Forests in flames dominated some of most searing media images to round out the decade, as their link to human failing, greed and potential extinction took on an air of increasing catastrophe and crisis. The documentary world mirrored this hyper-awareness of the natural world and life’s precarity, as select highlights from CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, Visions du Réel in Nyon, DOK Leipzig and Doclisboa attest.

A legend about ayahuasca is related to us in A Tree is Like a Man / En la maloca de Don William. Just like many of the stories in the global media today, it has its basis in the human abuse of power. The creator deity Mojosinamo gifted humans with intelligence and authority, but after it was not used wisely the god decided to single out just one person to be a medicine man. The Ayahuasca Man was born as a vine and grew into the light, instructing a person how to cut his arms and legs off, cook him and eat him so that he could live simultaneously in the man’s body and the spiritual dimension. Ayahuasca must be asked for permission in order to work well, we hear. The documentary short, which is aligned with an animistic view of the interconnectedness and mind-permeation of all things, screened at both CPH:DOX and Visions du Réel. It was directed by Icelandic artist Thorbjorg Jonsdottir, but the story comes through the filmmaking medium to us via the words of Colombian shaman Don William, who guides her into the Amazon jungle, telling her about its plants, and how the indigenous people use them.

Don William is an avid teller of stories. His world is one of spirits with jaguar paw-prints, songs that can illuminate colours, and serpents that materialise to consume men – one in which the contours of beings, reality and other planes are not strictly delineated, and knowledge is imparted by visions. The ego-driven western conception of humans as discrete beings, entitled to commandeer all around them for utility value gives way to a fluid relation between all things and the force invested within them.

Close-ups of leaves in water and refractions of light underpin the beauty of a film that was shot on 16mm and is as much in awe to the lush greenery of the forest’s own magic as it is to cinematic material. It leans toward the experimentally kaleidoscopic, with an urge to plumb the elemental, and the rich mutability of sensory experience. The creaking of insects soundtracks a jungle infused with life. There is a sense of abundance, but also the acute endangerment of an ecosystem rendered fragile by human greed and colonial encroachment upon indigenous ways. Don William speaks of how he came to ayahuasca as a young boy, and was distracted from the path for a time when he moved to the city and became lost in alcoholism. He returned, to find only one elder left alive.

It’s impossible not to register Don William, in all probability, as among the last of his kind. His knowledge exists at a remove from the fragment snatched by film. We experience its cinematic ghostly trace, projected into the future, but his way of life is not passed on as fully, symbiotically inhabited and negotiated by this medium. Sustainability is intrinsic to his knowledge. He talks of the importance of not felling a tree prematurely, before its set lifespan, so that it may be there for future generations – so matter-of-fact and obvious, and yet, so incompatible with short-sighted profiteering. The amping up of deforestation practices in the Amazon again under the watch of Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, despite global climate crisis concerns, is not vocalised directly, but hangs over the film heavily.

A Tree is Like a Man / En la maloca de Don William (Thorbjörg Jónsdóttir)

Ethnography occupies a complicated space here. How far is Jonsdottir from the colonial “explorer”, the exoticising eyes of the culture collector, and the pillaging force of logging operations that mine the Amazon for its use value? Her intention certainly seems to be one of respectful, mind-expansive collaboration, solidarity and preservation. As sympathetic as the film is to Don William, who comes across as partner as much as subject, there is the uncomfortable, nagging sense that the visit of this filmmaker (who came through LA art school CalArts) is a sign of just how accessible the Amazon is now to the diluting and despoiling hand of globalisation. The director mitigates her own intrusion by positioning herself as a gentle off-screen presence. Allowing the words of Don William to speak for themselves, the film avoids aggressively packaging the experience into the didactic format we might expect of a dry fact-finding mission purporting to be “science” – though the western pop culture fetishisation of ayahuasca is also felt in the tripped-out fascination that permeates as framing mood.

Consciousness of the impact of the film production process led the Macedonian directors of Honeyland, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, to ensure an equal share of benefits, returning a share of the material profits and development funding to their project’s protagonists to contribute to alleviating their poverty. This echoes the work model of the bee hunter in the film, who says that “take half and leave half” honey collection means that the bees can maintain their livelihood in the natural world. They are under threat from aggressive profiteering and the over-exploitation of resources, as neighbours more intent on short-term gain and out of sync with the rhythms of nature move in. Is the notion that money and financial gain can somehow cancel out any physical imprint or disruption to local ecosystems made by filmmaking just another symptom of the capitalist mindset? Honeyland, which screened at Visions du Reel and won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, provides much food for thought in its concern for sustainability on film and beyond the final product.

In A Tree is Like a Man the abuse of power is, in a sense, abstract, both founding legend and immanent potential. Marcus Vetter’s Das Forum (The Forum), by contrast, is presented as something of an efficacy test on a method to mitigate the negative impacts of the world’s biggest political and business leaders. A film of a glossy, large-scale format, The Forum opened DOK Leipzig, and asks whether talking and diplomacy are all but futile for guiding the world in an era in which the stakes have taken on an air of catastrophe.

Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov)

The Forum is an eye-opening peek inside the World Economic Forum, the invitation-only gathering of around 3000 elite power players in Swiss Alps resort town Davos. It’s the first time an independent film team has been granted this degree of access behind the scenes. It steps carefully, avoiding taking on any conclusive position itself about the ethics of holding such an event, though it is no simple promotional vehicle for the WEF. It raises the question of whether the event’s model of civil niceties and polite discussions that nudge at social change is failed, or becoming obsolete in an era of rising populism and increased polarisation around the globe. Activists from Greenpeace are given ample screen time as one of the most critical voices. Jennifer Morgan says the forum, which claims impartiality, is a complicit “sideshow” used by morally corrupt elites to generate positive PR, while they cynically continue business as usual – a “bubble of mega-groupthink” all the more dangerous because its rhetoric is of making the world a better place. She claims that only a tiny fraction of attendees are interested in real change, and most wish to safeguard an unethical status quo (Nestlé, under fire for its water policy, and Monsanto, slammed for its hybrid seeds, designed to be used only once in a bid to up profits, are both partners).

Frenetic editing as the film lurches from meeting to meeting reflects an effort to cover everything exhaustively, with no clear through-line, but perhaps that is an accurate depiction of an event that in bringing many of the most powerful leaders of the world together is a flurry of wildly varied aims and incident, with no framework to hold the powerful to account. Being fly-on-the-wall to a few informal encounters is riveting, including an awkward, mutually distrustful exchange between Brazil’s new right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro and environmentalist Al Gore about the Amazon at a networking happy hour. “We are not enemies, we just need to talk,” says Bolsonaro. “I am always eager to talk,” Gore replies. Words have scarcely felt so hollow.

The Forum (Marcus Vetter)

A lot of time is dedicated to the WEF’s founder and chairman Klaus Schwab, now 81, and the film’s most fascinatingly enigmatic figure. There is a sense of a genuinely heartfelt life project in his dedication to the organisation, which seems to consume all his waking hours (his wife, Hilde, his former secretary, works alongside him). ”We need dialogue to understand each other,” he says of the WEF ethos, and his dream of a global village of decision-makers based on Ludwig Erhard’s idea of a market economy that is socially committed. “If you were a priest in a church, you would want to make the sinners come visit you on a Sunday,” he says of criticism that the forum legitimises the corrupt. He recalls a “crucial test” in 1973, when despite boycott threats from multinationals he invited a left-wing Brazilian theologist, Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, to bring a message from the favelas highlighting inequality. But amid panels on sustainable consumption, and the platforming of citizen-centric projects (start-up Zipline’s drone solution for delivering medical supplies in Rwanda is supported by WEF), the self-promotion of leaders as they court investment money is just as centre-stage. American president Donald Trump swoops in by Marine One helicopter with a narcissistic pomp that sets the stage for meetings with sycophantic corporation heads driven by the power of the dollar. Schwab names egoism as the main threat to our polarised world today, saying it leads to bunker mentality and populism – but Morgan laments that he is a man who favours cordial relations over confrontation.

“It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference, and no-one is allowed to speak about water,” young climate activist Greta Thunberg says of the hypocrisy of an event that prizes success stories, but is unwilling to admit their terrible price. After speaking at Davos she writes to Schwab that all at the event, including him, must do more to stave off environmental apocalypse. It’s close to the last word, indicating where the filmmakers’ sympathies lie. But will action follow?

Climate dread also underpins Brett Story’s The Hottest August, a film that was the talk of CPH:DOX. It’s a portrait of New York through a survey of its five rapidly changing boroughs that captures a city brimming with an irreducible, comical diversity of humanity, with no one set lore of lifestyle optimisation. In a paradox too terrifying to fully grasp, we’re also confronted, haunted almost, with the reality it’s a city that might just be dying. The camera frequently returns to New York’s skies and rooftops. There is a primal unease in this heavens-watching, of the kind that may look for portents in the weather. The recognition that all cities – even those as iconic as the Big Apple – are fleeting compared to nature’s awesome power lurks just beyond articulation. The consequences of environmental damage can’t be deferred forever.

“Normal” is a loaded word in this elegiac documentary that hints that our current times are anything but. Writer Zadie Smith is quoted in voiceover musing that people in mourning tend to use euphemisms, and so it is that what we have lost due to climate change – the assurance of chilly April showers, and the way season followed season – has been replaced by what we allude to as the “new normal”. The year the film was shot was one of New York’s most oppressively hot summers on record. Two women discuss the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, unprecedented in its extremity, which severely damaged their homes. But they are reluctant to admit that it might indicate a dangerous shift from nature’s pattern of hundred-year storms. This unease recurs throughout: anomalies and catastrophic incidents suggest, like alarm bells, dark tendencies for the future, but to read them as such would feed a dread many New Yorkers find too overwhelming to fully, consciously register.

The Hottest August (Brett Story)

The spectre of racism is felt along with economic precarity in the subtext of many of the interviews even before news footage on a television in a laundromat shows the 2017 white supremacist murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. One man atop a bar stool says he prefers to term racism “resentment”. Others have been alarmed by right-wing elements into acting. A woman ashamed she did not intervene when witnessing a drunken bigot verbally abuse a hijab-wearer in the street is attending a workshop to become more assertive against bullying and aggression. This is a vivid survey that is far from prescriptive or didactic in offering any means of countering a planet becoming more hostile to life, but is all the more powerful in its apprehension of foreboding.

Tinnitus is another documentary about life and death, humans and forests – but one of a very different sort indeed. Screened at Doclisboa, the film by Russian director Daniil Zinchenko is a multi-faceted and idiosyncratic meditation on the underground sound art scene in Russia and its relationship to death. There is a wealth of archival footage here (Staruha Mha’s Roman Sidorov rolling on the floor at a ‘98 Japanese noise action in Russia is one of countless eye-openers) and barrage of names for the uninitiated. The artist and music journalist Dmitry Vasileyev drowned in the sea in a freak accident during the making of the film, which ends with a half-hour noise concert by John Duncan in a forest in his honour.

The concept of death is related to subversion in some actions of the Russian avant-garde. The poetry of the Yuzhinsky Circle of dissidents who emerged in the 1950s is discussed and the (paradoxical) joy and irony inherent in lines such as: “We are jolly dead men, Oh, oh,oh, It feels good to die in a coffin.” Necrorealism in cinema followed. The party-sponsored idealism of Socialist Realism insisted on heroes striding forward into an eternal utopia. Marginalised from the hypocrisy of propaganda’s dream, underground creators embraced the merriment of irrationality and taboo acts; the theme of death as subversive anti-ideology and release from an oppressive system.

Tinnitus (Daniil Zinchenko)

Death as a creative lark, and the sad seriousness of actual human loss: both co-exist in a film that brings many complex dimensions to death. The case of a Russian fan who actually dismembered his girlfriend while listening to Der Golem is referred to, raising the complex issue of the symbolic and its uneasy, problematic connection to the literal. A visit to the mother of Vasileyev by his friends to break the news of his death to her is experienced by them as emotionally very tough: there is no joy felt in untimely tragedy.

There is much that is controversial in a film that dives so fully into artistic darkness in an era in which art of risk, provocation and violence is on the descendant in terms of appetite in the cultural discourse. The links to the radical right of some in the Russian industrial music scene are not explicitly addressed, nor the machismo (where are the women in the scene, we wonder). But a certain Russian mentality and connection to the forest – “something very deep, inexplicable, mysterious, secret” – finds nuanced voice in a film with little appetite in itself for provocation, and understanding that death is not a forgiving force to be played with. The topic of the documentary, Zinchenko said in his Q&A, is simple: “A man lived, and then he died.” Simple, yet the hardest truth of all.

CPH:DOX
20-31 March 2019
Festival website: https://cphdox.dk/en/

Visions du Réel
5-13 April 2019
Festival website: https://www.visionsdureel.ch/en

DOK Leipzig
28 October – 3 November 2019
Festival website: https://www.dok-leipzig.de/en/home

Doclisboa
17-27 October 2019
Festival website: https://www.doclisboa.org/2019/

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.