Caught Between the Past and the New World

in 18th ZagrebDox – International Documentary Film Festival

by Pierre-Simon Gutman

The Zagrebdox is, like any documentary festival, a concentrated and sometimes disconcerting view of the world in the past year. The fact that 2021 was such a historical and troubled time all over the planet only adds to this feeling. By gathering documentaries from the US to China, by way of Peru, the selection allows us a peek into a changing society. Even the choice of the subjects dealt with is a clear indicator of this. Of course, the war and the pandemic are present, and some movies try to grapple with their consequences. But what emerges from the selection is different, focused on intimate issues, on how gender, identities, and sexuality are redefined on a major scale, sometimes with a violence that matches the scope of the changes.

But the first important thing that appears when reviewing the impressive panel of movies presented during the festival is something else: a blurring of the lines between fiction and documentary. For decades, those lines were pretty clear, pitting the sheer capture of reality against acting, screenwriting, the tools of the fiction. Then, maybe through the rise of reality tv or because of a new definition of cinema, something sensibly changed. Pictures like Mother Lode (Matteo Tortone) or Reconciliation (Odpuščanje, Marija Zidar) are the visible proof. In it, the camera looks, from multiple angles, at pure moments of intimacy that seem staged, if only because the people in these scenes act as if no cameras or crew were standing near them. No one even looks at those cameras. The reactions and actions are playing exactly like fiction would, with the same impact, lightning, and editing. Some moments, like a specific one in Mother Lode, where two people wake up after what seems to be a night of passion, are at least slightly staged. Those elements interrogate the definition of a documentary instead of a fiction based on reality, with nonprofessional actors. There used to be a clear separation between them. It seems there isn’t now. Of course, some documentaries still abide by the old rules. The Fipresci winner The Bubble (Valérie Blankenbyl) is a clear example. Some pictures still manage to dive into their character’s intimacies, without confusing reality and the reconstitution of this reality too easily. Divas (Máté Kőrösi), a movie bought by HBO, finds a more respectful distance with its protagonists, three modern young women, by letting them sometimes choose, or take control, of the camera, of their representation. Cusp is an even more surprising version of this approach. The pictures, directed by Parker Hill and Isabelle Bethencourt, manage to capture, with the right distance, the seismic changes in gender and identities now taking place. In the heart of Texas, a portrait of teenage girls shows both the resilience of the old conceptions of masculinity and consent and how those young women are now aware of those old clichés and awaken to the possibility of slowly but surely abolishing them. And, if there is one unifying theme that seems to bound all the pictures show, it’s precisely the persistence, the resilience of the old ways, despite all the anger boiling pretty much everywhere, and the efforts of the new generations to push back against them. Whether they are the old Albanian laws, the traumas of the Balkans wars (Bigger Than Trauma, Veće od trauma, Vedrana Pribačić), past family tragedies or simply of a departed loved one (Marx Can Wait, Marx può aspettare, Marco Bellocchio), the past is all around us and fighting, as hard as it can, against a new world still emerging, still in flux.

Transition is probably the main word that emerges from the global picture, painted by the movies shown during the festival. There’s a transition between an economic model on its knees yet still not seriously threatened by any new one, between a new generation of women ready to blow the old male-centric order, and an old-world that refuses to die. Emerging from both the traumas and pains of ancient ways, the will to move on is visible in almost all the frames and shots. And yet this will is not enough. But the feel of his presence and promises made fascinating documentaries and a great selection.

Pierre-Simon Gutman
Edited by Justine Smith