Recent years have seen an explosion in quality non-fiction filmmaking from and about the New East, with 2016 proving once again the richness of subject matter and directing talent on offer – from the Ukrainian Riviera to Kosovo and beyond.
All this was in evidence last month at the 14th edition of Copenhagen’s documentary film festival CPH:DOX, where the already well-regarded event was taking on a fresh focus: newer films, a new competition for emerging talent and a new “cultural summit focused on the political and social role of art in society.” In other words, the perfect place to assess the state of documentary film in 2017.
As a festival that favours hybridisation and de-categorisation, it’s unsurprising that many of the selections at CPH:DOX cross categories, not just intersecting subjects, approaches and the lines between documentary and fiction, but also national borders. Here is our selection of the finest New East documentaries from CPH:DOX produced both by filmmakers from the region and by filmmakers from the outside looking in.
Director: Anna Eborn
“It’s strange that one can live for such a long time,” states the titular 81 year old at the centre of Swedish director Anna Eborn’s charming memory-tapestry Lida, as idiosyncratic and entertaining a protagonist as any documentarian could hope for. An examination into personal and historical consciousness that uses the texture of celluloid as metaphor for the fabric of memory, Lida is as much a portrait of place as a creative biography, each side steeped in as much time-layered mystery as the other.
As one of the very last speakers of Old Swedish, a survivor both of the trauma of the Second War War and of the Siberian labour camps and now a resident of remote eastern Ukraine, Lida has a storied, complex past. Eborn doesn’t try to solve the mystery, nor historicise it, instead mixing loose, often humorous confessions from her protagonist with abstract, stunning 16mm landscape photography and evocative textural sound.
Eventually locating Lida’s estranged son in St Petersburg, Eborn connects dots across the post-Soviet states, weaving strands of a life with her own outsider’s observations of the region – impressionistically, inconclusively and confusingly, but also frequently very beautifully.
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
Another unusual place-portrait at CPH:DOX, the latest film from revered Ukrainian documentarian Sergei Loznitsa sees him observe visitors to the Holocaust memorial at Sachsenhausen. Standing silent witness to the activities of tourists at various sites of commemoration, Loznitsa captures the strangeness inherent in the act of visiting such a place, recording the spectrum of behaviours visitors manifest when confronted by the incomprehensible.
Although ostensibly shot without judgement, Loznitsa’s emphasis on behaviour many might deem improper (taking selfies, laughter, derision, wearing obnoxious t-shirts) does reveal his hand somewhat, though to view this as simple condemnation is reductive. The accentuated use of artificial sound, including additional dialogue recording (for the chatter of the passersby and tour guides lecturing), show Austerlitz to be as much about the idea of “observation” as about that which it oversees. Loznitsa is challenging the act of commemoration itself, and the broader implications of writing history — a through-line in his wider work.
Is there any suitable way to act within a concentration camp? Indeed what societal rules (unwritten or explicit) dictate engagement with any space? Simple, precise and exacting in form, the conflict between the modern and historical in Loznitsa’s film is challenging. How can anyone, on an individual or a societal level, approach the chasm between the abstract enormity of past horrors, and modernity’s commitment to representational remembrance?
On the Edge of Freedom (Denmark/Russia/Ukraine)
Director: Anita Mathal Hopland and Jens Lengerke
“It’s an escape from reality, it’s fucking cool. All you need is a flashlight and some gloves.” The situation depicted in Anita Mathal Hopland and Jens Lengerke’s On The Edge of Freedom is also one specific to modernity, the hedonistic pleasure of urban-ex. The Russian and Ukrainian participants in this doc scale tower blocks, dive into secret bunkers and dangle unharnessed from ladders in the sky; breaching all manner of forbidden urban terrain, deriving energy as much from the act of trespassing as from the libidinal charge present in the danger of doing so.
The raw footage included, much taken from helmet cameras at queasy, vertiginous heights, is a vicarious thrill in itself, but one that can easily be found online. Where the doc offers something unique is its access to the minute specificities of the surrounding culture — the teen-reality drama of the group of explorers depicted, their squabbles, theories and concerns — and the points where urban-ex intersects with other worlds, whether political (through contact with Euromaidan protestors) or commercial (through links with Instagram influencer culture and the commodification of a fundamentally anti-capitalist pursuit).
Standing 10,000ft atop a Chinese skyscraper, the film ends with the central couple launching a drone into the atmosphere, creating the ultimate “impossible shot”. With the sun setting over their shoulders as they stand alone, side by side, nothing looks more romantic.
The Unforgiven (Denmark/Serbia)
Director: Lars Feldballe-Petersen
Also seeking an escape, the lead character in Danish director Lars Feldballe-Petersen’s troubling, minimalist The Unforgiven is looking to overcome demons that will most likely remain unassailable. A prison guard in the former Yugoslavia, Esad Landzo committed atrocities during the conflict of the 1990s that continue to haunt him decades later. Petersen meets him post-release after having been sentenced at The Hague in 2006, following in close proximity as he attempts to apologise to some of his victims and their families.
Comparable perhaps to Joshua Oppenheimer’s Indonesia documentaries The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014) (although lacking their nuance), Petersen’s film offers similar, sometimes broad insights into the psychology of violence and commendably avoids oversimplifying narratives around the human capacity for evil acts. When Landzo states, “I don’t have a future, I don’t have an identity, I don’t have a present, all I have is my past,” it’s difficult to connect the man seen in the film with the one from the past, whose horrid crimes have been made public.
What The Unforgiven amounts to, perhaps, is an examination of forgiveness and retribution; posing questions as to whether mistakes made on such a monumental scale can ever really be atoned for. Petersen’s stance on this stays out of the film, but to even consider it is bold, given how foregrounding a perpetrator could be seen to undermine the suffering of the afflicted. The Unforgiven is a simple film on its surface but offers many thinking points and few answers.
Director: Norman Leto
“Let’s look at a point.” Beginning with a single pixel, Warsaw-based Norman's Leto’s wry, informative and experimental physics documentary takes a very literal starting point, but almost immediately things become much more complex. “How do we get space and time, and is there such a thing as nothing?” the narrator inquires, before diving in. A multifaceted examination, Photon is part rumination, part explanation, and part hypothetical inquiry into the universe from the smallest of molecules up. To do this, Leto mixes visual materials — a combination of elemental, cosmological nature-doc type original cinematography that vivifies the visual splendour of the earth with hyper detailed black and white granular animations that visualise what the human eye can’t see — with a dense, didactic narrative voice that swings between the intellectual and the absurd, often imperceptibly.
Inspired by the writings of renowned physicist David Deutsch, Photon is Leto’s second feature, and has been in the works almost since his 2009 debut Sailor. Producing a strange adaptation of his own autobiography for his first film before delving into the very fabric of the universe for his second, Leto is certainly ambitious. Photon is almost overwhelmingly dense, an expansive, puzzling ode to the elemental. “I’ve just presented four million years in 10 minutes,” states the narrator. The viewer is expected to keep up.