Checking In on the 2014 Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival
Under grey skies, amidst the sleepy city of Jihlva, Czech Republic, is one of the most significant documentary film festivals in Europe. Walking around the center of town during the event, however, you might not realize just how popular it is. Then you walk into a venue, off a quiet, near-empty street, and you find that a crowd has seemingly appeared out of nowhere and lodged itself into every nook and cranny of a large screening room. Fire codes be damned in Jihlava, apparently, as attendees not lucky enough to get a chair in the already high-capacity auditoriums are sitting on the floor or steps, in the aisles or in front of the screen, every inch of space filled.
Only one screening, of those I attended while a guest of the festival last weekend, had to turn people away. It was one of the first movies I went to see, and it was the first where I’d experienced an overflowing crowd. I thought Czechs were just especially excited for the latest nonfiction effort by Ulrich Seidl (rather than simply nonfiction cinema in general). In the Basement is another of his showcasing oddball characters, this time as they’re associated with interests relegated to the lowest points in their homes — including an enormous Nazi paraphernalia collection, sex dungeons and a shooting range — and it’s the kind of shocking film that I can understand appealing to college-aged viewers, of whom the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival saw plenty.
Seidl is like Errol Morris if Morris went for more disturbing material, mainly for the sake of laughing at the people he finds for his docs. In the Basement is just more of Seidl’s cringe comedy portraiture. The content of In the Basement isn’t really that weird, but it’s presented as such through Seidl and editor Christoph Brunner’s pacing and reveals. There isn’t a lot to each of the characters in the doc, so their primary eclecticism is stretched out and intercut in a way that makes it feel deeper, and frankly the construct is highly effective, a triumph of devious direction whether you like the film or not.
I don’t think I do like Seidl, but he’s that pebble in your boot type who can’t be ignored, and anyway it was one of my favorite viewing experiences in years, sitting uncomfortably on a floor, cross-legged in a way where my limbs became numb, off to the side of the screen where I could barely see the whole picture and read the subtitles, consumed by the audience’s reaction, which was also constantly delayed due to a majority listening to a translation of the Polish dialogue over headset (even if many of them could read the English subtitles, I got the impression that Czechs generally prefer dubbed movies). Some films you just have to see with a large group. Some you have to see in a situation where few in that group could walk out if they wanted to.
Earlier in the day, I attended a panel hosted by Doc Alliance called “What Do Journalists Expect From Film Festivals And Vice Versa?,” and it was a new sort of festival event for me because it wound up being, unplanned, a circular discussion in which the journalists on the panel and the film fest representatives in the audience (I was the lonely journalist not part of the panel and only non-fest-rep just in attendance) were all seated around the room facing one another. And everyone had a chance to introduce themselves and answer the topic question. I think my boring response had something to do with simply wanting great films.
Part of what was posed to the official panelists, though, was the question of what makes them attend a fest and how do they choose what to see and do there. The funny thing for me, I thought, was that I always want to be the type who wanders in randomly to anything that sounds interesting playing at a given time open in my schedule, yet I went to this panel out of the blue instead of seeing a couple screenings I’d picked out for films I had no expectations for. And that day, two of the three docs I did see were, safely, due to my familiarity with the filmmakers’ previous work. Seidl being one of them, and the other being Special Flight director Fernand Melgar.
Melgar’s The Shelter is a lot like his last film, again focused on immigrants in Switzerland, this time about a seasonal nightly refuge for the homeless who are looking for work. The content is fairly repetitive yet never tedious. We feel very much among those waiting to get in, out in the cold, and continue this experience alongside those who are permitted as well as those who are turned away and have to sleep in the streets or train station. We also join the shelter’s staff in the kitchen and around the hidden bunker that houses the beds and mattresses and showers available to people at a low price. Everything and everyone is very watchable. Surprisingly there are no dislikable characters or angles, but that means there is a lot less tension to the drama of these people.
My third film of the day was Sinisa Dragin’s The Forest, a doc with less universal appeal but so much more texture. The film is about a painting given to former Yugoslavia president Josip Broz Tito by the Romanian government and the post-WWII relationship between these two Eastern Bloc countries. The historical plot is dense but accessible, though the main attraction is the way Dragin plays with archival footage, framing some of it in windows of a traveling train and marking it with annotative text and graphics and mixing it with other supplemental visuals of a leafless forest like the one in the titular artwork. It’s a difficult feature to describe because it is so innovative, a compilation film with more creativity in its structure than is typical of the genre these days. Just take a look:
The rest of my brief visit to Jihlava was less successful, film-wise, with not one other screening stuck with all the way through. Jan Latal’s Czech Beer War, about smalltime brewers and critics challenging the major beer brands associated with the Czech Republic, was of great interest to me and I hope to revisit it someday more properly, but I just couldn’t enjoy the film while listening to a headset with a soft, monotone voice providing me with the English translation (later I found that the festival’s screener library copy had English subtitles, so I know there’s that option for the future). I rarely got whatever it was that was causing the rest of the crowd to roar with laughter throughout.
Phillip Warnell’s Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air was initially a neat counterpart to In the Basement, as it’s about a man who had kept a tiger and an alligator as pets in an apartment in a Manhattan housing project, but it’s more experimental than I wanted for that story and I fell asleep for some of its midsection. One thing I realized, not as a negative trait by any means, is that Jihlava is a fest comprised primarily of artistic documentary cinema rather than formal, conventional and straightforward nonfiction — although they did screen some easier works like Morris’s The Unknown Known, The Green Prince and 1971, all of which I’d just happened to have already seen in America.
Andre Valentim Almeida’s The Quest of the Schooner, which sounded more like another Expedition to the End of the World, is too much of an unnecessarily personal account from the filmmaker, complete with shots of his legs and feet while he lay in bed contemplating his doc. It would have been more appropriate to have shots of his navel. At least it was preceded by The Figures Carved into the Knife by the Sap of the Banana Trees, a short by Joana Pimenta, of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnographic Lab. Even as I was too dazed by the visuals to concentrate on what is going on during its 16 minutes, I wanted to look at more of those images for another 16 hours.
Some other screenings ended up being overcrowded yet not anything that would make for a suitably incommodious experience like the Seidl film. In my final attempt to enjoy something on my last day, I trusted the safety of a block of early Alain Resnais documentaries, but at the door I was informed that there was no English translation of this program on screen or via headset.
Still, I had a great time at Jihlava, there to represent Nonfics and to a degree the U.S., or at least American documentary criticism. I was on a panel for the topic of film coverage in the digital age, titled “How are New Media Changing the Way of Informing About Film,” and of course I tried to focus on the pros and cons, the benefits and greater difficulties of specifically covering nonfiction film critically on the Internet. I was joined by SydneysBuzz blogger Peter Belsito, who focuses a lot on international cinema and festivals, Polish critic Bartosz Czartoryski and Belgium-based Domenico La Porta, of the international film trade site Cineuropa. Doc Alliance’s Andrea Pruchova moderated.
Just to share my general concentration, I tried to address that it’s hard these days to get most movie sites to devote much room to docs and even with a site such as this, founded for the purpose of reviewing and discussing docs, it has to be something on the side of my more general, more profitable work and still often must chase traffic to be any kind of a substantial presence, due to financial costs. And that’s related to the discussion from the other panel on festival expectations. Basically, how do I cover Jihlava for as wide a range of readers as I can? Do I look to films and events with familiar and popular names? Should I have written on the midnight showings of the Qatsi trilogy and the masterclass of its director, Godfrey Reggio, and reviewed Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust, not all solely for what they are but how they’re seen by a Czech audience?
That’s part of what interests me and what I like to do, as I’ve done here with the Seidl experience, because otherwise why not just cover the films from my own home via screener? I’d love to make discoveries, too, but the gamble doesn’t always pay off, not just as far as my enjoyment but also for the enjoyment of readers — as in, will The Forest ever even play in the U.S.? That used to be more of a question than it is now, of course, because for a lot of the program there’s hope that they’ll at the very least be able to be seen on the Doc Alliance site. Czech Beer War, for instance, I expect will join other Latal works there, preferably with English subtitles. And even though I didn’t love it, Almeida’s film won a Doc Alliance-based prize that will surely mean it’ll be up on the site eventually.
I remain somewhat critical of the festival for not being as accessible to an English-speaking American in all respects and events (some panels were also Czech-only), but aside from the presumption that they want more visitors from the U.S., that’s a totally unfair, Anglocentric viewpoint on my part. It’s enough to encounter a different world of documentary enthusiasts, to be excited that this group is overcrowding giant halls in which to experience everything from experimental nonfiction cinema to, as I tried to appreciate in one of the most packed screenings I’ve ever seen, a Dutch reality show about racism (The Big Racism Experiment).
We can’t just have global documentaries come to us and fully comprehend the context of how they’re supposed to be appreciated (I admit, the themes of Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery are seeping into my thinking these days), because not all doc-making and doc-viewing communities are the same. Maybe I can’t read the minds of the people at Jihlava to know why they’re laughing during In the Basement or Czech Beer War or walking out of The Quest of the Schooner (only one of these even being a truly locally identified work), but there’s still a lot to being able to observe it all happening. Whether Jihlvava or another, every documentary fan should experience a foreign documentary fest at least once in their lives.