Crossing Borders at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival

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The Czech city of Jihlava, about an hour and a half outside of Prague, is not a very big place. In bad weather it can feel like the world’s most picturesque ghost town. Yet for a few days a year, it becomes the center of the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, a thoroughly cosmopolitan cinematic affair. This is, of course, true of many film festivals. What makes this particular one stand out is its interest in pushing through borders, both international and artistic. The 19th edition featured an impressive collection of projects that span multiple countries, genres and aesthetic ideas.

Even a cursory look through the program shows the real commitment to this sort of transitory filmmaking. The borders of Eastern Europe shift between forbidding fences and porous lines in films like Abdul & Hamza and Trapped by Law, while the flow of commerce regardless of legal restriction arises in The Halves. Lines of color and perception are breached in Marouan Omara and Nadia Mounier’s The Visit, which also shares an interest in the line between the fictional and the staged documentary with Vitaly Mansky’s Under the Sun. One could go on and on listing films. Yet for this particular critic, a few themes and projects stood out. Rather than a definitive round-up of the best of the festival, here’s a glimpse at some of the most intriguing ideas that emerged.

The Hazy Line Between Fiction and Nonfiction

Jihlava IDFF

Jihlava’s Doc-fi program may not be particularly large, but the films included leave as many intriguing questions unanswered as many much bigger documentary lineups. Koza, a brutal character study by director Ivan Ostrochovsky (and this year’s Oscar submission from Slovakia), blends its real-life protagonist with a fictionalized narrative. Boxer Peter Baláž competed for Slovakia in the 1996 Summer Olympics, where he was eliminated in the first round. Now, two decades later, he plays a desperate version of himself. It’s a story we’ve seen before, a boxer coming out of retirement to offer up his body to the abuse of younger athletes in order to eke out a few last paychecks. Simple and potential cliché, it works because of its most nonfiction element: Baláž’s physical presence. His face is the incontrovertible proof of a life of violence, his worn muscles the visceral incarnation of exhaustion. He barely speaks, but he doesn’t have to. His image is enough.

An almost opposite assault on the borders of nonfiction is taken by another film in the same program, Christine Reeh’s The Chronicles of Polyaris. Here it is the protagonist who is entirely fictional, while the landscape around him stands out as the enigmatic but thoroughly truthful ghost of history. The film was shot in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago where there was once a substantial Soviet mining operation. It is now entirely abandoned, inhabited only by the wind that gusts through sleepy Communist-era architecture. Reeh’s actor enters as a mysterious visitor, perhaps from another planet. His mission gradually emerges, between fact-finding and reconnaissance, as if he was sent to earth to document the destruction of mankind but arrived just a few days too late. His crossing from the dimension of science fiction into the nonfiction space of real-life Svalbard is the uncanny principle that drives the film, a frosty fantasy of a forgotten town.

The Czech Past Is a Foreign Country

Jihlava IDFF

That much quoted line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” has a particularly strong resonance in a place like the Czech Republic. Just in the 20th century alone the Czech lands were part of seven different nations, depending on how you count. For a Czech filmmaker, representing the past is an act of border crossing in its own right. Ghosts is a quite deliberate temporal endeavor, chronologically examining the military history of Milovice, a town that has long served as a prominent base. Beginning in 1904 with the echoes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, directors Bibiana Benová and Michael Kaboš visit the cemeteries of each successive military presence and recreate their presence in the community by the use of costumes and archival images. The national borders of the past fade and the unified history of a physical location erases the arbitrary national boundaries for which the soldiers died in the first place.

This theme emerged again in Confession of the Vanished, a film about the re-staging of an opera that had sat unperformed for more than 200 years. Josef Mysliveček’s L’Olimpiade is an opera very much of its time, its author a mentor and friend of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as well as one of the very first historically important Czech classical composers. His music, now brought back to life by conductor Vaclav Luks, allows the audience to engage with a very different moment in the nation’s history. The opera, written in German, is emblematic of a time well before the real advent of Czech nationalism. Its revival and reappraisal is a unique opportunity to ponder the different dimensions of national identity and shared musical history.

How to Be a Nationalist

Jihlava IDFF

For a really strange interrogation of nationalism, however, one must turn to James Hong’s Terra Nullius or: How to Be a Nationalist. The Chinese-American filmmaker went to East Asia to film the Senkaku Islands, a place of great controversy. Even their name is up for debate; Senkaku is a Japanese name, while the mainland Chinese call them Diaoyudao and the Taiwanese call them Diaoyutai. Just off the Northeast coast of Taiwan, they are contest by all three nations. Hong mounted three separate attempts to get to the islands, which are currently uninhabited and left as a no man’s land by the three nations. Essentially undercover, he embeds himself in groups of nationalist activists in each country and joins them in their respective efforts to sail out and plant a flag on the disputed land to make a political point. And while his commentary’s comedy doesn’t always land, the sheer gumption of his project makes the resulting film a riveting, edge-of-your-seat expose on nationalism and international politics.

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Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.