Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival
by Richard Porton

The Red Chapel

The Red Chapel

Among niche film festivals, none have proliferated more than events devoted to documentary cinema. This trend certainly reflects the burgeoning interest in nonfiction films at mainstream festivals such as Toronto and Sundance. At a time when the “indie” feature film is often a faux-Hollywood project with familiar stars, documentaries are a welcome respite.

One refreshing aspect of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which celebrated its twelfth edition in March, is its seeming obliviousness to documentary trends. Although Thessaloniki included a small, almost inconspicuous, sidebar on “hybrid docs,” the vast majority of the films tackled social and political issues and rarely traversed the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction that is tangible in films such as Sweetgrass or the highly controversial Catfish, an already notorious “hybrid” that created an uproar at last year’s Sundance Festival.

This being said, there were a number of films screened at Thessaloniki that challenged documentary conventions. To cite a prominent example, Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger’s The Red Chapel, one of the few comic documentaries on North Korea that filmgoers are likely to encounter, has been compared to Sacha Baron Cohen’s antics in Borat and chided by blogger Eric Donovan as a film that “challenges every documentary ethic known to the filmmaking world.” As hyperbolic as that accusation may seem, Brügger’s film is, in many respects, more a stunt or provocation than a traditional investigative documentary.

What can’t be contested is that The Red Chapel is a courageous, if ultimately superficial, piece of guerrilla filmmaking. Posing as a rabid cheerleader for North Korea, Brügger, a Dane with nothing but contempt for Kim Jong-il and his regime, entered the country with a comedy team composed of two Danish-Korean men. Particular attention is lavished on Jacob, a self-identified “spastic”—a disabled man is a rare sight indeed on the streets of Pyongyang, where only healthy specimens of Korean manhood are allowed. This gimmick allows the mischievous trio to mouth platitudes about the greatness of North Korea to their clueless minders while performing an absurdist comedy act to baffled, but polite, audiences and muttering sardonic comments in Danish about the police state that sees their presence as a contribution to world peace. It’s difficult to know whether one should admire Brügger and company’s chutzpah or express regrets that their one-joke film didn’t probe more deeply into the political obtuseness, and odd esthetic proclivities, of the “hermit kingdom.”

“Biodocs, ”documentaries focused on noteworthy individuals,” are a nonfiction standby. An eminently safe subgenre, it was not at all surprising that the biographical portraits featured at the festival proved wildly uneven. George Maas’s The Real World of Peter Gabriel resembled nothing so much as a promotional video. Perhaps since audiences are accustomed to musicians receiving the hagiographic treatment, few seemed to notice. But this thoroughly adulatory tribute failed to locate even a minor chink in Gabriel’s armor. Even if he is the wholly admirable defender of human rights, magnanimous disseminator of world music, and fountain of integrity that this film claims he is, it’s regrettable that he emerges as such a bland demigod.

The late D. Carleton Gajdusek, the brilliant scientist whose decidedly complex legacy inspired Bosse Lindquist’s The Genius and the Boys, is, if nothing else, anything but a bland “biodoc” subject. What becomes eminently clear is that Gajdusek’s eccentricity—in fact his disregard for decorum—was responsible for both his most remarkable achievements and his eventual transgressions. A virologist and winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine, Gajdusek had the foresight to spend time among indigenous people in New Guinea; an amateur ethnologist as well as a medical researcher, his interest in cannibalistic rites enabled him to link Mad Cow Disease with a substance called prions, a discovery that eluded more “respectable” scientists.

For years, Gajdusek’s decision to adopt fifty-six children, most of them kids (primarily boys) he encountered during his many excursions to the South Pacific, was merely assumed to be a byproduct of the unorthodox scientist’s generous nature. When Gajdusek is hauled off to jail on molestation charges, a host of prestigious colleagues came to his defense (a few, such as Oliver Sacks, are interviewed in the film) and express amazement that the Nobel laureate’s reputation is under assault. Knee-jerk collegiality is predictable. What proves truly startling is Gajdusek’s rambling efforts to rationalize his pedophilia. These cringe-inducing monologues, captured on camera by a clearly flabbergasted Lindquist, are fascinatingly incoherent. Gajdusek veers from maintaining that his behavior is acceptable within the cultural context of New Guinea to issuing blanket claims that the incest taboo is needlessly puritanical.

The Genius and the Boys sparked one of Thessaloniki’s most spirited postscreening discussions. Even though a slightly belligerent audience member startled many in attendance by repeatedly questioning Lindquist’s journalistic integrity (was he being disingenuous by claiming that his documentary started out as a respectful investigation of Gajdusek’s scientific achievements and then became mired in a pedophilia scandal?), it was encouraging to see an audience energetically coming to terms with this film’s disturbing findings.

Documentaries are occasionally ghettoized as “educational” films and it’s undeniable that Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism, a fairly pedestrian, but supremely well-intentioned, chronicle of one woman’s quest to find treatment for her autistic son, is primarily of interest for its pedagogical value. Like many conventionally structured documentaries, it uses the quest motif; in its own subdued fashion, A Mother’s Courage is as much of a road movie as Easy Rider. Margret Dagmar Ericsdotir, an Icelandic producer, desperately wants to improve her autistic son Keli’s lot and journeys to Denmark, the United Kingdom, and, finally, the United States. While it’s possible that Temple Grandin is now a little weary of being the media’s poster girl for “living with autism,” it must be said that Ericsdotir’s interview with the celebrated author and animal trainer (which now must be de rigueur for a film of this sort) is by far the most engaging in the film. Margret’s true epiphany comes when she arrives at Dr. Soma Mukhopadhyay’s clinic in Austin, Texas. Mukhopadhyay’s “Rapid Prompting Method” works wonders for Keli and the film’s resolution couldn’t be more upbeat. Yet it’s difficult not to wonder if all of the controversies surrounding the treatment of autism, and the myriad solutions, have been repressed and streamlined in order to create an affirmative nonfiction narrative.

 If A Mother’s Courage— which ended up on HBO—had the feel of a standard television film, nothing could be farther from that prefabricated esthetic than Zhao Liang’s superb Petition. Chinese independent documentary has become an especially fertile subgenre in recent years and Zhao’s quietly probing exposé is a moving paean to grassroots resistance that flourishes despite the bureaucracy’s seeming indifference to the plight of “common people.” As Elizabeth M. Lyon explains on the China Law & Policy Website,“in China, the petition system is a way for individuals to lodge complaints against corrupt government officials or corrupt governmental process to higher authorities…. it’s a form of extrajudicial action that can trace its origin to imperial days.” Zhao’s chronicle of the petitioners who encamp around the Beijing railway station en route to the “State Bureau of Letters and Calls” is a seamless, and impassioned, example of revivified cinéma vérité. Men and women thrown off their land by bureaucratic fiat, unemployed workers victimized by suddenly “liquidated” factories, and, most heart-wrenchingly, petitioners forcibly incarcerated in mental hospitals and numbed with antipsychotic drugs, constitute a veritable parade of woe. Zhao modulates the misery beautifully by editing the film in a fashion that approaches lyricism but never degenerates into didacticism.

In light of recent events, Yorgos Avgeropoulos and Yannis Karypdis’s Gaza We Are Coming—which won the Hellenic Red Cross audience award for the best Greek film over forty-five minutes—seemed remarkably prescient. There’s nothing innovative about this straightforward account of how two small Greek fishing boats became, in 2008, the first vessels to successfully disrupt the Israeli naval embargo of Gaza. The courage and good humor of an international group of activists nevertheless makes this unassuming film the documentary equivalent of a “feel-good” movie. As we know, the voyage of the more recent Turkish “Freedom Flotilla” came to a much more unfortunate conclusion.

It’s certainly gratifying that most of the films screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival attract packed houses and often engender unusually worthwhile Q&A sessions. On the other hand, despite the festival’s altruism, it might help, if it is to compete with IFDA in Amsterdam and Full Frame in North Carolina—not to mention Sundance and Toronto—if the programming became slightly more cutting edge and thereby as appealing to foreign visitors as it already is to the local community.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine

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