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 An Overview of the International Competition of Message to Man Film Festival, 2015

in 25th Message to Man Saint Petersburg

by Evgeny Mayzel

Every year since 1989 the international competition of Message to Man documentary film festival (the oldest and perhaps biggest documentary film festival in Russia) has presented the most painful – sometimes discussed, and sometimes hushed – themes and plots of our time captured in cinematic form. Even if you have heard nothing about the breaking news of the moment, you could approximately restore and archaeologically remodel part of them via actual movies from this festival programme, because they usually contain many of the political, social, and cultural challenges of Europe, Asia and other continents of the globe.

Just a simple example: what is the hottest image right now in Europe? It seems to be thousands of refugees flowing from the Maghreb and Middle East into the EU. This existential image was deeply reflected in Those Who Feel the Fire Burning by Morgan Knibbe, an interesting attempt to show the dark reality of refugees like a slow nightmare, using a mix of Gaspar Noé’s style in Enter the Void and Terrence Malick’s manner (with a whispering voiceover asking questions about the meaning of life and so on).

The problem of refugees is surely very close to the problems of the homeless and those excluded from society. The spectre of such questions, stories and images were always in the centre of the attention of the curators of Message to Man, emphasising the natural connection between the content of the festival and its humanist title.

In this year’s competition there were two movies – both filmed in the US by European directors – dedicated to the issue of homelessness and various “alternative” lifestyles. I mean The Other Side by Roberto Minnervini, and Above and Below by Nicolas Steiner. They cannot be reduced just to the homelessness problem, and are more about being excluded (forcibly or voluntarily) from society, living on the sidelines in different margins, away from usual homes. Despite the fact that the heroes of these films are extremely poor and not protected socially, we can see their dignity – and it constitutes the main charm of these films. Another movie which could be mentioned in this context is Free Bullet by Paulina Pisarek and Caroline Detournay, about Senegalese young priest Boniface, who is torn between his past and hidden desires.

The movies I mentioned above were made in a very artisti? way, and look sometimes almost like fiction. But there were other nominees in the competition that were done more in a standard television format with transparent, strict rules for their narratives. Some of these such movies were really very professional investigations, providing much information and all sides of the considered topics. One of the most significant, profound works belonging to this field was Censored Voices (Siakh lokhamim: ha’slilim ha’gnouzim) by Israeli director Mor Loushy, dedicated to the so-called Six Day War which ended with total Israeli victory and conquest of Jerusalem, Gaza, Sinai and the West Bank. Mor Loushy made an outstanding and important portrait of this war using the testimonies and memories of war veterans – to be more exact the part of their testimonies and memories which were recorded one week after the war and were censored by the Israeli secret service (Censored Voices reveals these original recordings for the first time). The main topic of this thoughtful movie I would describe as the price of victory.

There are several films which were not too burning with contemporary political relevance but were really deep all the same – for example, the very emotional and touching Call Me Marianne (Mow Mi Marianna) by Karolina Bielawska about a 40-year-old-man who has sued his parents in order to obtain a sex change. Or the gentle and meaningful See No Evil by Jos de Putter about three famous elderly apes who spend their leafy fall in retirement homes. Or one of my personal favourites in the competition – Strange Particles by young Russian director Denis Klebleev, about a talented young physicist Konstantin who is studying quantum effects and at the same time keeping order in the university’s resort. Strange Particles was a rare movie in the competition that can be described as a drama. Konstantin is trying to make his students work and think systematically, but his attempts are not very successful, because the students just want to have fun.

Edited by Carmen Gray