At this season’s best European documentary festivals, from CPH:DOX in Copenhagen to Frames of Rep in London, filmmakers are using cinema to tackle climate change and rising hate, and activate modes of resistance. Gorilla Film columnist Carmen Gray selects five highlights.
Climate change, rising white supremacist extremism, an ongoing crisis of refugees displaced from conflict zones: these are amongst numerous challenges of a globalised world that feels increasingly under strain. Filmmakers are feeling the urgency. Some of the best upcoming documentaries deal directly with these issues - with innovative flair to burn. Many on other topics are also doing essential work for cultural openness and engagement between different communities, questioning oppressive power structures through voices of empathy and rebellion. We’re here for all of that - and here are five of our recommendations to watch for.
The amber gleam of sunlight and honey infuses this luscious Macedonian feature debut and Sundance-winner from Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska. Beekeeper Hatidze Muratova lives with her ailing mother away from urban civilisation in a cottage without running water, lit only by candles. She’s adept at climbing the craggy terrain nearby to collect honeycomb from a bee colony to sell by the jar at the market in Skopje.
Calmly observational, with no dry didacticism, the film takes us inside the rhythms of her daily life. It seems at first like an idyll - until a large and fractious family arrives, and want to get in on the honey business. Their rash methods of profit over sustainability upset the fragile ecological order. Honeyland becomes a meditation on how we are forgetting how to live in harmony with nature, and resonates with our catastrophic times of climate change.
Honeyland will screen at festival Frames of Rep at London’s ICA on Saturday 13 April
WAR OF ART
What is the purpose of art, and who sets the rules? Tommy Gulliksen is not the first director from outside North Korea to have made a film there, but he deserves credit as one of the few to have gone beyond the set format of endeavouring an authentic ‘window’ onto daily life in the notoriously closed nation, offering instead a nuanced experiment in two-way creative exchange.
He documents the DMZ Academy, the first international arts symposium in Pyongyang, spearheaded by fellow Norwegian Morten Traavik (who co-directed Liberation Day, (2016), on Slovenian industrial band Laibach’s North Korean tour). Seven artists working in forms not recognised as legitimate art in the DPRK - from paintings in blood to experimental noise installations of insect sounds - exchange ideas with locals working in the requisite Socialist Realist style in praise of state ideology.
Traavik makes the convincing case for contact with, rather than boycott of, totalitarian regimes containing the only possible seeds to disrupt entrenched worldviews. In its richness of humour and surprising moments the film confirms this, even as trust with the constantly on-edge minders breaks down.
War of Art is screening at Copenhagen festival CPH:DOX this month
WHAT YOU GONNA DO WHEN THE WORLD’S ON FIRE?
Though Roberto Minervini was born in Italy, it’s stories of the disenfranchised of the American Deep South that by turns haunt and vitalise his work. Following on the heels of The Other Side (2015), his intimate window into the drug-addled and violent wreckage of the American Dream in Louisiana, comes a powerful and damning portrayal of racism in New Orleans.
We follow the daily experiences of several members of the African-American community as they try to keep afloat under the constant burdens of poverty, systemic oppression and a very active KKK. Members of the New Black Panther Party attempt to alleviate the lack of security through their visible, vocal presence after the suspicious Mississippi deaths of young black men Jeremy Jackson and Phillip Carroll, in a nation that has far from resolved its history of white-orchestrated terror and lynchings.
A director’s cut of What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire? will open festival Frames of Rep at London’s ICA on Friday 12 April
VARDA BY AGNES
Agnès Varda says that nothing about people is trite if you film them with empathy and “find them extraordinary, as I did.” She reflects on her approach to cinema in Varda by Agnès, which had its premiere at the Berlinale and which the still-sprightly 90-year-old claims will be her last film.
While this career survey is ostensibly about herself, it’s clear that it’s other people that have always fascinated the free-spirited arthouse maverick, who was at the vanguard of the French New Wave and has long tapped the possibilities of ‘cinema as activism’ in stylistically innovative, feminist films such as abortion-rights musical One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), in which women are given the space to flout societal conventions. She talks us through this and other classics with all the imaginative charm at her command, and plenty of whimsical digressions.
Varda By Agnès is screening at Copenhagen festival CPH:DOX this month
“Europe has no respect for human beings,” declares a migrant who, fed up with the relentless hostility, has decided to return home, holding even his precarious existence in Iraq preferable. He’s just one of a multitude of individuals who speak the truths of their experiences on perilous routes into Europe in Ai Weiwei’s latest portrait of the refugee crisis.
Unlike films on displacement which feed into the myth of arrival as utopian liberation, this documentary emphasises that for most migrants leaving their homes is a measure of last resort and that all choices and outcomes are agonising: to stay under threat of barrel bombs, or risk dying at the hands of smugglers, only to be stuck interminably in border purgatory or a land irrevocably ‘other’. Like the Chinese artist and activist’s 2017 Human Flow, it’s another empathy-igniting documentary that takes a wide view on mass migration, crossing Europe’s flashpoints in an unsentimental but devastating defence of dignity.
The Rest is screening at Copenhagen festival CPH:DOX this month
Carmen Gray is a freelance film programmer, critic and journalist who was born in New Zealand and now lives in Berlin. She is interested in the intersection of art, politics and collective history.