Antonis Lagarias looks at two films with different approaches to an otherwise similar subject matter concerning the body politic in order to draw attention to those who experience injustice, inequality and social exclusion.
The year 2023 marked the 63rd anniversary of the Krakow International Film Festival, organized by the Krakow Film Foundation with a double aim to promote Polish cinema and to showcase international documentaries and short films in its competitive sections. The international documentary competition (15 feature films) included a balanced selection of films whose themes and politics related to Poland and the eastern part of Europe, as well as others that focused on broader international issues. The increased geopolitical tensions that followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine were visible both inside and outside the festival venues. During the festival, fund-raising gatherings in support of the Ukrainian army and other refugee associations were taking place daily in the city center. Given Krakow’s proximity to the conflict, it is not surprising that several films addressed the political and military situation in Eastern Europe. For instance, Signs of War, directed by Juri Rechinsky and war photographer Pierre Crom, presented Crom’s personal experience of Crimea’s annexation and its aftermaths. Along a similar line, Alexander Mihalkovich and Hanna Badziaka’s Motherland showed the tragic state of young military conscripts in Belarus, one of the thirteen countries in Europe that have not abandoned conscription. Finally, Jessica Gorter’s The Dmitriev Affair followed the trial of Yuri Dmitriev, a Russian historian and activist whose sentence for sexual abuse was deemed politically motivated by the international organization The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.
The festival’s awards, however, were marked by films addressing issues of injustice, inequality and social exclusion rooted in divisions on the basis of one’s culture, gender, sex or body. Among them, Tunde Skovran’s Who I Am Not (Silver Horn award) and Ella Glendining’s Is There Anybody Out There? (FIRPESCI award) share a similar structure. Is There Anybody Out There? tells the story of Ella who was born in the UK with a rare physical disability. Filming her own life, the director uses different video formats, including family videos, interviews and archival footage from TV transmissions, in an attempt to understand her place in a society that fosters ‘able-ism’ (a term used to describe discrimination in favor of able-bodied people). Who I Am Not documents the lives of two intersex individuals in South Africa (people that present both male and female biological characteristics) and observes how their non-binary gender affects their everyday life. Sharon-Rose has the appearance of a female person (she refers to herself with the she/her pronouns), has won female beauty contests and works for a large pharmaceutical company. When she realizes that her reproductive organs are not functioning properly, she finds out that she has both male and female chromosomes, a discovery that leads her to question her place in a world where a woman’s ability to bear children is considered crucial for a happy life. Dimakatso, on the other hand, is an activist whose appearance does not easily correspond to any gender (and seems to prefer the use of they/them pronouns). Rejected by most employees because of their ambiguous appearance, Dimakatso spends their days with their partner in a small house devoid of basic comforts, such as a washing machine.
The two films highlight the importance of accepting one’s body and identity, particularly when faced with increased social exclusion. Upon realizing that they were born with different bodies, the main characters have no choice but to embark on a quest to understand their place in a world shaped primarily for the needs of those considered as ‘normal’. While both films focus on under-represented social groups, they differ significantly in their approach. In Is There Anybody Out There? Ella consciously avoids portraying herself as a victim and instead shows how her experience as a disabled person allowed her to better understand the meaning of injustice and solidarity. Through personal diaries published on her social media, and with extensive voice-overs, she shapes a cinematic universe where she is clearly in control, partially subverting the social hierarchies that exist outside the film. Immersed in her own world, the viewer realizes that appearances are indeed superficial, and observe the strength of a person who challenges the deepest values of contemporary society. Not surprisingly, the film ends on a positive note, showing that supportive communities of people united by their experience of difference (in this case, mental and physical disability) are crucial. Instead of asking for top-down recognition, the film calls for social change aimed to shape a world that can accommodate the needs of all.
Who I Am Not, on the other hand, takes a more defensive stance as it mainly searches for the viewers’ empathy. To emotionally engage the audience, it uses several visual metaphors that convey a sense of loneliness and fragility. In doing so, it treats the two characters as uncertain figures that walk a lonely and, at times, spiritual path, while it appears to ignore the possibilities of collective struggle. As a result, the film loses some of its unique political force, as it ends up advocating the need for general awareness and acceptance, like many films before it. While it appeals to the emotions of a wide audience, this comes only at the cost of ignoring the most subversive aspects of contemporary queer politics.
Nevertheless, the two films are excellent examples of an existing tendency in contemporary documentary-making. Focused on international themes that only recently became visible, thanks to the rise of the new political field of identity politics, many documentaries today attempt to shed light on wider social issues by delving deeply into the intimate. Their contribution is then measured by their ability to be relevant not only for the usual international audience of the festival circuit, but also for national audiences and local communities. It is clear that, regardless of the difference in their approach, watching these two films side by side at the same festival offered the festival goers an exciting opportunity to discuss and compare their different style and political angle, ultimately reflecting on the possibilities (and limitations) of films that aim to better understand the experience of social minorities in an increasingly globalized contemporary society.
Edited by Steven Yates
© FIPRESCI 2023