People often ask me what recent documentaries I’ve seen and what I recommend them to see. When they ask me that, my first question to them is what are you looking for? What interests you in general and what kind of stories do you like? Personally, I have an interest in what’s new in general in the documentary world, what’s fresh from the oven and what’s different. But of course, I also have my specific interests in certain subjects. But beyond personal preferences of different kinds, I do think there are films that go beyond their particular circumstances to reach something universal. Something that’s important for all of us and something that we can all relate to. Those films are often unforgettable and these three films I’ve seen at last edition of IDFA are of this particular ‘breed’.
1. A Family Affair (directed by Tom Fassaert)
The opening film at IDFA and one of my favourite films is a perfect example of how reality beats fiction. The film tells a very intimate and complex family story, driven by an usual character, the filmmaker’s 95 (?) year old grandmother. Her name is Marianne Hertz and in the ’50s she was a model pretending to be an ideal mother. But the reality was in fact far from that face she was putting for the outside world. In fact, she constantly neglected her kid’s needs, eventually leaving them behind to move to South Africa and start a new life. Her behaviour and her departure left long term marks on her children. And even though she left, Marianne has always been present in the family stories, and has always been someone who appeared out of the blue every now and then only to scratch on the wounds she created. Tom Fassaert sets out to make this film and find out how things really were and how things really are, after she invites him over to South Africa to help with her testament.
For some reason the trailer is not available with English subtitles but trust me on this one. You’ll recognize your family in this film, not completely, of course, but mainly in the details. And you’ll feel deeply for Fassaert’s family. For his father. And for his uncle, Rene, who somehow remained in my heart and if you watch this film he might remain in yours too. You’ll also understand to a certain degree something of this atypical grandmother, her reasons and her pain. And even though you probably don’t have an unusual and charismatic grandma in the way Marianne Hertz is unusual and charismatic, eventually this particular story will work as a reminder of how different and complicated all families are, and how none of them is picture perfect.
If you’re in The Netherlands, the films is screened these days at the EYE in Amsterdam.
2. The Swedish Theory of Love (directed by Erik Gandini)
This film takes a look at Sweden and the loneliness and isolation of so many people there. Sweden, raking high in all sorts of rankings measuring the quality of life; Sweden a role model in many ways, and a country in which being independent was encouraged as a starting point in every relationship; eventually Sweden a place where many people can fill a governmental form for any sort of problem they have, but the same people might not have a shoulder to cry on. I think this was literally said in the film. This and the question of why is everybody unhappy in the mids of all the abundance Sweden has?
The story goes well in the past, with the idea that love has to be based on independence and being free & autonomous is the basis on which any human being is formed. All this sounds good but there’s a twist. A rather sad one. “People who are trained in independence are losing the ability to negotiate cohabitation” as Zygmunt Bauman says it in the film. Nowadays more than 40% of Swedish people live by themselves, many women have kids without starting a family, and what I found more sad, many people die by themselves, leaving money and stuff behind while no one seem to be searching for them and no one misses them. A special designated organisation tries to reach a family member for a while, but often this person is never found.
I loved the film’s style and the way it is structured to make a point by mixing interviews and ‘real-life’ footage with cinematic shots – often looking surreal – portraying a mechanical, minimalistic life of people with no links, only solitude between them. Most importantly, the feeling created by the film’s carefully constructed style is backed by statistics and they tell something very real. In this overly organised, efficient, work-based system of welfare and personal autonomy, where it’s important to be on time and preferable not to get into long conversations (a part in the film shows refugees and immigrants learning about the local culture) – people are losing their social skills. And there is nothing to glue these people together.
Towards the end, the film takes a look at a country at the very opposite of everything Sweden is: Ethiopia. A place where survival values are more important than self-expression and where living autonomously is not only not an option people consider, but it is also counter-intuitive. People need each other in all ways possible there, life is tough and often dangerous, and the links of support formed between people are important to survive and more. These links bring companionship, support and a sort of camaraderie that makes life warm and happy. Or so it seems. And so I think.
Two things to end. One, as Bauman says, it is untrue that happiness is a trouble free life. And second, I find this film very important and relevant for the entire Western world. I live in The Netherlands and rates of loneliness here have been written about and put in documentaries. And I do wonder what a good life really means, and just how much ‘autonomy is good for a human being.
3. A Strange Love Affair With Ego (directed by Esther Gould)
This film got the prize for Best Dutch Documentary at IDFA. I thought the prize was well deserved because the film tells a personal story while touching on something really important: nowadays obsession with the self, self-development, and with having (at least apparently) a successful life.
The starting point of the film is Gould’s relationship with her sister, Rowan. They both grew up in a place where not much happened, and for Gould, her strong-willed sister was an inspiration. Rowan was super self-confident and also confident that her future would be great, and Gould admired her because of that and also because she was beautiful and creative. Everything seemed to be working for Rowan until nothing actually did work. The film is a personal essay reaching far into a classic yet current topic, eventually leading to the question of when is too much self-confidence detrimental? This and other questions explored, build a touching portrait of how self-esteem works and where a healthy balance is.
The answer is not clear cut but at times obvious. The subject is explored through Gould’s personal story narrated in voice-over, and through interviews with specialists and with creative people with creative lives who exhibit a lot of self-confidence. I think Viviana, the first girl/artist featured in the film, makes such a strong impression that pretty much overshadows the others, or so it felt for me. She’s still very present in my mind, her personality, her ego-driven film experiments and the rather strange and hard to perceive as honest things she says at times. So I was left with her in mind and with a certain feeling overall feeling the film leaves, a feeling that made me reflect and might make you reflect as well on your own relationship with yourself.