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Curating documentaries can be hard because the genre encompasses so many forms. It can be a political essay typified by Michael Moore, an archive-heavy historical, sporting or musical epic, such as the two recent Whitney Houston documentaries, a challenging dramatised documentary playing with the whole notion of truth, or just a cracking story told beautifully. Some documentaries, such as Chloé Zhao’s recent release The Rider, even pretend not to be documentaries at all. It’s a weird form to programme at a film festival, and it can leave curators open to criticism of being knowingly obtuse or lazily populist.
The documentary programmers of the forthcoming London film festival (10-21 October) have done an impressive job of walking this line. Their selection this year offers a chance for audiences to sample the rude health of documentary, with a mix of recent festival gems and a few world premieres.
My top recommendations are for two very different films. Evelyn is directed by Oscar-winner Orlando von Einsiedel (The White Helmets, Virunga), but takes him far from his usual conflict documentary territory. This time he embarks on a series of epic walks with family and friends as they seek to come to terms with the suicide of Von Einsiedel’s younger brother, Evelyn. The family have spent a decade not dealing with his death, repressing opportunities to think, let alone speak out loud, about him. It’s a film full of pain and the difficulty of showing emotion to family, and it’s all very British – partly for this inability to overcome a stiff upper lip when faced with grief, but also for its gorgeous landscapes. There are some barely believable coincidences in the film, which suggest that making yourself vulnerable somehow attracts similarly vulnerable people to you. It’s a lesson in the catharsis of letting yourself cry.
Vulnerability is also a theme in Dream Away, a brilliantly bizarre look at the desolate Egyptian holiday resort Sharm El Sheikh. The political uncertainty of recent years have taken it off the package holiday map, but the staff of its sprawling hotels remain, albeit on reduced wages. Every day they go through the motions of their morning dance, preparing the massage tables, cleaning empty rooms, serenading the ballroom and DJing round the swimming pool. All to barely any guests.
Directors Marouan Omara and Johanna Domke go beyond simply observing the emptiness, and document the fantasies of a bored group of staff who spend their days dreaming of an alternative life. Omara and Domke seamlessly move from real life to magical realist semi-scripted sequences, in which their characters are urged by a monkey in a truck to dramatically reveal their feelings. Why their interrogator should be a monkey is never revealed, but it works perfectly. There’s a universal message here about the unseen hopes of workers in precarious jobs and a sharp indictment of how western tourism moulds foreign resort workers before abandoning them.
Putin’s Witnesses is a more straightforward watch. Renowned Russian film-maker Vitaly Mansky revisits material he shot for Vladimir Putin’s presidential election campaign in 1999-2000 including intimate footage of not only Putin but also his inner circle and, most remarkably, Boris Yeltsin and family.
We see the birth of an iconoclastic presidential figure in a country struggling to comprehend what it means to live in a media-led democracy. Putin’s adoring but impotent “witnesses” aren’t just the people enabling him from his campaign room; they are also those like Mansky, who directed their cameras at him and allowed him to project the image of the strong man to the nation. Underestimated by everyone, not least the tragic figure of Yeltsin, Putin never fully reveals himself, even when he claims to be talking truthfully to Mansky. Putin won’t like this film, but it won’t touch him – it’s obvious that even back in 1999, he was unstoppable, and that leaves a chilling feeling.
Also resurrecting forgotten history, but with very different material, is the documentary short Lasting Marks, in which Charlie Lyne presents a key 1980s court case that criminalised voluntary sadomasochism. It’s a must-watch, both for its remembrance of recent homophobia and its unique aspect ratio. The entire film is in the rectangular format of a sheet of A4 paper, matching the correct dimensions of the court documents through which the story is told. Perfect for online viewing, it will be a provocative and claustrophobic challenge for cinema audiences at the festival.
Some of the films cited here are intentionally pushing boundaries, but special mention should also go to Young and Alive, a French film about discontented youth in Paris. It’s a simple but brilliant observational documentary that leaves us to form our own conclusions. Shot entirely at night, it depicts an angry generation apparently on the brink of revolution. Whether dancing or protesting, they’re politically engaged and frustrated. It doesn’t need any tricksy devices just to show us what’s going on. Innovation in documentary-making may be thriving, but sometimes the oldest methods are the best.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: London film festival 2018: documentaries to watch out for | Film