DOK-Leipzig Programme Brings Order to Chaos

in 66th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Irena Kotelovich

During the entire film, the director is trying to find out where his childhood memory of a spaceship flying overhead comes from. The last film in the FIPRESCI jury programme at the DOK Leipzig turned out to be the freshest, free and quite crazy – but in a good way. The rest of the films mostly follow a strict sequential structure, so that this title created a noticeable, almost physically palpable contrast. As a result, South Korean director Taewoong Won’s Universe Department Store (Yunibeoseu) took home the FIPRESCI prize.

The programme of this year’s edition of the DOK Leipzig Film Festival – film critics watched part of the International Documentary Film Competition – showed a lot of perfectionist-ically structured, ordered, organized and therefore extremely boring forms.

The Austrian The Standstill (Stillstand) by Nikolaus Geyrhalter made the already forgotten topic of the Covid-19 even more uninteresting. The author consistently and methodically follows the events since the spread of the coronavirus and during several official lockdowns in the country. Here are the adaptations of huge rooms to the needs of the sick, the routine of doctors, the work of the authorities, the protests against lockdown restrictions, and finally a return to the norm. The interviews, which look deliberately boring and uninformative, are interspersed throughout the film.

With their methodical, calculated, “symmetrical” films, as The Standstill, the curators of the DOK Leipzig programme seem to be trying to order the unruly surrounding chaos, and thus take it under control. As, for example, in the movie Kumva – Which Comes from Silence (Kumva – Ce qui vient du silence) directed by Sarah Mallégol, which started the work of the jury. In a series of long, monotonous, “ascetic” shots, the older generation of Tutsis tells children about the genocide of their people in Rwanda in 1994. Or the Croatian-Serbian co-production El Shatt – A Blueprint for Utopia (El Shatt – nacrt za utopiju) by Ivan Ramljak uses the memories of living eye-witnesses as a voice-over and well-preserved archives to methodically narrate how in 1944, refugees from Dalmatia went to a special camp in the Egyptian desert and returned from there.

In the film The Standstill, the conceptual form of the story becomes the most meaningful part: it “curbs” one of the main shocks of recent years in a logical and complete story from beginning to end. When we subject something to logic, it stops scaring us. And the concept of Kumva – Which Comes from Silence is in the content of conversations that “shake up” intentionally emphasized silence. In El Shatt – A Blueprint for Utopia archives and their value are the most important. The authors seem to have realized that the form itself is too uncreative and included theatrical scenes in the film with reference to the building of communism and its aesthetics.

By the way, theatre as a staged addition to documentary history helps to tell the story in one of the most non-trivial finds of the programme: Where Zebus Speak French (Sitabaomba) by Nantenaina Lova from Madagascar. The author talks about, let’s say, a “down to earth” topic – agriculture, which, through the method of narration, acquires a sublime value, around which a persistent but non-aggressive struggle flares up. The land here is woven into the history of struggle, into myth, into anti-colonialism, into documentary shots and scenes played out in a children’s theatre. Neither in form, nor in logic, nor in techniques, Where Zebus Speak French is a boring film, and is able to provoke sympathy for the actors and their harmless and hopeless struggle.

Moreover, the sequential, monotonous film While the Green Grass Grows directed by Peter Mettler curbs mourning for parents who have passed away one by one. In British English, there is an idiom “like watching grass grow”, which means something very boring. Peter Mettler had a different meaning in mind with the film title, but it got into the meaning of this idiom as well. While the Green Grass Grows with its form, slowness, dominance of nature over shots with people, tries to convey a state of total sorrow and turn into a kind of self-therapy – in a very pretentious way and with unnatural staged shots involving the director himself. But this film again demonstrates an attempt to take control of chaos, in this case the chaos of personal tragedy.

Lucie Dèche, the director of the French film Mamie 44, talks to her father about his father, who was killed for collaborating with the Nazis in 1944. Illustrating the conversation is a systematic and boring depiction of the father’s farming routine, which balances the supposed emotions about the shameful and embarrassing topic of conversation.

Only one film of the programme was devoted to pure documentary observation, even if it is limited to that. The result does not provide the viewer with a logically complete story but, on the contrary, leaves many questions open. The French movie Suzanne from Day to Day (Suzanne jour après jour) by Stéphane Manchematin and Serge Steyerhas has no proper concept and runs without voice-over, without staged shots, without a mathematically calculated structure: it is all about telling a story through observation, which is great. But the extremely charismatic character Suzanne, who lives in the French countryside by her own choice, is ultimately the main value of the film, and there is nothing more.

The documentary of this year’s FIPRESCI jury program at DOK Leipzig has lost its observability. This goes well with the ordering of the surrounding world: the unpredictable observation of a story, when it is unknown how it will end, is also, in a certain sense, chaos. The directors preferred more reliable and more artificial forms – from film to film they seemed to curb, organize, explain the world for themselves. These films are built on concepts, some inventive and others not so inventive. And to a lesser extent – on the luck of the documentary filmmaker, on the little things that the camera can capture, on unexpected discoveries. So, the search for a childhood memory, according to the jury, turned out to be the most successful and unpredictable concept.


Irena Kaciałovič
Edited by Birgit Beumers