By Axel Andersson.
It was still cold when Stockholm’s documentary film festival Tempo opened in early March. The miserable rain underlined the city’s forlorn dampness for both old and new inhabitants. Roma hounded out of their central European homes by prejudice and persecution to beg through an unforgiving Nordic winter were in the latter category. Charitable souls have set up a magazine that they sell so that they no longer have to ask for money. They try to make me buy it as I make my way to the festival through a central area of Stockholm, Slussen. The place is in disrepair as part of local politicians’ attempts to build even more motorways through an urban environment from the seventeenth century. Of course I am happy that they have this option, I mean the Roma, but I am equally disturbed by the implicit suggestion that the misery of the Roma is more tolerable if they are included in the general capitalist exploitation of buying and selling.
Tempo has, as always, a political and activist edge, with the theme of 2015 being “the city.” The opening film, Bikes vs Cars, by Fredrik Gertten proves to be on the most anodyne end of the misery scale. This everlasting meditation on how bikes are good and cars bad takes us to cities like Los Angeles and Copenhagen, but primarily to São Paulo, to explore the conflicts between two modes of transportation that are made to embody diametrically opposed visions of human life. It artlessly rumbles on with its shots of cars and shots of bikes and interviews mainly with bikers ready to explain the righteousness of their cause. In São Paulo they evidently put their life on the line for the love of the bike in a rather different way than the one entailed by our collective climate suicide by car. Gertten follows their vigils, but frustratingly does not ask what need there is for their almost Christ-like sacrifices. Either we dismiss them as partly deluded, or we are somehow forever indebted to them for fighting a battle on our behalf. But the documentary lacks the force to even lead to this question of sacrifice and debt, instead leaving the spectator to meekly wonder why the film seems so uninterested in buses, trams and trains: so practical around homicidal drivers and hostile weather.
Bikes vs Cars succeeds in being exactly as banal as its title, but what is worse is that it turns down its own focus from the activist question at hand, the fight for more bike lanes, by its interest in the gore and misery of the bikers’ accidents. This is unfortunately a worrying omen for a festival that includes documentaries on the plight of political and economic refugees to Europe, the war in Syria, Russian street urchins, Russian homosexuals, genocides, transsexual Muslims, drug addict mothers, self harming teenagers, victims of economic austerity, rape, war and so on. A retrospective on Susan Sontag is thrown in on the end with no evident connection to the previous litany. And outside the rain is falling on the Roma with their damp magazines, as, though commercially “integrated” in the urban landscape, they shuffle along the decrepit infrastructure. All under the gaze of unimpressed early modern stone buildings.
It is hard to know what the political documentary wants, which makes it easy at hand to suspect that it is failing in its political task. Some, like Iva Radivojevic’s Evaporating Borders about refugees on Cyprus manage to take interesting aesthetic decisions evoking a poetical cinematic landscape, but are too tentative to be captivating. Others, like Mikael Wiström’s Storm in the Andes about the nightmarish recent Peruvian history, use a conventional documentary language but make a claim for themselves by the force of the story. A great many of the documentaries, like Marcus Lenz’s Ruina, about a Venezuelan high-rise squat, combine an uninteresting Diane Arbus-fascination with the quirky with a drearily predictable documentary technique. Lenz’s film was curiously received by some in the audience in the following Q&A as an expression of utopian, perchance socialist, hope. This seems more like hoping that hope can exist. Ruina, and the ruinous reality it portrays, is bleaker than this. The film makes it evident that the additions of the squatters and their makeshift sky bound homesteads, has made the building structurally unsound through extra weight. Despite the impressive ability of these downtrodden to make something out of nothing, this is another social experiment with feet of clay.
One striking exception to this tale of woe was Concrete Stories, Lorenz Findeisen’s evocative, smart and, surprisingly enough, funny documentary about the post war European fascination with prefabricated concrete slabs as a panacea to all housing problems. It is telling that the film is liberated from both ponderousness and the borderline faux-poetical expression plaguing the documentaries with a somewhat higher level of ambition than Bikes vs Cars. Despite the drab ugliness of all this concrete, the true “concrete stories” are that in a Europe of not so long ago some people actually had ideas of how to do something that could have worked. They might have been misguided, but how sweet that sense of actually believing enough in the future to take some risks! Maybe we are not doomed to be the victims of circumstances, though, paradoxically, that is perhaps what many people left to inhabit the soulless European plattenbau were forced to be.
Concrete Stories thus goes against a documentary trend in which misery reflected for the purpose of political activism gives rise to a highly apolitical torpor. For is it not enough to watch this horror of the world to divest oneself of the need for action? If so, then the naturalism of this contemporary documentary has no other advantage over the real urban cityscape than its mock-hardy-explorer ability to show us environments outside of the ordinary. What do these documentaries want of me? What kind of politics is being peddled by these men and women with cameras insisting on their particular slice of human story? And what kind of documentary infrastructure is supporting this and with what aims? The suspicion spreads that many documentary filmmakers are becoming, perhaps are led to become, self-important anthropologists so concerned with recording that they miss the full picture. And yes, they are probably well meaning and equally affected by the difficulties to hope, but where is their analysis of their complicity?
The winner in the international section (Stefan Jarl International Documentary Award) was Ioanis Nuguet’s poignant and, this time properly, poetic Spartacus and Cassandra about two Roma siblings in France. It is evidently a film with high ambitions and qualities, and not at all a surprising winner. It is true that Nuguet managed to make a cinematically dazzling work that is hard to forget for the skill through which the form of the film becomes intertwined with the content. There is also evident sympathy and warmth in the portrayal of 13-year-old Spartacus and his 10-year-old sister Cassandra. But, infuriatingly, Nuguet decides to also include shots of an alcoholic father and, worse, a mentally unstable mother. Their participation in the documentary, voluntary or not, is an evident abuse. The artfulness of the documentary retained me in the seat though every ethical impulse told me to leave. What reason could there be to show less than flattering sides of a human being reduced to a minority position by poverty and disease? And that I staid left me with a foul taste of also having been cowed into passivity.
Tempo ended up saying little about either the plight of the world or the city, but much more about the state of the politically engaged documentary. And it was a disconcerting story overall that the audiences received after purchasing their tickets. Little release and little inspiration, and in the few cases that existed, like in Spartacus and Cassandra, it often came at the prize of the unethical exploitation of the documentary subject. That is, evidently, a highly problematic transaction, and far from one that can claim to give access to any representation of the wider complexity of our reality. How much easier to have simple problems and straightforward choices: good bikes or bad cars? I take the metro home.
Axel Andersson is a writer, critic and historian from Sweden. His work often deals with the intersection of cultural history and media theory. He is the author of A Hero for the Atomic Age: Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition (2010).