World Actualities in a Narrow Look

in 31st Istanbul Film Festival

by Dieter Wieczorek

Without doubt the Istanbul Film Festival showed itself to be both open and attentive to social, political and emerging thematics. Beside the Human Rights in Cinema section, which included ten works presented in the international competition, the section What’s Happening in Greece was marked by Haritos Karakepelis’ Raw Material, which traces the permanently degrading living conditions of all those workers and families living from trash and recycling in a society not only in a critical state, but losing control. The working processes produce highly toxic outputs for the ambience. The most exposed workers after only a short time are already in a critical state of health, risking lifetime illness. Their trembling hands and the permanent scratching of their painful bodies point out the end line of a barbaric state of a system going down. Karakepelis followed all the states of the trash, from the first pick up in the night shifts up to the final transport of recycled aluminium to its new destinations. Quite a lot of the participants of this underground world are portrayed in a touching way.

The Arab Spring was the starting point for this Istanbul Festival edition for a reflection about representation strategies of revolutions. The section Filming the Revolution manifested quite different ways of showing and re-constructing ‘revolution’. In a supplementary round table with some of the film directors present, all participants agreed that the essential function of documentary film’s capacity is insisting on complexity and even ambiguities in opposition to simplifying TV reportages and Facebook statements.

No More Fear by Mourad Ben Cheikh had already played in Cannes 2011 and brought to light already emerging conflicts in Tunisia concerning the tentative of Islamic formations to reinstall their power, but also at the same time between young rebels and the experienced, the former resistance representing activists. The documentary is focused on some selected characters such as a political activist, an advocate defending torture victims and a young Facebook journalist and photographer. Ben Cheikh follows their experiences and opinions. Only this fact was a critical point in the Tunisian perception, where the public is quite sensitive about the question of representing the revolution as realized exclusively by the people and not guided by heroes or main figures. The fight for the right to tell the story of the rebellion is already ongoing, and continues. Cheik condensed the latent arbitrariness of narration in the figure of a patient in the Razi Psychiatric Hospital, who is permanently creating collages with photos and text fragments of the revolution days.

In his film Parole Rouge, realized under time pressure and constraints, Elyes Baccar confronts himself much more with confusion, multi-perspectives and overwhelming emotions during the moments of the out-breaking revolution. At the same time he gives space for detailed observations in often fixed camera positions, observing aged faces and contemplative gestures. The circumstances of murderous acts are reconstructed and bodies of the victims exposed. Actual controversies, for example concerning the return of the Islamist leader Rached Ghannoiuchi after 22 years living in exile, are pointed out. Baccar is limiting himself by capturing the emotional spectre of the manifold voices. He followed the action without commentaries, and steps into the manifestations not without taking risks. The additive structure of his film mirrored the unpredictability of the events. Realized between December 17th and end of February 2011, his film already has an historical function. Against the permanent protests of Salamists after each new film screening, accusing the missing hints about their role in the struggle; in fact the film documents their factual absence at the beginning of the crisis, an irritating fact facing their actual power in reclaiming the Tunisian society.

Concentrated on experiences, hopes and future views of young rebels during the manifestations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the Italian film maker Stefano Savona, well known as a sensible observer of social conflicts and political activism in his recent Palazzo delle Aquile (2011) delivers his impressions of a still confused and unstructured situation. Already in place on January 25th, he captured the enthusiasm and willpower of the first period (of the Arab Spring), marked by spontaneous communications between locals, up to now quite divided and separated in social classes and ideologies, but here coming together with an insisting feeling of community.

Again, a completely different experience of represented revolution is developed in Fragments of a Revolution by an anonymous Iranian director, living as an exile somewhere in France, who observes the events of the Green Revolution on screen, at a time, when the pushing-out of international journalists from Iran had already taken place. He perceived Iranian television, Facebook, telephone calls and e-mails from friends, who had to permanently change their addresses. The contradictories in all this news make it impossible to clearly reconstruct events and impacts. His awareness is limited to declarations of hopes and fears. The director shows himself (not his face) in his isolated observation cell, condemned to inactivity, reduced to information research, facing a near virtual “reality experience”.

In only ten minutes, Wael Omar (In Search of Oil and Sand) resumed an outstanding and anticipating event of the Egyptian spring: the brutal suppression of the protest against the so called first democratic elections in September 2005. Journalist, intellectuals and political activists comment the street fights. They all together declare the profound incapacity of this political system to transform itself.

Marked by a continuous voice-over, the US-American-Ukrainian co-production Orange Winter by Andrei Zagdanskys offers different strategies of transformation. The main subject of the ongoing protests during the cold winter days in November 2004 against the manipulated re-election of the encrusted power abuse symbolising Yanukovich by the followers of the change promising Yushchenkos, already a victim of a his face damaging attack, is completed by additional information, out pointing out, for example, the Russian oriented politics of Yanukovich and the dismissals and ‘suicides’ of some leading characters after the manifestations. More than this, the street actions are parallelized with (at the same time) ongoing local events like a football match or two classical operas, “Godunov” und “La Traviata”, both contemplating intrigues, power plays and the problem of tyranny, with both presented in Kiev’s theatre. On the other side, the strangely not commented and completely incomprehensible confronting of the energetic mobilisation of resistance is the only named fact and also that after the finally annulated election and coming to power of Yushchenko, his adversary returns into a leading position. Zagdansky’s concept of filming the revolution offers the possibility to add more complex background information and to enlarge the chronological spectrum into past and future of the main events, but evidently it is characterised also by the risk of a (never neutral) commentary power.

Between the more historical works in Istanbul’s Filming the Revolution the Lebanese-Great British coproduction Leila and the Wolves (by Heiny Srour, 1984) shows the rebellion of around 15 Arabic women against their traditional role and at the same time the political repression in the Palestinian-Lebanese region by occupying forces up from the first half of the century. Srour mixes fictional language and documentary style, and creates an often strange dissonance between the two levels, following in her fictional narration a more anecdotic and suggestive style, depicting beauty by insisting on aesthetics then confronting them with harsh documentary scenes, therefore barely communicating one with the other.

The same resistance line, but much less fictional, is treated by Hanan Abdalla, the daughter of Egyptian activists in her work In the Shadow of a Man. Returning to Egypt in 2011, she portrays a series of women in diverse forms of resistance against the rituals of submission in traditional marriages. The humor and the force of these women, not weakened or intimidated, even risking their lives in their confrontations, is convincing. Abdalla gives them plenty of space to develop their point of view.

The oldest historical contribution in this film section offering a rich panorama of representation strategies, is Battle of Algiers (by Gillo Pontecorno, 1966) the Italian-Algerian co-production. Pontecorno transforms historical facts in convincing and dialogue intense fictional dramaturgy, a further strategy of the construction of the reel, honored in the same year with the main award at Venice. Up to this time it was the most expensive film ever made in the history of Algerian cinema and quickly acquired respect as the reference work which most epitomizes resistance. Up from the first torture scene to the last, a surprising outbreak of national enthusiastically freedom requests — here definitely not religious —, in life risking activities against an overwhelming state power, this work delivered a lucid analysis not only of guerrilla strategies and underground war, including its acceptance of death of all kind of civilians, but also of the cynic-pragmatic immorality of state power, which overruns human rights without hesitation, when their own interests are threatened. The integration of pseudo documentary film fragments of street fights tries to transform a main narration work into a reality by taking one, referring to the two extremes of “reality documentation”: being completely integrated in the still not structured and unpredictable action on one side and the (re-)construction of ‘history’ by intentional narration, in the most evident way by voice-over on the other side.

Most of the documentary film makers facing these extremes follow a third strategy: let people be free and speak about themselves. But evidently also, this compromise isn’t a way out to objectivity and neutrality, not a way out of being involved, fortunately.