Presenting the best documentary category at this year’s Academy Award ceremony, Jerry Seinfeld smirkingly referred to the nominees as “five incredibly depressing films.” The comment raised the ire of James Sinno, co founder of the Northwest Documentary Association and the co-producer of one of nominated films, Iraq in Fragments. In a press release issued one week after the telecast, Sinno wrote: “while I appreciate the role of humour in our lives, Jerry Seinfeld’s remarks were made at the expense of thousands of documentary filmmakers and the entire documentary genre… by labeling the documentaries ‘incredibly depressing’ he indirectly told millions of viewers not to bother seeing them because they’re nothing but downers.”
What’s most troubling about Seinfeld’s comment is that even now, in the middle of what has widely been described as a boom period for non-fiction filmmaking, there is still a sense that “heavy” documentaries (ones not about crosswords, spelling bees or lock-stepping penguins) are a chore, something to be endured. Add subtitles to the equation, and unfortunately, the odds get even longer that a documentary will find its audience.
“Foreign-language docs are a hard sell,” says Sean Farnel, the Director of Programming for the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival. “They’re not sexy, and there’s not really any catchy marketing around them.” Nevertheless, this year Hot Docs has bravely focused its annual National Spotlight programme on Central and Eastern Europe. The films have been culled from a range of countries—Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the Baltics—whose artistic output is not exactly synonymous with frivolity or uplift. A few of them make this year’s Oscar doc crop look positively buoyant by comparison. They are, by and large, serious works. They are also, by and large, very good: “downers” that responsible filmgoers in these parts should feel obligated—not merely bothered—to check out.
To be fair, it’s a relatively latebreaking opportunity. It seems the low local profile of Central and Eastern European documentary filmmaking (at least compared to the region’s vaunted feature-film output) is not an issue of quality, but access. “It’s a movement that just isn’t being tapped into in North America,” says Farnel. “It wasn’t on the radar of the curators here.” He cites a 2005 visit to the burgeoning Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival in the Czech Republic as the moment when he first became aware of a real movement afoot in the area. “The directors there were all young, smart people,” he recalls, “and they had been running this festival for about eight years, since they were teenagers.”
This is relevant because, historically speaking, most key cinematic “New Waves” have been comprised of younger filmmakers looking to question the status quo. Think of France’s Nouvelle Vague, or the New German Cinema of the 1970s. “For a region to be perceived as a hotbed of documentary filmmaking,” says Farnel, “two things are needed. Firstly: the filmmakers need to be doing something interesting aesthetically. Secondly: there has to be something happening that’s spurring young directors to make films. So in this case, you have an area where people are searching for their identity…people who aren’t part of the European Union yet, but are moving in that direction. They’re dealing with the transition from the old socialist framework into new democracies. Economically, the currencies aren’t fitting in against the Euro. People are struggling with the impact of globalization.”
All of these issues are at play in I Guess We’ll Meet at Eurocamp, the second film by thirty-year old Czech director Erika Hnikova. Set in Besiny, a small town at the edge of the Sumava Forest in Southwest Bohemia, this deceptively slender work charts the long-standing (and yet amorphously defined) feud between three local groups: the hunters’ association, the volunteer fire brigade, and an athletic club known as the Sokol. Urged on by the director, senior members of each group plead their case to the camera, attributing the antipathy that colours daily life in Besiny to their rivals. There is no violence, but the resentment is palpable—it’s tribal warfare, right down to the uniforms that define each faction. The film’s title refers to a pub on the outskirts of town, a spiffy new tourist center subsidized by the European Union that, like everything else in Besiny, becomes the catalyst for debate, backbiting and suspicion. It’s also the only place to get a drink since the old pub closed, which only heightens the tension.
It might be argued that Hnikova, whose first film, a modeling industry expose called The Beauty Exchange, won some notoriety for its graphic content and probing sensibility, simply stumbled across a prefabricated metaphor for her country’s legacy of internecine conflict and trained a lens on it. But I Guess We’ll Meet at Eurocamp has been observed rather than recorded. Hnikova has an eye for composition and compelling visual details, and her camera always seems to be in the right place at the right time. (An episode featuring a mock firefighter exercise even generates suspense).
There’s a more harmonious sense of community in Slovakian director Marko Škop’s Other Worlds, which won the Audience Award last year at Karlovy Vary, the region’s leading festival. Like Eurocamp, the film is set in a rural locale—Saris, nestled in the mountains of Eastern Slovakia—but where Hinkova’s subjects are divided despite their shared heritage, Other Worlds depicts the peaceable maintenance of identity along the fault-line between Eastern and Western Europe. Consider 84-year old Jan Lazorik, who enters the film as a kind of prophet, literally railing from the mountaintops against the encroaching spectre of bubblegum culture. He angrily explains how the teenagers of his village have published a magazine of poetry extolling boy bands and Pepsi. Lazorik is a figure out of time, yet he’s anything but archaic in his thinking. He’s a proponent of biological and social diversity who advocates traditionalism and tolerance in the same breath.
Eventually, an informal caucus of Lazorik’s peers joins him on the bluffs: five Saris-area residents of varying ages and occupations, whose ethnic backgrounds range from Rusyn to Romani to Jewish. The film comes billed as a story of “six heroes at the end of the world,” but there’s no mythmaking here, nor any attempts to make grand pronouncements about the impact of globalization. (Having the group gather on a mountaintop is an amusing visual allusion to the Tower of Babel that Škop smartly doesn’t overplay). Škop is savvy enough to let his subjects speak for themselves, and if none of the other principals prove quite as engaging as Lazorik (although the Romani convict-turned-rapper Ignac Cervenak comes close), each contributes in his or her own way to the cacophony.
Even more accessible is How It’s Done, by the veteran Polish director Marcel Lozinski. The premise scans like a scripted satirical comedy: a famed image consultant holds open, American Idol-style auditions to select his country’s newest political superstar. Except, it’s no joke. The idea is the brainchild of Piotr Tymochowitz, an intractable, tousle-haired impresario—a hybrid of Karl Rove and Simon Cowell—who helped guide the left-wing Samoobrona Party to victory in the 2001 election. Genial and articulate, Tymochowitz proves ruthless in weeding out the weaker applicants; he’s less interested in ideals than in presentation. He advises his would-be politicos on how to stage a street-corner rally, suggesting correctly that anti-war sentiment will attract a crowd, and accompanies them on attention-getting forays into the corridors of power.
Playing none-too-mute witness to these proceedings is one Jacek Hugo-Bader, an award-winning Polish journalist whose hipster-ish appearance belies a fine-tuned bullshit detector. He’s less amused by the spin maestro’s efforts than horrified. And, as Tymochowitz’s prize pupil, a beefy charmer who fairly sweats calculation, starts generating interest from members of political parties on both wings, we come to share Hugo-Bader’s indignation. It’s hard to tell if Tymochowitz is a genuine villain, or if he’s merely proving a point about the debased state of his homeland’s political discourse, but the chilling final scene—an interview in which a candidate asserts his lack of principles with something like pride—indicates that either way, the system is experiencing some serious malfunctions.
Twitchy equipment of a more literal variety is at the center of Latvian filmmaker Inese Klava’s lovely short documentary Ready and Done. Adroitly photographed using DVCAM, the film unfolds primarily as a series of static shots inside a hospital elevator in Riga. It’s an old-fashioned lift with an operator, Sigurds, of comparable vintage: with his brown vest, lined face and practiced manner, he’s a walking anachronism. Sigurds is on the verge of a professional reckoning, as the construction of a modern elevator in the next shaft (one that allows its riders to select their destination without assistance) threatens to make him redundant. As a commentary on the individual caught up in the gears of technological progress, Ready and Done is smartly understated, but its modesty yields genuine engagement. A scene where Sigurds confronts his impassive, automated nemesis head-on has real emotional pull.
Ready and Done exudes a gentle tug at the heartstrings. By contrast, the programme’s other Latvian entry, Andis Miziss’ vérité-nightmare Worm, fairly yanks our feelings, and our bearings, out from under us. Objective to a fault, it fixes its unblinking gaze on sixty-two year old Karlis and his forty-one year old wife Inese. Both are clearly unhealthy and wizened beyond their years. They live together in a tiny shack, collecting worms to sell to local fishermen (an apparently burgeoning trade, according to a radio sound-bite) and growing sickly vegetables. Occasionally, they tend to the stray cats roaming their property. There is no narration, and the subjects mostly ignore the camera, so it takes about half the film for us to realize that Inese, like the most consistently underfoot of the cats, is pregnant.
It’s very difficult to discuss Worm’s impact without revealing what happens in its astonishing final movements. Enough to say that the pair, who have more than enough difficulty just looking after themselves, are inadequately prepared for the impending arrival. (The care and attention they receive at the hospital ends as soon as they walk out the door). Whether Karlis and Inese have placed total trust in Miziss or are simply too overwhelmed with the business of living to notice their fallibility being subjected to clinical attention is difficult to determine. It’s harder still to decide if what the director is doing constitutes compassionate political critique, exploitation, or some combination of the two.
Surely the film, which has begun amassing awards on the international festival circuit, can be read as a rejoinder to glowing assessments of Latvia’s economic growth since joining the European Union in 2004. The intimate rendering of one couple’s despair sketches wider implications. More than anything, though, Worm feels like a referendum on objectivity in documentary. While it is obviously not Miziss’ (or any artist’s) place to intervene in the lives of his subjects, his detachment in the face of mounting tragedy is uncomfortable bordering on unconscionable. It’s also absolutely essential to the film’s shattering power. Eschewing pity or condescension, Worm burrows deep and emerges as something indispensable: clear-eyed reportage from beyond the margins.
It’s a vision to send Jerry Seinfeld screaming for the hills, although those who care about the possibilities of documentary might bid him good riddance in any case. Whether or not this year’s National Spotlight produces any “breakout hits,” Hot Docs deserves kudos for putting their heft behind such a weighty slate of films. Taken together, the entries comprise a striking collage of a region beset by social, political and economic upheaval. The portrait is no less sharp for having been rendered in various shades of gray.