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Festival dei Popoli Redefines the Documentary Frame

What a superb stage for a film festival. In spectacular Florence, perhaps the world's most renowned city of art, the art of documentaries has been on show.

Attending this week's Festival dei Popoli, the oldest documentary film festival in Europe, I have been stunned by both the tragedy and joy of human existence and constantly reminded of the ironic title of Roberto Benigni's Italian drama 'Life is Beautiful'. For looking through the window of the world presented by most documentary film festivals, there can be little to smile about.

Thankfully Festival dei Popoli has been wise enough to schedule 8 extensive programs in 8 days; including an international competition, Italian competition, 'Documenting the present', and also honouring the artistic heritage of the city itself by delivering programs devoted to the worlds of music, fine arts and architecture. In addition they also have featured special events, such as 'A Breath With Pina Bausch', documenting the latest production by this breath-taking master of modern dance.

It is a master stroke of programming. The audience can admire the masters of renaissance art in bella Firenze's exquisite galleries and streets, then be moved by modern masters and the world's emerging new talent of filmmaking on the cinema screen.

One of these magnificent masters of world cinema must surely be Danish auteur Jorgen Leth.

The 46th Festival dei Popoli has honoured Leth by inviting him as a jury member of the international competition and featuring a retrospective of his classics, such as 'The Perfect Human' and the iconic '66 Scenes From America' which famously features a scene with Andy Warhol eating a hamburger.

Jorgen Leth's intimate and idiosyncratic 'essays on life' brought a light hearted relief and an exploring eye to an otherwise demanding week of tour de force political and sociological narratives. While Leth's remarkably experimental observations of humanity defy description, the eloquent clarity of his reflections on documentary impressed the gathering and articulated the true artistic potential of documentary.

One might wonder whether Michelangelo, another connoisseur of anatomy, may have sculpted a film like Jorgen Leth's 'The Perfect Human' had he had film as a tool at the time of modelling his masterpiece David 500 years ago.

Proving himself a true modern master of art, Jorgen Leth's cool observations of humanity have inspired and contributed to the work of such celebrated filmmakers as Lars Von Trier, and no doubt inspired the many film students and directors attending this week's Festival dei Popoli.

"I am probably the strangest Danish film-maker. I am happy about that. I am privileged about that. You can envy me... I hate documentaries that know the answers. They set out to prove what they know.... Tell stories for god's sake. But tell your own stories. Things that you are obsessed by. What is important is what triggers your mind".

And so the stage was set for Festival dei Popoli to dramatically redefine the documentary frame. There have been cinema verite observations, portraits, sociological studies, film-maker narratives,
interrogations and interventions, Leth's pseudo-documentaries... And then even the outright
sublime, such as 'Blush', a modern dance experience featured as a festival special event.

The audience for this Flemish fantasy left impressed and probably perplexed. By most definitions 'Blush' was no more a documentary than I am Italian. But at any film festival, and this one more than most, anything is debatable. In the range of documentaries screened this week it was proven that the brush stroke of style is only as limited as one's imagination. Or one's taste.

Even more controversial than 'Blush', especially in taste, was 'Bania'. It spied on the comings, goings and obsessive washings at a Russian men’s bathhouse, for a painstaking 65 minutes, delivering an overdose of flabby floppy flesh. Did the filmmaker perhaps follow Leth's tenet of setting rules and boundaries in films, and decided 'don't edit', delivering the entire rushes
to his audience, literally warts and all? It was an exercise in endurance to sit to the end, but it challenged its audience in an unprecedented form.

The audience was also shocked and repulsed by 'Lost Children' portraying former Ugandan child soldiers, and 'Wetback', which delivered a disturbing indictment of the dangers for illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican borders to seek a better life . Both were so blunt in their portrayal of torment that their audience needed a strong stomach and a steely desensitisation to face the onslaught of horror on screen. In both films, audience members left the cinema mid film, when they could endure no more of the explicit photography and descriptions of brutality.

Thankfully there were moments of tenderness throughout the festival selection also. In such an ancient city it was original to find the Festival documenting the family of the third Millennium. Heartfelt films of remarkable spirit and sensitivity were screened, such as 'Linda and Ali; Two Worlds Between Four Walls' and 'The Education of Shelby Knox'.

The unforgettably titled 'Don't Fuck With Me, I have 51 Brothers and Sisters' was a highlight of the
program. A loving spirit and open mind belied its boldness. 10 points for the title - although it was
deceptive. The doc explored the filmmaker's own search for a feeling of fatherhood and family, by seeking out his 51 brothers and sisters (of 11 mothers, and one father now deceased). It is a unique story generously and gently portrayed.

In stark contrast 'One Point Two' (the average birth rate in Italy) studied its topic in an all too dry and essayist style. The narrative delivered one powerful statement; "In 1900 there was an average of 4.9 children per family, my great-grandmother had five, my grandmother four, then the baby boom, with three children per couple and my mother had three. My sister had two... And I made a documentary".

The art of observation at its best was shown ‘The Pipeline Next Door’, which uncovered a small Georgian community's struggle against BP, against the courts and amongst themselves when their land is claimed for an international pipeline. With grace, compassion and a discreetly discerning eye, it stole the stage on opening night. Even Jorgen Leth, upon introducing his own film directly afterwards, first paused to mention how the film had moved him and left him somewhat speechless from the experience.

Concrete Revolution portrayed the modernization of Beijing on the road to 2008 Olympics, and the
struggles and sacrifices by builders in contributing to its ever rising skyline. Director Guo Xiaolu's
quiet yet carefully targeted reflection and her courage to confront the propaganda of the Chinese
state won over the audience by stealth, and well earned its audience applause.

'President Mir Qanbar', the portrait of an elder from Azerbaijan pursuing his dreams to be president of Iran, was worthy of awards purely for its opening scene; The documentary subject refused to be in the film and confronted the filmmakers, (who were chasing him with a boom microphone after he fell from his bicycle), accusing "You are trying to take advantage of me". The director's playful inclusion of the film-crew at work within the frame broke the fourth wall with a surprising playfulness.

'Brides of Kyrgistan' documented the common culture in Kyrgistan where would-be husbands and families collude for young men not to court a girl as a future wife, but to kidnap her. 'And I think to myself, what a wonderful world'. It was a disarming subject with a distinctively straight forward style. Five chapters for five kidnappings all with different outcomes. And the effect was powerful. But also interesting was the fact that filmmakers following such crimes so intimately verges on condoning and contributing to each case.

Conversely 'Avenge But One of My Two Eyes' was forthrightly interrogating, and interventionist art. It was worth seeing purely for the scenes in which the filmmaker confronts the Israeli army. Confronts is an understatement. Abuses is more accurate.

Brave filmmaking, provocative statements, passionate portrayals. This is what modern documentary making is about, whatever its frame. And the exhibition of these outstanding films proved that Festival dei Popoli's 46th edition dares to deliver a confronting program and to confront the borders of our art.

Lets just hope there will be less horrific atrocities for documentary artists to deliver to the world next year.

And the winners were;

Best documentary; 'Excellent Cadavers', Dir Marco Turco
Special Mention; 'Between Two Countries', Dir Michele Carrillo
Special Mention; 'Rodolfo's Year', Dir Daniel Ruffino & Federico Testardo Tonozzi

Best documentary; 'Moskatchka', Dir Annett Schutze (Germany)
Special Mention; 'Phantom Limb', Dir Jay Rosenblatt (USA)
Special Mention; 'Bania', Dir David Teboul (France)

Wendy Dent
Florence, Italy
9 December 2005


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