Festival dei Popoli Italy
What a superb stage for a film festival. In spectacular Florence, perhaps the world's most
renowned city of art, the art of documentaries has been on show.
Attending this week's Festival dei Popoli, the oldest documentary film festival in Europe, I have been
stunned by both the tragedy and joy of human existence and constantly reminded of the ironic title of Roberto
Benigni's Italian film 'Life is Beautiful'. For looking through the window of the world presented by
most documentary film festivals, there can be little to smile about.
Thankfully Festival dei Popoli has been wise enough to schedule 8 extensive programs in 8 days; including an
international competition, Italian competition, 'Documenting the present', and also honouring the
artistic heritage of the city itself by delivering programs devoted to the worlds of music, fine arts and
architecture. In addition they also have featured special events, such as 'A Breath With Pina Bausch',
documenting the latest production by this breath-taking master of modern dance.
It is a master stroke of programming. The audience can admire the masters of renaiisance art in bella
Firenze's exquisite galleries and streets, then be moved by modern masters and the world's emerging new
talent of filmmaking on the cinema screen.
One of these magnificent masters of world cinema screen must surely be Danish auteur Jorgen Leth.
The 46th Festival dei Popoli has honoured Leth by inviting him as an jury member of the international competition and featuring a retrospective of his iconic work, such as 'The Perfect Human' and the classic '66 Scenes From America' which famously features a scene with Andy Warhol simply eating a hamburger.
Jorgen Leth's intimate and ideosyncratic 'essays on life' brought a light hearted relief and an exploring
eye to an otherwise demanding week of tour de force political and sociological narratives. While Leth's
remarkably experimental observations of humanity defy description, the eloquent clarity of his reflections
on documentary impressed the gathering and articulated the true artistic potential of documentary.
One might wonder whether Michelangelo, another connoseiur of anatomy, may have sculpted a film like
Jorgen Leth's 'The Perfect Human' had he had film as a tool at the time of sculpting his masterpiece David
500 years ago.
Proving himself a true modern master of art, Jorgen Leth's cool observations of humanity have inspired and
contributed to the work of such celebrated filmmakers as Lars Von Trier, and no doubt inspired the many film
students and directors attending this weeks Festival dei Popoli.
" I am probably the strangest Danish film-maker. I am happy about that. I am priveleged about that. You can
envy me. I hate documentaries that know the answers. They set out to prove what they know. Tell stories for
god's sake. But tell your own stories. Things that you are obsessed by. What is important is what triggers
And so the stage was set for Festival dei Popoli to dramatically redefine the documentary frame. There
have been cinema verite observations, portraits, sociological studies, film-maker narratives,
interrogations and interventions, Leth's pseudo-documentaries... And then even the outright
sublime, such as 'Blush', a modern dance experience featured as a festival special event.
The audience for this Flemish film left impressed and possibly perplexed. By most definitions 'Blush' was no
more a documentary than I am Italian. But at any film festival, and this one more than most, anything is
debatable. In the range of documentaries screened this week it was proven that the brush stroke of style
is only as limited as one's imagination. Or one's taste.
Even more controversial than 'Blush', especially in taste, was 'Bania'. It depicted the comings, goings and obsessive washings at a Russian mens' bathhouse, for a painstaking 67 minutes, delivering an overdose of
flobby flappy flesh. Did the filmmaker perhaps follow Leth's tenet of setting rules and boundaries in films,
and decided 'don't edit', delivering the entire rushes to his audience, literally warts and all? It was an
excercise in endurance to sit to the end, but it challenged its audience in an unprecedented form.
The audience was also shocked and repulsed by 'Lost Children' portraying former Ugandan child soldiers,
and 'Wetback', which delivered a disturbing indictment of the dangers for illegal immigrants crossing the
Mexican borders to seek a better life . Both were so blunt in their portrayal of torment that their
audience needed a strong stomach and a steely desensitisation to face the onslaught of horror on
screen. In both films, audience members left the cinema mid film, when they could endure no more of the
explicit photography and descriptions of brutality.
Thankfully there were moments of tenderness throughout the festival selection also. In such an ancient city
it was original to find the Festival documenting the family of the third Millenium. Heartfelt films of
remarkable spirit and sensitivity were screened, such as 'Linda and Ali; Two Worlds Between Four Walls' and
'The Education of Shelby Knox'.
The unforgettably titled 'Don't Fuck With Me, I have 51 Brothers and Sisters' was a highlight of the
program. A loving spirit and open mind belied its boldness. 10 points for the title - although it was
deceptive. The doc explored the filmmaker's own search for a feeling of fatherhood and family, by seeking out his
51 brothers and sisters (of 11 mothers, and one father now deceased). It is a unique story generously and
In stark contrast 'One Point Two' (the average birth rate in Italy) studied its topic in an all too dry and
essayist style. The narrative delivered one powerful statement; " In 1900 there was an average of 4.9 children per family, my great-grandmother had five, my grandmother four, then the babyboom, with three children per couple and my mother had three. My sister had two... And I made a documentary".
The art of observation at its best was shown The Pipeline Next Door, which uncovered a small Georgian
community's struggle against BP, against the courts and amongst themselves when their land is claimed for
an international pipeline. With grace, compassion and a discreetly objective eye, it stole the stage on
opening night. Even Jorgen Leth, upon introducing his own film directly afterwards, first paused to mention
how the film had moved him and left him somewhat speechless from the experience.
Concrete Revolution portrayed the modernisation of Beijing on the road to 2008 Olympics, and the
struggles and sacrifices by builders in contributing to its ever rising skyline. Director Guo Xiaolu's
quiet yet carefully targeted reflection and her courage to confront the propaganda of the chinese
state won over the audience by stealth, and well earned its audience applause.
President Mir Qanbar, the portrait of an elder from Azerbaijan pursuing his dreams to be president of
Iran, was worthy of awards purely for its opening scene; The documentary subject refused to be in the
film and confronted the filmmakers, (who were chasing him with a boom microphone after he fell from his
bicycle), accusing "You are trying to take advantage of me". The director's playful inclusion of the
film-crew at work within the frame broke the fourth wall with a surprising playfulness.
'Brides of Krygistan' documented the common culture in Kyrgistan where would-be husbands and families collude
for young men not to court a girl as a future wife, but to kidnap her. 'And I think to myself, what a
wonderful world'. It was a disarming subject with a distinctively straight forward style. Five chapters
for five kidnappings all with different outcomes. And the effect was powerful. But the fact that the filmmaker
followed such crimes so intimately verged on condoning and contributing to each case.
Conversely 'Avenge But One of My Two Eyes' was outrightly interrogating, and interventionist art. It
was worth seeing purely for the scenes in which the filmmaker confronts the Israeli army. Confronts is an understatement. Abuses is more accurate.
Brave filmmaking, provocative statements, passionate portrayals. This is what modern documentary making is
about, whatever its frame. And the exhibition of these outstanding films proved that Festival dei Popoli's
46th edition dares to deliver a confronting program and to confront the borders of our art.
Lets just hope there will be less horrific atrocities for documentary artists to deliver to the world next
year.And the winners were;
Best documentary; 'Excellent Cadavers', Dir Marco
Special Mention; 'Between Two Countries', Dir Michele
Special Mention; 'Rodolfo's Year', Dir Daniel Ruffino
& Federico Testardo TonozziI
Best documentary; 'Moskatchka', Dir Annett Schutze
Special Mention; 'Phantom Limb', Dir Jay Rosenblatt
Special Mention; 'Bania', Dir David Teboul (France)
9 December 2005