Look at that, you Won't See that again!

By Elke de Wit

life-is-a-long-lasting-day-svenja-kluh.jpgLife Is a Long Lasting Day, 2007

The Trieste Film Festival, presented by Alpe Adria Cinema, is in its 19th year. Watching the documentaries in competition was a unique opportunity to become acquainted with the issues that preoccupy Central and Eastern Europe. Many regions in this old eastern bloc are using the opportunity of greater media freedom (or the possibility of finishing their films in safer havens as in the case of a Belarussian documentary) to explore painful histories as well as current difficult social and political circumstances.

Gatavs (Ready and Done, Inese Kļava, Lettonia/Latvia 2006) and Problemat S Komarite I Drugi Istorii (The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories, Andrej Paounov, Bulgaria 2007) were the only light-hearted offerings among 23 documentaries. Gatavs was filmed almost entirely in and around a hospital lift in Riga, which has been in operation for fifty years. The lift is operated adroitly by the ageing operator Sigurds, who steps in and out to accommodate passengers and trolleys and then swiftly slides open and shut the gates. Even when the new lift is finally operational, hospital employees continue to wait at the doors of the old lift. Sigurds does not seem to be enjoying the state of the art new lift either. He looks bored as his workload is reduced to the simple pressing of buttons. It is the end of an era for the Riga hospital and one fears for Sigurds too. Problemat S Komarite I Drugi Istorii uses the central theme of the mosquito plague in Belene, a small town close to the Danube in the north of Bulgaria, to give us an insight into its community and its history. We see the nuclear power station (still incomplete after 15 years), a former mayor who was a member of the secret police and superintendent of the local Communist labour camp, and a labour camp that is part-prison, part-breeding rooms for pigeons and other animals. These scenes are starkly contrasted by glimpses into the entirely different world of rich tourists taking cruises on the Danube that elicit comments from the locals such as “What do they do on those boats? I don’t understand it.”

Plošča (Kalinovski Square, Jurij Chaščevatskij, Estonia 2007) seemed as if it might be a comedy. The director chose to do his own voice over using a sarcastic tone throughout. This tone distracted from the seriousness of the political events and dictated to the audience how they were to interpret the events during the Belarussian presidential election of March 2006. The horrors of the autocratic Lukashenko regime unfolded; such as the mass imprisonment (in the freezing open air!) of demonstrators, the confiscation of their food and the lack of any amenities (other than free radios that only broadcast Lukashenko propaganda) in the villages. As the political and social injustices mounted it became easier to absorb them through the humour of the voiceover. An interview with villagers who felt forgotten and neglected brought to light, that despite everything, they still remained loyal to Lukashenko, vowing to vote for him in the next election! The message was loud and clear: control the media and supply the population with a ‘chatterbox’ (as the Belarussians call the free radios that never break down), then you will stay in power. Also noteworthy is that most of the filming in large public spaces was clandestine and many people who helped on the documentary could not be named.

mosquito-problem-and-other-stories-andrej-paounov.jpgThe Mosquito Problem and Other Stories, 2007

A prize should have been given to the Czech documentary Marcela (Helena Třeštíková, 2007) for the sheer tenacity of following a subject (a woman called Marcela) for 20 years. Marcela’s downward spiral is unstoppable. Every now and then we see a glimpse of the person she could have been if a combination of circumstance, bad luck and inactivity had not conspired to ensure that she would never be happy. When her daughter is killed on a railway track on her way home I had to remind myself that this was not fiction. By contrast Das Leben ist ein langer Tag (Life is a Long lasting Day, Svenja Klüh, Germany 2007) focussed on the domestic situation of a small Polish family unit in a tiny flat over a few months. The filming is so intimate that the dialogue and action appeared to have been scripted. For example in one scene the boyfriend makes a phone call to his boss and lies about why he has not been able to come to work. This dialogue is intercut with shots of the girlfriend’s feet pacing up and down the living room. There are also scenes of them asleep and in one case the woman is asleep whilst her father sits at the table. This documentary seemed on the threshold of being a docudrama and yet the subject matter was far from dramatic. The jury chose Das Leben ist ein langer Tag to share the first prize with Kalinovski Square “(…)for the two entirely different ways in which they portray reality.”

Catapulting the documentary into a completely different dimension was the entry Naplófilm, 12 Voltam 56-Ban (Diary Film, I was 12 in 56, Boglárka Edvy, Sándor Silló, Hungary 2006). The format marries scrapbook with collage and animated cut-out photographs of people with archive footage of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. The events are narrated from the diary of a twelve-year-old boy. The everyday activities of the child are amalgamated with the information he is able to gather about the political events from the adults around him. Similar in approach was Gyveno Senelis Ir Bobute (Grandpa and Grandma, Giedrė Beinoriūtė, Lithuania 2007), the story of a Lithuanian family, exiled to Siberia, narrated by a little girl in the style of a fairy tale. Using children to relate a story has the effect of softening the blow of imparting painful information.

A documentary that had the audience weeping in their seats was Otroci s Petrička (The Children from Petriček Hill, Miran Zupanič, Slovenia 2007). It is an excellent demonstration that the simple ‘talking heads’ format can still be the most effective way of telling a story if probing questions are asked and the subject matter is interesting. The documentary follows the accounts of several people in their 60s and 70s, who as children were taken to a camp by Slovenian Partisans in order to be re-educated and re-named. Their parents were all killed without trial and had all been handed back to the Partisans according to a secret codicil to the Yalta Conference Agreement of 1945 whereby prisoners-of-war were returned to their countries, even if they did not want to go. As these adults had mostly been fighting on the side of the Germans and were often of Germanic origin, they were subjected to horrific treatment prior to being killed, although historically these families had lived in Slovenia for over 600 years. Although the children were saved from death, many died in the Petri?ek camp that they were moved to and they were treated abysmally by their captors. It is shocking to watch people this old recounting the torture they experienced as children as if it were yesterday and conveying their experiences in such detail that the events themselves are as real as if you were watching a dramatised version! Equally horrific is it to realise that these events were post WWII, between 1945 and 1958, that over 13,000 Slovenians were killed in this way and that there is no demarcation of where they are buried.

mosquito-problem-and-other-stories-andrej-paounov-2.jpgThe Mosquito Problem and Other Stories, 2007

The personal story of the havoc the post-WWII period wreaked on one family is described in Söhne (Sons, Volker Koepp, Germany 2007). We go on a journey with four brothers born between 1938 and 1944, who were parted by circumstance. Their mother left two children behind in West Prussia as she fled from the Red Army. The subsequent search to reunite her family took fourteen years and she ended up with an extra child, whom she mistakenly took home from Poland thinking that he was her youngest son. Each of these men recounts his experience of these events and all five return to the village in former West Prussia, now Poland, where the whole story began. Most of the monologues are answers to the interviewer and yet the private homes of each brother convey much about how they have fared with their destiny.

Večnyj (Everlasting, Irina Vasileva, Russia 2007) is a surprising portrait of Vjačeslav Šaraevskij, a former prosecutor and murderer, now on death row. He has spent his solitary time in jail getting to know himself and cultivating an inner silence. From this silence he has been able to write poetry (“I never wrote poetry before, maybe I am picking it up from someone who occupied this cell before me.”) and he has come to terms with his past life. He seems at peace with his fate and punctuates his monologue with poignant observations such as: “This is how convicts think of those with a death sentence: the deathward is a place where Satan is absent. Hell is a place where God is absent.” Most of the documentary depicted Vjačeslav Šaraevskij talking to the camera, interspersed with bleak footage of the prison and its surroundings, yet this was a man who required no pity, a man whose spirituality was profound and moving.

sons-volker-koepp.jpgSons, 1944

Further documentaries that deserve a mention are Esma (Alen Drljević, Bosnia Herzegovina 2007), San Sanyč (George Agadjanean, Republic of Moldova, 2006) and Das Geheimnis von Deva (The Secret of Deva, Anca Miruna Lazarescu, Germany/Romania 2006). Both Esma and San Sanyč focus on the central character that the films are named after to tell the story. Both documentaries manage to give us an insight into the current state of the countries the protagonists live in, albeit focussing on two very different aspects. Esma is well educated and lives in the city with her two daughters. Her husband was kidnapped and disappeared in 1995 whilst trying to negotiate between the Bosnian Serb army and the army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. His body has never been found. Esma’s everyday life is interspersed with expeditions to the field where he was last seen, where a digger keeps turning the soil over, trying to find the body of her husband. As the field becomes increasingly scarred, bodies are repeatedly uncovered, though none of them are
Colonel Avdo Palić, Esme’s husband. The field becomes the symbol for how many secrets such a recent war still holds.

San Sanyč tells the story of a Moldovan boy growing up in dire social circumstances. His mother died of alcoholism, his father is an alcoholic who stays in bed all day long and his sister seems to prefer bed to school too. It is only thanks to an aunt that the bills are paid and they get some food. None of this seems to bother San Sanyč, who spends his days mostly playing truant and hustling. Thus he is never short of food, cigarettes, or good humour. The camera follows him on his exploits, although one suspects that he played up to it quite a bit, particularly since no-one else in his life pays him any attention whatsoever.

kalinovski-square-jurij-chascevatskij.jpgKalinovski Square, 2007

Last of all The Secret of Deva focuses on the famous gymnastics school in Romania where Nadia Comaneci was trained. Audiences seem to love a tale involving the extreme torture of small children (in this case the two main characters are little girls of eight and nine) as this documentary was awarded the first prize by the audience. These child gymnasts enjoy two hours of schooling a day, whilst the rest of the day is dedicated to training, a two hour lunch and rest break and a one hour medical check in the evening. Their working day finally ends at 9.30pm after that they get one hour of relaxation before the lights are turned off. The children’s tutors seemed the embodiment of cruel, humourless and vindictive autocrats, determined to gain vengeance on talented children for their own failed aspirations. In one scene where a child finally breaks down and cries, she is comforted by the tutor (although this comforting seems entirely cold and fake) and one is left with the feeling that an embrace would not have happened at all if the camera had not been there. Certainly a documentary that will make you far more reflective when you next watch very young gymnasts in international competitions!

Alpe Adria’s complex array of documentaries was both stimulating and illuminating. It’s a selection which one feels would be ideally suited for London audiences as more and more people from these regions are settling in the capital.

Elke de Wit is an actor and writer. She lives in London.