I’m starting to worry that Christmas will come and pass, we will enter 2016, half of it will be gone…and all the things I have to say about the docs I’ve recently seen will remain unsaid. So this week I’ll take some time to write about these films. Because there is one thing I do every November and I did it this November too. That is going to the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, which is my yearly treat of good docs, fresh from the oven.
This year I managed to be in Amsterdam for only two days, but two ‘tropical’ days, hunting for good stuff, including films for Eastward’s next year’s events. (For all of you new to me and my blog, Eastwards is a cultural initiative a good friend of mine and I co-founded this year, and Eastwards organised its first event, Spotlight:Romania. A Film and Photography Festival this October).
So here’s what I watched and loved, or watched and didn’t love. I will do this in several parts, otherwise there would be a humongous post to go through.
1. Double Aliens (directed by Ugis Olte)
This is the first film I watched from my overcrowded list of titles. Double Aliens is a story of identity, place and people in Samtskhe-Javakheti, which is a region in the south of Georgia. The roads there are most of the times bad and completely inaccessible in winter. And there are simple villages there, sharing similar stories, yet hunted by a silent tension between Armenians and Georgians.
I am interested in the Caucasus region in general and every year I hunt for stories coming from there. It’s strange how familiar they feel, I relate to them in a personal way. That is perhaps because there is a certain common inherited history shaped by the Russian influence in Eastern Europe and all the way through Central Asia. I empathise with a certain sense of magic and mystery that people in Romania seem to hold on to, and that you can also find as you go more east. I recognize this sense of magic, it feels like home somehow, but I don’t really look at the world through it any more.
Double Aliens captures that sense of magic, and it is a deeply atmospheric road movie, which started when Georgian photographer Daro Sulaukari decided to take photos in the region, and invited director Ugis Olte to come along. The film contains beautiful poetic shots of places you’ve probably never seen and it’s quite unlikely you will see sometime soon. And even though a rather low-key and personal endeavour, Double Aliens was more than worth my time.
2. Master and Tatyana (directed by Giedre Zickyte)
This film has some of my favourite things in the world, all in 84′ minutes. It has photography, a good (love) story, a sense of the extraordinary and an Eastern European feel, all in one. Master and Tatyana tells the story of Lithuanian photographer Litus Luckus, a hugely talented guy who lived a free and rather excentric life in Soviet times, together with his wife, Tatyana. In their Vilnius apartment, which was well known among artists at that time and which they shared with a lion cub (yes!), they created their own world where they received friends and organised parties. But things took a different turn one day, in a way that is and isn’t very clear in the film and Litus killed himself, aged 43, jumping out of the apartment’s balcony. After that, his work was forgotten.
After many many years, after Tatyana moved to the US and started a new life, and after everyone moved on with their lives…everybody who knew and loved him come together in this film to remember him and tell about him and most importantly to take out of the shadow his really beautiful photos of life in all sorts of places in USSR.
Must watch. Really.
3. Don’t Blink – Robert Frank (directed by Laura Israel)
This is one of the docs I very much looked forward to. IDFA hosted a special Robert Frank program this year, in collaboration with the Stedlijk museum. You could see a selection of Frank’s short films – rare, some obscure and uninteresting, some interesting at least because they are personal and made by Frank. You could also see a selection of Frank’s photos exhibited in the Stedlijk. And there was also this documentary, that was sold out but I got in anyway, only to sit in the front row and be really unimpressed.
Some weeks later, I’m finding it hard to recall the film altogether. Not because it was bad but because I was so much looking forward to it and it wasn’t special. At all. It was a bit arty, a bit retro, a bit about Frank in the past, his character and him now, walking around with his camera, which was a bit touching. But altogether, the film is a bit of everything about him and nothing in particular, and it left me no feeling and also no strong insight into Frank’s work. It made me feel like I’ve seen this film before, because I certainly have seen this kind of films in the past.
It made me think – to a certain extend – about this documentary about Bern Stern, only this one I liked more, it was more narrative, more insightful, more entertaining, a bit more of everything.
I’d say…don’t bother, read this New York Times article instead, and you’re fine.
4. The Russian Woodpecker (directed by Chad Garcia)
This film is so unusual. It works on so many levels. While investigating a theory about what really happened at Chernobyl, The Russian Woodpecker manages to portray the essence of Ukraine’s communist past and its reflection on the present in such a subtle way, that words might fail me and I might not be able to tell you how excited I was to watch it.
The documentary questions what happened on the 26th of April 1986, when one of the Chernobyl nuclear reactors exploded and caused one of the biggest nuclear disasters known to mankind. This fresh idea is too surreal to be true, too weird and too unlikely. Yet, strangely enough, by the end of the film, it becomes a bit likely, maybe very likely…eventually making you wonder what if it’s true?
The new theory belongs to Fedor Alexandrovich, a rather arty-unusual-character, someone known to be a bit different. He is considered mad by some and brilliant by others, and what he has is a special intuition, he is fearless and speaks out about things that even in 21st century Ukraine can threaten someone’s life. The theory he wants to investigate is that the Chernobyl disaster was intentionally caused, to distract from something else. That something else is the Duga radar, this monstrous surveillance antenna the Russians build during the Cold War era, which ate a lot of money to be made but was not functional.
Fedor initially wanted to walk across Ukraine, naked, with a torch, all the way to this radar – known as the Woodpecker because if the sounds it made, similar to the ones the bird makes – symbolically marking… I’m not sure what. It was his way of making a splash I guess, and director Chad Garcia was to film it and the whole project was to take little time. But what initially was serious but not too much, eventually became a feature film, one that woke up Soviet ghosts and paranoias, and the kind of reactions specific to soviet times, when proving an idea or suspicion right or wrong was not something of anyone’s concern. The opressive power’s only role was to close down uncomfortable subjects, and this investigation becomes one of those subjects.
As the investigation unfolds, things seem to become dangerous, the team receives threats and eventually everybody becomes scared and paranoid, not knowing whether the danger is real or not. The making of the film overlaps with the EuroMaidan uprising in 2014, the cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov gets shot, the whole project is about to fall apart on many occasions. And yet the film is here, it won several prices including one for cinematography, and you should definitely watch it.
5. Grumant: Island of Communism (directed by Ivan S. Tverdovskiy)
Svalbard / Spitsbergen is a very special place with an unique history. It’s close to the North Pole, close enough to be remote, to attract people with curious stories and to have half a year of complete darkness and half of continuous light. The island officially belongs to Norway but every country is free to start a community there, so the Russians did, strategically, mining there and building Pyramid, a small town known to be a communist paradise, now abandoned. (to see more about this curious place and the few people managing the town now, watch this episode of a Dutch series, and skipped through it a bit until Noortje, the presenter, arrives in Pyramid and speaks English). Another town the Russians build is Barentsburg, still populated, with a mine that’s still functional but inefficient and dangerous. Money is not used here and in many ways the place is trapped in the past. Some of the people talk nostalgically about how things used to be, some see it as a dead end, yet seasonal workers come here every year. The film gives an insight into the local traditions, locals’ stories, and a kind of life very few people get to know. I found it interesting perhaps because I’d like to go there with my partner (he went there by himself last summer) and because end of the world-kind of places hold a certain magnetic fascination for me.