Fighting Injustice, Again and Again

in 64nd International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Jérôme Michaud

If the word masterpiece is rarely used to describe documentaries, it is more out of habit than the perception that the terminology does not apply here. A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021), the first feature film by Indian filmmaker Payal Kapadia, is a major work of art that uses its slowness in a formidable way. The director fully understands the power of contrasts in cinema and she manages to make images of police brutality absolutely revolting because she skillfully places them in segments of pronounced softness.

Since 2015, student protests have raged in India. They are led by an anti-caste, left-wing movement that is, in particular, fighting against the nomination of people close to power in influential positions of universities, and opposed to the rise of tuition fees. Kapadia reveals this information to the viewer by using fictitious love letters and a written narration to create an hybrid film: between fiction and documentary, experimental images and archive footage. Despite the grim repression portrayed by the film, beauty, nostalgia and light emanate from it because of the filmmaker’s impressive mastery at composition.

Following the example of a series of violent acts that she lists chronologically through journalistic archives, Kapadia observes that people nowadays have lost their sensibility when they are confronted with the suffering of others: One tragedy is immediately replaced by another in a world connected by the media. Using a beautifully crafted and deeply felt approach, Kapadia manages to reawake this sensibility which is an achievement far from trivial!

In a gesture that includes certain similarities, Republic of Silence (2021) by Diana El Jeiroudi is one of the few documentaries that manage to make the lifelong journey of exiled Syrians so strongly felt. This tour de force is possible only because El Jeiroudi has documented her own story and those close to her for more than a decade.

Intimate portraits are important here, of course, but the first half of the film, more specifically than the second, incorporates archive material that allows the spectator to understand enough of the recent Syrian history to emotionally get involved with the protagonists’ stories. The narrative construction of the film is definitely very rich. Even if there is a form of temporal chronology, the work skilfully moves back and forth between present and past, making the trauma that are still experienced by the protagonists even decades later all the more tangible.

El Jeiroudi articulates two very different moments that she represents with great honesty. The years in Syria are marked by active militancy which gradually give way to calmer years in Germany. The physical distance ends up creating a separation with the Syrian civil war, and El Jeiroudi then delivers less historical information, which may lead to the impression that the film moves away from its subject matter, because that bifurcation contrasts with the first part. However, Republic of Silence is definitely more interested in the humans behind the horrors than in the Syrian history itself. Closeness and intimacy allow El Jeiroudi to viscerally evoke the affectivity of her viewers.

In A Bay (Uma baía, 2021), Murilo Salles uses an approach quite different from the two previous films. He askes from the audience to use their intellect and make sense of the freely detached, fragmented images he collected while filming in Guanabara Bay, a body of water that borders Rio de Janeiro to the east. The Brazilian filmmaker losely connects eight segments that are not obviously linked together. In each of them, he draws fairly minimal and allusive portraits of residents who live in precariousness and need to take on several small jobs to survive.

All of this would appear quite banal if Salles had not managed to always put more meaning into these images than what can be seen at first glance. In A Bay, an operation of loading minerals into a ship is accompanied by a thunderous noise, a homemade seaplane is patiently built using soft drink cans, the head of a horse is filmed in close up as he gallops to a psychotic remix of The Beatles’ Carry That Weight. Salles gives a special attention to the interaction of sounds with images. He works with contrast and juxtaposition. It would be easy to assume a lack of subtlety in the direction, but his virulent approach rather implies a weariness in the face of the immense social inequalities that persist in Rio de Janeiro and on the edge of Guanabara Bay.

In quite different ways, but all fundamentally cinematic, the three filmmakers manage to stimulate the viewer far beyond merely describing the subject matter at hand. Contemporary documentaries never cease to question their traditional form and this may legitimately rejoice those who are bored of the conformist tendencies of fiction films.

Jérôme Michaud
Edited by Pamela Jahn