Thessaloniki Documentary Festival
by Jared Rapfogel

John Wojtowicz, the inspiration for Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, and the subject of the documentary The Dog (2013)

John Wojtowicz, the inspiration for Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, and the subject of the documentary The Dog (2013)

This year’s edition of the venerable Thessaloniki Documentary Festival was among the strongest in recent years, at least to the extent that one’s sampling of a few dozen films (out of a lineup consisting of more than 180) could determine. Whether an accurate census taking or luck of the draw, I saw a remarkable number of extraordinary nonfiction films in the course of the festival, an achievement all the more impressive given the relatively conservative bent of the festival’s orientation. Thessaloniki tends to restrict itself to a relatively traditional concept of “documentary, despite the fact that many of the most accomplished, innovative, and fascinating films in contemporary cinema blur the boundaries between fiction and documentary filmmaking, exploding the strict demarcations that have generally prevailed between the two modes (click here to see Cineaste’s coverage of the “Art of the Real” survey presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, not to mention Richard Porton’s Summer 2011 article, “Documentary Cinema and Reality Hunger”).

Restrictive as this conception may be, it was nevertheless encouraging at Thessaloniki to see so many fine examples of nonfiction filmmaking at its best. It can be easy to despair of traditional documentary cinema given the plethora of films that address invariably interesting subjects but with little or no regard for the craft (much less the art) of cinema. The vast majority of documentaries fall back on clichéd maneuvers (treacly music, indifferent composition, hyperactive editing) that betray a complete misunderstanding of how best to do justice to their subjects and grossly underestimate the intelligence and patience of their audiences. In the face of all this mediocrity, the bold experiments of the most cinematically ambitious filmmakers often seem the only viable alternative, so it’s good to be reminded that the documentary form, even at its most traditional, is far from exhausted, it’s merely much abused.

One of the finest films I encountered in Thessaloniki, Braddock America (directed by Gabriella Kessler and Jean-Loïc Portron), struck a perfect balance between visual command and self-effacement. Although far from a radical redefinition of documentary cinema, it’s a portrait of a former steel town eviscerated by the closure of its factories and consists largely of fly-on-the-wall observation of the community’s daily routines, as well as a healthy dose of talking-head interviews. It easily surpasses most films of its type simply thanks to its artful but unshowy framing, its patient, unhurried editing and pacing, and (the most elusive, unteachable skill of all) the filmmakers’ apparent gift for finding astonishingly eloquent, articulate, and sensitive interview subjects (or for drawing these qualities out of the people they encounter).

I approached Braddock America with more than a little skepticism, especially given the plethora of recent documentaries about disaster-stricken postindustrial American cities (see Dan Georgakas’s article, “Detroit: An Urban Zombie,” in Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4), most of them fetishizing the picturesque ruins that have resulted from this urban decline, and many of them made by visiting Europeans who are especially guilty of this sort of goggle-eyed romanticization. I was especially suspicious in this case since I’m somewhat familiar with Braddock, partly from a few brief visits but mostly thanks to the remarkable films of Tony Buba, the “Bard of Braddock”—Buba has spent decades making a wide variety of films (fiction, nonfiction, and documentary/fiction hybrids) about Braddock and its decline, including at least one bona fide masterpiece, Lightning Over Braddock (1988). Not that Buba (or anyone else) can lay exclusive claim to Braddock, but it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Braddock America would seem superficial and tone deaf by comparison. That’s not at all the case, though. While the new film isn’t nearly as inventive and unique as Lightning Over Braddock, it’s clear that the filmmakers have far more than a passing acquaintance with the town (and they do include Buba in the film, albeit only briefly). They’ve obviously spent the time it takes to penetrate beneath its urban-ruin surface, to truly engage with the life of the town. And most importantly, the film itself radiates a sense of genuine exploration, of true observation rather than the sort of preconceived notion that so often colors these kinds of documentaries.

Braddock America takes the time to delve substantively into Braddock’s story, its history, its present-day condition and politics, and, above all, its people. As mentioned above, it's a superior documentary above all for the simple reason that the individuals whose testimony it features are extraordinarily articulate, intelligent, and impassioned. It’s to Kessler and Portron’s great credit that they give these profoundly compelling speakers the space (both compositionally and temporally) they deserve, and the results are deeply moving: several of the interviewees here provide unforgettable testimony to the deep, nourishing pride they drew from their jobs at the steel factories, their unquestioning faith that these powerful factories, which were so integral to the country’s economy, could never be shut down, and the still-present feelings of loss and emptiness they struggle with, even several decades later. Their eloquence and incredible emotional honesty are a great credit either to Braddock or to the filmmakers, or more likely to both.

These qualities were very much in evidence in another highlight of the festival, Nuria Ibáñez’s The Naked Room, which takes place entirely within the office of a pediatric therapist in a Mexico City hospital. The Naked Room was one of the few films I saw in Thessaloniki that did show markedly experimental leanings—indeed, in many ways it’s perfectly designed to straddle traditional documentary and experimental contexts, insofar as its starkly minimalist form works so entirely in the service of its subject matter that it is at once boldly formalist and entirely accessible. Recording the initial consultations between the children, their guardians, and a particular doctor, it focuses entirely on the children themselves, quite literally so: Ibáñez shoots the children in tight close-ups, their faces filling the screen, with everything else (the environment of the hospital, the décor of the consulting room, the faces and voices of the doctor and parents) relegated off screen. Those doggedly wedded to the tired tropes of documentary filmmaking may find this unrelenting minimalism infuriating or unacceptably constricted, but it would be quite a feat to ignore the immense and shattering power Ibáñez achieves as a result.

Her decision to focus on the children’s faces above all else is anything but a formalist exercise—the children she films (perhaps ten to fifteen appear throughout the film) are struggling with the effects of severe depression, abuse, and despair, and the relentless close-ups force us to reckon with their pain and confusion. Indeed, it’s largely because of the film’s unrelenting focus on the faces of the children that it never falls prey to a sentimental notion of the “innocence” of childhood. Made to observe each child so intimately and unceasingly, we’re forced beyond our instinctive tendency to view them sentimentally, and led to see them for what they are: individuals who are fighting to survive emotionally and psychologically in the face of a barrage of abuse and adult dysfunction. The children’s faces register both their entirely individual personalities and struggles, as well as reflecting, through the details of their grim family situations, a whole hidden landscape of social ills. The Naked Room’s succession of testimonials paints a vivid picture of a society that relentlessly inflicts all its pains and frustrations, its insecurities and sense of powerlessness, on those who are entirely unequipped to defend themselves, who have just begun the delicate process of understanding their world and forming their own identities. From this perspective, the decision to relegate the adults to an off-screen existence registers almost as a punishment, a judgment that they do not deserve to appear alongside the children. Indeed, one of the most moving moments in the film occurs when one of the mothers displays genuine compassion, concern, and love for her daughter, and suddenly, in an exception to the film’s rule, she’s revealed on camera, almost as if she’s earned the right to be seen.

The Naked Room is a shattering experience, but then again it’s not as despairing as it may sound, partly because of the doctor’s sensitivity, partly because of the occasional glimpses of humanity on the part of the parents or guardians, and mostly because of the kids’ remarkable resilience, their astonishing honesty, and the spark of not-yet-extinguished spirit we detect in their eyes and faces. Nevertheless, we’re never far from the realization that what we’re seeing is a cycle—of damage inflicted on each generation by the previous one—that is unlikely to end.

Though its similarity to The Naked Room largely ends with its titles and its quasi-experimental approach, it’s true that the protagonist of Naked Opera is a figure whose ample insecurities, desperate thirst for power, and proclivity for manipulation could be seen as having their source in the same cycle of psychological abuse that Ibáñez so vividly reveals. A portrait of an abrasive figure unlike any I’ve seen treated to the full documentary treatment before, Naked Opera would be admirable if only for daring to be so difficult to embrace. The film centers on Marc, a hyperintelligent, wealthy, attention-hungry middle-aged Luxembourger, who has been afflicted since childhood with an incurable illness that has left him physically fragile and impaired. His condition naturally inspires a great deal of compassion, but what makes Naked Opera a singular and fascinating film is in how profoundly it complicates any simplistic sense of sympathy for its protagonist. For Marc (at least the Marc conjured up by the documentary) is someone who has come to cope with his condition—and the isolation, bitterness, and sense of powerlessness it has bequeathed him—by pursuing wealth and power. As a screen subject, he’s charismatic and repellent in equal measure.

He’s identified, first and foremost, as an opera lover whose peculiarity is his determination to see at least one production of Don Giovanni each month. As he travels throughout Europe to do so, he lives a life of decadent luxury, existing largely in lavish hotels, where he hires buff young men to act as his escorts, alternately exercising his power over them and developing hopeless obsessions with one after the other. Marc is transparently someone who has embraced conspicuous wealth as a compensation for his own physical weakness and sense of emptiness, and, in his way, he’s quite frank about this. At one point, he says, “You only have as many friends as you have power, money, and fame.”

Naked Opera is a bracing, chillingly unsentimental documentary, a cousin to the unflinchingly merciless works of Ulrich Seidl (Dog DaysImport Export, the Paradisetrilogy). Like many of Seidl’s films, it can be seen as crossing the line into miserabilism or contempt for its protagonist. But I prefer to see it as admirably poised between compassion and reckoning, equally attuned to the pain at the heart of its protagonist’s life and the psychological deformity wrought by that pain. We like to imagine that pain leads to noble suffering, but in reality it is at least as likely to lead to an anger, frustration, and resentment that corrupts the personality and perpetuates the suffering, and it’s this condition that Naked Opera hones in on in its paradoxically inventive, sometimes even entertaining, fashion. As depicted here, Marc is human because he’s deeply sad and in pain; at the same time, he’s inhuman because he won’t acknowledge and confront his pain, but instead attempts to use his wealth and power to deny his weaknesses. His is a sadness hardened into cruelty, narcissism, and materialism.

Naked Opera is experimental insofar as it foregrounds its own making, revealing itself as a collaboration between Marc and the filmmakers rather than a straight documentary portrait (albeit one in which the filmmakers retain final edit and therefore, ultimately, the last word). At key moments, Christlieb lifts the veil on the relationship between filmmaker and subject, revealing the artifice of this purported documentary, as she directs Marc or he suggests shots or scenes (at one point an off-screen Christlieb asks Marc, “Can you go over to the window and look out?” to which he rolls his eyes and responds sarcastically, “If it helps establish the truth…”). Without necessarily undermining the basic accuracy of what we’ve seen, Naked Opera calls attention to the fact that the film is a construction, a version of the “truth’” created both by the filmmakers and by Marc himself (whose desire for attention becomes one of the film’s themes).

Both The Naked Room and Naked Opera raise the issue of the ethics of documentary filmmaking: though largely obviated by the profound compassion and sensitivity of the film, The Naked Room does beg the question of how qualified the children are to agree to allow their consultations to be filmed, while Naked Opera is quite explicitly about exploitation, both Marc’s exploitation of others and the film’s potential exploitation of Marc. This issue is amply present as well in Shawney Cohen’sThe Manor, an often-outrageous portrait of his own unconventional family. Cohen presents himself, convincingly, as the odd duck (comically out of place) of his family, a quiet, sensitive, unassuming figure who can’t quite understand how he fits into a family consisting of his crass, overweight, avaricious father, Roger, the owner of the eponymous strip joint outside Toronto, his cocky, stripper-dating brother, or his mother, a deeply troubled woman suffering from depression and a severe eating disorder (which she’s not able to acknowledge), whose condition and relationship with her husband soon becomes the focal point of the film.

The Manor dances around a host of potential pitfalls, Cohen’s wry sense of humor and apparently genuine love for his mother (and even for his father) largely neutralizing the exploitative, narcissistic qualities of most films of this nature. It’s difficult not to perceive his family as ghoulish, but Cohen mostly succeeds both in complicating and humanizing them and in transcending the genre of grotesque family drama by presenting them as a mirror of wider social ills: capitalist greed, sexual exploitation, female subservience, and upper-class emptiness. Saddled with a family like this, you can hardly blame him for wanting to create something to show for it, and, indeed, his family seems expressly designed to be the subject of a grotesque, tell-all documentary (in particular, the fact that the family strip joint is decorated to look like a castle is simply too good to be true—a perfect symbol for a family that’s something out of a twisted fairy tale). Most importantly, Cohen seems motivated more by concern for his mother than by a determination to score juicy material for his movie (an attitude that distinguishes it from similar but more ethically suspect films). Nevertheless, he arguably does cross the line when, having finally succeeded in convincing his mother to see a therapist to try to address her eating disorder before she literally starves, he films the session. Brenda clams up, perhaps not solely because of the presence of the camera, but it’s hard to believe it’s not a factor. Given the great seriousness of her condition, this potential ethical misjudgment (on Cohen’s part, but at least as much on the part of the therapist) is painful to behold.

An ethical lapse on a much larger scale (on the part of the protagonist, not the filmmakers) is at the heart of the most sheerly entertaining film in the Thessaloniki festival, Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s The Dog, which chronicles the life of the one-and-only John Wojtowicz, the real-life bank-employee-turned-bank-robber who inspired Sidney Lumet’s 1975 classic, Dog Day Afternoon. That film, one of the highpoints of 1970s Hollywood cinema, depicts the media circus that ensues when “Sonny Wortzik” (Al Pacino) attempts to rob a small Brooklyn bank with two accomplices in order to finance his male lover’s sex-change operation. Filmed over the course of several years, with the full participation of a visibly aging Wojtowicz (nicknamed “The Dog”), the documentary is very much a vehicle for its protagonist, who is, to put it mildly, “a character.” Foul-mouthed, shockingly frank about his sexuality, desires, and past mistakes, and enormously charismatic, Wojtowicz is a documentary filmmaker’s dream subject. To say that his story is “stranger than fiction” is an understatement—indeed, it’s quite literally true. As The Dog reveals, his is the rare case in which the Hollywood version of the story has been toned down in order not to beggar belief. The details about the bank robbery itself that emerge from the documentary are hilarious in the extreme (tempting as it is, it would spoil the fun to mention them here). But the most remarkable aspect of the film is in how fascinating Wojtowicz’s story is even prior to the robbery, thanks to his minor but typically outrageous role in the nascent gay rights movement, a facet of his life that the film delves into in admirable depth. The sheer variety of cultural touchstones that Wojtowicz’s life encompasses is astonishing, and The Dog handles all of them with aplomb, even as his story takes a tragic direction.

The Dog may not represent a particularly innovative or unconventional approach to documentary filmmaking, but it’s made with an intelligence and sensitivity—and of course graced with a deeply compelling subject matter—that more than compensate for its relatively pedestrian form. The same could be said for another worthy film, American Commune, filmmaker–sisters Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo’s reflection on their extremely unconventional upbringing. The children of a Jewish mother from Beverly Hills and a Puerto Rican father from the Bronx, they were raised on “The Farm,” a Tennessee commune founded in 1971 by guru Stephen Gaskin, which has proven the longest lasting of the many communes established in that period. What could so easily have been a superficial, navel-gazing exercise instead deepens as it proceeds into a surprisingly nuanced, complex portrait of a social experiment, one that neither romanticizes nor unfairly excoriates The Farm. Croshere and Mundo show a penetrating understanding of the deep contradictions that lie at the heart of this community—despite their intimate ties to the commune, they zero in on the confusion, paradoxical conservatism, and dangerous self-righteousness that underlie its apparently radical, idealistic purpose (especially Gaskin’s tyrannical leadership and retrograde sexual politics), even as they pay heartfelt tribute to its nourishing sense of community, its remarkable humanitarian accomplishments, and, most importantly, its members’ genuine desire to remake society. American Commune rhymes in important ways with The Naked Room—where Ibáñez’s film reveals the tragic psychological and emotional damage inflicted by people’s unconscious compulsion to fit into corrupt social structures, American Commune reflects on the effort to reshape society into more humanistic forms, an admirable goal but one whose agents often underestimate how deeply the established structures have taken root, even in their own psyches.

The festival also included vitally important films such as Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture and Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known, which have been covered inCineaste in other contexts, as well as tributes devoted to French filmmaker Nicolas Philibert and Peter Wintonick, the Canadian filmmaker, best known for the Noam Chomsky documentary Manufacturing Consent, who passed away late last year. The Wintonick tribute provided a welcome opportunity to see his 1999 work, Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment, a documentary film about documentary filmmaking that’s graced by interviews with many of the towering figures of mid-twentieth-century nonfiction cinema, including Michel Brault, Robert Drew, William Greaves, Wolf Koenig, Barbara Kopple, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, D. A. Pennebaker, Pierre Perrault, Karel Reisz, Jean Rouch, and Frederick Wiseman, among others. What better way to mark a documentary film festival than with a screening of a film that’s a veritable who’s-who of nonfiction greats? Though I’d like to see Thessaloniki embrace some of the more vanguard developments in contemporary documentary cinema and (a recurring criticism of mine) to achieve a greater geographical diversity in its programming (the dearth of Asian feature films in the selection remains mystifying, especially given the vitality of documentary production today in China and elsewhere), it’s nevertheless heartening to discover filmmakers at work today—such as Gabriella Kessler, Jean-Loïc Portron, Nuria Ibáñez, and Rithy Panh—who can justifiably be mentioned in the same breath as the luminaries featured in Wintonick’s film.

Jared Rapfogel is a member of the Cineaste editorial board and film programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

For more information on the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, click here.

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