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Three from the Open City Documentary Festival 2019

Letter to Theo

Letter to Theo

By Ali Moosavi.

Three interesting documentaries screened at the Open City Documentary Festival in London, September 4-10, 2019.

Sergei Loznitsa, the distinguished Ukrainian director known for films such as A Gentle Creature (2017) and Donbass (2018), in fact started off as a documentary filmmaker. In his return, Trial (2018), he has put together archival footage about a show trial in 1930 USSR during Stalin’s reign. Though he is credited as its director, his job has been to select the material and the order in which the footage is put together.

The trial shown in the film can be seen as a blueprint for all such trials since. Charges are fabricated against certain people by a dictatorship, a show trial is arranged, often with cameras present, and the judge reads out the verdicts which have been handed to him before the trial. The trial here concerns members of the Union of Engineering Organizations, also known as the Industrial Party. The accused are all distinguished scientists. The film is presented under chapters such as The Charges, The Defendant’s Pleas, Prosecution Statement, Defendant’s Replies, The Verdict. The trial takes place in a huge hall with giant chandeliers, used as the court room. It is packed to the rafters with multi cameras recording the event, the film quality surprisingly sharp and crisp.

Trial The charges, as read out by the presiding judge were industrial espionage, collaborating with the French Government and the “white emigres circles” to overthrow the Soviet power. All the defendants plead guilty to all charges. They are all repentant and give minute details of how they were duped by foreign agents to act against their country. Loznista regularly intercuts the scenes of the trial with massive demonstrations in the streets with people holding up banners with slogans such as “Long Live Bolsheviks”, “Death to Saboteurs”, “More Planes, Tanks and Equipment for the Red Army”, “Death to Anti-Revolutionaries” and “Demand Execution by Shooting”.

Some of the questions asked by the prosecutor are amusing, such as “why you accepted the bribe in gold coins and not in Soviet currency?!”, adding that the Tsar minted gold coins. These bribes, the prosecutor declares, were provided by “former Russian capitalists and foreign bourgeoisie” who aimed to restore capitalism.

When announcing the verdicts, the judge adds that these are final and not subject to appeal. The sentences range from ten years solitary confinement, with deprivation of rights and confiscation of all property to death by firing squad. There is a huge cheer among the packed court when these are announced. Loznista, however, has provided a sting in the tale at the end.

Another film showing at Open City Documentary Festival is Belonging (Burak Cevik, 2019), a fascinating, bold and unique film. It presents a new and original form for a documentary. The film is divided into two parts: in the first, a man narrates the cold-blooded murder of his girlfriend’s parents, though only the mother is killed. We hear the narration and see static images relating to the locations of the story that he is narrating. It is a very effective device, and we get hooked on the story like a Raymond Chandler page-turner. This murder actually happened in 2003. What makes it even more fascinating is that the victim was Cevik’s grandmother and the two main perpetrators of the crime were his aunt and her lover.

BelongingIn the second part, we get to see the two main protagonists. We see how they met, how they planned the murders and what actually happened. This section is more conventional in terms of cinema but is equally fascinating in its own way. It is mainly a series of conversations between these two, not unlike Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (2014). We see the roots of the crime which actually starts off as an innocent boy-meets-girl story, and then slowly but surely a psychological bond is created between these two young people which prompts them to commit acts which their outer appearance and behaviour would not reveal.

Theodoros Angelopoulos was not just one of Greece’s greatest filmmakers but also among the first rank of directors in the world of cinema. Letter to Theo (2019) is a heartfelt letter, expressed as a visual poem from writer director Elodie Lélu to Angelopoulos. In it she recounts going to the port of Piraeus in Greece in December 2011 to work with Angelopoulos on The Other Sea, a film about smuggling of immigrants into Greece. Unfortunately, Angelopoulos never got to complete that film. He was fatally hit by a motorcycle. This was during the economic crisis in Greece and, due to cost cutting, the ambulances had broken down and by the time one was found, it was too late.

Lélu recounts her observations of this filmmaker and the conversations they had together. She recalls that for extras in the film Angelopoulos wanted real immigrants, “because their expressions, their clothes and their silhouettes told your story”. Lélu goes to see the Office for Asylum and Refugees in Piraeus at crack of dawn and there is already a long line of asylum seekers outside. They wait to get their number which would be for an interview in future, at which they hope to tell their stories. Lélu recounts Angelopoulos saying that each of these stories has a different beginning but the endings are the same for all.

Throughout this documentary we see clips of some of Angelopoulos’s films with their dreamlike imagery accompanied by Eleni Karaindrou’s haunting music. One of the clips is from The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991), which was a film about a group of refugees in a border town. Lélu remembers Angelopoulos commenting that the most important borders are those in our heads, borders on love and knowledge.

Angelopoulos had divulged to Lélu that he used to provide fake scripts to the film censor dept. in Greece to get filming permit. However, once the filming started, he used to shoot something completely different, which sometimes baffled the actors! Angelopoulos was politically very active, and Lélu recalls going with him to place red carnations on a memorial for the victims of the Greek students uprising of 1973, at which he was present. An Angelopoulos saying which Lélu remembers was that dictatorships do not fall from the sky but are formed after a long process.

Lélu visits a hotel in a poor district which has been turned into a shelter for 400 refugees. The hotel manager believes that instead of housing refugees in camps in middle of nowhere, they should be placed in buildings like this in middle of the town so that both the refugees and the local people can see each other all the time therefore normalizing the situation. He adds that poor districts often house both the torturers and their victims. The manager is rightly proud of his help to the refugee problem and declares that our plurality is our wealth.

Letter to Theo is a heartfelt, touching and enlightening visual and oral tribute to a past master. It paints a portrait of Angelopoulos as a man with immense human values, very aware socially and politically and tremendous dedication to his art. It should be of interest to a much wider audience than cinephiles and admirers of the cinema of Angelopoulos.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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