Leipzig – Bergen – Ljubljana: on the documentary film festival docket

The first leg of our last cycle of European film festivals and screenings – Leipzig, Bergen, Ljubljana – got off to a bad start:  a lengthy announcement by the Lufthansa pilot, reduced to single sentence in English:  ‘I am sorry to say but we have mechanical difficulties’.  Not the last time I’d hear that on the trip.

Two hours on the tarmac at Logan, one missed connection in Frankfurt, and I was en route from the Leipzig airport to the regal (if a little threadbare) Fürsenthof Hotel.  Johnny Cash was playing on the cabbie’s deck, his spoken word song ‘What is truth’, where a son asks, ‘Daddy, what is war?/Son, that’s when people fight and die/The little boy of three says, “Daddy, why”’.  If that wasn’t enough to send me into a melancholic tailspin, what followed was:  ‘One’, on my top ten list of most heartbreaking songs:  ‘You act like you never had love/and you want me to go without.’ By the end of the ride I’d gotten religion.

After registering at the Museum of Visual Arts, the lobby of which was now fully occupied by the film festival, I headed for the DOK Summit meeting at the Zeitgeschichteliches Forum Leipzig, where the topic of the day was ‘My Market, My Film:  Distribution and Marketing Today’. Here I had confirmed a sneaking suspicion, a growing anxiety, OK, a big fear that making Human Terrain was the easy part: promoting, distributing, selling was going to be the hard.

Semiotic clues piled up.  The requisite festival bag (just who started this tradition?) was not as cool as Copenhagen or as politically incorrect as Florence but certainly sturdier than Hot Docs, a function dictated by the substantial contents.   The festival tome, fatter than most (every festival boasts its growing size, from x amount of films screened last year, to triple-x this year), was off-gassing like crazy, so I stashed it – after, of course, ego-thumbing to the Human Terrain entry, which was dead-on (I later got to meet and thank the author, Ralph Eueue, a film scholar and member of the selection committee, who moderated the Q & A of our second screening).

I picked up the Official Guest List, which, true to the topic at hand, had five double-spaced pages dedicated to filmmakers followed by sixteen single-spaced pages to jurors, producers, commissioning editors, world sales reps, funders, other festival representatives, press, non-filmmaker guests, film academy members, and DOK team members.  I felt a mimetic rivalry kick in, of the sort that Rene Giraud saw at the root of many an aesthetico-religious encounter gone bad, where the want to own overcomes the will to create.  I would always feel this when the credits of other films role – second cameras, first grips, assistant directors, sundance dalliances, etc that seemed to go on ad infinitum  – trumping many-fold the twenty-odd of the Global Media collective. Was symmetrical filmmaking possible?  Desirable?

The speakers at the ZFL were an odd mix, offering fine critiques but no clear way forward, a reflection perhaps of the old dying, the new not yet born, and a variety of of morbid symptoms showing up on a proliferating range of screens (pace Gramsci).  What’ll be for your doc:  theaters, TV, DVD, VOD, on the Internet, free or with fee, ads or without?  It made for a dissonant yet informative discussion.   At one end of the stage and on the corporate end of the spectrum, was the neatly put-together Amy Westervelt from Rights Stuff, powerpointing her way through a persuasive presentation on how to capture eyeballs and boost revenues by carving out the various digital (and retaining short-term reversion) rights.   At the other end was Jamie King, CEO VODO.net, anarcho-syndicalist, and agent provocateur of P2P distribution, slouching toward Gomorrah with the eye-gleam of someone who has seen the future and figured out to extract profits while sticking it to the man.

I made an intervention – suggesting that content rather than market should dictate the choice of platforms  – which prompted some on the panel to take off their gloves for a spirited discussion on the idealism of doc-making vs the verities of the market. After a minimum amount of glad-handing to appease my capitalist desires, I made my way to the elevator;  it failed to show and took  the stairs, a fortuitous decision. The hallways were covered with artefacts from the end of the cold war, leading me to a truly remarkable exhibition on the rise and fall of the Commuist SED regime – and a powerful historical context for the discussion I had just left.  I wandered through uncovered Stazi archives, hidden compartments in cars to smuggle escapees, reconstructed interrogation rooms, dissident literature, and much, much more, arrayed in a labyrinthine display that sucked you into a reality that had already become too incredible for words.  I got totally (and literally) lost in it, drifting until I came upon that most fateful moment, when the people of Leipzig, in the face of violent repression, staged the first mass demonstration against Communist rule since the Prague spring of ’68 was brutally put down by Soviet tanks.

I stood there mesmerized by the black and white film clips of demonstrations that grew into an unstoppable force.  It also triggered a personal flashback from visit I made to Prague in 1990.  I had been given a small grant to go to East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia to assess the role played by the media in the fall of the Berlin Wall.  On the eve of the first free elections in Prague since the end of the Second World War, I hit pay dirt at the Palace Hotel bar.  Over cocktails Claude Adams, CBC’s foreign correspondent at the time, told me a remarkable story.  He had arrived in West Germany and was keen to get into East Germany to cover the unfolding story of growing protests in Leipzig;  but every film crew, traveling in vans packed with TV equipment, was of course being stopped at the border.  Adams, however, had recently purchased one of the then-new Sony mini-cams.
Taking the train rather than a car, and smuggling the videocamera in under his coat,  he was able to record the remarkable images of tens, then hundreds of thousands of Leipzig citizens marching at night against Soviet rule in candlelit processions.  He got the videotape out to West German TV stations, which were then broadcast to Czechoslovakia, which in turn then held its own demonstrations.  Before the Internet, and avant le mot, the video went viral…and totalitarianism comes crashing down.  A nice story of the power of the image coupled with the will of the people. Capitalism, post-Wall Street Apocalypse, is overdue for a similar reminder, that the street, with a small ‘s’, will eventually provide for crimes unpunished.

I tried to be less righteous when doing the intro and Q & A for our film, but politics rule in Leipzig:  no sign of ‘war fatigue’ here. Screenings sold-out and aside from one glitch – a strange green tint to the opening caused a re-start (I suspect an NTSC to PAL conversion at work – why can’t we all standardize?) – Human Terrain got a good buzz.  The DOK folks kept me busy:  two screenings plus a panel with Samir Abdullah (Gaza on Air), ‘War on Taboo’.  I intended to see many docs, but became completely absorbed by recently released Nazi war films from the archives that included training films for medics (more graphic than any antiwar film) as well as reenactments of the ‘Hundt’ troops where german shepards, dobermann pinschers, and Airdales (?!) take messages, ammunition and water back and forth, from the frontlines to the rear, underfire and with great enthusiasm.

On the last night of the festival threw ARTE threw a party in the old Palace of Culture that, with unlimited booze, got loud and sloppy real quick. I exited by midnight  for a 5 AM wake-up to make the Bergen International Film Festival…..

Flying into Bergen was a trip.  A series of net circles (salmon farms?) led us through a long fjord to the small airport for a pocket-city framed by mountains.  I was picked up by an Italian cinephile, a Phd student from Italy who took me the Radisson Blu, party HQ for a city taken over by the festival.  An extraordinary list of films, including some new Hollywood flics.  Once again Human Terrrain was over-booked, with three screenings and a panel.  I did manage to catch two very different, very entertaining, and ultimately depressing docs.  ‘I’m still here’, which prompted an extended discussion about how best to depict reality in docs, over dinner, with Sean Farnel (Hot Docs), Robin Hennison (My Perestroika) and Carol Dyslinger  (Camp Victory).   I also managed  to squeeze in ‘Inside Job’ (Charles Ferguson) which surpassed the hype.  If there is any doubt we need to bring back tar and feathering (and use the RED camera to record), this film will dispel.

Another early morning flight to Ljubljana for a special screening at Kinovar (a 1920s picture palace that became a porn theater in the 70s-80s, reclaimed by a dedicated group of cinephiles in the 90s), and a lecture at the University of Ljubljana.  Both events jammed, a real antidote to the apathy about Afghanistan one finds at home.  Lots of VIP’s, including the Minister of Culture, who leaned over and asked while the film was running, ‘Is that a Brian Eno soundtrack?’   I was not in Kansas.  But after 10 days on the road, I was ready to return, in spite of the upcoming mid-term electioneering, to the reality some call America.  Next stop, NYC for the Margaret Mead Film Festival.


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