication Table, an eight-year-old boy and girl travel four kilometers to school every day and their road to knowledge brims with comical arguments and banal accords.
Spanish Oscar Perez’ film The Tailor portrays unending scandals between a boss and his subordinate in a tiny Barcelona tailor-shop. Both are immigrants. They hate each other but also depend upon one another. Simple shots from one stationary perspective do not preclude the film from turning into an ancient tale about the aging Nasreddin Hodja before our very eyes.
The problem of fathers and sons turns into a dark comedy in a Swiss film by Kevin Merz, Glorious Exit. The main character, a Los Angeles actor, travels to Nigeria to bury his father whom he had never met. In a remote Nigerian village, he must take leadership of a large family — a whole tribe — whose traditions he does not know — all because he is a first born.
Discussions about documentary film forms and budgets — that is, small and large budget films — continued informally well as at the conference on Cinema in the Province. Cinematographers now enjoy discussing how to make films with or without money. Availability of inexpensive high-quality cameras untied the hands of many (who were earlier constrained by lack of budgets) to realize their film ideas. Now, anyone can produce a film. A question remains: can a good idea coupled with coherent directorial guidance overcome lack of budget? Opinions differ: some say yes, others no. Some believe in the importance of original perspective on characters and situations that create the plot, others in professional operators and other classical filmmaking canons. Conference arguments became quite heated, resulting in no agreement.
But we can see: some of the best films emerge from the most eccentric decisions. For instance, Mladen Matisevic decided to film vestiges of his own depression in artistic form, as a doomed attempt to run a marathon. This picture, How to Become a Hero, received the well-deserved FIPRESCI prize. The film’s genre is rare for documentaries, it’s a comedy.
Indian director Nishtha Jain’s picture Lakshmi and Me stood out in the best feature-length film nominations. Lakshmi is a frail young cleaning woman. Her employer is the film’s director. Cast, education, and world view divide them and it is not clear what they could possibly have in common. The very setting invites double-standards but there emerges above all a sense of human equality. The film turns out to be about human equality before God.
The prize for best short-film went to an Iranian picture by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, Cianosis. This story is about a painter, Jamshid Aminfar, who believes in his artistic potential and continues to create his convoluted paintings despite a seeming lack of interest in his work.
The festival’s grand prize went to a picture by French documentarist, Georgi Lazarevski, Le Jardin de Jad. This film portrays a retirement home situated next to a wall being built around Jerusalem. Having achieved inner peace and philosophical clarity about the world, its dwellers find themselves physically in a war-zone. The film conveys a bigger metaphor of human destiny’s independence.
Perm’s regional government has included funding for Flahertiana in its economic development plan, thereby demonstrating its seriousness toward the documentary genre as a sophisticated social instrument with the capacity to help society rediscover itself.