Since the Tempo Documentary Festival’s inception thirteen years ago it has continually brought a wide range of fascinating documentaries to Stockholm each March. This year’s films targeted a wide range of tastes from the grimmest societal issues to unusual stories of inspiring people. There were difficult and bold documentaries like Dare Remember (2011) about a woman dealing with the trauma of having been raped twenty-five years ago and there were gentler subjects such as the relationship between a deaf blind man and a short woman in Seung-Jun Yi’s Planet of Snail (2011).
Many of last year’s documentary program graduates from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Stockholm were shown including: Next Door Letter, The Quiet One, The Case Officer and 9 Scenes of Violence. Apart from attracting Scandinavia’s largest documentary producers like WG Film, Atmo, Upfront Films and Mantaray Film, Tempo screened a number of international directors like Emad Burnat, Seung-Jun Yi and Mia Donovan. Special guest appearances by Jennifer Fox and the creative partnership Joan Churchill and Nick Broomfield were heavily attended. Fox gave a talk about ‘crowd funding’ and Churchill and Broomfield about ‘investigative methods’ after their film Sarah Palin – you betcha! was screened.
The unusual and inspiring themes
Alla vilda, (2012) directed by Lisa Belfrage and Marianne Gustavsson, belongs to the category of documentaries that focuses on the unusual. The film presents Birgitta Stenberg, an eighty-year-old writer, who sets out on a trip to meet friends from her youth. Stenberg talks to her friends about how they took drugs and endured knife fights in the Paris night. She surmises they were on a search for a different way of life outside the confinements and conventions of society.
Fredrik Gertten’s Big Boys Gone Bananas!* (2011) is an inspiring story about Gertten’s documentary Bananas!* (a film celebrated for fighting for the right to freedom of speech which was shown in the Swedish parliament.) Big Boys Gone Bananas!* reveals the campaign waged by Dole Food Company to stop the Swedish filmmakers from showing their documentary. In a lawsuit Dole claims the whole story that some workers at a Dole banana farm in Nicaragua died due to poisonous chemicals was based on unreliable and false sources.
Marginalized people and the grim societal issues
5 Broken Cameras (2011), directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, documents the conflict that started when Israel built a settlement in 2005 on a piece of land belonging to the Palestinian village Bil’in. After several years of weekly protests, the villagers were given back the stretch of land, but not without several deaths and injuries. The narrative is structured around the five film cameras that Emad owned, which one by one broke during the protests; each camera tells a story and marks the fragility of life.
Polish director Pavel Kloc’s film Phnom Penh Lullaby (2011) is about two marginalized people: Ilan, an Israeli man and Saran, a Cambodian woman. While Saran battles a booze problem and tries to bring up her children, Ilan scrapes by reading tarrot cards for tourist. This dark and unnerving story displays a bizarre dysfunctional life at the edge of Cambodian society.
In Bombay Beach, Alma Har’el examines a group of people living in an abandoned beach resort in the Californian desert. Har’el follows the group of outsiders without showing herself in the film, and directs the characters and events of the film. At several points Har’el stages scenes where characters dance as a way to express themselves. This blurs the line between fiction and fact, but Har’el manages to capture the odd life at a deserted trailer park, set against an apocalyptic and eerie backdrop that evokes the mood of Harmonie Korine’s films, such as Gummo (1995).
Love Always, Carolyn – A film about Kerouac, Cassady and Me grapples with the issue of how cultural myths are constructed. Apart from an irritating piano leitmotif, this film directed by Malin Korkeasalo and Maria Ramström engaged the audience. Carolyn Cassady speaks about her late husband Neal Cassady who was the basis for a character in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road (1951).
The documentary demythologizes the image Kerouac created in On the Road by telling Carolyn’s angle about the road trip that On the Road was constructed on. Kerouac and Neil are instead seen from Carolyn perspective. (While they were off gallivanting around and fueled on drugs, she brought up Neal’s three children.) As the story unfolds, it becomes evident that the success of Kerouac’s novel had devastating consequences on Carolyn and her family. Her children are eager to live off and commercialize their father’s mythologized image. Although the film worked as a missing piece of the puzzle, it lacked depth at time and would have benefited from exploring the issues more critically.
The line between fact and fiction
Documentaries have been Truth’s buddy ever since the first film camera was made, or so it seems at first glance. The photographic image has a close or absolute resemblance to what it depicts. This gives the documentary an authoritative claim on truth, but many films do not actually show us facts. Just as a painting of a shoe is not a real shoe, a documentary is not the same thing as what it depicts.
Many film critics would say that the quality that distinguishes a documentary from other forms of film is that it’s based on real events and the end result is a factual record of those events. Most documentaries at Tempo claimed to be credible productions of reality, but many were dramatized and fused with fictional elements. Does this indicate the borders between fact and fiction have completely collapsed? And if so does it really matter?
With these questions in mind it’s not surprising that the documentary that gripped most people and that won Tempo’s International Stefan Jarl Award was 5 Broken Cameras. This documentary doesn’t have any slick filmic effects. Instead it’s a raw and powerful personal and political document and instrument. There are no post-production effects, and the events which Burnat filmed were not directed or edited to make an entertaining and absorbing cinematic experience. The point of the film, just like activism, is to raise awareness, to influence political policies and make the life of Palestinians and Israelis better.
In other words, a documentary runs the risk of distancing the viewer when using gimmicky cinematic techniques and rupturing the line between fact and fiction. Unlike Bombay Beach, which uses stylized cinematography to blur fact and fiction, Emad’s crappy raw camera footage brings the viewer closer to reality, and engages the viewer with the issues.
Truth or dare? and the problems with editing the truth
To make a documentary requires a lot of courage. The director has to feel convinced that the story needs to be told. Inside Lara Roxx, 5 Broken Cameras and Dare Remember are great examples of documentaries that required a lot of guts to make. In Dare Remember, Ewa Cederstam deals with being raped twenty-five years ago. She speaks to her husband, mother, friends, and to everyone watching the film. Burnat continued filming 5 Broken Cameras even though his life was at a risk, and one of his closest friends died at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Inside Lara Roxx, a bold picture which deconstructs the myths surrounding HIV, could never have been made if Lara Roxx had not been willing and strong enough to tell her story.
Dare Remember is told through symbolism. At the start snow covers the landscape. However, as Eva begins to talk with her mother, husband and a friend about her feelings of inadequacy and fear, the seasons shift. This detail adds meaning to the story. Unfortunately it also makes the film nonlinear and with the events out of order the story becomes muddled. For example, a scene between Eva and her husband is cut up and half of it is placed in the beginning, and the other half at the end. The same goes for the documentary Colombianos (2011), directed by Tora Mårtens, about two brothers who leave Sweden for Colombia to find a new way of living. The story is gripping and well constructed, but there is a sense that Mårtens may have dared the characters to do things. Instead of filming scenes as they naturally developed, the events seem to have been shaped by Mårtens’s influential directing.
Since documentaries—unlike other aesthetics forms of expression—claim to be authentic, calling films like Bombay Beach documentaries is misleading.
Documentaries may reinstate and confirm cultural myths, racial stereotypes and ideologies. Each narrative shapes our perception of an issue, a social group or an individual’s life. If a documentary cannot make a claim on truth, can it still be thought of as one? I think it shouldn’t, and that a lot of documentaries should be relabeled as fiction films.
Salomon Rogberg is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.