The Cause and Effect of the Long Form. Paying close attention to the fifteen entries of the International Documentary Competition, Pawel Mossakowski identifies films that seem to have been deliberately extended into feature length in order to get seen at festivals.
I had the pleasure to be a member of the FIPRESCI Jury at this year’s festival of the International Documentary Competition (there were also sections of Polish documentaries, short film, musical documentaries, etc.). The phrase “I had the pleasure” isn’t in this case only a conventional courtesy. Thanks to the very high and equal level of this competition, working as one of the judges at this festival was a real delight. We had fifteen films in our section and – with only a few exceptions – all of them were interesting and meaningful.
In the last few years I didn’t have many opportunities to watch documentary films and maybe this is the reason why some things particularly struck me, or at least why they struck me stronger than a more regular viewer.
In the days when I was a regular documentary viewer, they were quite short. Now – and this is almost a standard – their running time is about 80-100 minutes, like a feature film. Personally, I have no issues with this: A film should last as long as it should last, if I may use such a tautological statement. If ten minutes is enough for the development of an idea of a film – let it take ten minutes. If three hours are necessary – let it take three hours.
However, this tendency to extend documentaries sometimes has purely practical reasons. Nowadays, for directors of documentaries, it is more and more difficult to show them in public. Years ago the TV stations were natural places for such screenings, but now the situation has changed. I don’t want to paint with a broad brush here, but it seems there are less TV stations now which are ‘documentaries friendly’. In these circumstances, authors of documentaries assume that they will show their works directly in cinemas. But their hopes are sometimes false and finally the only places where they can show their films are festivals like this.
There is also risk involved: Most of the films shown at this festival had an ‘optimal’ length for their general idea and nature of the footage, but there were also few of them which were overstretched – with clear intentions to meet the ‘time-standards’ of cinema. In these cases, footage was enough for 50-minute films, but this size is not interesting for cinema owners, and filmmakers know that.
Years of hard work and the director as a main character
These long films are shot over a very long time, which is not surprising and, generally, it brings good results. The subjects of the films are treated in a not superficial way; their stories are developing quietly, but in unpredictable ways, with surprising twists and unforeseen resolutions. It’s not an accident that the best films of the festival – Is There Anybody Out There?, Much Ado About Dying, My Name is Happy, Silent House, Who I Am Not, The Dmitriev Affair – needed years to be completed.
But what surprised me was a numerous representation or even over-representation of, let’s call it, ‘private films’ – films where the director is also a main character (or the members of his closest family are). In Is There Anybody Out There? Ella Glendining describes her own difficult life, giving also a voice to her parents. In Much Ado About Dying Simon Chambers tells a moving and surprisingly funny story about his eccentric uncle, a very old and very funny man. Silent House is a film made by siblings, Farnaz and Mohammadreza Jurabchian, about their three-generational family living in a titular house in Tehran. Margreth Olin made the film Songs of Earth about her parents living in the breathtakingly beautiful environment in western Norway. Elena Rebecca Carini, a girl born in Romania and adopted by an Italian couple, has made The Land You Belong, a film about herself and her brother she found after many years.
In some ways this is related to the long duration of the film’s shooting that I mentioned above. From this point of view, it’s simply easier for directors to make a film about themselves or the people they are closely connected with. An ‘outsider’, who has to devote his own time to strangers, can easily lose patience. These ‘private films’ are an interesting phenomenon, which deserves special attention (the influence on style and atmosphere of the film, etc.). Here I only wanted to mention it briefly.
And the winner is…
To summarize the beginning of this text, the level of the festival was very high and equal, so our decision was really hard. We considered five titles (one-third of the whole selection) and rejected four of them with a heavy heart. Finally, however, we decided to give our prize to Ella Glendining, the director of Is There Anybody Out There?
Elle Glendining was born with a very rare disease (lack of hip joints and very short femurs) which caused her to have a relatively small stature and required using a wheelchair for better mobility. The title of her film refers to her searches, via Facebook, of other people with the same disease; she had begun to suspect she could be the only one. However, she managed to locate two of them, both in the US – Priscilla, a make-up artist, and a YouTube star called Ricardo – and meet up with them.
However, there are also some deeper questions and issues in the film: How do we treat somebody’s fate? Do we accept it or fight it (i.e., by undergoing some risky surgery)? How has the social attitude toward disabled people changed in the last decades? What are the psychological consequences of this change?
This inspirational, brave and honest film, avoiding the traps of mawkishness, also received one of the three awards of the Main Jury. Ultimately, not a very fortunate coincidence, but not a fortuitous one either.
Edited by Steven Yates
© FIPRESCI 2023