The documentary film festival
landscape in Belgrade
(Serbia) is crowded. Magnificent 7
takes place in late January
as a timely break in the long and quiet reprieve that is the winter vacation. Named for the seven feature-length European documentaries
that it presents, Magnificent 7
is really more like a week-long film series, curated by Tue Steen Müller
, the veteran documentary specialist of the National Film Board of Denmark
. Then there is the Belgrade Documentary and Short Film Festival
in early April, which this year celebrated its 60th anniversary as one of the oldest film festivals in Europe. The former festival is a popular success, each screening playing to crowds numbering in the thousands at the large theater in the Sava Center. The latter festival is the venerable old institution, not quite the energetic and creative tastemaker it was during its golden years in the 1960s
but respectable all the same for maintaining its status. Then there is Beldocs
, the new kid on the block, which takes place at the end of April
Beldocs (Belgrade International Documentary Film Festival), now in its sixth year, is still searching for its identity and its audience in the shadow of these other more well-known and established events. Beldocs is more international and diverse than Magnificent 7 and presents more consequential films than Belgrade Documentary and Short Film Festival. While the overall size of the selection is very modest the festival programmers (led by festival director Mladen Vušurović) are attempting to expand. As such, Beldocs has a chance to fill a void in the festival culture in Serbia as a place where one can see great documentary films that are the centers of conversation worldwide while also celebrating the art of non-fiction cinema. This is to say that in the next six years hopefully Beldocs will be on a path to achieving the relevance of the dominant documentary festivals in the region: Zagrebdox and the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.
Before it ascends to this level of competition Beldocs must grow – not just in the number of films presented but also the programming options. Beldocs featured an international program which consisted of eight films, a Serbian competition program which consisted of eleven films, a Serbian panorama which consisted of nine films, a music documentary section which consisted of five films, and a Chris Marker retrospective which presented seven of the legendary director’s works (with an accompanying lecture to introduce the man and his career). It is perhaps odd that there are two Serbian programs and one is branded ‘competition’, which relegates the other to a de facto second-class status. These two sections can perhaps be merged, particularly if there are not that many domestic documentaries produced on a yearly basis that can compete for festival slots.
The Serbian competition has its own jury which presented an award for the best film in the section to Unplugged (Mladen Kovačević, 2013), a light-hearted look at rural musicians who use tree leaves as instruments. This hour-long documentary owes something to the television work of the veteran director Karpo Godina and his treatment of a similar subject, though it extends and improves upon his pioneering efforts. I served as the president of the FIPRESCI jury and our task was to award the Grand Prix of the festival as well as the International Film Critics Award. The Grand Prix went to The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer et al, 2012) and the FIPRESCI Prize went to Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (Sophie Huber, 2012).
Huber’s film was an achingly beautiful lullaby for a bygone era in Hollywood – the era of the hard-working, multi-talented character actor. Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction saunters along in a dusky state of mind between the planes of existence, while The Act of Killing plunges you into a waking nightmare. Oppenheimer’s film seems to be destined for a canonical place in the early history of 21st century non-fiction cinema. The film is quite amazing in the scope of emotions it is able to probe and evoke, in addition to the diversity of styles it is able to traverse. One minute you are watching a gritty and gruesome confessional on the mean streets of Indonesia and the next you are viewing a surreal set piece with hardcore gangsters in drag frolicking under waterfalls to musical accompaniment. The Act of Killing keeps you on your toes and is never uninteresting. Like many great documentaries it both transports you to the brutal reality of a world you have never known and also constructs an irresistible fiction.
It was quite a coup for the festival to have Oppenheimer in person for a detailed post-screening discussion with the audience – which lasted until well after midnight. In addition, it was great to see Oppenheimer introduced by the celebrated director Dušan Makavejev, who was his professor at Harvard University many years ago and who obviously made a huge impact on his former student. As my colleagues and I were deliberating on the potential award-winners it seemed amazing to me that The Act of Killing had not been recognised by more FIPRESCI juries, though it did win the top award at CPH:DOX in 2012. We agreed with the Danish sentiment wholeheartedly and if there is a more powerful and soul-shattering documentary that was released in the last year I eagerly look forward to seeing it.
The rest of the international competition was made up of films with large profiles but that seemed more miss than hit: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Mike Lerner & Maxim Pozdorovkin, 2012) felt like a courtroom drama without the drama; Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, 2012) seemed to be an extended advertisement for Twitter; The Gatekeepers (Dror Moreh, 2012) was a talking head recap of attacks in the Middle East that were already covered by the press long ago; The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear (Tinatin Gurchiani, 2012) suffocated from its own orchestration, though it confirms the bright talent currently making waves in contemporary Georgian cinema; Elena (Petra Costa, 2012) was a rote found footage diary stretched to the breaking point by its one-note poetic contemplation. These are all quality films in terms of aesthetics but also a bit safe in terms of point of view and politics, though granted that this is something often necessary for a festival to secure sponsorship and ticket sales.
The Serbian competition program was marked by a wide range of quality, from genuinely entertaining and well-made productions to borderline amateurish constructions. For the opening night at Beldocs a double feature was presented. The first film in this pair was Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body (Marta Popivoda, 2013), which was every bit as academic an affair as the title indicates – in fact, the concept of the documentary was based on the director’s graduate thesis. The film is an archival montage utilising propagandistic footage of Socialist Yugoslavia at work and at play, combined with a theoretical voice-over elaborating on what exactly it was that made the country such an exciting success and eventual tragic failure. This particular subject has long since been mined for all it is worth in numerous books and films and Popivoda’s documentary adds nothing new to the equation in terms of both form and content.
The second half of the opening night double feature was another exercise in Yugo-nostalgia, though approached more obliquely and with much more spirit. Dragan Wende
(Dragan von Petrovic & Lena Müller & Vuk Maksimovič
, 2013) tells the story of its title character, a washed-up player who emigrated to Germany from Yugoslavia as a kid and quickly found himself swept up in the fast life of petty crime, parties, and prostitutes in Berlin. This Tarantino-esque tale follows the point of view of Dragan’s young nephew who journeys to visit his uncle in an effort to find out what makes him such a memorable figure. The nephew slowly gets caught up in the lifestyle Dragan leads and in the process we grow to understand three generations of a family who all – friends included – mention how great they had it during the time of Socialist Yugoslavia and how hard things are now. However, the ironic point made is that during socialist times it was easier to be a criminal and in the current neo-liberal capitalist phase it is extremely difficult to make an honest living.
Rather than preaching, this documentary finds a way to simply let the characters breathe and bring them into close-up without judging them. While the film maintains a stylish front of flashy superficiality the viewer is actually able to learn a great deal about family dynamics amid the turbulent landscape of geo-political transition. Dragan Wende was given a special directing prize by the domestic jury, which it certainly deserved if not more.
There are a few inconsistencies and shortcomings that mark Beldocs as a festival still under development. Not many concessions are made to the ‘international’ in the festival title, in practical terms, as many of the documentaries in both the Serbian competition and panorama were screened without subtitles. In addition, the press communications were not translated, nor was there simultaneous translation during the lecture that opened the Chris Marker retrospective. Furthermore, the festival catalogue did not make an appearance until the closing night. These minor setbacks have a lot to do with budgeting and it is imaginable that they will correct themselves when the sponsor list grows. It should also be said that the screenings were of high quality and the festival ran smoothly for the most part – until the final night, when a scheduling difficulty pushed back the starting time of the awards ceremony to almost midnight, after the wonderful closing night musical documentary Brasslands (Meerkat Media Collective, 2013). This forced the festival to end somewhat awkwardly, on an anti-climactic note – as will this festival review.