The Little Man in the Big World

in 9th International Documentary Film Festival Flahertiana

by Dimitar Kabaivanov

Documentary cinema is a functional art, which is usually, to some degree, either a critique or an apology of the political, social and ideological aspects of the regime, under which it is created. Such in essence and spirit were the films on the 9th International Festival of Documentary Film ‘Flahertiana’ 2009 (I should note the work of the selection committee in this respect). In recent years, and today, as the world has been entering another global economic crisis (not to mention the global ideological “vacuum”), documentary cinema is increasingly oriented towards a publicist mode of expression, and already freely violates the “classic” proportions of quantitative research material and the forms of its depiction. The authors of most of the films in the competition seek to create a cinema of both direct publicist expression and metaphorical meditation. And at the same time, the meanings implicit in most of the documentaries have a certain focus, as they seek to observe, from different points of view, contemporary daily life through the eyes of the individual.

What connects these artists is that they all make movies that portray the life of communities as small as possible, or of a single individual. And the problems they tackle, no matter whether they examine certain spheres of human life or are claustrophobically closed in the microclimate of a single human experience, are those of survival. Indeed, this corresponds to the motto of the festival – Dürer’s words “The more your work corresponds to the real life – the better it seems …”

On the festival’s screen, we saw cinema that was existentially centred around this theme. Apparently the world of the 21st Century is not the best place to live yet, despite the fact that the previous generations in different periods definitely lived worse. The problem is that today’s uncertainty and absence of prospects comes after a period of illusions, when we thought that we had left a century of conflict (the 20th Century) and that we have in front of us an immediate future that is as difficult as it is creative and worthy. Yet in practice we are sinking into a reality where there is no security, and private initiative incredibly distorts our notions of equal opportunities and prosperity of the able. The individual’s life is depreciated, and everything else is literally bought and sold. What nobody cares about is the cost of human knowledge and labor, see: Japan, a Story of Love and Hate, UK-Japan, 2008, Director: Sean McAllister; The Living Room of the Nation, Finland, 2009, Director: Jukka Kärkkäinen; Survival Song, China, 2008, Director: Yu Guangyi; The Curtain, Russia, 2008, Director: Vladimir Golovnev. And it is no coincidence that these films not only made an impression on the viewers, but were also noted by the festival’s juries.

We may regard the position of the authors of some of the documentaries as rather unrealistic and open to criticism, but they are all solidary in their demand that we discover the human dignity of the victims claimed by this process of transformation in our world. In fact, everything is relative and depends on the internal resources of the individual. What unites the thinking of all the characters in this dramaturgy of survival is that they usually tend not to  feel sorry for themselves, and often avoid blaming society and the others for the fact that they are the ones who have found themselves victims, as in: The Living Room of the Nation, Finland, 2009, Director: Jukka Kärkkäinen; Hasta la Victoria, Switzerland, 2009, Director: Chris Guidotti, Matteo Besomi; … Till It Hurts, Poland, 2008, Director: Marcin Koszalka.

The authors of these documentaries have no inhibitions in their “staking” on the individual. But whereas years ago, the characters in these kind of films used to diverge from the life of the majority by either having obtained the wisdom of maturity, or by having managed to stray away from the common course, today the problems of survival enable almost anyone to become a creator and “god” of his own life. Now more than ever, the individual must draw on his own internal resources; in the relentless battle for survival he needs not only intelligence, but also a faith of his own, love, memories. Everybody is saving himself singly, but everyone is also a judge of his own life. Today, when the moral taboos of society are devalued and vague, the pursuit of morality becomes primarily an internal drive of the individual. And although this film so thoroughly analyses the fragmentation of existence and the individual particularity of its characters, it manages to reach and move the spectator, take: Constantin and Elena, Romania 2008, Director: Andrei Dascalescu; Unmistaken Child, Israel, 2008, Director: Nati Baratz; Young Freud in Gaza, Sweden, 2008, Director: Peå Holmkist, Suzanne Khardalian.

What I can definitely say is that the films of Flahertiana 2009 expand the frontier of documentary cinema into the sacrosanct world of the individual. For they do not only analyse behavior and facts, they also manage to gain insight into the most subtle vacillations of personal motives – like a kind of psychoanalytic session where the characters “go through” their issues before us. This is a form of documentary cinema, which inevitably must uncover the human personality and both the balance and the imbalances between the individual psyche’s internal attitudes and the necessities imposed by society. That’s why directors prefer not to look at large-scale reality – probably because they detect too many different perspectives to it. And also there are as many positions as there are perspectives, which, however, do not overlap and merge into a general view of the surrounding world.

Edited by Steven Yates