Nine international documentary films and one judge. That’s the unique competition format for Opus Bonum, the section dedicated to international documentary titles at Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival (Oct. 24-29).
Films from France, the U.K., Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, Switzerland, India, Madagascar, Egypt and Palestine play in the competition section, and the winner will be chosen by famed Romanian director Cristi Puiu. Known as the father of the Romanian New Wave, Puiu’s credits include 2005’s Cannes Un Certain Regard prize winner “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.”
Launched in 2006, the format for Opus Bonum was conceived as a way of countering the compromises that are inherent in the functioning of traditional film festival juries. “We ask one really significant cinematic person to decide which is the best film – it is a really personal choice,” says festival director Marek Hovorka.
He explains that Puiu was selected as this year’s judge of the section because “he is a great example of bringing real life to contemporary cinema.” Ji.hlava, he adds, is “very serious about non-fiction cinema, but we always try to keep it in connection with fiction cinema. We always try to find filmmakers who are dealing with both aspects.”
The Opus Bonum section includes the world premiere of German and Madagascan co-production “Fonja” (pictured). It’s directed by 10 young prisoners in a Madagascar jail who took part in a four-month workshop to learn filmmaking, and in “Fonja” the camera became a tool to express themselves freely despite their detention. “It’s very surprising how the prisoners used the camera, and the material they shot,” says Hovorka.
“One Night Stand” is another world premiere. Directed by Noor Abed and Mark Lotfy, the film is based on the filmmakers’ real encounter one night in a bar in Beirut with an unknown European heading to join the Kurdish militia fighting the Islamic State in Syria. The conversation was secretly recorded on a cellphone and serves as the script for a reconstruction of that night. Hovorka describes the documentary as “very experimental in its attempt to reconstruct the personal experience of the filmmakers.”
From the U.K. is the international premiere of Roz Mortimer’s “The Deathless Woman,” another experimental film about racial intolerance and the rise of the far right. In the film, a woman buried alive in the Polish forests during World War II comes back to life to commemorate the history of violence against the Roma. Her “avatar” becomes a young researcher visiting locations in Poland and Hungary where Roma have lost their lives. “It’s very beautifully shot and very cinematic,” says Hovorka. “Most films on this issue are based on interviews with survivors, but this really is a cinematic experience.”
Another international premiere is French documentary “The Life and Death of Oscar Perez” by Romain Champalaune. Using social media, it pieces together the life of a Venezuelan policeman who rebelled against President Nicolás Maduro’s regime, and was tracked down and shot dead by the Venezuelan National Guard. The documentary raises questions about social media, says Hovorka, with Perez live broadcasting almost until the last seconds of his life.
The Opus Bonum section also includes “Wishing You the Same” by director Arnaud de Mezamat, which is based on the book “Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century” by Czech writer Patrik Ouředník, which has been widely translated. “If you know the book, you would not think it’s possible to make a film about it,” says Hovorka, adding that the director has kept hold of the special Czech sense of absurdity and irony that runs through the book.
The Opus Bonum selection is rounded out by the European premiere of Rajula Shah’s “At Home, Walking”; the Czech premiere of Greta Stocklassa’s “Kiruna – A Brand New World”; and the international premieres of Michele Manzolini and Federico Ferrone’s “Once More Unto the Breach,” and Christian Labhart’s “Passion – Between Revolt and Resignation.”
Reflecting on the films in Opus Bonum, Hovorka says it’s not possible to detect a single theme running through the selection, citing the wide variety of topics and ways of life portrayed throughout. “The whole program shows the power of cinema. In central Europe and elsewhere, society is getting more and more divided. With social media, we are living in our own bubbles. In this kind of society, culture and cinema are elements which connect society.”
Pictured: “The Life and Death of Oscar Perez”