The task of our jury was to find a winner from nine features in the European Panorama Documentary section. It was difficult because the standard was very high and there were a few other films almost as good as our winner Father’s Garden – The Love of My Parents (Vaters Garten – Die Lieber meiner Eltern), the Swiss film by Peter Liechti.
One of the themes of the film was old age – Liechti’s parents, whose daily actions the director watches subjectively – are in their 80s. In fact six of the nine films we had to judge were about old age or death, or both. But, unlike Micheal Haneke’s Amour, which associates old age with decrepitude and death, the old people seen in these films, to quote Dylan Thomas, ‘do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rage at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
The subject of Tzvetanka was the director Youlian Tabakov’s 86-year-old Bulgarian grandmother. Tzvettanka Gosheva lived through tough times in Bulgaria, first under the Nazis, and then under Soviet rule, but managed to survive to talk about her life to camera. In order to evoke her life, Tabakov uses various stylistic devices – animation, pixilation, surreal images, time-lapse photography, archive material and naturalism. This doesn’t detract from the subject, which has the wonderful old woman at its centre, and her reminiscences.
The German director Sebastian Mez went in for large black-and-white close-ups of old people in Metamorphosen, who live in Southern Ural region of Russia, one of the most radiation contaminated areas in the world. But there is a disconnect between what we see of the people living there and what we see and hear (from the solemn commentary). Only at the end of the film do we see the genetic effects of the radiation with an exploitative camera lingering over a mentally retarded boy.
Far better was Dark Matter (Materia Oscura), by Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti, which focuses on a zone in Sardinia where governments from all over the world have tested new weapons for over fifty years. With a spare use of narration, titles and music, the film follows the activities of the inhabitants of the area, mostly farmers, trying to cope with the devastating effects of the tests on nature. One scene in particular sums up these effects when the farmers struggle to help an obviously ill newly-born calf survive.
The deaths in Revision were those of two Romanians attempting to cross illegally in Germany in 1992, and shot by two hunters, who claim to have mistaken the men for boars. Unfortunately, an intriguing subject is made into a bore by the German director Philip Scheffner. It works neither as a reportage, nor whodunit because of the clumsy construction and repetitious narrative.
Death is a matter-of-fact event in Consequence (Gegenwart), Thomas Hiese’s very impressive documentary on the every-day work in a crematorium in Germany over a few days. Hiese takes a cool distance from his subject, using many long takes, broken occasionally by tracking shots of the coffins. The staff is seen treating their work like any other, preparing the coffins, checking that the corpses correspond to their names, going through the bureaucracy, and stopping to have cake and coffee. The film’s powerful effect comes from the lack of sentimentality and the absence of mourners.
Certainly none of these film made easy viewing, but the best of them awakened one’s observation, curiosity and sympathy.
Ronald Bergan, United Kingdom