The rise of populist parties in Europe, Brexit, and Trump: all were mentioned by DOK Leipzig festival director Leena Pasanen in her opening speech as phenomena of a world suddenly more polarised and confrontational. Documentary has never been more important in enabling us a deeper view into global news, she stressed. This notion that the form has a fundamentally social and humanitarian purpose as a tool of awareness-raising and activism has roots back to DOK Leipzig’s highly politicised beginnings. One of the world’s oldest documentary festivals, it launched in 1995 in Germany’s then-partitioned East. Of course, perceptions of the form have expanded in the public consciousness of late along with our ever-more fragmented, layered notion of reality. A trendier, sexier idea of documentary as a space for creative innovation, hybrid formats and highly personal revelation (always questioning what “truth” is really anyway) has been developing, nurtured by festivals such as Copenhagen’s younger CPH:DOX. But it’s not that DOK Leipzig has been left behind. Rather, it seems that the traditional anchors the more experimental offshoots; that there is fertile room for both programming tendencies. And never more so when concepts such as post-truth politics have left individuals feeling radically disorientated, meaning an entrenched regard for documentaries that try to accurately convey “what’s really happening” may feel more urgently essential than ever. “Disobedience” was this year’s stated theme at DOK Leipzig – a call not just to political resistance, but also to maintain curiosity, independent thought and sensitivity to nuance in a climate that increasingly demands us to take up sides along battle lines. This year’s country focus on Turkey, coming as Erdoğan cracks down on dissent, could not have been more timely.

Austerlitz: Sacred space in passing time

Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz transcends the aforementioned documentary categories. Its masterfully measured and unusual form is inextricable from its urgent sense of insight into the troubled heart of post-war Europe and the ghosts the globe now only fitfully recalls – making it a highly deserving winner of the international competition’s Golden Dove award. The rigorously observational approach of a fixed camera set at various vantage points like a discreet witness has been used before by the Ukrainian filmmaker in his previous Maidan (2014), on the uprising gestated in Kiev’s main square. This time, he has turned his attention to Sachsenhausen in northeast Germany, another site of violent state oppression of dissent. The Third Reich primarily used it to incarcerate political prisoners, but its function has transformed from a concentration camp into a museum and memorial site.

We observe visitors, seemingly unnoticed by them: entering through the gate with its “Arbeit macht frei” sign still intact; behind windows as if they themselves were the display objects to contemplate; and addressed by guides of wildly varying levels of tact and knowledge. There are moments of glaring irony; instances of inattention and a jarring lack of sombre mood that make it tempting at first glance to see this film as another critique of our self-absorbed, consumerist theme-park age. Among parades of holiday-attired visitors we spy “Cool story, bro” and “Woke up in Vegas” T-shirts. Mobiles endlessly snap selfies, and casual chitchat floats at odds with any sense of horror. But, as always with Loznitsa, things aren’t that simplistic. As the film progresses, it emerges less as a cynical reprimand of historical disengagement than a profoundly thought-provoking portrait of space deemed sacred through trauma, and saturated with the signification of collective memory.

How should visitors behave in this space? They are shown snacking and drinking – the basic sustenance of life – and their nonchalant ease in a once-deathly place hits the viewer. But if we as viewers demand to vicariously experience a temple of sombre reverence watching Austerlitz, it could be that Hollywood-style representations of the Holocaust have limited our imaginations to the language of grand melodrama. Without interviews, and without voiceover, the inner thoughts of the visitors are inaccessible to us – yet it would be lazy to assume visitors not in mournful silence have felt nothing. The camera rests on the face of one youthful visitor, in contemplation against a grey monument of skeletal prisoners and we realise another truth: our quietest, deepest thoughts are sometimes hinted at in public, but not always apparent. The film takes its title, like an oblique act of associative memory, from W. G. Sebald’s beautifully novel of poetic digressions of the same name, about an infant kindertransport refugee whose mother died in Theresienstadt, who struggles to retrace his history. The German writer, whose work was full of troubled, almost obsessive musings on coincidence and the echoes between all things, often wrote about the trauma of the Second World War. And echoes unsettle us most in Loznitsa’s film. It’s not that the visitors behave inappropriately that is ultimately so troubling, but the gut realisation that horror knows no borders. A place of indescribable psychic pain can transform into a place of casual laughter – and by that logic, vice versa. The sacred space again becomes a banal space. But as Hannah Arendt insisted, spaces of evil were always banal – and full of everyday people.

Close Relations: “The kind of people they are”

Vitaly Mansky is another globally renowned Ukrainian documentarian – with an approach very different to Loznitsa’s arm’s-length rigour. His Close Relations, about his country under conflict, was another of the competition’s most outstanding films. With his prior Under the Sun, made with covert intentions in North Korea when enlisted to shoot an “ideal family”, the director already proved adept at revealing the way in which personal bonds are debased and mutated by ruling propaganda. With Close Relations he places his own extended family centre stage. He visits family members across Ukraine from Lviv and Kiev to Odessa, Sebastopol and finally separatist stronghold Donetsk in the east in a year of crisis from May 2014 to May 2015, interviewing them in their living rooms and kitchens to capture the reverberations of war at its most everyday and domestic.

DOC Leipzig

Close Relations

This broad geographical sweep of the film is everything. Of the numerous documentaries already made on the Ukraine crisis, most have focused their gaze on Kiev, portraying it with staunch triumphalism as the heart of progressive revolution. Mansky by contrast is intent on showing the range of opinion that exists even within his own family, breaking rather than reinforcing partisan narratives and showing instead that war is more than one thing at once. It is as complex as the number of minds in proximity to it, but reduced by community myths and media propaganda with its urge toward othering hatred.

The director visits his mother in Lviv, a heartland of radical anti-Soviet sentiment, to enquire about his Lithuanian-Polish ancestry, and she recalls a less ethnically tense time when “Everyone’s passports just said Ukrainian”. Two of his older relatives connect between Lviv and Sebastopol for festive greetings, determined to avoid discussing politics – but recriminations over what they have posted on Facebook about the conflict inadvertently erupt. In Donbas, posters of Stalin hang and tanks roll through the streets, the air palpably charged. There Mansky visits the family’s oldest relative. Misha compares today’s Ukrainian soldiers to the 1943 supporters of nationalist Bandera, who he says cut a local up in front of his wife, turning her hair grey in an instant. It’s an evocative, horrifying image turned cautionary legend. Whether it’s true or not becomes irrelevant; it’s now part of the field of references of the mind. “That’s the kind of people they are,” concludes Misha.

As Mansky speaks with relatives, televisions broadcast news reports in the background, making us aware of the stream of biased information beamed into citizen homes daily. The film leaves us with the hope inherent to openness; that exposure to the irreducible complexity of human experience will win out over the isolation and black-and-white thinking that fosters belief in an evil “other”.

This sway of the media in distorting views on the crisis was a central concern of panelists at “The Language of Protest. Artistic Forms of Expression in the Ukrainian and Russian Context”, a DOK talk at Leipzig’s Gallery of Contemporary Art. It was chaired by Kateryna Mishschenko, who curated the exhibition Sentsov’s Camera, setting out the context surrounding film director Oleg Sentsov’s imprisonment. Kiev-based filmmaker Oleksiy Radynski discussed the increasingly theatrical, staged aspect of the information war, and the way in which a western media with a poor grasp on local realities had been fed photogenic images of the uprising (such as car tyres set alight) to court coverage. Post-modernism’s rejection of any objective truth has been cynically mutated in the region into an absurdist realm of news as faked spectacle, he argued, in views echoing contemporary commentators such as Peter Pomerantsev – and much current debate around the election of Trump. 

Marina Razbezhkina: Into the snake zone

In a packed masterclass that ran well over the planned two hours, Marina Razbezhkina gave a warm, lively talk ranging from the start of her career (encouragingly to all with less than conventional work CVs, she began making films at age 40 and after being fired from a Kazan studio forged her path without formal training) to the advice she now gives her own students. The legendary Moscow-based documentarian runs Russia’s most important independent film school, a separation from state funding reliance that enabled her to produce the collective student anti-Putin activism film Winter, Go Away! (2012).

DOK Leipzig’s homage to her, which brought Razbezhkina’s little-seen, early student films to the screen alongside more recent works and films from her students, including Dina Barinova’s otherworldly snapshot of life on the margins for blind siblings, Proshchenyj den (Shrove Sunday, 2013). The homage was titled Teaching Integrity. “It sounds a little pretentious,” curator Barbara Wurm said in her introduction, “but she’s really spreading this when teaching, aside from filmmaking’s technical devices.” Razbezhkina stressed that each filmmaker must find their own voice, but set out some of her taboos. Among them: the term “Artist with a capital A” and the arrogance that comes with it to create a divide between director and subject; the word “spirituality” (“It’s used very often in Russia and not where it’s suitable, as anyone who claims they’re a spiritual person implies others aren’t by contrast”); the use of direct interviews (“People always lie, even unconsciously, because they understand at once what you want from them”).

Amid a string of amusing and insightful anecdotes, she related the origins of her Zone of the Snake concept. On a hike with biologists, a young snake expert had been offended that his companions venerated bears, but reviled snakes as wicked and wouldn’t share his tent. When he persuaded Razbezhkina to approach his pet cobra it rose, ready to strike – and he declared it was kind in warning her. She translated this experience to shooting documentaries: everyone has their personal boundary, which has nothing to do with public law, and when it’s crossed they’ll bite. The filmmaker must define this quickly, and move as close as possible toward it.

DOC Leipzig

Another Country

Intuitive and flexible, non-judgemental intimacy is at the heart of Razbezhkina’s 2005 feature Chuzhaya strana (Another Country), which screened in the homage. It captures the diminishing of options, not just in work but also emotionally, experienced in immigration. Despite residency restrictions Russian pianist Dilyara is determined to stay in Dutch city Tilburg with her son, who applies to study music at the conservatory there. Marriage would relieve her insecure position, but a pattern is forming in her relationships with Dutch men. They founder due to the men’s alcoholism or psychological problems – deepening her sense of life on society’s periphery. The artistic realm of romanticising impulse (“I could have been the wife of a Decembrist or poet” she muses) jars against the cynicism-tinged, absurdist banalities of hard necessity (packing cakes on an assembly line as a staticky radio blasts “Simply the Best”, for instance) – a recurrent concern of Razbezhkina’s films. Art struggles to assert itself in such a world – but that’s perhaps where it’s at its most precious.

Russians are nothing if not dramatic by nature, and her 2000 short Khochetsya pet (I Feel Like Singing) is a droll delight. It interweaves episodes of everyday Russians coaxed into starlet mode, giving renditions of songs, from the Moscow Electric Lamp factory cultural association to a woman painstakingly applying blusher at readiness at home, but shy to get past the first fits and starts of her song.

“Through our own reality, we must understand why our protagonist constructs the reality that he has,” said Razbezhkina in her masterclass. We feel her open curiosity and life-affirming humour in every frame – a bracing reminder of how to look through unjaded eyes.

Polish documentary retrospective: disrupting the official line

DOK Leipzig’s top-notch retrospectives are what really sets it apart. In addition to the Razbezhkina homage, a retrospective focussing on Poland’s documentary tradition and the spirit of disobedience to be found within it was exemplary. The 27 shorts and features in the program ranged from well-known classics such as Krzysztof Kieślowski’s blackly absurdist portrait of a medical staff’s long night Szpital (Hospital, 1976) to films retrieved from obscurity (Piotr Łazarkiewicz’s Fala / Wave, 1986, which captures the ‘80s Jarocin punk festival, was retrieved through a copy the town’s mayor fished off his bookshelf).

Strong portraits of women featured prominently. Krystyna Gryczełowska’s 24 godziny Jadwigi L. (The 24 Hours of Jadwigi L., 1967) shows a factory-worker deftly and stoically carrying out her labour before arriving home, exhausted, with full tasks of motherhood and housework awaiting her. In this banal drudge the heroic glory of work, lauded by Soviet propaganda, is revealed as empty farce. Chantal Akerman’s unravelling Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, eight years later, might well have sympathised.

A view inside intimate household reality emerges in a different sense in Takiego pięknego syna urodziłam (Such A Nice Boy I Gave Birth To, 1999), by Knives Out director Marcin Koszałka. It caused a scandal in Poland when it was originally broadcast on television, capturing as it does the stream of beration from his disappointed mother at the then twenty-something director, who still lived at home. It decimates the traditional vision of the family’s sanctity, a concept we see in Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz and Joanna Sławińska’s Kocham Polskę (I Love Poland, 2007) has been used by right-wing nationalists to erode human rights.

One of the most powerful films in the retrospective was Maciej Dygas’s Usłyszcie mój krzyk (Hear My Cry, 1991). Presented by the director in person, it was part of an opening slot examining how artists can create within an omnipresent, oppressive state system. It documents the act of self-immolation by Ryszard Siwiec in 1968 among crowds watching Harvest Festival dancing at a Warsaw stadium, in protest of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. This preceded the better-known self-immolation of Jan Palach in Prague months after. The film sets out with a poetic eye and sense for the grace of deep conviction not only what drove Siwiec, who was deeply disillusioned with communist realities, to commit the act, but also how the public suppressed his dissent. “It was on a par with any other accident. It did not register in my mind,” says one onlooker. Commentators on air refused to mention the flaming man, later saying it was beyond the framework of allowed possibility: “How could you explain that someone was burning?” In totalitarian states, the stakes are such that to flout the rules is absurdist or self-destructive – but it’s exactly in this that the creative gesture of the defiant spectacle, in showing that alternative thought still exists, is worth so much.

Outsiders beyond protest

The reverberations of acts such as Siwiec’s in the continued tradition of performance as activism against state abuses could be felt in Irene Langemann’s Pawlenski – Der Mensch und die Macht (Pavlensky – Man and Might), showing out of competition. Nothing exceptional in terms of form, it nevertheless offered a compact primer for those who have not followed in the news media the acts of one of Russia’s most effective champions of dissent-through-spectacle: Petr Pavlensky (otherwise commonly known in the west as “that guy that nailed his balls to Red Square”). As with Siwiec, the extremity of his actions – which are set out one by one in between footage of him with his family, who have determined not to separate the personal from the political in their vision of fully integrated beliefs – transforms his body into a beacon of resistance. Interviewees include Pavel Yasman, the state investigator assigned to interrogate him who quit his job and became a supporter rather than continuing as a “tool” of the state, showing that echo chambers can be broken through by such signals.

DOC Leipzig

Pavlensky – Man and Might

Resistance and the bravery of self-endangering dissent are certainly worth celebrating and talking about. But the festival program did not ignore the plight of those with scarce inner and material resources left for this. The most harrowing film I saw there – which has stayed with me – was Iranian director Behrouz Nouranipour’s A157, in the main competition. It’s named for the number on the tent in which three Yezidi Kurdish girls live in a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border. Traumatised by their enslavement and rape by ISIS fighters and all now pregnant and suicidal, they survive from day to day in the bleak and muddy environment, without the documents to leave and scant protection or structural assistance. One could hardly imagine a more hopeless situation – or greater shame in regard to the anti-refugee sentiment being whipped up in Europe. It’s not a film with a consolatory ending.

DOC Leipzig

Communion

Amid a dark news year, it was more heartening than even the dissidents on screen to witness initiatives that DOK Leipzig is involved in to stop society going wrong in the first place; to not just show films but build sensitive and engaged community. A youth jury awarded their Young Eyes Film Award to another of the main competition’s strongest films, Anna Zamecka’s Komunia (Communion). It shows young Polish teen Ola as she is forced into a role beyond her years holding the household together and guiding her autistic brother to study for his first Communion, while her alcoholic father and absent mother – who is absorbed with another relationship – offer little support. Humour, frustration, determination: all inspired the jury in their prize, which they presented with a painted diorama they had made about the protagonists and their hopes for them. This very personal creation as a prize showed a level of engagement with arthouse documentary and its sensitive possibilities that was truly touching.1.

DOK In Prison allowed locals and festival guests inside the imposing concrete walls of Regis-Breitingen juvenile detention centre to watch films in an audience mixed with prisoners. Germany is known for a progressive rehabilitation system for incarcerated youths (sentenced as such up to age 21), and art therapy is a well-established part of activities inside. As well as an impressive series of documentary and animation shorts made by workshop participants on their lives in jail, I caught My Life as a Courgette inside, programmed by detainees as one of three competition films for a prison jury of three members. The tenderly melancholy French-Swiss stop-motion feature by Claude Barras was lucky to enlist Céline Sciamma, always a sensitive interpreter of the experiences of young outsiders, to bring her magic touch to the script. Nine-year-old Courgette is sent to a home after accidentally killing his alcoholic mother and slowly bonds with the other children, their large, expressively rendered eyes carrying us through a spectrum of complex emotions. Childhood trauma, non-conventional surrogate families and ways to avoid despair when the dark side of life singles out some indiscriminately, are the themes of this utterly charming film, which also opened the festival – a first act of “disobedience” Pasanen declared, since it’s the first animation to have that honour in the festival’s history. The prison screening provoked many thoughts, but mainly: what does it mean to live inside or outside a society, and how do we lessen the shifting line between? It’s a question that’s urgent for all of us.

DOK Leipzig
31 October – 6 November 2016
Festival website: https://www.dok-leipzig.de/en/

 

Endnote

  1. For more on this film, and contemporary Polish documentary in general, please see Masha Shpolberg’s article “Affect, Identification and Communion: The New Generation of Polish Documentary” in this issue here

About The Author

Born in New Zealand and now living in Berlin, Carmen Gray is a freelance film critic and journalist for London-based publications Sight & Sound, The Guardian, Screen International, The Calvert Journal and Estonian culture weekly Sirp. She is also part of the team launching independent cinema Wolf in Berlin.