Truth 24 Times a Second: DocLisboa 2007

By James Norton

these-girls-tahani-rached.jpgThese Girls, 2007

Documentary has rarely had as high a profile as it does at the present moment. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth has just won him the Nobel Peace Prize. There is an increasing incursion of documentary and its techniques into fiction cinema, such as mixtures of drama and documentary in films about Iraq, as well as the popular genre of fake documentary, and the increasing distribution of documentaries on the big screen which, given the psychic power of the cinema experience, is bound to breed a kind of creative ontological confusion. This is entailed perhaps in the decadence of the Hollywood formula; there is a crisis in narrative and fiction itself, although there is also a danger that, in the refreshing of the fiction film using documentary techniques, they are borrowing a moral authority from documentary that may not always be deserved. It may be ironic that documentary is privileged in this way, particularly in the UK, where there have been numerous cases of scandalous, but also exaggerated, manipulations of the ‘truth’ in the editing and promotion of television documentaries.

With all this in mind, and with its own 5th edition last October, the Lisbon International Documentary Festival has established itself as one of the leading events of its kind worldwide. The 150 films in the programme included the past year’s high hitters such as Sicko, (balanced by Manufacturing Dissent), When the Levees Broke, Rithy Panh’s multiple award-winning testimony of the lives of Cambodian prostitutes, Paper Cannot Wrap up Embers as well as new works from Fred Wiseman and Nicolas Philibert.

The festival also scored a coup with Andrei Nekrasov’s Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case, a brilliant and terrifying exposé of the rampant corruption of the Russian secret services for whom Litvinenko worked. Nekrasov began the film years before Litvinenko’s sensational murder and befriended the former agent during his exile in London. Also in Lisbon was Litvinenko’s widow Marina, her presence at the film’s press conference offering a dignified icon of grief and anger as she spoke of her loss, her campaign for justice, and the bravery of their young son – perhaps the film should be titled La Maman et le Putin in France. By coincidence Putin himself was in Lisbon too, apparently the closest he and Marina Litvinenko have ever been, for an EU summit; being honoured by the government there and opening an exhibition of Hermitage treasures.

Nekrasov stressed that there was a difference between honouring Putin and having to deal with him, and that the escalating tyranny in Russia was being facilitated by Western greed for energy and defence contracts. The film airs Litvinenko’s allegations that Putin was involved in embezzling aid money while a political boss in St. Petersburg and that the FSB security service was behind the Moscow apartment block bombings. Crucially, with remarkable interviews and archive footage, it documents the growing influence of the FSB in the new Russia. It was when Litvinenko and other agents were asked to become involved in extortion, selling state secrets and assassinations that they rebelled and went public. The agent’s subsequent murder was, said Nekrasov, the defining image of Putin’s true nature.

Putin’s power is built on the glorified gang war in Chechnya, subject of Masha Novikova’s Three Comrades, winner of one of the festival’s top prizes. The film documents the evolving horror of Chechnya, first by using archive film from Soviet times, then with footage shot by a local news cameraman including home movies of his friends, as it becomes tragically clear that two of these three friends were murdered by Russian forces and a third forced into exile after being framed for terrorism. The film was also an exemplar of the tendency (see Capturing the Friedmans) to make powerful films out of our increasingly mediated lives.

Such documented stories feed into the more profound theme of memory, and there was a beautiful and disturbing film from Armenia, 1937, by Nora Martirosyan, the first part of which showed a young family of today in the idyllic nest of their home, while in the second part an old woman recounted the story of the arrest of her parents in the Stalinist terror. Initially her narrative was told over the same images of the happy family today, before giving way to archive film of Soviet demonstrations and show trials, giving a powerful sense of the arbitrary destruction of blameless lives.

three-comrades-mascha-novikova.jpgThree Comrades, 2007 

Whilst applauding the Litvinenko film, festival director Sérgio Tréfaut described it as ‘journalism’, as distinct from the uniquely filmic poetry of many of the other films present, singling out Sandrine Bonnaire’s directorial debut Her Name is Sabine – an honest and moving portrait of her autistic sister, the harrowing clinical treatment she has endured and the deterioration of her condition, witnessed in home movies – and Shimon Dotan’s immensely potent Hot House. This film, made with extraordinary access to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails reveals the highly organised political structures developed by these ”security prisoners” and the mechanisms by which they participate in the Palestinian government. It also portrays a chilling defiance, notably that of a young former newsreader’s joy at learning that the suicide bombing she had organised had killed more children that she had thought. The Israeli Dotan’s film has caused controversy in his homeland for both demonising and glorifying his subjects, but the film’s lucid power lies in that it does neither.

The festival’s most obvious masterpiece was the Brazilian Santiago, by Joao Salles, brother of movie director Walter, which combined self-reflexivity with an examination of documentary itself. The film opens as if Antonioni were filming Proust or Borges, or adapting Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, with three photos of an elegant but empty modernist villa, the camera tracking in ravishing high contrast black & white through the deserted house which once belonged to the director’s wealthy family. Salles explains that in 1992 he started to make a film about the house with a long interview with the family’s retired butler Santiago, but abandoned it. A bouquet of oneiric images from these rushes follows: a toy train in the dark, a boxer training, leaves falling in a pool. After Santiago’s death, Salles decided to return to the footage, cutting and commenting.

Santiago is an extraordinary character, obsessively refined and erudite, who spent his free time typing out thousands of pages copied from books on the historic noble families of all world cultures. The rushes are played out, the director makes Santiago repeat phrases and actions. It becomes increasingly clear that he is building up to a confession of what he sees as his cursed sexuality but is blocked by the director’s own unwillingness to observe; the relationship was not that of documentarist and subject but still of master and servant. There are two moments of sublime cinematic grace in the film: when Santiago’s love of musicals is explained by a magical extract from The Band Wagon, and a coda revealing that the film is an emotional and stylistic homage to Ozu’s Tokyo Story: “isn’t life disappointing?”

The top international prize was deservedly awarded to Tahani Rached’s These Girls, about a gang of delinquent girls living on the streets of Cairo, which combined remarkable access, trust and sympathy with surprising subjects who bear their tough and often abusive lives with combative good humour. Also of interest was Piccolo Lavoro, a witty exercise in ‘hypercontextuality’ which, for a DVD extra for Pedro Costa’s Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie, shows Costa and his editor cutting footage of Straub and Huillet cutting Sicilia!

There was also a historical programme of Film Diaries and Self Portraits ranging from the classic surrealist and experimental films of Man Ray, Stan Brakhage and others through the New York underground to films by Matthias Müller, Chantal Akerman, Derek Jarman, Godard and others, with the emphasis not merely on their self-reflexivity but on the formal originality that the individual psyche can inspire, as well as a retrospective of the abrasive punk classics of Lech Kowalski, who attended the festival and gave a masterclass.

Highlight of a major strand of recent Scandinavian documentaries was a masterclass by Norwegian director Margreth Olin. She brought her House of Angels, an intimate account of the inhabitants of a home for the elderly, and the remarkable 30 minute My Body in which, filming herself naked in black and white, she proceeded to feature each part of her body and tell different stories about her intimate life, full of playful visual invention and using the body as a mirror. Finally she has a daughter and so the stories proliferate. It also includes a flattering paean to the male, claiming that men like women’s bodies more than women do.

Olin has also made a film about delinquent immigrant children and campaigned in parliament and on the web for their rights. “In documentary, ethics are everything”, she declared, an opinion that should be displayed over the entrance of every British broadcasting body. Having obtained finance from all the major Scandinavian film funds to make a film about a junkie she had befriended, she decided, after having spent most of the money shooting it, that all the publicity would harm the girl. “Pia has paid the price for many other people’s bad decisions. She wasn’t going to pay the price for this film.” And the financiers all said it was the right decision and they wished more people would do the same, demonstrating the good fortune of those who work in a culture of great integrity and generous public funding. Unsurprisingly, Olin had salutary comments to make on observational documentaries – “life is enough in itself, you have to be very patient and maybe you’ll get glimpses of it” – and defending the local interest of her work: “we all have the same heart chambers. The only truth is the emotional one, the shared experience.”


James Norton is a writer and associate producer for television arts documentaries. See also Speculations: Andrei's Childhood and Focus: The Sins of the Father