The second Europe Conference, organized jointly by IDFA and ARTE, was entitled The camera in the face of the terrible and looked at how six filmmakers dealt with making documentaries in crisis situations.
The event took place in ITA on November 14 and consisted of three segments. In the first, IDFA's Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia and ARTE's Head of Society and Culture Department Fabrice Pouchault gave a short introduction, which was followed by a keynote speech from Indian director Anand Patwardhan, whose film Reason won the top prize at IDFA in 2018 and whose latest effort, The World Is Family, picked up the Best Editing award this year.
Nyrabia opened the event by telling the audience that when we start talking about Europe, we inevitably end up talking about the world—which, he said, writer Rasha Salti calls "Worlding Europe".
"That's who we are and we're so proud of that," said Nyrabia. "However, to us, it is about trying to examine what documentary film can do today, so we chose two questions: one is war and one is Earth. And we unfortunately see them clashing together these days and we cannot disconnect them anymore. We cannot ignore that the world is not doing well. But we're hoping that at least we can contemplate together what's happening around us in a serious, calm manner."
Pouchault followed up by saying: "Cinema is important when it comes to shared emotion, and life, with those people that we don't think we are connected with, but in fact, we are. The war, the bombing of Gaza, the war in Ukraine, and the climate crisis. And that's the reason why we wanted filmmakers to talk, to have their voice heard, and to show their films."
Pouchault then mentioned projects ARTE was involved in, such as Generation Africa and now Generation Ukraine, where it helped fund and later broadcast documentary films from these regions.
"This is the way ARTE wants to share this idea of Europe," he said. "At the same time, we are overwhelmed by images of extreme violence, of death. I remember 30 years ago, there were limits to showing the death on screen. The news was doing that, but not documentary. Now that has changed. It had to; we cannot avoid reality. We cannot avoid children crying, we cannot avoid what happened in Bucha, we cannot avoid women living in Iran.
"But these images are stunting. They freeze us. They stop all our vision; they stop all thinking. Because when you are stunted you don't see, you don't feel, you are just taken over by rage and hatred. That's the real challenge for documentary filmmakers: let's build a cinema that will be on the level of gravity of the situation today."
Anand Patwardhan's keynote speech
In his keynote speech, Patwardhan went straight to that gravity.
"Cinema is, after all, an intervention. It can at times make a huge difference to the world. This presupposes two things. One, that a film is the outcome of an urgently felt need at ground level. Two, that there are ears and eyes to receive it, and gatekeepers who allow its passage. Earth and war are intimately related issues," he said and went on to speak about the outcome of the 150 years of burning fossil fuels as an initially unintentional disaster, and war as an intentional one.
"In 1961 just before he [Dwight Eisenhower] left office, he made a startling speech that described his darkest fears of where the USA and the world were headed. He coined the term Military Industrial Complex to describe the ever-growing power of a conglomerate of public and private forces and politicians connected to the defense industry who exert a stranglehold on the political economy of the world," Patwardhan said.
But is cinema free to tackle these issues? Patwardhan believes that even when it does, as in the case of Oppenheimer, we can see the censors at play, either official or commercial, and that the "strategy of sanitizing war has always been followed."
He then moved on to a 1938 Israel and Palestine quote from Gandhi, who, he said, is synonymous with the very idea of peace and non-violence, but never won the Peace Nobel Prize, "unlike warmongers like Henry Kissinger and a hapless Barack Obama." Gandhi's quote and Patwardhan's full keynote speech can be found on this link.
"I will not end with this Gandhi quote from 85 years ago," he said. "It is more realistic to conclude with a recent report by arms industry executives from Raytheon Corp and General Dynamics, two of America's largest defense contractors, who told their investors that Israel's war on Gaza will be good for business—one executive predicting that its recent fourfold increase in artillery production would not be enough to meet additional demand."
"Peace we need now but justice must follow, as without it, peace cannot sustain. For this to begin to happen, all those who make and sell weapons and promote the hatred that makes them profitable, must be defanged physically and ideologically. Such a cultural revolution can begin only when Cinema and TV break free from the ideological and physical shackles of the Military Industrial Complex."
Condition report of our planet: repair, restitution or survival
The first panel ensued, with speakers including Indian director Sarvnik Kaur, whose film Against the Tide screened in Best of Fests; Paraguayan filmmaker Sebastián Peña Escobar, whose documentary The Last world-premiered in International Competition; and German director Ralf Buecheler, whose In Wolf Country was shown in Frontlight. It was moderated by Maria Bonsanti of Fondazione Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, who first reminded the audience of the meaning and disaster brought on by Anthropocene.
In Buechler's film, wolves have been returning to Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall, supported by European Union conservation laws.
"I thought that would be a great subject for a film that tells a success story, because it's unusual that wild predatory animals are able to recolonize a place that is so densely inhabited and dominated by human beings. But it worked," he said.
However, this success wasn't the only side of the story: There were people working against this recolonization, seeing it as something being taken away from humans.
"We saw that we had to include this discourse in our film, but we didn't want to film it from an activist perspective, because if a subject is caught up in this kind of discussion, this perspective doesn't help anybody," he explained. "So, we didn't only follow scientists and the wolves, we also followed the shepherds having to cope with the arrival of the wolves. And we discovered this wonderful hearing of the Parliament, where everybody for and against the recolonization could speak their mind, and incorporated this in our film. We found a form hopefully working as some kind of entertaining education."
Meanwhile, in her film, Kaur follows two indigenous fishermen of Koli minority in Bombay who are finding their friendship at odds as the sea that they consider as mother is turning barren because of climate change. One of them is a traditional fisherman, while the other uses LED lights, which harms the ocean ecosystem. She says she found many parallels to the Indian society in this story.
"I feel like the actual journey of this film may have just begun six years ago, but I was born to make Against the Tide, like it was genetically planted in me. My grandfather came from Pakistan in 1947, at the time of India-Pakistan Partition he lived through a genocide. Then in 1984 his house was burned down in anti-Sikh riots. And it felt like I had inherited all these stories of displacement and trauma. I spent a long time trying to distance myself, but the more I run away from it, the more it pulls me back. I think that's the redemptive power of cinema or the healing power of being an artist—that you can actually look back at your own life and make sense of why you do what you do," Kaur elaborated.
In The Last, there is also an overlap between the environmental and geopolitical issues. In the film, two to ecologists travel through the last forests of Paraguay that are scattered in national reserves. Escobar tried to condense his 18 years of traveling through this region, the Chaco, an ecosystem that covers parts of Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil.
"I started witnessing in real time what was happening and understanding, because we had all these conversations with them about not only why was that happening in Paraguay, but also from the point of view our species. And this is something I always try to make clear: When they say that human behavior can be changed, it means that your individual behavior can change, but as a species, we clearly cannot [change] and the results are what we're seeing," he said.
"Chaco also covers a lot of geopolitical territory and there are a lot of implications in terms of regional cultures that have lived in this territory for thousands of years before the West came in. In that sense, it's very important to mention that and translate it into the realm of sound and images that are pertinent to what films do."
Extended wars and regimes of images: the case of documentary
The second panel, entitled “Extended wars and regimes of images: the case of documentary”, also gathered together three filmmakers: Ukrainian producer Olha Beskhmelnytsina, whose project Cuba & Alaska has been supported by the IDFA Bertha Fund, and its director Yegor Troyanovsky took part in this year's IDFAcademy; Australian director Jordan Bryon whose film Transition screened in Best of Fests; and Muhannad Lamin, Tunis-based Libyan director whose Donga world-premiered in Frontlight. It was moderated by Dorota Lech, a programmer for Hot Docs.
Lech started by saying, "This panel is about artistry, craft and storytelling, and ultimately, we will be addressing two questions. One, how does a filmmaker's point of view present a singular or subjective manifestation of a crisis? And two, what can documentary cinema do in the face of said crisis?"
For Beskhmelnytsina, whose project follows two women soldiers in the Ukrainian army, "when you are a documentary filmmaker, what to do in this kind of situation is a much easier choice because you have your camera and your crew who are ready to focus their camera on all these super important topics that are around. You feel that what you are doing could bring the story of your protagonists to the world."
For Bryon, a transgender filmmaker from rural Australia who spent six years among the Taliban as a trans man while he was making the film, "Documentary is the face of crises, because the stories are being presented in a way that enables them to be multi-dimensional, deeper, and more nuanced. And there is so much more to war than blood and death and explosions, there's the loss of future prospects, the destruction of cultural heritage, the brain drain with refugee crises, the impact on children—there are so many layers to war that documentary films enable us to cover."
Even though Lamin is an experienced professional who also worked as a production manager and coordinator on films such as Freedom Fields and After a Revolution, Donga is his first feature-length documentary as a director. He had received footage of 2011 Libyan Revolution from a family friend who didn't fight or carry weapons but kept documenting the events.
"The biggest challenge and ethical concern throughout the film is the imagery that the film presents, and how a lot of it on the surface is what people see on the news, these armed groups in a conflict. But in fact, what's behind those sorts of typical images? What do they do? And how do they actually fight and what kind of life do they live? So it was the reason why I worked on this film, to try to see if one could actually portray those images in a different light. I was trying to stick to what drives them to make all these choices and capture different images than others," Lamin explained.
This leads to the question of who gets to tell which story, and this was particularly interesting to Bryon, an Australian in Afghanistan.
"As somebody who's lived in the Middle East for 12 years and in Afghanistan for six years, I could easily be criticized for making the films that I've been making as somebody who is not from that community," he said. "But I think first of all it is about the filmmaker's intention. Many people, who we call FIFOs [Fly In, Fly Out], don't understand the nuances, the culture, and they don't speak the language. I'm not saying that we can't make films about languages that we don't speak, we can, but then your translator basically needs to be your co-director, because they are the ones who are having the much deeper relationships with the protagonists. And like Teddy, for example, the Afghan guy, he's my filmmaking right hand, much of the access that we got to the Taliban came from him."
For Beskhmelnytsina, it is all about respect for the protagonists and total trust.
"The crucial decision on how to do this film—why we chose partly to be there ourselves and partly to ask our protagonists to film themselves—is a question of security of the film crew and the protagonists. We don't want to bring any additional danger to them, and we don't want to put a crew member in danger. Security protocol is the most important part of this kind of shooting, and the other is trust. Our protagonists give us access to all their lives, and they expect that we will be honest with them and respectful in use of these materials. So, it's very important to build this relationship and to understand that also there are many specific situations as a woman on the frontline. We respect the position of our protagonists, and they want to show their lives as fighters. It's also their choice."
When asked what they need as filmmakers, the three panelists gave different answers that all really point to the central issues of Europe Conference.
Lamin spoke about how underdeveloped Libyan cinema is and that it is crucial to build capacity so that the current dynamics, in which co-productions result with a director and producer coming from somewhere else, can eventually change.
Similarly, Beskhmelnytsina believes it is crucial for Ukrainian filmmakers to be able to tell their stories. "We realized that filmmakers from around the world come to our country, with bigger budgets, and it's great to bring attention to the war in Ukraine. But also, we want to have the opportunity to tell our own stories with Ukrainian voices. And it's why Generation Ukraine is a great help; I think it's super important to keep this opportunity."
Bryon ended on a cautious but also optimistic note: "I think distribution is the number one need, and number two is community. This is definitely the best festival that I've been to, with this supportive energy and atmosphere. That is it for me."