The Way Movies Argue
by Penka Monova
Movies are always in dialogue with each other, but often voice equal truths or play a common theme in their own key. This becomes especially obvious when they share the big screen for some time during a major film festival. In the International Competition Documentary Film of the 52nd International Leipzig festival for documentary and animated film, 15 movies carried out these Socratic talks. I won’t try to follow the entire debate between them, nor will I draw final conclusions from it. But that won’t prevent me from appreciating each title as a well-grounded aesthetic argument and a desire for communication. In a clearly good selection (with very few exceptions), it’s interesting for me to examine two movies, which in my opinion claimed the same vital thing, but asserted it using opposing modes of expression, methods and proof. And they opposed each other only seemingly.
In Tying Your Own Shoes by Shira Avni (Canada, 2009, 16:10 min), children with Down’s Syndrome are gathered on large tables to draw with a brush and they paint naive drawings. Both the paintings and their painters seem full of effulgent joy of life. To draw is a type of therapy for the children, and obviously an effective one. To make the movie, the director uses these drawings, animating them. Actually, the movie is more an animation and reveals the little world of the young painters who create and voice the narrator’s text. It is this text that directs and organizes the enlivening of the drawings as a garrulous and a little stuttering voice (hence there are subtitles). By the way, in most films of the festival, the main character’s voice dominates the narration, removing this privilege from the author. The films were like a confession and the authors were to be found somewhere deeper, hidden behind the unique and strong presence of their characters. The children with Down’s Syndrome, always laughing and suspiciously happy, willingly defend their world; their home, parents, friends, pets; they like this world and themselves in it. To them, learning to tie their shoes is like climbing Everest or making a good film to most viewers, non-varied ability people. They’re so proud of their little wins that they’re prepared to make exhibitions. Most of them wear large glasses, but they’re always dressed up; peroxided, imitating fashion, a way of life and ambitions, but they still do it according to their own sense of achieving an ideal. From the charm of this child’s view of life and its joys, it looks as though only through difference, or if you’re forced, can you perceive the meaning and pleasure of existence and creation. The act of seeking what distinguishes people, not what unifies them, won’t be easily denied by filmmakers. Everything in this movie as a whole is very touching. Although the children come across non-acceptance from people in the streets, their close friends and institutions who surround them also protect them in a restricted circle. The innocent are always privileged, we know that, but they deserve it. Only in the Paralympics the competitors still value participation, not the result.
In the Estonian movie Jolly Old Farts (Emumäe Eedi ja lobi küla Kristjan), directed by Manfred Vainokivi (Estonia 2009, 28:00 min), two old friends and foes, obviously in some early period of their lives, meet years later. They’re both film directors, but as authors of the movie refuse to use parts of their own films to describe their characters better. Quite the contrary: the two of them are left in front of the camera, at which they’re not at all ashamed, and freely imitate themselves. That’s why every gesture, word or move gains extra meaning; as with good literature, where the detail speaks for the person more than anything he could claim about himself. It’s well known that words are often used for cover. In fact, the characters here do not speak exactly about themselves, unlike those from the abovementioned movie. Each of them talks about the other one, describes him in front of his very eyes in the most mocking and hostile way possible. Apart from the verbal characteristics they willingly give to each other, a number of details can be pinpointed. For example, the clothing… One of the men is old and plump and arrives in a costume even with something like a ‘Papillion’, while the other stands in his home with frayed dirty clothes and a hairy face. The elegant one is a moderately well known director; his name is in the ‘encyclopedia’ and he’s worked in some ‘popular’ television shows to win awards for his work. The other one has withdrawn from work, his mother supports him with her pension in the provinces and he is dedicated to smoking and drinking. The two men peck like people, who know each other painfully well. They controvert their own significance, point out the uselessness of the other one’s efforts to cope with his life and fulfill his ambitions. For both of them art, filming, has always been a type of therapy which didn’t prove effective. It’s only made matters worse in their constant petty rivalry since childhood; in playing, in chess, in football and probably in many more general things. Biting to the point of rudeness, drowning in venom, they compete in insulting each other, and they both drink and smoke in vast quantities, moving from the cozy living room to the meadow in front of the wooden house. The mother sings a song there, in the fascinating landscape outside, but the two men don’t enjoy it one bit. They just don’t notice her, but at least they lapse into silence for a moment. Ultimately, they’re the same; exhausted men with dry, impatient moves towards the glass, the plate and the cigarette. It’s only near the end of their first meeting that the ‘successful’ one admits that a movie made by the other man Self Portrait With My Mom has inspired their whole generation and he’s actually grateful for that. The neglected man doesn’t seem to believe that, but soon we see him transformed; with a clean white costume, after he’s mocked his friend for the Papillion, he visits him in his decaying villa. There the host has put on some torn-up shorts and a dirty shirt and makes a barbecue for his guest in the yard. The change of roles, of clothes and moods, the provocations and mutual accusations culminate in a final tirade by the river: both of them actually did the best they could. Then a new twist occurs. “You as a person”, says one of them, and perhaps it doesn’t matter which one, “are much more than the movies you’ve made”. To me this seems deeply striking and original; making apologies not through the art of creating but through the art of the person himself, as an utmost value. A film to deny filming itself and appreciate the man in and out of his films. Probably because of this the authors do not use the films their characters made as some sort of gauge for them. No, their gauge is greater. I personally prefer this kind of humanism in movies, this stream of altruism – when the person in them is shown greater and more beautiful even than the dream of himself.
The motto of my text ‘My dream is Me’ is a remark by one of the girls in the movie about the kids with Down’s syndrome, but it fits for both movies. One of them says it in a nicer and more touching way, the other one, though more dramatic, skillful, insidious, is done in a more real way. But it seems both films argue a little bit about all that.
Tying Your Own Shoes won one of the greatest awards – a Golden Dove along with € 5.000. The other one, Jolly Old Farts, won nothing.
Edited by Tara Judah
© FIPRESCI 2009