At first glance, the lineup of your typical documentary film festival could easily be mistaken for that of a horror-themed movie event. Torture, murder, economic crises, disease, crippling injury, animal cruelty, and many other varieties of atrocities crop up on a regular basis. If anything, in dealing with actual events, documentaries are more horrific than the worst nightmares cooked up by that widely dismissed underdog genre (which does often respond to contemporary problems in its own way). If you think about it, the fact that people are more afraid of horror movies than films depicting terrifying realities makes absolutely no sense.
This year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, now in its 13th year, offered its fair share of gloom. This might reflect Greece’s worsening financial situation, which is certainly more evident with each new festival edition (docs in March; main show in November). Or it may just be that my admitted attraction to the darker side of cinema drew me to specific titles. But even upon closer inspection of the catalog I was hard-pressed to find many uplifting options. Still, Thessaloniki’s a worthy, even vital festival because unlike many doc showcases it focuses on stories and subjects told from a decidedly personal viewpoint and screens a large selection of relatively unknown titles, i.e., not the usual suspects that have been passed around on the ever-growing circuit of nonfiction fests.
The subject matter of Frenchman Cédric Condom’s Cannibal Island rivals any horror movie for brutality. It relates the little-known history of Josef Stalin’s 1933 plan to rid Moscow and Leningrad of the underclass, criminals, and social deviants—“undesirables,” as he called them, essentially anyone deemed an opponent of his regime. Thousands were rounded up (many mistakenly, including children and unlucky ordinary people caught without the right identification at the wrong time) and sent to a desolate island in the Siberian River. There they were treated like animals and left to starve—this is of course where the cannibalism comes in—but this engaging and well-researched film is not as much about flesh-eating as it is about recounting history in an ultra-straightforward manner. It’s not nearly as sensationalistic as the film’s title and trailer might suggest.
A Man Came and Took Her tells the incredibly disturbing story of the disappearance of an 8-year-old girl and her mother’s attempts over nearly a decade to find her. She turns to psychics for guidance, and refuses to give up hope, even when evidence begins to point to the likelihood of a sickening murder. Jedrzej Niestroj and Rafal Przybyl’s complex film is visually shoddy, but the empty eyes and maniacally grinning face of the confessed killer, who appears on screen, is bone-chilling. As is the realization that justice is awfully hard to come by in this small, seemingly peaceful Polish village.
Equally memorable, and by far the most fascinating and inventively told film, Submission presents the idea that the distinctive cocktail of chemicals in our blood—passed along in the womb from our mothers and absorbed post-birth—determines our fate. Assorted science-expert talking heads from around the world impart highly persuasive evidence that, among other things, a marked increase in cancer, male reproductive disorders, and general endocrinal issues poses a more immediate threat to the human race than global warming. The rest of the film focuses on its director, veteran Swedish documentarian Stefan Jarl, as he undergoes extensive blood evaluation tests, along with his very pregnant friend, Swedish movie star Eva Rose, who grows increasingly reluctant to learn about the poisons she will be passing along. Jarl calls this the most important film he’s ever made. While I haven’t seen his other work, it’s not hard to believe.
Rama Rau’s The Market chronicles the predicament of poor fishermen’s wives in India who sell their kidneys for a pittance—while the doctors get rich—and endure crippling pain as a consequence, with little relief from their financial woes. Their story is paralleled with that of a single mother in Canada in desperate need of a kidney who is conflicted about obtaining one under such circumstances, though her teenage daughter is much more pragmatic about the situation. Rau’s film is perhaps too up-close-and-personal at times, to the point that certain exchanges between the Indian women—one of whom becomes an organ broker of sorts—feel almost staged, a risk run by any doc taking this approach. But regardless, it’s a thought-provoking film that allows viewers, if it’s even possible, to choose their own stance.
On a more political note, there were two selections that could be called enviro-horror docs, both chronicling grassroots rebellion gone wild. In Risteard O’Domhnaill’s The Pipe, unyielding Irishmen nobly oppose Shell Oil’s efforts to lay a dangerous pipeline through their sacred countryside. It’s a nice-looking film (in no small part thanks to the gorgeous scenery), but it becomes a bit repetitive as the locals protest and get arrested over and over again. More successful is Marshall Curry’s utterly compelling and infuriating If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (which opened in NYC on June 22), which through ELF member Daniel McGowan sheds some light on the radical activities that led to his eventual classification as a “terrorist” and subsequent incarceration. McGowan is an intelligent, all-too-human hero (or villain, depending on where you stand), and the build-up to his and ELF’s unraveling is often painful to watch. But what really sticks in the mind is the absolutely disturbing footage of police brutality captured during the 1999 WTO protests.
Though there were undoubtedly exhilaratingly life-affirming films on view, the only one I caught was Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s My Playground
© 2011 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center