13th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival
by Jared Rapfogel

The killer interviewed in Gianfranco Rosi’s  El Sicario Room 164

The killer interviewed in Gianfranco Rosi’s El Sicario Room 164

This year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, its thirteenth edition, offered an invaluable opportunity to survey the landscape of contemporary documentary filmmaking, with approximately 220 films from all over the world, covering an exhilarating range of topics, and shedding light on innumerable people, places, issues, and realms of experience. It’s in the nature of a well-curated documentary film festival to provide not only a panorama of artistic sensibilities and creative visions, but also a kind of state-of-the-world report, a glimpse into the lives of men and women throughout the globe. But it also functions, inevitably, as a kind of symposium on the nature of the documentary form. It’s impossible to watch so many documentaries over the course of a week without meditating in some depth on the ethics and esthetics of nonfiction filmmaking, on the perennial questions about a filmmaker’s responsibility to his or her subjects or about the relationship between content and form.

The latter question—how filmmakers use the medium to convey stories, information, or experiences—arises almost continuously when confronting nonfiction filmmaking. While even the most inept and dire of documentary films tends to leave us with some sort of knowledge or insight into a particular subject, it’s nevertheless an all-too-frequent experience to encounter films addressing vitally important, fascinating topics, made by filmmakers who, while indisputably intelligent, perceptive individuals, prove to lack a basic consciousness of how to use the medium to present their material directly and honestly. Again and again, one encounters films whose anxiousness to hold the audience’s attention leads them to adopt a host of hackneyed, artificial mannerisms—hyperactive editing, egregious musical cues, inappropriately expressive lighting—that in reality amount to nothing but distractions. The best documentary filmmakers, even those without outsized artistic ambitions, know that the cinema is not simply an empty vessel to be filled with factual information, with dollops of style applied to hold an audience’s interest. On the contrary, the films that do the most justice to their subjects are those that display a deep understanding of the medium’s role in determining the way the viewer experiences and processes the material. And more often than not, the films that respect this relationship the most are the ones which efface their construction most effectively—paradoxically, it’s the films that least understand the nature of the medium which unintentionally call the most attention to their stylistic choices.

Thessaloniki’s lineup certainly didn’t lack for films that fused compelling subject matter and intelligent filmmaking. But perhaps none demonstrated the less-is-more quality that characterizes one approach to great documentary filmmaking as dramatically as Gianfranco Rosi’s El Sicario Room 164. The film is covered at length in the current issue ofCineaste, in Richard Porton’s article “Documentary Cinema and Reality Hunger,” so suffice it to say here that this feature-length interview with an ex-sicario (a Mexican drug cartel enforcer) eschews all extraneous cinematic devices (even the man’s face is concealed from us, thanks to the price on his head), rightly confident that his testimony is so compelling that it needs no intervention. A lesser filmmaker would almost inevitably feel a need to embellish his testimony in some way—to insert stock footage, to light the film dramatically, to heighten the man’s narrative with music, to do something “cinematic.” Even a filmmaker as widely acclaimed as Errol Morris has fallen into this trap—his similarly talking-head-bound film The Fog of War, a feature-length interview with Robert McNamara, is an orgy of obtrusive editing, stylish lighting, and utterly irrelevant illustration, all of which is presumably designed to hold the audience’s attention, but in reality succeeds only in severing the almost electric connection between the viewer and McNamara, reducing his testimony to sound-bites, and robbing him of his palpable presence—all of which produces a subtle, but nefarious, kind of unreality (which, given McNamara’s role in twentieth century culture and politics, is troubling, and clearly not what Morris had in mind).

Rosi is perceptive enough to resist these temptations, and understands what is at stake in doing so. As a result, El Sicario joins the ranks of films such as Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, Jean Eustache’s Numéro Zéro, Wang Bing’s Fengming, and, perhaps most importantly, Claude Lanzmann’s work (long stretches of the nine-hour Shoah consist of unbroken interviews, while his later films Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 pm and A Visitor from the Living are feature-length interviews), all of which demonstrate not only how compelling unvarnished filmed testimony can be, but, paradoxically, how profoundly cinematic.

Though it may not be immediately apparent, Tom Jarmusch’s Sometimes City has a strong affinity with El Sicario and its “talking head” progenitors. Sometimes City is certainly a “talking heads” film—though it doesn’t focus on a single individual, it does consist almost entirely of filmed interviews, which add up to a kind of “talking heads” collage portrait of a city: Cleveland, Ohio. Like El SicarioSometimes City appears artless in its construction—the interviews were filmed on a variety of lo-fi formats (Super 8mm, 16mm, and low-definition video), and many of them were clearly conducted spontaneously, on the streets and in the bars of the city—but ultimately it is genuinely cinematic. It may not look like “cinema” but its unshowy dedication to portraying a city through the words and faces of its residents, and its patience in allowing its accumulation of unspectacular filmed encounters to gradually form an incredibly revealing mosaic of a deeply troubled urban community (Sometimes City is something of a lo-fi, minimalist version of The Wire), add up to something far more cinematic than the unintentionally amateurish stylistics of many more polished filmmakers.

On the other end of the spectrum, Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (again, covered by Richard Porton in “Documentary Cinema and Reality Hunger”) was the closest of all the films I saw at Thessaloniki to a documentary/fiction hybrid, and represented a far less minimal, self-effacing approach to documentary cinema. While The Arbor certainly calls attention to itself, though, it does so with a sense of purpose easily distinguishable from the anxious stylistic assertion of lesser nonfiction filmmakers. Based on recorded interviews with those who knew the troubled British playwright Andrea Dunbar, including her two daughters and son, The Arbor takes the unusual tact of using actors to lip sync the testimonies (an approach related to the British tradition of verbatim theater—plays based on actual interviews). Filming in the low-income housing estate where Dunbar and her children lived, and about which she wrote, Barnard sets into motion a complex interweaving of layers. But the film’s complexity is borne not out of a fear that the unvarnished testimony alone would fail to hold our attention, but out of a conviction that each element—the recorded voices, the performances of the actors lip-syncing the words, and the setting—has something of its own to communicate about the lives of Andrea Dunbar and her children. And while the various layers interact in fascinating ways, ultimately Barnard is determined to keep us aware of their separateness—a formal clarity which is, after all, not so different from that of El Sicario.

Of course most of the films at Thessaloniki occupied a more conventional place on the spectrum between radical formal minimalism and boundary-blurring self-consciousness. Two of the finest of those I saw were veteran documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s Pink Saris and Carol Dysinger’s Camp Victory, Afghanistan, both of which offered portraits of extraordinary individuals in extraordinary social and cultural situations. Pink Saris focuses on Sampat Pal, the founder and leader of the “Pink Gang,” a quasivigilante group of women who combat the injustice and brutality freely inflicted upon women in Uttar Pradesh, India, and do so by any means necessary. A force of nature—fearless, righteous, and unflinching—Sampat comes to the aid of a series of young women facing physical violence, forced marriages, and all manner of emotional and psychological abuse, throwing herself into their familial situations, and shaming and threatening their male relatives into changing their ways. Sampat’s volcanic passion and energy, and her tireless efforts on behalf of her charges, is truly inspiring. And yet she is far more than a simplistically heroic figure, and Longinotto’s accomplishment is to have captured the complexity of her subject. Without ever denying her heroism, Pink Saris reveals Sampat’s delusions of grandeur and her neediness, and raises questions about whether or not her methods of intimidation and force are appropriate in every case. Indeed, the suspicion arises that on some level Sampat’s battles are more about herself than about the girls she is ostensibly helping, that in her own need to triumph personally, to assert her hard-won power, the girls’ needs are overshadowed. What begins as an inspirational film grows into something more tangled and troubling, a portrait of a woman both heroic and flawed.

While Pink Saris is a portrait film from the get-go, the extraordinary figure at the heart of Camp Victory, Afghanistan emerges only gradually. Carol Dysinger spent five years filming in Afghanistan, documenting the U.S.’s efforts to train the current Afghan Army, and focusing on the relationships between the National Guardsmen sent to accomplish this and the Afghani officers and soldiers they are intended to mentor. A profoundly revealing glimpse into the reality that lies behind the policy—a policy whose implementation is fraught with unanticipated difficulties and misunderstandings—it becomes on the one hand a classic portrait of American interventionist folly, and on the other a sympathetic depiction of men and women dedicating themselves to a task in the face of obstacles much larger than themselves. In the midst of all this, one relationship comes to the fore, between National Guard Commander Michael Shute and Afghan General Fazil Ahmad Sayar. In spite of their enormous cultural differences and the strained circumstances in which they find themselves, the two develop a genuine affection for each other. And as they do so, General Sayar emerges as a figure of astounding gravity, dignity, and world-weary wisdom. Having joined the Afghan Army at the age of thirteen, Sayar has seen it all, weathering decades of political and social upheaval, and his experience is reflected in a face to which the film (and the audience) seems inexorably drawn. As Sayar gradually, if always guardedly, opens up to Shute (as he clearly has to Dysinger as well), Camp Victory, Afghanistan finds a truly remarkable figure in which to ground its account of the United States and Afghanistan’s intertwined destinies.

Alongside its slate of contemporary films and thematic sections, the festival mounted retrospectives of several filmmakers as well, including Sergei Loznitsa, whose work includes several masterful, exquisitely photographed and edited, and often nearly dialog-free portraits of Russian life, including Artel and Factory, as well as a remarkable collage film,Revue, constructed entirely from Soviet propaganda; and the Greek filmmaker Kyriaki Malama. It was the spotlight on the work of the Czech filmmaker Helena Trestikova, however, that dominated my experience of the Thessaloniki festival, both in terms of the quality of the films and their highlighting of the ethical dimension of documentary cinema.

Little known in the U.S., Trestikova has devoted much of her career to a very particular subgenre of documentary cinema: so-called “time-lapse” portraits. Highly reminiscent of the “Up” series (28 Up35 Up42 Up, etc.), but focusing on particular couples or single individuals rather than a group, her films revisit their subjects repeatedly over many years (even decades), charting the course of their lives and the effects of time, age, and experience. The films are, in a way, documentary experiments, and like many experiments they are both utterly fascinating and fraught with ethical considerations. As such, they set into stark relief one of the most distinctive and curious features of nonfiction films: the manner in which they can be both brilliantly made and profoundly thought-provoking on the one hand, and deeply problematic on the other.

Personally, I found my feelings about this ethical dimension of Trestikova’s work coming into focus the more of it I experienced. The earliest of her films that I saw was one of her marriage portraits, Marriage Stories: Zuzana and Stanislav. Initially filmed over the course of six-or-so years in the 1980s, the first part of the film depicts the marriage of two young Czech teenagers—Stanislav, a long-haired, soft-spoken, well-meaning but ineffectual young man, who proves far more interested in his motorcycles and electronics than in his new wife and eventual child, and Zuzana, who remains at her parents’ house for several years following her marriage, realizing too late that she and her husband have little in common, and lacking the will power to talk him into accepting his share of the parenting. It is clear almost immediately that these two have married far too early in their lives, and that the marriage is destined to fail. This first part of Zuzana and Stanislav (which was completed and shown as a work in its own right) is an exemplary film of its kind, a piercingly perceptive but sensitive film about Czech society, gender inequality, and the tragic costs of premature marriage, and one which zeroes in on Zuzana and Stanislav’s mistakes and shortcomings while nevertheless portraying them with a great deal of sympathy and understanding.

Trestikova revisited the now-long-divorced couple twenty years later, and the resulting film is equally even-handed and perceptive. Stanislav, now happily remarried, seems to have continued to grow and mature, and appears to be a thoughtful and responsible father and husband. Zuzana, on the other hand, has sunk deep into a morass of unhappiness, resentment, and despair, and continues to chalk her fate up to her misguided marriage. Again, Trestikova is fully attuned to the many paradoxes and ambiguities in the situation, portraying Stanislav in a very sympathetic light even as she makes it clear that, for reasons rooted in the nature of Western society and culture, he has had the privilege of putting his youthful mistake behind him, while this same mistake has effectively destroyed Zuzana’s life. On the other hand, the film decries Zuzana’s victimization even as it leaves open the possibility that Stanislav is not completely off-base in asserting that Zuzana lacks the will power to let go of her grievances and take charge of her life.

Given their frank depiction of Stanislav and Zuzana’s private lives and, in her case, crippling depression, the idea of televising these films may give us pause. If their sensitivity and restraint keep these feelings at bay, the question comes up more insistently with Trestikova’s later films. Both Marcela (2006) and Katka (2010) depict lives marked by tragedy, suicidal depression, breakdown, and drug abuse, and the suspicion grows that certain questions—about the line between documentation and exploitation, about the ethics of broadcasting someone’s misery, and about the filmmaker-subject relationship—are not being fully grappled with. These are difficult questions to be sure, and given the very real social, cultural, and political problems that result in Marcela and Katka’s tragic lives, it’s hard to say that the answer is to shrink from documenting them. But when Trestikova leaves the camera running as Marcela faints on-screen, or when Katka claims not to have known that an early version of the film has aired on TV until afterwards, something feels amiss.

Within Trestikova’s body of work, these questions culminate in the film Rene, a portrait of a deeply troubled, but shockingly intelligent young man whose numerous jail sentences have made him virtually incapable of existing in society. Rene is among the most fascinating and memorable documentaries I’ve ever seen, and one of the most problematic. At first glance, it appears to address the questions I’ve raised head on—in this film, at last, the relationship between Trestikova and her subject is explicitly addressed. Beginning with the reading of a letter from Rene to Trestikova, in which he tells her how much he’s looking forward to her visit, the film openly acknowledges Rene’s emotional dependence on the filmmaker, his sense that the attention she continues to pay him has provided his life with meaning. Indeed, the film develops into a kind of dialog between them, as he increasingly develops a piercingly intelligent understanding of the nature of their relationship, and increasingly calls her on it. Indeed, his honesty regarding their codependence stands in stark contrast to her own—in one exchange, in discussing a book he’s published from jail, with her help, Rene says, “If someone called Ms. Trestikova hadn’t come along and filmed me, I wouldn’t have accomplished anything.” When Trestikova tries to reassure him with, “But you did accomplish that on your own”, he responds, “Really? You believe that? I don’t.”

These exchanges grow increasingly intense, developing into what feels almost like a battle of wits, so much so that Trestikova, both as interviewer and filmmaker, seems at a loss for how to respond. And it all culminates in a heartbreaking, deeply painful interaction, wherein Rene, back in jail yet again and reaching out to Trestikova, pointedly asks, “Will you come alone?” Trestikova, blatantly failing the test, responds, “I’ll come with a camera,” to which Rene answers, “Well, I’ll come alone.”

Precisely because Trestikova comes off so badly here, it’s hard to claim that she has evaded the thorny questions involved in her project—indeed, Rene becomes as much a film about the relationship between filmer and filmed as it is about Rene himself. In the end, Rene expresses this more directly than ever when he tells Trestikova, “I’ve had a long hard think about the relationship between a documentary filmmaker and her subject. Have you ever stopped to think about the effect you have on your subjects’ lives?.... [I] start to seem like a whore who’ll sell scraps of his lives whenever he needs money.” At moments like these, Rene is as self-critical a cinéma–vérité documentary as one could imagine.

And yet, on a certain level, the film leaves me with a strong feeling of unease, in spite, or perhaps precisely because of, its frank admission of the problem. For all her acknowledgment of the element of exploitation, there’s no evidence in the film that Trestikova truly takes Rene’s challenges to heart. It’s as if the acknowledgment itself is used as a kind of inoculation—by putting his challenges front and center in the film, she saves herself from having to deal with them (and gets points for her honesty to boot). As far as we can tell, she never stops recording, never declines to use the most raw, intimate parts of his life for her film (though of course we can’t really know what did happen between them off-screen). And above all, while she emphasizes her role in Rene’s life, she almost never appears on-screen herself. The radical thing—the ethical thing—would be for Trestikova to be as revealing of herself as she is of him, to put herself on the line. But she never relinquishes her place behind the camera—she never attempts to meet him as an equal.

However problematic though, Trestikova’s films shed a great deal of light on the fascinating, thorny questions that arise when filmmakers choose to turn their cameras on the world around them, to investigate the human condition. The dozens of films featured during the thirteenth edition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival displayed a wide variety of approaches to nonfiction filmmaking, demonstrating that documentaries, no less than fiction films, are the product of unique sensibilities. And they served as a reminder that documentary filmmaking involves much more than simply switching on a camera and pointing it at something worth recording—that switching on that camera triggers a complex set of formal and ethical challenges, and that the greatest documentary filmmakers are those who have fully and honestly reckoned both with their medium and with their responsibility towards their subjects.

Jared Rapfogel is an Associate Editor of Cineaste and a Film Programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3