The Importance of Conflicting Perspectives

in 18th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Silvestar Mileta

The absence of an opposing, challenging “other” perspective on the ideas and events shown characterizes a fair amount of films seen in the international program sections of the 18th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival – Images of the 21st Century held from 11 to 20 March 2016. This lack particularly harmed films that therefore came to be an hour (or more) long commercials (NaturePlay, A Living Space / One Season at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center), which would have certainly profited in their intentions if only some reasonable doubt had been incorporated into their display of alternative pedagogic and artistic concepts. This sort of doubt would perhaps question some cultist new age tones in Wilson’s commune and its worrying “detachment from the real world” (what kind of art is it then?) or anti-modern ideologies that are to be found in the roots of pedagogies created by Steiner and Montessori, the inspirational background of NaturePlay proponents.

Balanced insight was nowhere to be seen even in the biographical representations, among which some even descended into pure mythologization and exaltation (The Eye of Istanbul), and it wasn’t really even to be expected from mystical joints of nature and eschatology (Death is Life). Occasional camerawork or editing prowess was not going to save the day and some of the movies mentioned managed to shock even in this field with utter audio-visual illiteracy, mixing, for example, split-screen, time-lapse, slow-motion and 15-minute unedited declamations, all followed by classical music, into one indigestible whole.

Some titles that did not forget the importance of challenging perspectives fell apart structurally by losing their primary focus (The Book of Conrad, a real shame considering its intriguing characters), while others came down to be expanded TV reportages (Killa-Dizez: Life and Death in the Time of Ebola) or thin imitations of Errol Morris (Time Simply Passes).

There were conflicting perspectives included in dealing with particular environmentalist subjects (Indian Point, A Different American Dream), albeit in artistically unambitious renditions that pointed out a certain lag of American production as seen in the festivals behind those of Europe. It was rather obvious that American documentaries were concerned primarily with the subject (in most cases environmentalist or political, sometimes crime), never with the form. Some of them will be able to find their place on specialized TV channels, but a festival is certainly not a proper place for their screenings.

Even the otherwise exquisite Finnish film White Rage suffers from the mentioned absence of conflicting perspectives. Through personal accounts and a series of stylized re-enactments, it presents an authoritative premise that childhood trauma, bullying and the white rage that develops out of it are the main causes of school shootings throughout the world. It’s a striking story that conserves suspense through the doubt of the identity of the narrator which ought to be recommended as an excellent educational tool and as a work that addresses relevant social issues using specific expressive possibilities of the film medium. What it lacks, in the sense of relevance, is not the absence of other “voices” reaching for the depiction of the killer’s motivation, but moreover the questioning of them. No matter how close to the possible truth the narrator comes with his personal experience and education, his perspective is insufficient. It would not be a problem if this were to be a completely intimate, confessional film, which is not the case; it strives to present relevant theses on a broad social plane.

Societies are always comprised of conflicts of interests – since what applies to one group of people will not apply to others. Societies are battlegrounds of ideas and needs, ways and means to execute them. Films that try to cope with society, even through limited scope, need to take conflicting perspectives into consideration. All this is not to say that a contemporary documentary needs to be objective research resembling courtroom procedures. The best movie in this competition, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s What He Did, showed us how dominant and conflicting perspectives could be preserved even in one impressive character. Through a series of interviews with gradual psychological openings, theatrical reconstructions of events and, more importantly, the relationship of the two men, it also showed how a sensible artist seeks his story not in the basic fact of crime, but in its treatment through the inner life of characters and multiple perspectives comprised of impressions that preceded and followed the tragic event. What He Did is, in the end, just a confirmation of the basic documentary-making fact – the decisive importance of characters. It is a rule that could be taught also by the example of The Virgin Obsession, a noteworthy film made according to the fundamentals of contemporary documentary moviemaking (that includes multi-perspective focal points). It suffers, however, from one big flaw – the pretentious and condescending appearance of the director as a character. The lesson to be learned here is that “the personal touch” and Ich-form confessions are not always a means to success as it is often thought (a fine ratio of director’s involvement can be seen in A Dream of Denmark – a well-made movie which is unfortunately as tiresome as the process it portrays).

Jens Michael Schau from What He Did is, on the other hand, the prototype of a fascinating character worthy of film treatment. He undergoes a transformation from a pathologically self-confident, physically strong and emotionally immature person to a fragile old man who fears rejection. He, then goes through a very personal inner penance seen and heard only through subtle subconscious gestures and low voice, as well as the gradual building of confidence in the director. Both occurrences point to an authentic and touching inner struggle. Petty objections that could be made by those who are getting tired of the Danish success in the genre – possible thoughts of exploitation, the occasional “photographic” quality of the image burdened by symbology – are not enough to eclipse a stimulating work that, among other achievements, accomplishes clever usage of archive materials, subtle remarks on the moviemaking process and a measured inquiry into the subject of an inmate’s reintegration into society.

Edited by Carmen Gray