Reclaim Your Vision!

in 55th Leipzig International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Kirsten Kieninger

In the Golden Dove awarded feature length documentary Colombianos (Colombianos) there is a scene in which the two protagonists go jogging through the streets of Medellin. Beautifully shot from different angles: from the sidewalk, down from the street, from a building up above, there is also a travelling shot from a driving car moving with them, and there even is an aerial shot. Not only this jogging excursion of Pablo and Fernando is perfectly conveyed – all other situations, dialogues and emotions are – just like you would expect from a feature film. But since we’re dealing with a documentary here, two probing questions arise from the film’s overall visual and dramatic perfection: What has been done to achieve it? How much ‘directing’ can a documentary take and still be faithful to reality, without beginning to construct it just as it sees fit?

Bulgarian filmmaker Ilian Metev shows with his Silver Dove winning film Sofia’s Last Ambulance (Poslednata Lineika na Sofia) that he in all probability would answer these questions in a completely different manner from his Swedish colleague Tora Mårtens. Sofia’s Last Ambulance is a documentary in it’s purest form – but nevertheless with a strong formal approach. Metev didn’t direct his protagonists. He surely didn’t halt them in what they were doing or told them to do it again to get a different camera position. He merely chose where to put the Camera , what to shoot and when to shoot, while things were happening. He deliberately restricts the viewers vision mostly to close-ups of the three protagonists’ faces: a doctor, a nurse and a driver, on duty in an ambulance in the Bulgarian Capital Sofia. The 75 minute film consists mainly of such tight shots and the original sound which comes with them. It is the sound which opens the picture to the world off-screen, without depicting it directly. The protagonists’ faces reflect what they are going through. Facing them the viewer experiences what they are confronted with and can read in their telling facial expressions how hard it is to cope with the exhausting shifts they’re working, yet without losing hope or humour.

A quite similar formal setting yet with a completely different approach towards reality is used in the film we awarded the FIPRESCI-Prize to: In Another Night on Earth (Otra noche en la tierra) director David Muñoz installed little cameras in taxis that make their way through Cairo. Here in several taxis various visual angles are chosen by the director. His approach provides a perfect way to portrait different aspects of Egyptian society in one coherent setting by changing taxis, drivers, passengers and themes of dialogue. The witty and reflecting dialogues that quickly develop between drivers and passengers may not be completely spontaneous: the people don’t just hop into the car, many of them look as they have been instructed since they are sitting in exactly the right places where the previously installed cameras could capture them. They may even have been suggested what to talk about. But this is a legitimate way to helm protagonists. At the end of the day it’s almost like the director has been interviewing them on certain topics, only this way it is much livelier and entertaining. The director creates an initial situation and merely watches how it unfolds.

Two other films in the competition just jump right into the middle of already evolving situations: Are You Listening! and Cloudy Mountains are two examples of purely observational documentaries which do without a deliberate formalistic setup, and come across as almost unfiltered reality (in a flooded Bangladesh community and in a huge Chinese asbestos mining-site).

So how does one get the best grip of reality in a documentary? The question gets even more complicated when filmmakers are dealing with past events, as Andy Wolff in The Captain and his Pirate (Der Kapitän und sein Pirat). He lets both the Captain and the Somali Pirate report their perspectives on the attack of the German commercial ship Hansa Stavanger in 2009 and when Captain Kotiuk was left high and dry for 4 months by the shipping company who refused to pay the ransom and the pirate slowly became his only friend on board. Through the on-camera interviews, these past events acquire a new life.

The two protagonist of Lida Duda’s Entagled (Uwiklani) however tell their upsetting stories with calm off-screen voices, while the images show what looks like everyday scenes from the life of a pedophile and the young man he abused as a boy. The film is composed as a polyphonic mosaic of past events, voices of the pedophile’s old aunt and the boy’s mother joining in. The film thus works as a tight and gripping interaction of authentic audio-track over sought out, or even staged, visuals.

But how do you represent on screen a reality that is long gone? With only ruins to be filmed as evidence of said past events? Swiss director Olivier Zuchuat found a very interesting answer in Like Stone Lions at the Gateway into Night (Comme des lions de pierre à l’entrée de la nuit), which won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. The film uses picture and sound in a very specific way to evoke an image of past reality. To tell the story of the so-called re-education camp on the Greek island of Makronissos in the Aegean sea, where communists were detained from 1947 – 1951, the director only uses what is still available today: ruins of the camp site on the island, poems that imprisoned poets Yannis Ritsos, Tassos Livaditis and Mikis Theodorakis wrote there, some old photographs, the words of the camp ‘ten commandments,’ which demanded of prisoners to renounce communism in favour of the patriotic fight, plus some key words that the camp loudspeakers may have broadcast then. Out of this material the director builds an impressive image of reality: Slow and long travelling shots of the ruins – that now look rather idyllic! – are accompanied by recitation of poems, found hidden in the cracks of the walls, and speaking of despair and yet great humanity in times of terror. The gentle voice that reads the poetry is counteracted by re-educational slogans, shouted over old photographs of life in the camp. With few modules to build from, but with a strong vision, the director succeeds in evoking a very rich and touching vision of a past reality. A reality which is artistically reconstructed, but feels true.

In documentary films we can find as many approaches to reality as there are directors trying to capture or reconstruct it. On film, reality could no longer be objective – if it ever is – but this is a question of philosophy, not of film making. „Every edit is a lie and deception of the audience“ says director of photography Peter Zeitlinger, who often works with Werner Herzog. You can even go further and state: every shot is a lie, since it offers only one limited perspective on a given situation. Something is always left out. All the audience sees is the director’s vision, his version of reality.

I’m completely comfortable with this, as long as the director remains truthful to his subject and his protagonists, and honest to his audience.

Edited by Christina Stojanova