Thessaloniki Documentary Festival 2012 in Brief, Part Two: Portraits

Earlier this week, Indiewire posted my articles about the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival here and here, while I included some expanded thoughts on the Greek selections here. TDF screens more than just Greek films, so many in fact that I’m splitting up my post on the international selections into two: Today’s covers a number of portraits of places and people, while the next will focus on a thematic of crime and prisons.

Mexico’s Jose Alvarez’s beautifully lensed film (pictured above) focuses on the Totonac people of Zapotal Santa Cruz, Verzcruz, chiefly spotlighting the women’s expert pottery-making and the men’s “flying,” a mesmerizing religious practice in which men ascend a tall pole, tie themselves to lengths of rope, and descend, hanging upside-down, as part of the structure turns. The Totanac allow their activities to play out in front of Alvarez’s camera, for the most part without dialogue – the filmmaker eschews explanation, simply appreciating their customs and talents without attempting to impose an outsider’s perspective, but yet creating something more than an ethnographic study. The film received the international FIPRESCI jury award at TDF.

Director Simone Rapisarda Casanova has a more interactive relationship with his subjects in this elegy to a now lost Cuban fishing village. As four of the surprisingly good humored residents explain in the film’s brief prologue, their home of Juan Antonio was completely eradicated by Hurricane Ike – all that remains is Rapisarda Casanova’s record of happier times, made just weeks before. Like the previous film, what could become ethnography instead is transformed into something different – in this case, the filmmaker’s subjects have a playful rapport with Rapisarda Casanova, gently mocking his choice of shots or otherwise acknowledging that there’s a level of artificiality to being filmed – reminding the audience that what they’re seeing is being manufactured at some level.

The charming Italian couple behind the internationally successful SUDDENLY, LAST WINTER, Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi employ self-reflexivity at every turn in their newest film. Improbable gay everymen, they have managed to successfully incorporate themselves in their films as they explore the concerns at hand – for their first film it was gay marriage, and for the present film, it’s a general dissatisfaction with the tenor of their homeland which leads them to consider relocating, like so many of their friends, to a more hospitable new country. Before they do, they take stock of Italy by taking a road trip to explore the good, the bad, and the ugly – what might make them stay, and what might make them leave, from the country’s political corruption and economic disparities to its sex-drenched media. Gustav and Luca are not usually as confrontational as either Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, and they’re also not afraid to film a couple of deliberately staged scenes, but like those filmmakers, their films absolutely depend on their constant presence either on-screen or via narration. I’ve said many times before that this is very hard to pull off, but, for the most part, they’re successful, even if the viewer might grow a little weary of the approach at times. TDF’s viewers responded very well, resulting in the international Audience Award.

Having seen scores of documentaries on trans subjects over the years, for NewFest and other festivals, I was skeptical that I’d see very much new in Michiel van Erp’s film, which revisits five transwomen, now in their later years, who were all operated on by the same doctor, Casablanca gynecologist Georges Burou. While I think it’s essential that trans stories be told, there has been a tendency for many trans docs to focus on the transition and nothing else, or otherwise to present a too-basic “Trans 101” kind of overview – again, important for some audiences who don’t have much experience with trans people and the issues they have to deal with, but not always revelatory for viewers who have had significantly more exposure. In the case of van Erp’s doc, I was happy to be proven wrong – the introduction of age into the equation brings a fresh perspective on conceptions of identity – did these subjects conceive what life as an older woman would be like, or what an older woman’s body or attractiveness would be like – while the women’s common surgeon, and his willingness to help these women, ties their stories together nicely.

At the other end of her life, French-Canadian concert pianist prodigy Marika Bournaki is followed for eight years, beginning at the age of twelve. Both a coming of age story and an in-depth look at a very close father/daughter relationship, Bobbi Jo Hart’s wonderfully constructed longitudinal study provides the viewer with a fascinatingly naturalistic viewpoint. If Marika is a bit subdued in the earlier parts of the film, she emerges as a force to be reckoned with, if not a diva in some scenes – the British hotel room scene is a particular standout. Hart attains such graceful intimacy that there’s an ease to the way her subjects appear on camera. The audience bears witness to Marika’s maturation, the challenges and pressures she faces from her father and herself, and the unintended consequences of her father’s focus on her talents on the rest of the family.

A diverse group of women from three different countries are united by a horrible common fate in Nocem Collado’s affecting documentary. Spotlighting subjects in India, Nepal, and Afghanistan, the film explores the plight of widows – both young and old – and the terrible treatment they are subjected to by family members and the larger societies in which they live. From child brides who become child widows and are exiled from their homes, to older widows who are forced by custom to shave their heads, beg for subsistence, and exist in essentially a dead state to match their deceased husbands, Collado records their stories, and, most importantly, the efforts of some to empower themselves and break with harmful and unfair traditions.

I missed Swedish directors Maria Ramstrom and Malin Korkeasalo’s portrait of the widow of Beat icon Neal Cassady (and the lover and muse of Jack Kerouac) at both Tribeca and Hot Docs last year. Granted unprecedented access by their subject, the filmmakers have crafted an intimate and telling look at not only Carolyn Cassady, but of the impact of the two men’s legacies on her life. Seeking to correct the public misperceptions around Cassady, Kerouac, and her own role in the influential, but fictionalized, “On the Road,” Carolyn pens her own book, but finds it difficult to counter decades of mythmaking. Ramstro and Korkeasalo’s thoughtful film gives voice to her own story and the delicate balance she and her children have to walk in their own lives so that they’re not constantly in the shadow of the Beats.

Part of the festival’s Balkan Focus, Romanian directors Ileana Stanculescu and Artchil Khetagouri’s film may not deal with widows, but it does deal with the lingering effects of a relationship. At the center is Nicolate Dumitru, a university sociology professor with a frankly entirely unclear but supposedly “scientific” theory about love that lend the film its title. While convinced that society will soon privilege love above all else, he has had a pretty bad track record in his own relationships. At the beginning of the film, the multiple-divorcé is married to a much younger woman, Carmen, an acolyte of his theory, while his most recent ex-wife, Melania, lives next door in an apartment built out of their once much larger home. While there’s a level of schadenfreude in play in watching Nico’s lack of self-awareness and eccentricities, it’s the somewhat pathetic Melania who steals the show – pining away for her lost love as she shows the filmmakers her collection of love letters, listens at Nico’s wall, and hyper-analyzes brief, mundane interactions with him about their shared electricity bill.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief, Recommendations

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