As important as it is for an international festival to have a well-curated film program, its juries require careful curation, as well. That is, if the festival in question means to distinguish itself as a distinctive voice in the landscape. This year, as in all others, Dokufest curated the kinds of juries, that when gathered together to make decisions about "the best" of what they saw in their competitions, become a collective force for adventurous taste, brave choices, and thoughtful pondering (and arguing, hopefully) about why they want to give a prize to a particular film. I was impressed by the jury selections this year and was happy to have a hand in curating them. You can read about the other fantastic prize-winners here, but in this post, I want to try and put some coherent thoughts together about two of them, both pieces that illustrate the pure power of observation with very little interference, or the "noise" of a more sophisticated apparatus. The best drama is the quiet, human kind, revealed in the contemplative spaces of our lives, when we think we can see things as they really are. And still, we question.
Like most of us who love movies, I go faint with pleasure at a glorious display of breathtaking cinematography; I revel in well-composed, brilliantly-lit pretty pictures, especially when they're being projected on a big screen for a few souls gathered together in the dark to transport themselves outside their own mundane existences. And I think most of the jury members feel the same. But the Human Rights Dox jury--comprised of American producer Sandra Ruch, German journalist and human rights scholar, Sebastian Saam, and American / Albanian screenwriter, filmmaker and professor, Thomas Logoreci--chose a film that was mostly shot on cheap video cameras lodged immovably on the walls of an interrogation room to record what goes on inside. We are hard-pressed to ever get a close, or very clear, look at the protagonists' faces, but we connect with them so viscerally, it is like we are in that room, sweating, scared, bewildered, caught. The International Dox jury, in turn, chose a film for their feature selection entirely shot on a mobile phone, accompanied by a soundtrack of ambient noise picked up from a staticky scanner. These five cineastes, all to a person--all award-winning filmmakers and writers, and a film curator from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for good measure--were caught up in a reflection that revealed all the messiness, confusion and loneliness of real life. And they recognized themselves. This could be you; this could be your son; this could be your mother. It's all so deliciously and harrowingly real. (Photo of Prizren above, courtesy, Eroll Bilibani.)
Luc Coté and Patricio Henríquez have both been making films for a long time. But I don't think they have ever made (or probably ever will make) a film as important as You Don't Like the Truth--4 Days Inside Guantánamo. The film's principal documentation is a filmed meeting of a Canadian interrogation team with a child who is a Canadian citizen. The boy was arrested after an attack in which he was severely wounded, then detained, tortured and, consequently moved to a prison to be locked up without proper due process of the law. He is accused of killing an American soldier. Based on seven hours of recorded video (some sections of which have been censored by the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service--CSIS), the footage was declassified by the Supreme Court of Canada, and I'm sure after watching this film, they wish they'd kept it under wraps. The interrogration lasts for four days in February of 2003, each day a new chapter with a heading that spells doom: Day 1--Hope, Day 2--Fallout, Day 3--Blackmail, Day 4--Failure.
Omar Khadr is a tortured child, and as we learn about the particulars of what happened to him in Afghanistan and the family history that got him there from Canada, we see this boy, still in need of medical attention, tortured even further by the very people he is hoping will save him and get him released and sent home to re-join his family. He is tortured with false friendship, Subway sandwiches and McDonald's hamburgers; he is tortured by verbal taunting and bullying; and, most sinister of all, he is tortured by such a barrage of inarticulate, foolish banter from his unseen interrogator, that the expression "banality of evil" takes on new meaning. Along with this recorded video, the directors went in search of everyone that has been involved with the teenaged prisoner since his arrest, including his fellow cellmates at both Bagram, where he was first detained, and the prison in Guantánamo, a name that will forever be associated with the worst of human rights abuses. They all are filmed watching the footage of Khadr's interrogation and asked to speak candidly for the camera about their thoughts--and they do. This is an exceedingly difficult and uncomfortable film to sit through. But you must see it--if only to remind yourself that you are complicit in some way for this young man's plight--and many others like him. Sorry to say, we are all complicit. This is one of those films that makes that statement impossible to deny.
When I went to Prizren to work with Veton back in May, we madly traded films we loved and wanted the other to watch right now, like a couple of kids with a flush set of the coolest baseball cards around. He handed me a copy of Boris Gerrets' hour-long film, People I Could Have Been and Maybe Am, and told me I had to watch it and tell him what I thought. He didn't say anymore than that so I could make up my own mind, which is one of the many thousands of things I love about Veton. After watching it and telling him it moved me so deeply I wouldn't be able to watch anything else that day, he told me he was thinking of putting this small film into the international competition. I told him I thought that was a fine idea.
Gerrets is an award-winning filmmaker, editor and visual artist working between London and Amsterdam. This is not some jerk who picked up a cell phone and decided to make a movie 'cause hey! he can. To open his story, Gerrets uses the convention of a probing question that will set him off on an interesting journey: What would it be like to enter the life of a complete stranger? In most movies, fiction, non-fiction or otherwise, this kind of "tagline" often results in inane and stupid behavior displayed on the screen by gorgeous girl and boy actors. We watch as they flirt, party like animals, get drunk, vomit on each other, kiss each other, fuck each other, botch up every single thing in their lives, and then get the girl / boy at the end, anyway. Actually, come to think of it, Gerrets' film does have a lot of those elements. But the characters he encounters are people he comes to care about deeply and that initial question blossoms into more profound questions about the role of the observer, the storyteller. What are his moral obligations? How complicit is he in what's happening in front of his camera? What does he do now that he's emotionally involved with these people he met randomly as part of an art exploration? What are his responsibilities, if any, in divulging his confusion, his angst, his fear, that he's created something unstoppable? And it is unstoppable, life is, while it's being lived. Then it does stop. Full stop. And then there are only photos and recordings and dribs and drabs of the person that shed that life left behind. It's hard to imagine that in an hour's time, Gerrets was able to craft worlds upon worlds with so little, but he did. His lo-fi film is a shiny gem.