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Do Documentaries Play Only to Cultures of Comfort?: Everyday Rebellions on The European Doc Fest Circuit

By Sean Farnel | Indiewire November 7, 2012 at 1:21PM

"How come it doesn't bother you that we live in a society that gave up?" asks one of the young Russian agitators in "Winter, Go Away." The film, which premiered at Locarno and is now rumbling through the Fall festival circuit in Europe, documents the civil unrest during this year's Russian elections. Produced in a feverish few months by students at Marina Razbezhkina’s School of Documentary Film and Theatre, "Winter, Go Away" was completed just in time for Putin's inauguration. My take away: it will be Vlad's last welcome back party, or there'll be a revolution. Last week at DOK Leipzig, Ms. Razbezhkina told me that the students were originally commissioned by Moscow's Novaya Gazeta newspaper to document one rally in December 2011. They were compelled to continue. Through February 2012 the ten students shot and edited in shifts, living together in a small flat. The result is one of the most visceral and urgent political documentaries since another mid-crisis film, Emile de Antonio's "Year of the Pig." As conventional distribution for "Winter, Go Away" in Russia is not an option, it is now being screened for free wherever possible. We frequently respirate "world changing" vapours in doc wonderland, getting dizzy with self-validation. In June, on the publication of his pamphlet "Why Documentaries Matter," BBC's Nick Fraser cautioned London's Frontline Club on breathing such giddy airs: "There's a kind of packaging of social action by, and I hate to be cynical, collections of people who would dread the consequences of any upheaval in the world." At last month's Bergen International Film Festival, held in one of the world's richest countries (Norway), the viscous that contains much current documentary within the "progressive bubble" (Fraser's term) is palpable. Among some 100 feature docs at BIFF is 70% of the Sundance 2012 nonfiction programme. Given that Sundance is the world's most important and influential festival for English-language documentary, it is in Park City that much of the spongy boosterism soaked into contemporary documentary is squeezed into the more absorbent international film festival programmers. These, the tastemakers. I also don't like to be cynical, but I've been watching these world-changing documentaries for fifteen years, and I've been angry and informed.  I've cheered- and welled-up in all the right places. And festival audiences around the world, though mostly within cultures of comfort, have done the same. Yet, advocacy no longer does it for me, nor does it seem to be working upon the world as much as we claim. I'm bothered. And not just by the fact that an espresso is eight times more expensive in Bergen than in Lisboa, which is just one of the piercing contrasts experienced on my hop from Norway to Portugal. These are two countries chomping from opposite ends of the economic feed bag. Re-caffeinated for Docslisboa, it's clear that matters have become pressing, jittery, on the edge. The festival sucked up a 20% budget cut this year, and one assumes there wasn't much there to slash to begin with. The program itself, the four Festival Directors tell us in their introduction, was constructed from a double challenge: "to think about film as a simultaneously artistic and political field, and as a force that be inscribed in reality." As with most of the festivals on this particular trip, the curation at Doclisboa is rigorous, taking an elevated level of visual literacy and patience amongst its audience for granted. While the content may not be overtly "political" by North American prescriptions, Doclisboa was obviously conceived politically (to paraphrase Godard). The best of the main competition, "The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images" (Eric Baudelaire), "Three Sisters" (Wang Bing) and "Sofia's Last Ambulance" (Ilian Metev) are each radical formalist works in their own way.
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"Winter Go Away"
"Winter Go Away"

"How come it doesn't bother you that we live in a society that gave up?" asks one of the young Russian agitators in "Winter, Go Away." The film, which premiered at Locarno and is now rumbling through the Fall festival circuit in Europe, documents the civil unrest during this year's Russian elections. Produced in a feverish few months by students at Marina Razbezhkina’s School of Documentary Film and Theatre, "Winter, Go Away" was completed just in time for Putin's inauguration. My take away: it will be Vlad's last welcome back party, or there'll be a revolution.

Last week at DOK Leipzig, Ms. Razbezhkina told me that the students were originally commissioned by Moscow's Novaya Gazeta newspaper to document one rally in December 2011. They were compelled to continue. Through February 2012 the ten students shot and edited in shifts, living together in a small flat. The result is one of the most visceral and urgent political documentaries since another mid-crisis film, Emile de Antonio's "Year of the Pig." As conventional distribution for "Winter, Go Away" in Russia is not an option, it is now being screened for free wherever possible.

We frequently respirate "world changing" vapours in doc wonderland, getting dizzy with self-validation. In June, on the publication of his pamphlet "Why Documentaries Matter," BBC's Nick Fraser cautioned London's Frontline Club on breathing such giddy airs: "There's a kind of packaging of social action by, and I hate to be cynical, collections of people who would dread the consequences of any upheaval in the world."

At last month's Bergen International Film Festival, held in one of the world's richest countries (Norway), the viscous that contains much current documentary within the "progressive bubble" (Fraser's term) is palpable. Among some 100 feature docs at BIFF is 70% of the Sundance 2012 nonfiction programme. Given that Sundance is the world's most important and influential festival for English-language documentary, it is in Park City that much of the spongy boosterism soaked into contemporary documentary is squeezed into the more absorbent international film festival programmers. These, the tastemakers. I also don't like to be cynical, but I've been watching these world-changing documentaries for fifteen years, and I've been angry and informed.  I've cheered- and welled-up in all the right places. And festival audiences around the world, though mostly within cultures of comfort, have done the same. Yet, advocacy no longer does it for me, nor does it seem to be working upon the world as much as we claim.

I'm bothered.

And not just by the fact that an espresso is eight times more expensive in Bergen than in Lisboa, which is just one of the piercing contrasts experienced on my hop from Norway to Portugal. These are two countries chomping from opposite ends of the economic feed bag. Re-caffeinated for Docslisboa, it's clear that matters have become pressing, jittery, on the edge. The festival sucked up a 20% budget cut this year, and one assumes there wasn't much there to slash to begin with.

The program itself, the four Festival Directors tell us in their introduction, was constructed from a double challenge: "to think about film as a simultaneously artistic and political field, and as a force that be inscribed in reality." As with most of the festivals on this particular trip, the curation at Doclisboa is rigorous, taking an elevated level of visual literacy and patience amongst its audience for granted. While the content may not be overtly "political" by North American prescriptions, Doclisboa was obviously conceived politically (to paraphrase Godard). The best of the main competition, "The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images" (Eric Baudelaire), "Three Sisters" (Wang Bing) and "Sofia's Last Ambulance" (Ilian Metev) are each radical formalist works in their own way.

This article is related to: Documentary