A handful of docus from the Central and Eastern European region screening at the Ji.hlava fest have impressed the jury for this key section for their embrace of unconventional structure and political astuteness.
Juror Srdan Keca, himself a veteran of the Czech Republic’s primary docu fest, says the best filmmakers in the Between the Seas section are to be commended for “honestly pursuing the right language for their material, and trusting that language once they had found it.”
Too many docu makers are still relying on “over-familiar tropes of television or propaganda,” says Keca, a documentarian and Stanford University professor whose installation “Museum of the Revolution” was on display at the 2014 Venice Biennale of Architecture.
The films that Keca and the other four jurors viewed for the 23rd edition of Ji.hlava that used these more conventional ideas, he adds, “often coincided with a lack of political awareness.”
Not so with the Romanian entry this year, “Teach,” written, filmed and directed by Alex Brendea and focusing on an itinerant mathematician and educator who must contend with conditions that are primitive, to say the least.
The protagonist, like Brendea, is uninterested in conventional thinking and ignores the official curriculum because he finds it more effective to teach his own way. The story illustrates not just one courageous and passionate central character but makes an incisive commentary on the state of the Romania’s school system.
The film is Brendea’s directorial debut after ten years of working in Romanian cinematography as a cameraman, during which he filmed Dieter Auner’s documentary “Off the Beaten Track” (2010) about herdsmen in northern Transylvania and “Anul dragonului” (2013) for HBO Europe, which followed Chinese immigrants.
The subject of “Teach” was inspiring to Brendea, he says, because of its importance. “I think that if you really want to make something matter within 100 years from now, then you have to educate people first.”
Taking on issues should not put docu makers off, Keca believes – quite the contrary.
As he puts it, “It is encouraging to see filmmakers, especially young ones, understand the esthetic and the political to be inescapably intertwined.”
Another film the Keca found both inventive and informed, he says, is “The Irreversible Consequences of Slipping on a Banana Peel.”
Directed and written by Bogdan Stoica, a Canadian of Romanian origin, the atmospheric docu chronicles the struggles of Alexandrina, who has returned from Canadian exile to a foggy Romanian town to look after her withering mother Mary, a former teacher who is being experiencing advancing dementia.
The intimate moments of their sometimes broken relationship, “oscillating between acceptance, compassion and helplessness,” as the director puts it, parallel Romania’s own aftermath in the post-communist era. Composed of footage of the weakening mother trying to organize those around her while surrounded by her childhood dolls accompanied by thoughtful internal monologues, “Banana Peel” follows “the complicated and anxious path to family reconciliation and towards the place of no return.”
Stoica says of his film, “I believe in a documentary that endorses questioning, anguish, and uncertainty.”