Private Lives in The Documentaries

in 60th Krakow Film Festival

by Jan Storo

One distinct topic runs through many of the films in the Documentary program of Krakow Film Festival 2020: they closely follow their protagonists’ daily life. The films deal with very private matters in one person`s or a few people`s lives.

We see this in films as different as The Self Portrait (2020) about a young artist suffering from anorexia, and I Love You, I Miss You, I Hope I See You Before I Die (2019) about a young mother with challenging living conditions. In both films, we meet the female protagonists in their everyday lives. The first one is described in length by my fellow juror J. Bougrine in his article. The latter tells a story of how members of a family live their lives in a society marked by deprivation and addiction. Some of the same context is presented in Hasan Oswald`s Higher Love (USA, 2020). These three films tell stories about vulnerability and the struggle to live a decent and even rich life. It is as if nothing is too private for the public eye.

Three other films deal with private matters of a different kind. In Bitter Love (2020) we are invited to a cruise on the river Volga where middle-aged passengers are seeking a life partner. Their stories are often rather sad, as some of them do not succeed in this.

In the Uruguayan The Champion of The World (El campeón del mundo, 2019) by Federico Borgia, the protagonist is a bodybuilding champion whose career is over. In this intimate portrait, Antonio Osta really opens up about himself, as he struggles to find a new direction.

Some similarities can be found in El Father Plays Himself (2020). This is a film about a young filmmaker who wants to film his father – a project that is problematic because he knows his father too well, and because the father has an alcohol problem that jeopardizes the project. We are invited to witness some private situations and conversations between the father and the son.

I believe that for a film to be really good, something must be at stake. Something has to capture our attention so that we will be engaged throughout the film. The subject matter can serve as the hook, but how the film is made is also important. An interesting topic does not “save” a film if the esthetic makes it dull. That is why an exaggerated use of “talking heads” in a documentary may be a bad choice, whereas meeting people in their most private situations may keep us posted.

Private lives presented on film will often have the strength to engage us because we are invited to the lives of real people. We can watch them from a distance, and at the same time feel that we take part in their life.

To conclude, I will mention a film that while focusing on some people`s private lives, also gives a political dimension to the matter. In Acasa, My Home (2020) by Radu Ciorniciuc (Romania/Finland/Germany) we meet a family living a different kind of life. The Roma family lives in the countryside in the outskirts of Bucharest. They have chosen to live separately from the collective life of the city. Now the city authorities plan to build a nature park in the same area, and the family is threatened to be driven out by force. One of the strengths of this film is that it combines a view on the private with a perspective on society

Some stories should probably be told only by focusing on the protagonist’s life. Others are good because they place the private story in a political context. In this documentary program, we saw more films of the first type, but also some of the second.

Jan Storø
© FIPRESCI 2020
Edited by Yael Shuv