Flahertiana: Beyond Any Festivalite

in 9th International Documentary Film Festival Flahertiana

by Hassouna Mansouri

It is difficult for a newly created film festival to have a good place among the huge number of film festivals already existing in the world (one can even talk about ‘festivalite’ as a contemporary sickness of cinema), unless the event has a very special concept. It’s even more difficult when it’s a documentary film festival. The Flahertiana International Documentary Film Festival, located in the Russian city of Perm, seems to be one of those festivals where there is no pretention, neither intention, to be the biggest film festival in the world or to attract the biggest amount of people. Instead, there is a great will to defend an idea of cinema.

On the website of the festival one can read how it was conceived as a tribute to Robert Flaherty, the great American film maker. The festival is in fact dedicated to “… films where the hero lives on the screen a part of his life, directed by the author according to the laws of dramatic art. The first film of this genre, Nanook of the North, was made by Robert Flaherty in 1922. The film became the aesthetical manifest for the subsequent generations of cinema-makers.” At the 9th edition of Flahertiana (November 15th to 21st 2009) I witnessed that this was not a simple slogan, but a reality. The selection of the films in this program is not at all arbitrary, nor open to all kinds of documentaries. It is made so that there is coherence between all the films around this only way of film making according to the method of Flaherty.

The main point is how strong the connection is between reality and cinema. It is not enough to tell a story about an interesting situation. It is not enough to copy the reality because, anyhow, this is not possible. The most important aspect in the vision of this festival is how a film can be part of the life of a character and not the other way round. In the ‘ Flahertian documentaries’ that I saw during this 9th edition of the festival, cinema and reality are so close to each other that they become one world where the character evolutes. It is not about phenomenons in themselves but it is more about the fight man can have against a situation or against a system, for surviving or for a better life.

These films are describing characters while they are fighting. This means necessarily that there is a dramatic construction following different ways and tones of storytelling. Japan, a Story of Love and Hate by British filmmaker Sean McAllister shows how a tension that can appear between a couple because of the very harsh and cruel economical system they live in. From his side, Chinese director Yu Guangyi describes the life of a small family living far from the organized society. Beyond small events happening to the three characters, his film Surviving Song points to the absurdity of a political system which instead of helping people to live, prevents them from any possibility to find their way. In another part of the world, Mexican filmmaker Eugenio Polgovsky calls working kids The Inheritors. His film is constructed following one working day of these kids. It begins in the morning, with the sunrise; it ends with the sunset. In the meantime, he shows us many stories in parallel. Here also, through the adventures of these kids, one can see the system in which the whole society is involved and how the destiny of all these people is decided by the irreversible machine of the non-human economy. The Palestinian psychiatrist in Gaza is another example of the absurdity of life. Swedish filmmaker Peå Holmkist, portraits a dramatic situation of a young doctor in psychiatry working in Gaza who is unable to help his patients because he himself is sick and loses all his forces. Characters are involved in an absurd situation described by the filmmaker through the trajectory of the young doctor as preventing them from any ability to take action or to carry out anything.

These are some examples of films selected at this year’s Flahertiana that show filmmakers dealing with situations on which they have a point of view and which they express by telling the story of one character. And in all these documentaries the filmmaking dispositive is quite the same: accompanying the characters in their daily life and making a story about their situation. But this means that the film is also made of unexpected events. In the last third of Surviving Song by Yu Guangyi, the main character disappears from the screen because he was arrested by the police of the party and he escaped. The young Palestinian psychiatrist in Young Freud in Gaza is suffering so much that he could not visit his patients and the film turns to explain his own weakness. These unexpected incidents, which were not planned in the script, are accepted by these filmmakers and, in a way, give a big depth, freshness and liveliness to these films. At the same time, these works are not only having different layers of significance but also give the spectator the feeling of being in a dynamic situation.

Seen from this perspective, the concept of the festival not only shows that there is a special vision of documentary filmmaking, but also succeeds in finding the balance between ‘cinephilia’ and the necessity to attract the public by a kind of cinema in which the spectator himself is part of the films dispositive. Organized in the vast growing city of Perm, on the boundary of two continents (Asia and Europe), the Flahertiana International Documentary Film Festival has all chances to grow. And this is for the great benefit of the young generation of film lovers in that region and also for the benefit of those young filmmakers who are trying to find their way. And in this way, Perm and Flahertiana are an important, even, essential step.

Edited by Steven Yates