Expanding the Documentary Form

in 55th Krakow Film Festival

by Ohad Landesman

The documentary competition in the 55th edition of the Krakow Film Festival included films that test the existing boundaries between cinema and other forms of art. Master and Tatyana, the competition’s selection from Lithuania, chronicles the passionate love life of Vitas Luckus, a rebellious genius of photography, by experimenting with ways to make his artwork shine on film. In Before the Last Curtain Falls, as another example, aging transsexuals and drag queens express their stories of struggle with sexual identity through cabaret, and the theatrical becomes inherently tied to the film’s form.

One of the most beautifully striking and intellectually stimulating films in the festival, Isabelle Tollenaere’s Battles, puzzles towards the written and photographic essay in its attempt to deal with war simulation and fabrication. Composed of four segments, each focused on a different European locale haunted by historical battles, Tollenaere’s film elegantly shows how war in those places may be over, but its visible traces are very much present. The first segment takes place in Albania, where, strangely enough,  bunkers become cowsheds; the second looks at a weapons disposal unit in Belgium where old ammunition is constantly exploded actively; the third focuses on a recent tourist attraction in Latvia, where visitors can participate in a war simulation game inside a prison camp (this, in itself, turns to be one of the craziest reenactments you have ever seen on film); and the fourth takes place in a Russian town close to the Red Square in Moscow, where factory workers are made busy sewing inflatable models of airplanes and tanks. 

Without narration, intertitles, talking heads or other informative strategies, Battles is mostly silent on the verbal level. Nonetheless, it is intellectually stimulating, and presents us with a ghost story of sorts, where the past extends into the present and tragedy becomes a playful simulation. The echoes of conflict are reverberating and taking their toll on the landscape, but also affecting the people who find creative ways to deal with such a traumatic past. Tollenaere embraces an observational approach that remains clinically distanced and emotionally detached from the absurdity it shows. Such a strategy, based on digital long takes taken from fixed vantage points, captures some haunting and memorable images. You will not quickly forget the Russian reporter standing next to inflatable ammunition or the jets flying backwards in the sky. Battles, which fully deserved the FIPRESCI prize that was granted to it this year during the Rotterdam Film Festival, may demand a patient and attentive viewer, but rewards them with an effect that resonates in mysterious ways days after watching it.

If Battles expands the documentary into the realms of the visual essay, Agnieszka Zwiefka’s inventive The Queen of Silence, winner of the Silver Lion this year, moves it into the arena of the musical. Zwiefka focuses her film on one heroine, Denisa Gabor, a 10-year old gypsy girl living in a small settlement near Wroclaw in Poland. Denisa grapples with a growing hearing disability, accompanied by an inability to speak due to ongoing neglect and lack of treatment. She needs to deal not only with poverty and the ridicule she suffers from the other kids, but also with the imminent danger of being evicted from her home by the authorities. Denisa finds solace and escape from this harsh reality in the crappiest of places, often rummaging in the trash to find used toys, like Barbie Dolls she washes carefully with water and places next to each other. Denisa has an expressive body language that compensates for her muteness, and a heart-warming character that projects only sincerity and happiness. Zwiefka understands this magnetizing presence and decides to build her film around Denisa’s point of view.

It is only when Denisa finds some discarded Bollywood DVDs in the trash, a moment that initiates the blurring of boundaries between a real documentation and a staged performance, that Zwiefka’s film takes a truly innovative direction. The Bollywood songs and dances become Denisa’s main form of escapist expression, and the film stages those performances with precise choreography.  Such an innovative strategy recalls Brian Hill’s Songbirds, in which women in an English prison burst into musical numbers to express their life experiences behind bars. However, what is so remarkable about Zwiefka’s film is that she contrasts these musical excerpts with a never-flinching observation at the harsh reality Denisa lives in. The internal world of imagination embellished with the spectacle of Bollywood provides only momentary getaways from the tragic childhood Denisa goes through, with hardly anyone who could come to her rescue. The Queen of Silence makes no naive aspirations about the effect of documentary’s intervention, and knows the limits of the medium’s therapeutic potential. Denisa could be a queen at times, but her world needs to remain silent.

Edited by Steven Yates