Staging Reality

in 56th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Sasja Koetsier

The borderland between reality and fiction expanded at DOK Leipzig 2013 by the awarding of the Golden Dove for feature-length documentary to the docudrama Stop the Pounding Heart — a challenging choice for those that like to draw a sharp line between drama and documentary.

In Stop the Pounding Heart, Italian-American filmmaker Roberto Minervini witnesses a young girl growing up on a small Texas farm. As one of ten-plus siblings homeschooled according to strict Christian beliefs, Sara shouldn’t be too bothered by Minervini’s camera, since God himself has been watching her every move from the day she was born. This notion forms the heart of the dramatic theme that the film develops. As Sara’s blood starts running faster in the presence of the rodeo cowboy that lives nearby, we see her become caught between faith and feelings. Sadly, God’s word only adds to the confusion. The insecurity that comes with her attraction to a boy she hardly knows is overlaid by a sense of shortcoming towards a divine judge that’s not particularly clear about what he expects of her. If love makes her heart race, it is this mental trap that makes it pound.

In such intimate situations it’s hard to imagine the filmmaker as just a neutral observer. When Sara attempts a natural conversation with her love interest, the presence of a camera surely doesn’t help. And although Minervini has clearly spent a lot of time with the family (which he knew from an earlier film project), the scenes most important to the storyline appear to have been staged.

Stop the Pounding Heart was not the only film in DOK Leipzig’s international competition that featured people ‘acting’ as themselves before the camera. Hilton! — Here for Life (Hilton! — Täällä ollaan elämä), a portrayal of a group of marginalised youngsters housed in a grim Helsinki apartment building, tacitly allowed for the staging of situations that nonetheless seem common to the protagonists’ everyday lives. Like Minervini, filmmaker Virpi Suutari enters into a world that is far removed from the average viewer, in her case to arrive at a surprisingly poetic rendering of an improvised family. To obtain the level of intimacy displayed in both films, a degree of restaging might be unavoidable. In the case of Minervini’s film however, the choice of Sara’s first love as a dramatic highlight brings it awkwardly close to fiction works such as Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void (Lemale et ha’halal) or Silent Light (Stellet Licht) by Carlos Reygadas — whose name also appears in the film’s thankyou credits. IMDb lists the film as a drama, thus ignoring the observational quality of the film, and its obligation to the cinema verité style.

In another title entered into the same competition, Just the Right Amount of Violence, Jon Bang Carlsen takes his storytelling one step further by using actors to play families that hire private ‘interventionists’ to kidnap their children for re-education in teenage prisons. So painfully intimate are these situations that it was impossible to film them with real subjects. But it is only at the end of his film that the director confesses to this controversial use of drama, showing just the right amount of honesty.

As Carlsen brings forth the teenagers’ stories to finally touch on personal family issues, Minervini carefully avoids a personal take on his subject. By letting us simply observe, he couldn’t get us much closer to the reality of this peculiar world. Stop the Pounding Heart sheds a stark light on modern traditionalism, leaving the space to see either exoticism, depth, or horror.

Edited by Carmen Gray