Beldocs: The Festival That Turns Expectations Upside Down

There is no reason why the love of cinema and that for life should be kept separate.
Celluloid Liberation Front

The Great Fortune

Not many festivals grant you the privilege of being personally welcomed by its director with a bottle of home-brewed liquor, not very many set that as their standard of hospitality: Beldocs, the Belgrade International Documentary Film Festival, is one of them. The composite beauty and disinterested generosity of the city and its people are the ideal environment for a festival genuinely close to its etymological roots, that of festivity, of an uplifting moment of reciprocal discovery and exchange. Big enough to explore, small enough to elaborate, Beldocs is what a festival is meant to be: a place where films are not only consumed but also convivially dissected. The size and schedule of the festival, but most crucially its comradery dimension, allow for the kind of space cinema needs in order to be cultivated, not only watched. The constitutive elements of the seventh art in Beldocs coexist organically side by side, conscious of their mutual reliance. Rather than schizophrenically dividing them along imaginary lines, the festival welcomes in equal and balanced measure all members of the film industry: directors, critics, programmers, buyers and commissioning editors from local as well as global networks. Instead of reinforcing the compartmentalized ghettos within the industry, Beldocs facilitates meaningful exchanges between its different agents. Crossover and internationalism characterize a programming where Sundance winners and new Bulgarian cinema stand side by side so that their respective audiences can meet or even possibly swap. Serbian documentaries are accorded the same critical space as a Robert Flaherty 35mm retrospective. After all it's on the periphery of the (film) world where different strands meet and new hybrids come into being, not at its center.

Controversial thinking is usually subsumed by the passing of time, what felt outrageous 50 years ago might today be widely accepted. That is not the case when it comes to Hannah Arednt's thought, whose tragic relevance speaks of a humanity still trapped in the same dynamics the German Jewish thinker so brilliantly accounted for. The compulsive need to perceive and depict evil as an absolute and extraordinary occurrence rather than a banality that, however atrocious, anyone can commit if given moral justification, is as topical today as it was when Arendt covered the Eichman trial in Jerusalem for the New Yorker over fifty years ago. But the Banality of Evil is but a chapter in Arendt's rich philosophical life that the documentary by Ada Ushpiz, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, magisterially retraces. Mainly using the German philosopher's own words, the documentary narrates Arendt's personal and theoretical life, which were of course intimately related, to disclose the painful significance that her radical humanism still has in today's world. Her reflections on the status of refugees, which she herself was after escaping Nazism first to France then to the US, cannot but strike a chilling chord with today's so-called “refugee crisis” (i.e. the violent displacement of innocent men and women by warmongering Western powers). Ushpiz's essential documentary serves as a detailed and contextualized introduction to the thought of one of the 20th century most urgent thinkers, one whose pertinence to the present time should not be ignored. The only baffling omission is the staggering amount of Jewish refugees that America had turned away during their persecution in Europe. An omission made all the more puzzling given the praise that one of Arendt's former students, interviewed in the documentary, piles upon the tolerant and pluralistic America that had welcomed his teacher but had also turned away so many, less fortunate, others.

The Pottery Maker

The intrinsic injustice of the concentrationary paradigm is also the topic of Tamara von Steiner's Controindicazione, a documentary set in the last prison hospital for the criminally insane in Europe. Literally trapped in a bureaucratic limbo whereby their sentences are never final but can always be extended, some of the inmates can end up spending their whole lives in prison for having committed minor crimes, often in a state of mental confusion. The film tries to neither denounce nor to expose the institutional madness of such a place, but limits itself to unobtrusively stare at the daily routine of the prison, and to register the exchanges between inmates and warders. It is by simply witnessing the violent inanity that governs this place where a permanent state of exception has been silently established that the spectator gradually realizes where the real insanity lies. The prison is located in a small Sicilian town in a country, Italy, where mental asylums were officially abolished in 1978 with a law bearing the name of a Marxist doctor who had animated the struggle against psychic repression throughout the 60s and 70s. What is striking about Von Steiner's documentary is precisely the absence of any attempt to break the Kafkian psychosis that perpetuates the existence of such place, a prison where innocent people are locked in, often until they die. And yet the cruel legislative nonsense that allows this place to remain open is not that different from the twisted logics that govern the world beyond the walls of this emblematic prison. 

Curated by Greg de Cuir, the Robert Flaherty retrospective was, as far as this writer is concerned, a revelation of sort. Mainly known as one of the pioneers of (silent) documentary filmmaking, the American director lived and worked through the first half of the last century to produce a body of work well beyond his most well known features (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran, etc.). In Louisiana Story, set in a rural francophone community where French Creole is still spoken, Flaherty documents with narrative abandonment the coming of oil and its trans-formative industry. He accords man and nature the same emphatic treatment, and looks at industrialization and its machinery with the same forgiving dignity he grants the living beings. With a cinematic anti-speciesism almost reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman's documentaries, Flaherty filmed mother earth's creatures, humans included, with a respectful reverence that neither the BBC nor viral cat videos come even close to. There is a bio-political awareness of the man-machine interrelation in the way he refuses to divide the industrial apparatus from its (natural) environment while chronicling the complementary effects they have on each other. Even in his (Bo)hollywood-esque foray into Indian exoticism, Elephant Boy, he always films animals as co-protagonists rather than animated props. Similarly, in his “labour films” such as The Pottery Maker, The Land or Industrial Britain, the mechanical and the organic, the manufactured and the natural are dialectically framed within the same expressive plane.

Perhaps the festival's most unexpected and therefore fitting surprise was The Great Fortune by Kirsten Burger, Mikko Gaestel and Johannes Muller. The film centers around a flamboyant, obnoxious and ego-maniacally self-obsessed actor which the directors follow in his luxurious daily routine. Fancy restaurants, exclusive spas and massage parlors, a driver whose name he can't even pronounce, Mirco Kuball has it all. He is also affected by the down syndrome, but unlike the vast majority (totality?) of disabled people that appear in front of a camera the audience is not asked to pity him or feel sorry for his condition. On the contrary, Mr. Kuball is as dislikable and annoying as any other ostentatious showbiz prima donna, and by denying him the compulsory empathy that disabled people are hypocritically granted on screen (but not in society), the directors do away with the polite barriers that divide “disabled” from “normal” people. A remarkable achievement indeed. Beldocs too, very much like this film, turns expectations upside down, catches its audiences off guard and artlessly blends with the non-aligned charm of a city that exudes a raw, quasi-sexual energy from every corner. There is no reason why the love of cinema and that for life should be kept separate. After all, you know a festival is successful when the time spent in a movie theatre is as pleasurable and fruitful as the one you spend with the people around you and the place you find yourself in.

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Festival CoverageBelgrade International Film FestivalBelgrade International Film Festival 2016Ada UshpizTamara von SteinerRobert FlahertyKirsten BurgerMikko GaestelJohannes Muller
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