The Movies That Matter Festival just ended, and this edition reminded me why I love documentaries and why I write about them. I had a week of films and debates, and I feel I got some new insights and ideas and also some new questions. And that’s great because this is what documentaries do, they open up the world a bit more, one film at a time, and challenge our emotions and knowledge. So here are some thoughts and feelings from and about the festival, fresh from the oven.
1. I think I said it before and I am now repeating myself probably, but what I love about Movies That Matters is the fact that the people in the documentaries become real people walking in the hallway, people you can meet and talk to. This week I met Nawal El Sadaawi, this “giant” Egyptian intellectual which I admire greatly. I didn’t find the film she appears in – The Free Voice of Egypt (directed by Konstanze Burkard) – particularly good as a film, but it added something to my knowledge of her and her work. Anyway, the film is a film, what blew me away was meeting her, this sharp and witty lady aged 83, who can speak so coherent and comprehensive about politics and women’s rights and everything else around it.
2. I absolutely, madly, deeply and unexpectedly loved Toto and His Sisters (directed by Alexander Nanau), this observational documentary about three kids growing up in some sordid drug environment somewhere in Bucharest, while their mom is in jail. It is probably hard to imagine how you can love this film when this is the subject, but trust me on this one. It’s a film with many layers, that tells an universal story about chance and strength and love and everything in between.
3. I really felt for The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer‘s film. It’s sort of the second half which, together with the Act of Killing, portray the scars and the unspoken issues that are deeply rooted in the Indonesian society.
The background of these two films is that after the 1965 military coup in Indonesia, many people – meaning around 1 million if I remember well – have been brutally killed. They were either supporting the communist party or suspected of doing that. The killers from that time are still in high positions while the families of the ones killed lived in silence, having to witness these killers’ wealth and power.
I remember The Act of Killing got me mixed feelings. I found it amazing and at the same time too much. I think that after watching The Look of Silence it all falls into place in my mind and my heart. After seeing Joshua Oppenheimer speak about the story and its meaning and layers – it falls even more into place.
The Look of Silence shows the other half of the big picture. This time the focus is not on the murderers but on a family who lost a son and a brother in 1966, in a really gruesome way. Adi, who was born 2 years after his brother was killed, watches footage of the murderers of his brother bragging about how they killed him and many others. He goes to confront these people with the reality of what they did, something no one dares to do in nowadays Indonesia, where the ‘winners’ and the ‘victims’ of that period have to live together. Adi is looking to understand and he’s looking for an apology, something that will allow his family to forgive. But this apology is difficult to receive, because if these people would apologize, they would make an entire sand mountain on which they built their lives fall.
I think that what I liked about this film and why it balances my memory of The Act if Killing, is that the obscenity of bragging and being proud to have killed people (on one side) is set against the bitter-sweetness of Adi’s family, the tenderness of their memories, his parents aging. It also sits against Adi’s courage to tell the truth.
Please watch this film.
4. Except for Petra Stienen, this Dutch Arabist lady who moderated this talk, I haven’t seen one good moderator at the Festival. I actually hardly saw a decent one as well. It was almost all a sea of unprepared and nervous women, stiff experts and journalists that managed to talk so in general, so for everybody that in the end it was for nobody. Or at least not for me.
Good moderators don’t need to be experts actually. They need to have presence and some knowledge mixed together into something that at least looks like spontaneity and like they’re listening to the really interesting stuff the guests are saying. Good moderators don’t interrupt in the middle of something interesting. They don’t tell Nawal El Sadaawi that they translated a book of hers for a course but they don’t remember which one because she wrote so many. They don’t ask completely embarrassingly stupid questions. So yes, I hope they’ll find the good moderators. Next year.
Plus, small note: you cannot have a 30-45 minutes talk with four interesting people, when each one of them could speak for 3 hours.
5. I watched Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, which won a Golden Bear at the Berlinale. Had great hopes. Here’s what I thought of it.
6. I missed Timbuktu but you shouldn’t. And I plan to catch up somehow soon.
7. How on earth did Those Who Said No win the Camera Justitia award?! Were the other films really tragically bad? This film makes my top 5, actually even top 3 most boring, depressive, tragic-there’s-no-hope-or-nuances kind of films I have seen lately. I watched it at IDFA and regretted it.
8. I missed The Men Who Mends Women, unfortunately, and have to catch up. Really.
9. For those living in The Netherlands, there will be Movies That Matter on Tour or something like that, a bunch of films from the festival traveling in cinemas around the country. See here.