Posts Tagged ‘doclisboa’

A Date in Minsk (2022) Winner Best Film Doclisboa 2022

Dir.: Nikita Lavretksi; Cast: Volha Kavaliova, Nikita Lavretski; Belarus 2021, Drama, 88 min.

Belarus director/producer Nikita Lavretksi is best known as the pioneer of Belarus’ mumblecore, an independent style of filmmaking pioneering by Mark and Jay Duplass, A Date in Minsk is an existential and personal portrait of a couple of filmmakers who try to figure why their relationship failed by pretending to meet each other for the first time.

Lavretski and Volha Kavakiova indulged in “a toxic, interdependent relationship” for eight years continually coming to blows in their personal and professional lives. Shot by DoP Yalia Shatun in one take – no mean feat – the couple first meet first in a rundown billiard hall where it becomes obvious Volha has no idea of how to master the game. With Nikita forced into instructor mode the relationship re-boot gets off to a poor start as they both re-hash the other’s past misdemeanours which are manifold.

Nikita sometimes adopts a self-critical attitude, admitting to his “new friend” that he laughed when his ex fell over on a skiing holiday, landing arse about face in the snow.  During this “first date”, it also emerges that Volha is a games developer, and Nikita used to teach maths, and is now an independent filmmaker pioneering a radical new style.

As the date wears on Nikita becomes more and more contrite: “I am bearing the weight of being a terrible person”. They more they distance themselves from their failed relationship the happier they become; discussing their favourite comics, which, in Volha’s case is James Acaster.  She is also fond of the UK TV series “Peep Show”. Although the dump of a pool hall is anything but stimulating it was better than meeting in a cinema, they both agree as they circle each other like two Western duellists in a Mexican standoff. Shatun’s camera is as shaky as the couple’s faltering morale. Little inserts of the couple’s former life echo Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, and after the two leave the pool hall, the film’s title appears.

On their way to the tube station, Nikita and Volha wax philosophical: do they really belong in Belarus now many of their friends have emigrated. It seems that Nikita is trying to prolong the meet-up for a long as possible, making the most of every minute.  His insecurity is palpable but Volha has already moved on with her life and left the relationship behind.

This is filmmaking as therapy, and we can clearly imagine JL Godard and Anna Karina in the place of Volha and Nikita. Radical but passionate, this is an emotional tour-de-force with improvised dialogue. It leaves Nikita like Orpheus back at the closing doors of the tube station. A Date in Minsk won ‘Best FILM’ at the ‘DocLisboa International Competition’ 2022. An inspired and refreshing choice. AS

City of Lisbon Award for Best International Competition Film. | DOCLISBOA 2022 | OCTOBER 6-16

Jane by Charlotte (2021) Tribute to Jane Birkin

Dir/Wri: Charlotte Gainsbourg | Doc, 86′

In his rather tricksy biopic singer, photographer, actor and now director Charlotte Gainsbourg (1971-) attempts to unveil her legendary mother Jane Birkin (1946-2023), model, actor and enigmatic star of that kinky song “Je t’aime, moi non plus” by her rakish father Serge

Keen to retain her mystique, Birkin – who has died aged 76 – smirks winsomely behind a tousled mop of hair, murmuring breathy soundbites to retain her allure, her daughter tentatively teasing out episodes past and present to avoid embarassing or disrupting the fragile facade that created her mother’s original elusiveness. The two speak French, Birkin sometimes breaking into ‘Franglais’. Meanwhile we desperately clutch at straws hoping for a meaty backstory, something more tangible to feed on; not so much of that flirty love affair between Birkin and Gainsbourg but of the essence of Birkin herself, and how she came to be celebrity muse to maverick star Serge Gainsbourg.

Many of her fellow female celebrities of the sixties: Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Marianne Faithful, and the like, have retained that place in history, seared to our collective consciousness as legendary icons. But was their legendary status justified; did it have ballast – or where they just lucky to be around to capture the essence of a time when this cloud of creative counterculture known as the ‘swinging sixties’ burst onto the scene?.

The legendary Agnes Varda had a go at revealing Birkin in her upbeat film essay Jane B. by Agnès V. but managed to keep her friend under wraps. Will Charlotte do the same, or will her piece a ‘peek behind the scenes’ that manages to find something more intriguing. Sadly no.

Loose and louche, this turns out to be rather sketchy, to say the least. Mother and daughter potter around in the garden of Birkin’s picturesque seaside home accompanied by various small kids, the veteran star, now 74, attempting to be edgy by admitting to hacking off her hair in a flattering mirror, catching sight of the finished result in a less attractive reflection, and is horrified. But the stunt gave her singing career another lease of life when she performed onstage at the Paris Bataclan, proving she did have a real voice. Previously she had lip-synced to a playback tape.

From her various interviews over the years, and searching on Wikipedia, we know that Birkin was married to prolific film composer John Barry and had Kate who later committed suicide in 2013. She then gave birth to Charlotte with Gainsbourg and  Lou Doillon with Jacques Doillon. The Hermes ‘Birkin’ bag was named after her and she wrote the “Munkey Diaries”, but what new gems are uncovered here? Not a lot in an arcane outing that feels like an intensely personal vanity project with its family footage and hushed mother/daughter chats, but nothing else. There are no archive clips or film excerpts to enrich the film for the entertainment and enlightenment of audiences young and older. Just a rather ‘off the cuff’ sortie that plays out as a series of snapshots of the two spending time together. They are clearly close, touchingly so, but also respective of one another’s talents and Charlotte never pushes the boundaries into real intimacy.

The most fascinating scene sees Jane and Charlotte swinging by Serge’s flat in the rue de Verneuil (Paris) which has remained untouched with his white shoes – even Gitane cigarettes and old cans of food (many having exploded!) – there for all to see. But that’s as interesting as it gets for the outsider. Another missed opportunity. MT

JANE BIRKIN 1946-2023



The Exit of the Trains (2020) DocLisboa

Dir: Radu Jude, Adrian Cioflânca | Doc, România 175′

Screening as part of the So Many Stories Left Untold strand in DOCLISBOA’s 18th Edition (14-20 January, 2021), this essay film directed by Radu Jude and first timer Adrian Cioflânca makes use of extensive archive material to reflect on the Romanian genocide of June 26th, 1941, in the town of Iasi, near the Moldovan border. It’s a gruelling testament to man’s inhumanity towards his neighbour, and makes for grim viewing not least for its rather overlong treatment.

The pogrom lasted four days and wiped out most of its  Jewish male population. Although occupying German forces had a hand in the tragedy the main perpetrators were actually locals who looted their Jewish neighbours’ property after killing them.

Jude opts for a similar, minimalistic style to his 2017 essay film Dead Nation  to chronicle this sudden outbreak of wartime ethnic cleansing. Playing out as ‘an exhibition of the dead’, a voice-over commentary by relatives or neighbours of the victims accompanies the grim images. There are also witness reports of the few who survived. The final segment shares an array of photos of the pogrom itself, shown in chronological order.

The heat of that June morning in 1941 was in stark contrast to the chilling events that would unfold in the Eastern Romanian town. Jewish citizens were assembled in front of the police station where they were beaten and kicked, some were shot. Later the perpetrators sent women and children home,  deporting the men in airtight cattle trains (150 per sealed waggon) to Podulloaiei, or Targu Frumos, whence the few survivors were taken to the labour camp of Ialomita.

The witnesses reflect on their next-door neighbours’ role in the genocide, their focus was to steal from the victims, stripping them of their flats, jewellery and money, having already exhorted money for failing to fulfil clemency appeals. Some of the photos are gruesome: particularly the face of a Mr. Lehrer, who was slaughtered right in front of his shop. One women was ordered by the authorities to pay a military duty for her soldier son, even though he had been killed. She was forced to sell her only means of livelihood – a Singer sewing machine. Most of the victims died of asphyxiation: “He died of his injuries and lack of air”. It’s a chilling mantra that resonates with the mass suffering going on today.

Survivors talk about the hours endured with the bodies of the dead or dying, before any escape was possible. The trains were transformed into mortuaries and some of the images are particularly harrowing. Finally, we see a photo of a ‘normal’ passenger train which stopped during the mayhem. It shows the carriages with bodies bundled together, like wood or bricks, before a mass burning – only a few were buried in the Jewish cemetery of Targu Frumos.

The Exit of the Trains is far more than a mere documentary: it is a witness report of how humans suddenly lose their humanity and descend into depravity. What sort of people put petrol into water bottles, then charge inflated prices to revel in the pain and slow death of their captives. AS









When the Earth Seems to be Light (2015) **** Georgian Retro | DocLisboa 2020

Dir.: David Meskhi, Salome Machaidze, Tamuna Karumidze; Documentary, Georgia 2015, 76 min.

A clash of cultures is the subject of this evocative Georgian film screening at Lisbon’s annual documentary festival DocLisboa. It seems nothing has  changed five years down the line. In fact most people say tribal warfare is on the increase – particularly in our capital cities –  as Covid19 continues to weaken the fabric of society, polarising black and white, left and right, even old and young. When The Earth Seems to be Light looks at how tough it is to be liberal-minded in Tbilisi today.

Prominent Georgian artist and filmmaker David Meshki has got together with a bunch of other creative types and his fellow directors Tamuna Karumidze and Salome Machaidze to explore the ways they all feel pushed to the margins of a society where there is apparently no middle ground between the glory days of communism, or the dog-eat-dog version of modern capitalism.

There are some extremely disturbing images, among them Orthodox priests leading a violent demonstration against the LGBT community. “Our tattoos are our dairies” says another “beatnik”. “You tattoo what you feel, what’s important for you at the moment”. They are existential in their approach, and would have more at home in the St. Germain of the 1950s. Yes, sometimes Molotov cocktails are thrown, but concrete is usually the target. Its all very volatile, with fireworks and computer noise exploding at the same time. The questions are the usual ones, about God, freedom and the meaning of it all. But the experience is deeply personal: some feel bullied because of their hair styles, apparently Georgians cannot except people who look different. The majority still hankers after a life under Soviet rule when outsiders were officially persecuted by the state. Ironic to see older people demonstrating, fighting the young ones. Somehow there is a huge capacity for mass violence – Stalin and Beria are not yet dead here in Tbilisi.

Earth has a unity of of aesthetics and contents. There is an eerie and airy quality to the images, and a no-nonsense approach to the questioning. Somehow it seems to be a clash between the Middle-Ages and a hoped for utopia: Georgia emerges a nation looking backwards with intolerance, the outsiders celebrate a life of hope and despair in equal parts. A well-paced and fine collective work that resonates even more so today. AS




Corn Island (2014) Simindis kundzuli | Georgian Retro | DocLisboa 2020

Director: George Ovashvili   Writers: Roelof Jan Minneboo, Nugzar Shataidze, George Ovashvili

Cast: Ilyas Salman, Tamer Levent, Mariam Buturishvili, Ylias Salman |  Drama, Georgia 100′

Corn Island could take place anywhere. The brooding fable is set in remote islands that surface annually from the bed of the river Enguri in Eastern Georgia, enriching them with nutrients and making them ideal farmland for seasonal crop-rearing by nomads. In the silence of a serene summer an old man and a young girl  settle in this mist-clothed island paradise where they fish and cultivate the earth as isolated gunfire mingles with birdsong in the distance. Few words are exchanged but a sinister undertone persists and a watchful vigilance that seems to presage doom.

Georgian auteur Ovashvili’s multi-award winning second feature was nominated for an Oscar in the Academy Award Foreign Language section the following year, echoes the recent conflicts that have taken place in the Caucasian States. His debut drama, Gagma napiri (2009), was also inspired by these events. Corn Island is a quiet, sensory affair that succeeds in building a considerable dramatic punch through subtle performances, clever camerawork that makes good use of the changing natural light and rich tones of yellow, blue and gold and well-paced storytelling with an atmospheric occasional score. This simple but profound tale is elevated by the events taking place at its margins and yet never does its narrative succumb to the outside world making the human story all the more powerful and profound.

This season Georgian farmer (Ylias Salman) and his granddaughter (Mariam Buturishvili), are here to spend the summer, the age-old topic of school work their only desultory conversation. Army officers pass by on the distant riverbank. The girl swims in the crystalline water in a dreamlike midnight sequence auguring her sexual awakening and, as if by chance, the next day a wounded soldier is washed ashore sparking friction between the threesome and a passing boat of Russian guards patrolling the river for signs of trouble. In these heavenly surroundings a palpable tension gently smoulders between the girl, the farmer and the soldiers sparked by fear, sexual frisson and danger. When the girl flirtatiously throws water on the soldier the pair chase into the fully grown corn. This small kingdom and wains when finally tragedy strikes from an unexpected source leaving us with to ponder our existence and our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. MT


Dedube The Last Stop (2017) **** Georgian Retro | DocLisboa 2020

Dir.: Shorena Tevzadze; Documentary, Georgia 2917, 100 min.

An old couple losing their little shop to a world they don’t understand anymore is the focus of this documentary debut from Georgia’s Shorena Tevzadze.

Dedube was once the last stop on the Tbilisi underground, giving life to a thriving market suburb that opened in 1966. Today the train hardly stops, relegating Dedube to a backwater. Nico and his wife Tsitso pour all their enthusiasm into a store euphemistically called the ‘Veterinary Pharmacy’. Unable to move with the times – they basically sell next to nothing as the stock is now out of fashion: bits and bobs that used to be sought after are pretty much relics from the Soviet era. Tsitso tries to make a bit on the side offering blood pressure tests, and then selling remedies against hypertension, even when the readings are normal. But a customer asking for poison to kill his dog is sent away with a flea in his own ear: “I am a doctor, not an executioner”. Taking life easy is what he’s always done in Dedube’s fast lane: “A simple bite to eat, then a rest to escape this hectic environment”. Nearby a small TV blasts everything from sports to politics non-stop.

Nodar, a local singer, riffs on the dwindling decline with plaintive ballads on his classical guitar. Hoping against hope that things will one day get back to normal “Everything changes, but not Nico”. The shop next to the ‘pharmacy’ has installed an ATM, but this latest ‘mod con’ makes no odds as hardly anyone uses it. Lili, a street vendor, pops in several times a day to moan about the lack of business. Finally, Nico (“I don’t care about the next life”) has to acknowledge defeat and dismantle the place – nobody wants to take anything, not even for free. He puts the shop up for rent and leaves his former ‘paradise’ with the streets flooded and the ATM still unused.

The strength of this documentary lies in the quiet observation of everyday trivia: every last object has a story and a quaint fascination for Nico and Tsitso, they resemble children they never had. Nico hoped patience would help him to survive, but contact with the outside world faded day by day. Tevzadze’s snapshot of a changed world and the loss of identity is pitifully tragic, verging on magic realism. Thoughtfully captured and full of sad humour this intricate portrait of a fading world is a paean of immense quality and a tribute to the lost store holders of Dedube. AS




Mr Grandmother | Chemi bebia (1929) **** Georgian Retrospective | DOCLISBOA 2020

Dir: Kote Mikaberidze | Silent, Georgia, 80′

This triumph of early Georgian silent cinema mines its absurdist humour from petty bureaucracy when the country was still part of the USSR. The Georgians are a striking bunch whose regular features and dark good looks are particularly suited to silent film – this along with bold Soviet-style editing, expressionist set designs and avant-garde camera angles make My Grandmother an imaginative and amusing insight into a country that was under the Iron cosh but thriving with ideas and rich culture.

Behind the mad hysteria of the frantic satire important truths gradually emerge about the nonsense office workers have to put up with and there is a clear resonance with life today. The film was banned in the Society Union for almost fifty years – not surprisingly – because the overriding message here is “death to red tape” and that is born out, quite literally, in the bizarre finale that certainly mocks the State and does nothing to hide its light under a bushel in doing so.

Director Kote Mikaberidze (1896-1973) would go on to helm several other features in a career that also included acting and script-writing, but was best known for My Grandmother that made use of its special effects, imaginative set design, animation and twisted dark sense of humour that sees its main character, a “bureaucrat” (Aleksandre Takaishvili) fired for his incompetence and lazy attitude.

Narrative wise, the first act minutes is dedicated to satirising the Soviet system – where office life involves doing precisely nothing. Papers are pushed, documents stamped – it’s all about creating work and then not doing it, and the pen-pushers manage to avoid any responsibility for their shoddiness into the bargain.

When “the bureaucrat” goes home jobless to his wife (Bella Chernova) her  expressions of disdain are simply priceless. The only way he can avoid a complete loss of face is by finding himself a ‘benefactor’ (0r grandmother) who will write him a letter of recommendation. So off he goes to curry favour with a higher-ranking official who will reinstate him in a job – doing precisely nothing, again.

Although this sounds pretty tedious plot-wise the feature is far from boring. Quite the opposite. Visually it’s one of the most exciting silent films of the era with its clever concoction of fantasy meets reality. At one point, ‘the bureaucrat’ is pinioned to his desk by a giant flying pen which is meant to represent the local newspaper’s lampooning him. Meanwhile, in the background stop-motion animations feature a group of tiny toys and dolls who form a sort of ridiculous audience witnesses his fall from grace. While the support characters are performing their antics with extraordinary energy the office workers are mostly comatose, but objects around them also come to life.

Chernova is particularly brilliant as “the bureaucrat’s” wife, her expressive eyebrows are a legend in their own lunchtime. Imploring with him one moment and ignoring him the next, she is a bundle of belligerent histrionics from start to finish, while he practises trying to hang himself from the light fittings, in shame.

My Grandmother shows the Georgians to be wonderfully eccentric, and completely irreverent as far as politics is concerned, certainly in their early cinema, later political and social satire was more cleverly hidden in subtext. The film was eventually re-released in the 1970s but is rarely seen nowadays and would make an interesting companion piece to the ubiquitous Battleship Potemkin.  MT

My Grandmother






Heimat is a Space in Time | Heimat ist Ein Raum aus Zeit (2019) ****

Dir.: Thomas Heise, Documentary; Germany/Austria 2019, 218 min.

Writer/director Thomas Heise, born 1955 in —what was then East-Berlin — shares his personal history of his homeland  and Austria from 1912 to the present.

His distinctive voice shines  through as he digs into family archives, testimonials and remnants of the indescribable horrors and upheavals of 20thcentury Germany. This an epic work that serves a memorial to those who are no longer with us, and an opportunity for future generations to visit the grim past of the holocaust.

His narration is measured but engaging, and accompanied by extensive black-and-white travelling shots, showing the places of remembrance as they look today. There is something quietly contemplative about these sequences that explore trains, railways and stations, woods and lost places, almost like forgotten parts of a ghost town. Told in five chapters (with decreasing lengths) Heimat is extremely German in flavour, melancholic in tone and with a pedantic tendency for detail – hence the running time of nearly four (rewarding) hours.

Heimat starts in vibrant colour, then eschews it for good: the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood is shown as a taster for the family conflicts to come: the greedy wolf looking for his victims. The cut-outs in the wood ask questions: why did the mother send the little girl out into the dangerous woods?, and who is the good hunter who made rebirth possible. Here, as later, the camera shows people (and art-objets) from their feet travelling upwards, sometimes surprised that there is actually a head – one sculpture is even missing its cranium.

It all begins with a school essay by Heise’s grandfather Wilhelm, fourteen years old in 1912. He  he outs himself as a radical pacifist. He later climbs out of poverty into the safe middle-class position of teacher, but his marriage to Edith, a Jewish socialist from Vienna, brings him “Berufsverbot” under the Nazis. His early retirement at forty, seems to fly in the face of his letters claiming loyalty to the regime. Edith, a sculptor, would later find herself in a concentration camp, but this was nothing compared to the fate of the rest of her family in Vienna.

In letters to Berlin we learn how the family is forced from their generous flat, into a cramped  one room, with no coal to heat the freezing winter of 1941/42. A good day is when, “the postman does not bring the feared letter, stating that the family has to come to the “Sammelstelle”, where they are forced into wagons meant for animals, and deported to Poland, mainly Lodz. Edith’s father Max runs out of tobacco, also forbidden to Jews, and is forced to suck his pipe. When their long deported friends and neighbours, stop writing, Max and his family hope they are just too busy in Lodz. Heise reads these grim letters as the Vienna deportation lists appear before our eyes: in alphabetical order, the right-hand header stating the name of the extermination camp. Just reader these lists is sheer torture. And the trains, the ordinary ones, are still running all the time, before and after the name of the victims are unveiled.

Edith and Wilhelm saws their two sons deported: Wolfgang and his brother are sent to the Forced Labour Camp Zerbst, which looks today like a desolated airfield, a “Kulisse” for the DEFA-Documentaries of Thomas Heise, who all ended up in the “safety” of the archive. Then there is the decade-long letter exchange between a certain Udo, who lives in West-Germany, and tries to convince a certain Rosemarie Balker – he had kissed her twice before emigrating –  to join him in the West. Their exchange is illuminating: neither of them is convinced they are getting the ‘real deal’ in their different sides of Germany. Udo can see the footprints of all the high-ranking Nazis whereas Rosemarie (who would go on to be a Romance scholar and marry Thomas’ father Wolfgang, a lecturer of Philosophy) experiences the widening gulf between propaganda and reality in the GDR. Both parents became victims of the Stasi – even though Rosemarie had informed herself at the beginning – and they became friends with the playwright Heiner Müller, the writer Christa Wolff and the singer Wolf Biermann, one of Wolfgang’s students. With his father dead, and his mother dying, Thomas Heise now feels safest in the past.  

Heimat is a Space in Time is history, cultural and personal: when Marika Rökk sings a morale-boosting song during the first years of the war, we cannot get the Vienna deportation lists out of our heads. Despite its extensive running time, the documentary becomes compelling: we wants to read more letters, to learn more about what happened. The tragedy of the two Germanys in unification is clear for all to see: twins bound together, now forced to come to terms with their past. Heise’s intensity often belies the aesthetic form. And even though he denied in an interview that the film is his “Trauerarbeit”, it is exactly that. AS



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