Beyond Documentary Cinema

in 19th ZagrebDox International Documentary Film Festival

by Ana Sturm

When the streets and parks in Zagreb are in full bloom, it’s time for ZagrebDox. Croatia’s most important international documentary film festival was launched in 2005 and since then it’s been bringing the best of the international and regional auteur and creative documentaries to its audiences, guests, and film professionals. This year’s 19th edition of ZagrebDox also marked a proper post-pandemic comeback to the familiar (and very much missed) bustling and joy at the lovely cinemas located inside Kaptol Center.

In the eight days of the festival, viewers had the opportunity to watch 116 thoughtfully selected documentaries from around the globe and attend a variety of accompanying events, from Q&A discussions to the ZagrebDox PRO programme. The festival is also pretty well-known and regarded for the special attention it gives to the newest, best and most captivating films from the regional documentary production: that means films from Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Slovenia and Serbia. Regional Competition Programme is also the one which is followed by international FIPRESCI Jury.

This year’s Regional Competition Programme consisted of twenty films – feature, middle length and short ones. The programme was challenging (The Love Room [Ljubovnata Soba, 2022, by Suzana Dinevski]) and immersive (Between Revolutions [2023, by Vlad Petri]), bringing upfront a wide range of auteur styles (Scenes With My Father [Scènes met mijn vader, 2022, by Biserka Šuran]) and compelling topics (Non-Aligned: Scenes from the Labudovic Reels [Dosje Labudović: Nesvrstani, 2022, by Mila Turajlić]) and also contemplating on some of the world’s most important issues: from ecology (Matter Out Of Place (2022) by Nikolaus Geyrhalter) to dealing with the past (Deserters [Dezerteri, 2022, by Damir Markovina]). The FIPRESCI award in this section went to the compassionate Hungarian/Croatian coproduction Paying a Visit to Fortuna (Fortuna vendégei, 2022) by Mátyás Kálmán, a down-to-earth portrait of a fundamental human need to be loved and recognised.

“The most important documentaries are the ones that focus on societal issues. We make documentary films in order to change something.” That is what Mako Sajko, one of the most intriguing Slovenian documentary filmmakers, believed and lived by. I believe that in this day and age comprehensive and introspective documentary production represents a very welcome counterpoint to instant and increasingly sensationalist news that lacks any real content. They are a medium that still manages to address and touch us, that knows how to pierce through the fabric of society and that can open up some of the key issues of the modern world for us to reflect upon.

What some of those key issues are, was revealed in the documentary In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis (In Viaggo, 2022) in which one of the most renowned contemporary documentary filmmakers, Gianfranco Rosi (Sacro GRA [2013] and Fire at Sea [Fuocoammare, 2016]), accompanies Pope Francis on his travels. With recordings of his speeches, intertwined with archival footage, Rosi paints a fascinating portrait of humanity. The topics on which Francis often passionately speaks about during his visits around the world are poverty, migration, environment, solidarity and war. At ZagrebDox, In Viaggo received an Honorary Big Stamp, a special award presented by the director of the festival, Nenad Puhovski.

“There are no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ wars. There are just unjust wars.” Thus, in one of the scenes in Rosi’s documentary, the Pope answers a provocative journalist’s question about the war in Ukraine. War was—unsurprisingly—one of the most notable topics in the program of this year’s ZagrebDox. And not just the war in Ukraine, but also the wars that followed the separation of Yugoslavia in the early 90s. Traumatic events, which after three decades still deeply cut through this part of Europe, were mostly addressed by the younger generation of authors who either grew up or immigrated during the war.

One of the events that left a deep wound in the collective memory is the bombing of Mostar, during which, among other things, the famous Old Bridge was demolished. Damir Markovina’s documentary essay Deserters (Dezerters, 2022) is a visually remarkable mosaic of memories of a generation of Bosnian high school students from the gymnasium in Mostar, who were separated by the war. “Before the war I had many friends. Many of them are dead now,” says one of the protagonists in a bitter voice, while looking at the class picture. Others are scattered around the world. Deserters is an eye-opening essay about the war, lost generation and identities, exile, impossible decisions and—as written in the ZagrebDox catalogue—an answer to the toughest question of any war: to stay or to run? The war in Ukraine reopened old wounds and brought out new-old fears about the long-lasting consequences of war devastation.

Because of our boundless greed, we all also face a different kind of devastation. “Humans have created a massive amount of non-immanent matter,” says Nikolaus Geyrhalter, director of the documentary Matter Out of Place. In a series of compositionally precise vignettes, Geyrhalter offers us a visual study of one of the most pressing global problems – the endless amount of garbage. Astonishing images, which could also work perfectly as a background in a sci-fi dystopian film, and speak for themselves. And they say everything.

In recent years, more than ever, we have been living in a time of omnipresent crises and without hope for the possibility of a better world. Film, especially documentary film, may be one of the ways that, with the aid of narrative and aesthetic representation, can help us form new dreams, reflections, expressions and actions regarding how we want to live in the future. In this regard I would like to mention two more films screened at this year’s ZagrebDox.

Already briefly mentioned Non-Aligned: Scenes from the Labudovic Reels and Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudovic Reels (Dosje Labudović: Ciné-Guerrillas, 2022, by Mila Turajlić) form a diptych created as part of an extensive research project that the Serbian director carried out in the archives of the Filmske Novosti studio in Belgrade, where she researched a collection of films known as “Labudović’s reels”. Stepan Labudović was one of the best and most prolific cameramen of Filmske novosti, and he also had a privileged position as Tito’s personal cameraman. The collection contains miles of relatively unknown and, above all, unexplored images of African and Asian liberation movements and leaders from the emerging countries of the global South, which marked the period of the 1960s.

The first part of the diptych, Non-Aligned, foregrounds the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement and examines how film images helped to imagine and establish a global project of political emancipation. The second part of the diptych, Ciné-guerrillas, takes us to the hinterland of the Algerian war for independence, in which Labudović spent three years and where his camera became a weapon of political struggle against colonialism. Rich archival materials, thought-provoking history and the common imaginary of this spirited time, as well as reflections on the representation of the world that now no longer exists, offers us many potential possibilities for imagining a better and more solidary future. It offers us the possibility of finding a new—a third—way.

Ana Sturm
Edited by Savina Petkova