Classical Documentary
– The Time is Now

BY Błażej Hrapkowicz

The Kraków Film Festival avoids indulging in shameless self-promotion. You won’t hear the level-headed organisers brazenly trumpeting their accomplishments or the list of directors featured at this year’s festival. They just organise the festival. And they do it exceptionally well

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For several years now, the world of art criticism has been discussing the crisis of the feature film. According to some, the genre has been stripped of its visionaries names, growing repetitive and too easily swayed by trends. But the crisis has helped the American TV show and the documentary take the stage. Television productions from across the pond have been welcomed as manna from heaven by film lovers who gaze with growing fondness upon the non-literary films of Peter Greenaway, longing for cinematic transgression. Many claim that it was in fact Greenaway who took it upon himself to tell the story of the world, shaping and developing narrative techniques previously unassociated with that genre of film.

50th Krakow Film Festival,

The significance of these changes is readily visible. Take the aesthetic verismo and austere ethics of the Polish documentary school. The cinema of truth — while never viewed naïvely, but rather as a unification of the perceptions of the director and the character — did justice to reality. Marcel Łoziński’s “aquarium” method, which stunned viewers with its delicate way of capturing the world and toed the line on manipulation, as far as Polish documentaries were concerned, lacked serious ontological consequences. The act of recording was an immutable foundation. The philosophy of intersubjectivism and the convergence of viewpoints between the creator and the character both had their roots in aesthetic realism. The portrayal of a person was based on observed expressions, layers of consciousness, the bodily, mimetic, or linguistic manifestations of which were picked up by the all-observant camera.

The most relevant documentaries of the past few years, such as Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir and James Marsh’s Man on Wire show us just how greatly divergent the paths followed by Polish and foreign documentary makers are. The Israeli director’s surrealist animation let open the floodgates of subconscious examination, while the American Oscar winner proved that the use of tradition film genre conventions to tell true stories can give them a certain multi-dimensional character. In both cases, truth is struck off balance, left to fend for itself in the face of unstable mental conditions and deceptive narration, which nonetheless make it even more convincing, as distant as it is from the objectiveness of permanent categories that fail to describe man. The incorporation of these genres, hitherto alien to the documentary, is an element that is characteristic of the documentary’s contemporary incarnations.

The verdict

The Golden Horn for the Director of the Best Documentary Film in the Over 60 Minutes Category for Kaleo La Belle, the director of Beyond This Place;
The Golden Horn for the Director of the Best Documentary Film in the 30-60 Minutes Category for Andrey Gryazev, the director of Sanya and Sparrow
The Silver Horn for Special Artistic Merit in the Over 60 Minutes Category for Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, the directors of Enemies of the People
The Silver Horn for Special Artistic Merit in the 30-60 Minutes Category for Marc Isaacs, the director of Men of the City
The International Short Film Competition
The Golden Dragon for the Director of the Best Film for Jakub Stożek, the director of Out of Reach
The Silver Dragon for the Director of the Best Short Documentary Film for Jay Rosenblatt, the director of The Darkness of a Day
The Silver Dragon for the Director of the Best Short Fiction Film for Ruben Östlund, the director of Incident by a Bank
The Silver Dragon for the Director of the Best Short Animated Film for Tim Trawers Hawkins, the director of 1000 Voices
The Golden Hobby-Horse for the Director of the Best Film for Karolina Bielawska and Julia Ruszkiewicz for the film Warsaw Available
The Silver Hobby-Horse’ for the Director of the Best Documentary Film for Igor Chojna for the film The Screening at the Tatry Cinema
The Silver Hobby-Horse for the Director of the Best Animated Film for Bartek Kulas for the film Millhaven
The Silver Hobby-Horse for the Director of the Best Fiction Film for Kuba Czekaj for the film Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark Room
Marcin Koszałka for the film The Declaration of Immortality

If we intend to consider the fundamental issues associated with the Krakow Film Festival, the above transformations underway in the documentary genre must be kept in mind as a point of reference, as must Warsaw’s Planete Doc Review. Artur Liebhart’s festival is a must-see for anyone hoping to follow recent developments in the world of the documentary. How does the Krakow festival shape up in comparison? What is its raison d’être? The event recently celebrated a round anniversary, having spent the past ten years with Krzysztof Gierat at the wheel. Over the fifty years of its existence, the festival has gone through numerous phases. Once associated with short films, the KFF changed formats over the years, finally welcoming long films. The fiftieth anniversary was marked by another transformation. The competition was split into three main categories: documentaries, Polish films, and film shorts. The latter two were each further divided into features, documentaries, and animated films. The consequences are twofold: the chosen categorization is conservative and orients the festival towards traditionalism, but allows us to rediscover the strength that lies in the classic form of the documentary and what is at stake in the genre.

To Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, the camera, people, and interviews suffice. Devoid of fictionalization and narratological or aesthetic trickery, their work is based on stories that develop at their own pace. The title Enemies of the People refers to the perpetrators of the Cambodian killing field massacres, the same ones depicted in the Roland Joffe film. The Khmer Rouge regime murdered over a million people in their cleansing campaign. The filmmakers reached those who personally aimed their gun barrels at temples and put their knives to people’s throats, as well as the officers that gave the orders. The search for executioners has been a long-term project of Sambatha, whose family lost their lives at the hands of a tyrannical regime. The director tracks down murderers and decision-makers and talks to them, calmly waiting for denial and negation to turn into painful reminiscence. Craving no vengeance, Sambatha simply listens to and observes his subjects. One of the interviewees demonstrates the killing method; having internalized a sequence of movements, the body recreates the murder process flawlessly, revealing in an instant the underlying mechanism. Most important to the film, however, are the three years that Sambatha spends with Nuon Chea, “Brother Number Two”, Pol Pot’s right hand man. There is something of a “father-son” dynamic in their relationship, which is full of mutual trust, even friendship. It isn’t until the end that Sambath tells Nuon Chea about the suffering inflicted upon his family by the Khmer Rouge. Clearly moved, “Brother Number Two” expresses contrition for the first time. The specter of the unforgotten, but merely suppressed, crime haunts everyone without exception: executioners and victims, both alike in their humanity. Enemies of the People absolves no crimes. Its moral ambiguity stems from ethical and emotional nuances, towards which an attitude of judgment would be insensitive.

Open Air Screenings at Szczepański Square,
photo: Tomasz Korczyński
Lemkin and Sambath have assumed a traditional documentary perspective while showing its sheer breadth. Personal stories slowly give way to political ones; personal experiences are affected by politics, and that influence — a negative one in this case — finds its reflection in the body and mind even after many years have passed. A similar, and equally tragic, marriage of family drama and politics appears in Renate Costa’s film 108. The director conducts her own investigation into the death of her uncle ten years prior. The very name of his brother is enough to make her father go silent. Costa discovers the truth, one that has left a scar on the history of Paraguay. During the Stroessner regime in the 80s, a so-called “black list 108” was created, containing the names of homosexuals, among them Costa’s uncle. Her father has suppressed the memory of the torture and persecution to which his brother had been subjected, just as the despicable terror inflicted by the government has been suppressed by the collective consciousness. The daughter’s culminating talk with her father is dramatic: confronting the harrowing facts of his brother’s life awakens the silenced internal conflict that had lain dormant in the man, a product of a conservative upbringing. Costa, whose views are much more tolerant, doesn’t judge her father, and doesn’t paint him as a homophobe and fascist. She tells the story of a man whose identity has been built on beliefs that cast one of those closest to him as sin incarnate. She tells the story of the destructive power of ideology.

The goal of the creators of Enemies of the People and 108 is difficult to miss. Costa as well as Lemkin and Sabath would have no problem answering Kazimierz Karabasz‘s legendary question: “In the name of what did they make this film?” Jean Counet, on the other hand, might have trouble. His Inhale, Exhale is, to borrow a description penned by a friend of mine, “a film about a hospital in which there are doctors and patients.” Apparently intended to be an impression on birth, death, and everything in between (what we refer to as life), the film disintegrates into a series of images that fail to form a portrait of the mechanisms that run a hospital or a coherent, existential commentary crowned with a conclusion. Counet is one of those artists who believe that if you simply aim a camera at an ordinary person, a documentary will appear, as if conjured up with a wave of a magic wand. Unfortunately, the result is more a warning to those who would be tempted to place their absolute trust in reality and characters.

Presentation of the Dragon of Dragons
Award to Jonas Mekas,
photo: Tomasz Korczyński
Another documentary misstep that the Documentary Competition warns us about is that of pride. Lisa Engelbach and Justin Peach arrived in Nepal with a screenplay in hand: let’s shoot footage of some poor children on streets stricken by poverty and corrupted by social Darwinism. That‘ll get people to realize the plight of the Third World. Illustrative yet completely devoid of empathy, Lonely Pack trades characters for an instrumental approach to the issue, one exploited by “concerned” Western directors for the purpose of a documentary that feigns social sensitivity. Nor does Marc Isaacs reveal the slightest interest in characters. In his Men of the City, three men from various social strata attempt to survive in a crisis-engulfed world of rapacious capitalism. This unbearably pompous film, a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, is best summed up by the scene in which the director badgers a character with questions while answering them himself via editing. Why then all the questions? One would be hard-pressed to figure it out.

Despite the rigid genre categorization, the Krakow festival is hardly an artistically regressive camp with no notion of progress. The competition has its share of films that follow contemporary trends in documentary making. Men of the City overflows with metaphor, a quality that belongs more to the genre of feature films. Two Rembrandts in the Garden by Jerzy Śladkowski features animation and borrows the convention of the spy comedy. For several years now, Marcin Koszałka has been making films characterized by exceptional attention to form, often employing the language of symbolism. Let’s Run Away from Her, screened in the main competition, and The Declaration of Immortality, shown in the Polish competition, carry their content in their forms. Koszałka deals with fundamental and ultimate issues by using the ever-present camera, which becomes in his hands an instrument of searching via creation.

The opening of Marcin Sauter's photographic
exhibition, photo: Tomasz Korczyński
Polish cinema turned out to be the true winner of the festival, and not just thanks to the work of Koszałka. This is the difference between Gierat’s project and Planete Doc Review: here we have a separate Polish competition, and local directors have a clearly defined and important place in the program. Following the dreadful festival in Gdynia, which witnessed the return of the worst scourges of Polish cinema, it was truly relieving to watch Polish documentaries and animated films in Krakow. In Slowly, Tomasz Wolski shows how the margins — the countryside in a globalized world — can become the center in a documentary, a self-sufficient microcosm that ceases to be weird and unknown while remaining somewhat uncanny. Bartek Kulas’ ingenious animation Millhaven, based on a Nick Cave ballad beautifully sung by Katarzyna Groniec, is a brilliant black humor-tinged macabre — a rare occurrence in Polish film. Local directors presented a broad range of ideas, characters, and enthralling life stories. They truly had a lot to say.

Compared to its younger sister, Off Plus Camera, the Krakow Film Festival avoids indulging in shameless self-promotion. The conservative, traditional character of the program goes hand in hand with modesty and a restrained approach to marketing. You won’t hear the level-headed organizers brazenly trumpeting their accomplishments or the list of directors featured at this year’s festival. Delays are almost unheard of (and are minimal, if they do occur) and the staff stay out of your way while the logistics are perfect down to the last detail. Without the hype, noise, and spotlights, films simply stand on their own or don’t. They are truly the center of attention; nothing is more important than the films. It’s not just Polish cinema that has been doing well at the Krakow festival — it’s the concept of the film festival itself.

translated by Arthur Barys

Tekst dostępny na licencji Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL.