It’s (not) Just a Doc. What’s the Matter with Today’s Cinema?

in 19th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Christos Skyllakos

The “global situation” is in a prolonged economic crisis, which creates a dire situation for theliving conditions of people across the world; military interventions continue to kill civilians in Syria so as to safeguard the profits of the monopoly business giants, while in Europe fascist and secessionist policies are being rehearsed, as in Ukraine – and maybe in Belarus as well; racism as a means of pressures to reduce the price of labour is being resurrected in USA, while Fergusson is not all that far back in time; provocative and controlled terrorist attacks are only a breath away; Africa remains under the complete control of global imperialism much like Apartheid in a post-Apartheid era; and in Greece we live our own “war” as a result of a constant reduction in the desire of people to fight for the obvious: a life worth living. All these things affect us all and as individuals in every aspect of our lives. To keep it simple: Things are tough.

It is therefore reasonable to wonder where international and Greek cinema stands amongst all this. Without of course demanding from a work of art total focus on current affairs, we certainly believe that such an overtone is festering in the guts of a work. And the vanguard in this case is none other than documentary cinema. The conscious depiction of the depth of reality, “the films which process reality in a creative manner, filtered through the view of the auteur”, as Dimitris Kerkinos said, were presented at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, where I took a first glance at this year’s views and trends. My notes may be subjective, but it is not unreasonable to seek such depth in auteur films. We live in the same world, we have the same eyes and ears: “We should learn to listen, and learn to see”, in the words of artist and art critic John Berger, who passed away some time ago and to whom a small feature was dedicated in the festival, in order to learn to speak and express ourselves.

A clarification about the concept of the documentary

Documentary is not journalism. It is not a scientific show in National Geographic or History Channel. The documentary genre has a long history, as well as a necessary and much needed future, which proves that (as it precedes television) documentary is art and art has no expiration date. Reality has no expiration date. Documentary is reality filtered through art. It is a film genre whose ingredients come directly from reality, are sculpted and returned to reality. Despite the fact that TV managed to alter documentary and reduce it to a blank page, it is a light approach of the apparent, superficial, unedited, unplanned video. “Current technology hinders thought. Because directors have fallen into the trap of convenience”, as George Arvanitis told me, president of Thessaloniki Festival. An aesthetic and conceptual oxidation. The substantial has turned into something trifle, in the name of ambition and exploitation. Exploitation of the power of the genre as well as the substance of the truth being filmed. “Especially in documentary filmmaking, there is a matter of one’s ethics. The director must first of all have ethics. This will be apparent in the film, justifying perhaps his work. The truth is that there are people who take advantage of the circumstances and make a movie because a subject sells tickets” Dimitris Kerkinos told me, “but there are others who really want to investigate a certain issue and really help, believing that pointing out the issue indeed helps”, I shall as I am looking for this approach in the movies I saw.

The political documentary

Many of us know Dziga Vertov, Robert J. Flaherty, Chris Marker or the more contemporary Patricio Guzman, but not others; in a sense that is reasonable, since fiction films have always been in the forefront of cinema. However, – and let this be a commitment to those who love cinema to pay attention to those influential auteurs – the aforementioned filmmakers and their work form an arsenal of aesthetic contributions with the goal to depict and “cleanse” reality from the rubbish that keeps us from seeing what lies underneath. In the same line, the same philosophy, the same perspective and without takeoffs stand this year’s Safari by Ulrich Seidl, I am not your Negro by Raoul Peck, A Hole in the Head by Robert Kirchhoff and Austerlitz by Sergei Loznitsa, as well as Machines by Rahul Jain, which was awarded – amongst others – in the festival as the best film by the FIPRESCI jury: documentaries, which reveal and chase out – each in its own way –the superficial garbage. They do not go blindly; they hit the right spot straight in our conscience and understanding.

The same approach of the present reality or yesterday’s truth can be found in the film Tower by Keith Maitland, where animation takes turns with documentary, and in American Anarchist by Charlie Siskel, with the exception that the director’s filtering in this case had the exactly opposite goal. They promote reactionary views. On the one hand, Tower cunningly defends the carrying and using of firearms, and the need of police repression in US universities, while the murders in Ferguson are still fresh in mind; on the other hand, American Anarchist deconstructs, again cunningly, every opposition against the system, regardless of ideological standards, through the authoritative power of camera and director towards the subject-matter. In both cases, the system appears to remain strong, even if everything seems to be directed against mankind. However, it is clear that an important trend in the international (unfortunately except Greek) documentary has its eyes on political reality in political and mostly radical terms. Except for Greece, and this is straight away disappointing.

The case of Greece

While the Greek people seem to be in one place, film auteurs seem to be elsewhere. And that might be reasonable, as far as makers of fiction films go, who have the right to handle in their films non-topical subjects and experiment with their narratives and stories; but in documentary film, reality should not be out of reach, and therefore we are left with a bitterness from the often blunt attempt to obscure or avoid reality, or from the total indifference towards it. The Greek reality of the present has a lot of material worthy of storytelling. Unfortunately, topical subjects are not on Greek directors’ lists.

Specifically: while a large part of new directors are trying to deal with the refugee issue, their approach is from a defensive perspective, or from a melodramatic, third-party point of view, detached from the drama and the reasons behind it. There is a fear and/or a blurry perception as to “what” and “how” – the fundamental questions about the role of film. Ideological confusion and aesthetic impotence? Maybe. Attempts have been made, but the aforementioned “convenience” often comes into play. On the other hand, despite good intentions from many directors, there are others with not so good ones. Films that apparently speak in the name of cinema and art at large, but conceal a type of narrative coming from a NGOs, organizations that are widely known to have a share of responsibility for the exploitative handling of current issues. Therefore – apart from the aesthetic ugliness – there is also a matter of ethics, solemnity and ideological intentions. We won’t talk about those directors who, despite their good intentions, lack in comprehensive ideas but mostly financial funds. Definitely, though, we watch films that should not be considered real cinema. Not because we care about words and labels, but because we know that “The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second”, according to Jean-Luc Godard, and not a depiction of linear, superficial naturalism.

The documentary festival and the funding problem in Greek cinema

There are a lot of elements to be considered for a documentary festival to be complete. It needs stories and must choose which ones: stories concerning universal questions that are apparently painful, that demand answers now, tomorrow and always. Overall, the 19 th edition of the festival did not lack such stories. Its programme was especially varied, with a weight given to the political depiction of current issues through an aesthetic – and therefore dynamically imposed – view.

At the same time, a documentary festival is an event and an institution. It poses a challenge, because it bears responsibilities towards art, towards the continuity of cinema. Thus the different sections, the films, and everything around should have the same quality target. That target should be clearly defined; by that I’m not saying that we missed it by any means. We just have to address that which “burns” under the skin; a common input. This year’s competition programme went in the right direction. In future, this direction should be emphasized and at the same time the goal of the competition section should be defined as clearly as possible: aesthetically, in terms of content and the importance of each film.

A festival’s competition segment ought to be fair to everyone. And what does fair mean? Unfortunately, cinema means money. Film is an art form that can hardly exist without a budget. Often the quality and the potential of a film are based entirely on the production. Even the best ideas remain unrealized if there is no camera or sound. Hence, artists who take part in the competition should have equal access to funding as a common ground. US- produced films – even the independent ones – are still American and consequently the budgets are high. The same applies to European films but to a lesser degree. On the other hand, Greek filmmakers, with underfunding (almost non-existent) from the government, are turned into the poorest art workers forced to use funds from their own pockets to realize their ideas, while small film production companies do not have the necessary funds to support them, resulting in Greek cinema being in decline in terms of narratives and aesthetics. Despite the ideas and intentions, Greek films seem “amateurish” – in the negative sense of the word. A movie filmed with a digital camera in the absence of a director of photography or a sound engineer cannot compete in terms of quality with a crew of hundreds of people and ten editors who – as trained professionals – know everything around film narration and the means of realizing it.

Therefore, two competition segments might help in solving this issue. Taking into account the level of production, there should be a competition segment where films with equal potential would take part in, and a second segment with films that cannot, due to their low budget, compete with more expensive ones, regardless of the director’s brilliance at overcoming obstacles can turn an underfunded film into a great artistic realization.

It remains a fact that a festival consists not only of competition. The other segments should continue as they are, emphasizing more the Greek part, which should be supported so that auteurs can overcome the problem of underfunding and focus wholly on the realization of their film and vision. The Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival has pointed out the obvious. The Greek state is absent in promoting art; it is distanced from the artists. And this is a political position, which should be fought on a political level.

Edited by Birgit Beumers