Posts Tagged 'festival'

Escape into the world of fiction at Syros film fest

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By Harry van Versendaal

Cinema buffs have a chance to escape the barrage of tough reality in Greece and seek comfort in fiction at the upcoming Syros International Film Festival (SIFF).

The brainchild of three American 20-somethings with a dream, the festival, inaugurated three years ago, showcases 30 features and 40 shorts, as well as 14 documentary films. This includes 10 Greek works as well as films from 17 other countries around the world.

Among this year’s highlights is a tribute to Romanian film director and screenwriter Corneliu Porumboiu, recipient of the Golden Camera prize for his satirical comedy “12:08: East of Bucharest” at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006.

Organizers have also planned an extensive program on the theme of place in cinema, featuring rare, new, classic and diverse films. A drive-in venue is expected to take the cinema experience to a whole new level.

Meanwhile, organizers have planned a series of lectures on the impact of technological progress on cinema production and distribution by distinguished guests including British film director Peter Greenaway.

The festival will open with a multimedia show by the Grenoble-based performance collective Maki. The act brings together 16 mm film projection, shadow play, music and dance – all specially designed for a remote field on the island.

In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition, Jacob Moe, the festival’s managing director, spoke about this summer’s offerings, the island and the trio’s battle with the host country’s financial woes.

What are this year’s highlights?

If we have to narrow it down, I would pick out three things. First of all, we are hosting a full retrospective on Corneliu Porumboiu. The great Romanian filmmaker will be attending each screening, and we’ll be screening all of his features, including the Greek premiere of his latest film “The Treasure,” in addition to several of his fantastic shorts. Second of all, we have a massive program on the theme of place in cinema, titled “Where: Cinemas of Place.” These will feature rare, new, classic and diverse films, all grouped according to different sub-themes within the greater question of how place is articulated and expressed in cinema. This program includes the drive-in cinema we have built, which will show, of course, road films, describing the “no-where” place that is the open road. And finally, our lecture series on the technological transformation currently under way in the production and distribution of cinema. It is called “Film to Digital,” and we’re having several speakers (Peter Greenaway, Albert Serra, Louis Benassi and Elektra Venaki) all talk about the pleasures and pains of the two media, the gap between them, and the language they may or may not share.

This summer we also inaugurate Khora, an audiovisual residency founded in the hopes of creating a space for production within the framework of the festival, as well as creating an opportunity for artists to engage with certain places on Syros and to create site-specific pieces.

The residency will take place at the Syros Institute, housed in a refurbished 16th-century Jesuit Monastery in Ano Syros. Participants have the opportunity to work with two internationally acclaimed guest artists, Michael Pisaro (composer, California Institute of the Arts) and Deborah Stratman (artist and filmmaker, University of Illinois at Chicago), who will also contribute their own projects. The resulting works will be screened as completed or in-progress pieces during SIFF 2015 in a special showcase screening.

What film will open this year’s festival?

Actually, it’s not a film – it’s a performance. Maki, a multimedia performance group, will create a live experience of “expanded cinema” incorporating dance, music, shadow play, and live 16 mm projection. All of the basic elements of cinema will be at play: movement, light, dark and sound. The event will take place outdoors and under a full moon, on a sloped hill by the sea, directly across from Fanari, the lighthouse island. We’ve created a path down to the projection site, so any spectator will be able to wander down the hill and choose their own seating freely. It’s a unique event, really embedded in the locale and experience of the island, which fully kicks off the theme of this year’s program – the “place” of cinema.

Why did you pick Syros? Where do you stand now, three year’s since the first event? What are your future goals?

We chose Syros at first because we had close personal ties to the island. It became clear from the first year however that Syros was a natural choice for the location of a film festival, given the cultural seat it occupies in the Cyclades. People can expect many cultural offerings on Syros; the island has always been known for this. Now, in our third year, we could not think of moving the festival somewhere else, unless some huge turn of events took place. We have developed relationships with many venues, groups and, of course, viewers on the island that contribute greatly to the success of the festival. We also feel as though the festival has been shaped by Syros as a place: Syros is an island with a rich and varied history and you can see this in the landscape and buildings all around; it is impossible not to notice several layers of history existing at once here. We in turn have tried to make our festival’s program and screening spaces exist in this same way, revealing to the viewer the many different strands of cinema and approaches to watching it we can take. This is perhaps our greatest goal as a festival, to create really compelling screening experiences, understanding that both the material viewed and the context of its exhibition creates an overall film-watching experience.

What makes this festival different from similar events, besides its location?

SIFF is most distinct in its dedication to creating truly special film-viewing experiences that inform the specific films being shown, and, also, the more general experience of watching a film. While we are committed to showing recent films on the festival circuit, SIFF is not like many other film festivals that show contemporary film. We are not only a film festival; we are also a film event, a celebration of film, and, hopefully, a space for people to engage with film in very immediate and intimate ways. We try to program recent film with old film, films from nearby and far away, from all genres. We show in movies theaters and an opera house, a shipyard, an abandoned field, and more. We show in 16 mm, 35 mm, and various digital formats. We host talks about film, an artist residency, performances and exhibitions around film… Perhaps what makes SIFF most distinct is the space it tries to inhabit between film festival, film repertory and something else entirely.

Where does the festival budget come from?

Our main sponsor this year was the Onassis Cultural Center / Onassis Foundation. They provided crucial support for different programs within the festival, including the opening event, our lecture series, our first filmmaking workshop for local teenagers and a curation of films created for their C.P. Cavafy Digital Archive. In addition, we have received substantial grants from national consulates, including the American Embassy (which will support our artist residency and a large program of films by American directors who only completed one film) and the Romanian Embassy (who will sponsor the Porumboiu retrospective), In addition, we have received substantial municipal and regional grants and generous in-kind sponsorships, ranging from a post-production house – 2|35 – which will generously provide the award for our competition of debut feature films, to the local vineyard Fabrica and nearby artisanal brewery Nissos that will provide the refreshments for all of our events.

Has the financial crisis and overall uncertainty affected your plans?

Of course. Like any non-profit organization here in Greece, we have been confronted by reduced funding opportunities, both from the private and public sector. From private funders, especially when it comes to sponsorships from companies, we have experienced many instances in which they simply do not want to hear our proposal, because they have had to end their sponsorship programs. On the public level, there is a great deal of uncertainty at times, and so even support that had been approved sometimes can change in form, or even fall through. At the same time, the current climate can encourage funders to want to help: Especially from larger cultural institutes, we have received great support this year, in some part due to their understanding that it is becoming increasingly difficult to put on a cultural event like ours. From individuals as well, we have received this same sense of understanding, that they recognize we put on the festival in this period of uncertainty and that they appreciate the event all the more for it. While not financial, this support is a huge help. So, the short of it: We plan on continuing the festival – we just need to constantly come up with new ways of receiving financial support, and that is definitely a source of creativity.

Ghost ex machina exposes Europe’s wretched migrants

By Harry van Versendaal

Morgan Knibbe did not set out to make an objective documentary about one of the biggest problems facing Europe today: the plight of migrants and refugees on the continent.

“My ambition was to try to understand how these people feel. I wanted to submerge myself in their world and to share this experience with other people. I felt that I was able to achieve this by creating a highly subjective audiovisual form,” the 26-year-old filmmaker from the Netherlands says about his first feature film, “Those Who Feel the Fire Burning,” which will screen at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

“Filmmaking is the art of manipulation… Pulling people out of their comfort zone makes them look at existing values in a different way.”

The opening of the film, which made waves at Amsterdam’s prestigious IDFA film festival, where it debuted, is faithful to this credo. A boat carrying immigrant families is seen adrift on rough seas in the black of night. A father tries to calm his anxious daughter as the vessel is tossed about by the waves. A man falls into the water and starts to go down. And then, black.

This re-enactment of a Lampedusa-style boat tragedy, the only staged part of the film, is enough to raise eyebrows among purist documentary filmmakers. However, it is also instrumental in allowing Knibbe to introduce his ghost ex machina, as it were. Stuck in purgatory, a ghost steers viewers through the largely invisible lives of undocumented migrants.

“We wanted to create the perspective of a ghost flying through a dark place between heaven and hell. A metaphor,” he says of his cinematic device which is reminiscent of Wim Wenders’s fiction classic “Wings of Desire.”

It’s a highly immersive feel, achieved through the extensive use of a Steadicam system and drone cameras – combined with some creative editing. Adding to the whole experience is the gripping, if sometimes overly lyrical, voice-over.

Thousands of mainly African and Asian immigrants try to reach Europe’s borders every year. Knibbe has chosen to offer zero figures and statistics. When it comes to engaging people, he says, posting cold facts and numbers does little to help the cause.

“That is what most media do and I think it doesn’t touch people. We also left out specifics about location so that no one could point a finger to a specific country. This is a European problem, in fact a global problem,” he says.

As the ghost floats around the grim cityscape, we get to glimpse at snippets from the lives of migrant families crammed into run-down apartments, men praying in underground makeshift mosques, scrap metal collectors roaming the streets, a drug addict mother taking her heroin shot. The setting remains unidentified, but uncomfortably familiar: Greece, which despite a brutal five-year economic crisis remains the gateway of choice for the vast majority of migrants seeking to make their way into Western Europe.

Commitment

It was not Knibbe’s first time at Europe’s porous external border. As a student, the Dutchman spent time in the western port city of Patra, the site of a now-deserted makeshift migrant settlement, and during that time he actually co-directed the film, “We Go Europe Insha’Allah.” Stuff you won’t see in Holland.

The distance makes his commitment all the more admirable.

“I did this because I feel privileged to have been born in relative wealth. We often take our wealth for granted. I like to see the world and its living creatures, including the human race, as an organism. There is a big imbalance and people tend to think small instead of big. Individual instead of universal. I’d like to make people think about the bigger picture,” Knibbe says.

“People who are in trouble want to move to a place where there seems to be wealth, but the wealthy don’t know how to deal with this. The film is mostly meant to give depth to this subject that is in my eyes generally treated in a shallow, informative and seemingly objective way. I wanted to make people empathize again,” he says.

Access was sensitive and painstaking. Knibbe often had to go to great lengths to approach and win the trust of his vulnerable subjects at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise.

“I followed people on the street collecting garbage up to the places where they lived, either in some sort of an apartment, a basement or on the streets. I met a homeless guy in a park. I bought a football to play games with refugees. I cooked meals for and with people. It took time, care and love to build mutual trust. This was the most important thing for the whole film,” he says.

Introspection

Creating the film also had an impact on Knibbe himself – particularly shooting on the Italian island of Lampedusa in the wake of the 2013 shipwreck which killed 366 African migrants.

“Lampedusa was heavy stuff,” he says. Footage inserted into the documentary from his award-winning 2014 short “Shipwreck” captures the despair of the victims’ relatives as well as the confusion and grief of Italian officials as the victims’ bodies are taken away from the site. The director’s own presence, amid the crowd of cynical media people, made him ponder his own part in all that. It took some adjustment, shifting down a gear.

“It was an absurd mix: the deep trauma of the survivors and the media circus around them – who, quite frankly, were a parasitic, egoistic phenomenon. All these journalists trying to get their quotes and shots and then leave. I was confronted with myself as a part of this circus and tried to do things drastically different: I took more time and took it slow building mutual trust with the refugees,” he says.

It may be a bit more decent, dignified manner of handling the issue, but can a work like this improve the situation? In fact, what can?

Knibbe remains sober about the prospects.

“I’m not sure what we can do to change this problem. I don’t have answers. What I am trying to do with this film is to plant seeds in the minds of people that could hopefully flourish into more liberal and empathetic ways of dealing with this problem. I think building borders is useless and inhumane. We are wealthy, and we take it for granted. When the poor want a share, we tell them to p*** off and that their culture doesn’t fit ours. That’s f***ed up.”

Fateful encounters

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By Harry van Versendaal

John Appel knew he wanted to make a film about chance; All he had to do was wait for the right sequence of events. So when Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik went on his murderous rampage on July 22, 2011, the Dutch director reached for his camera.

“I wanted to make a film about how people deal with fate. It had to be based on a tragic event,” Appel, 55, said during an interview at the Olympion Theater after a screening of “Wrong Time Wrong Place,” part of Thessaloniki’s Documentary Festival which wraps up this weekend.

“I didn’t want to concentrate on who committed the crimes – only on the victims. This is a story about why people found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said of the film that opened the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in November.

After setting off a car bomb outside government headquarters in Oslo, the 33-year-old Breivik went on a shooting spree on Utoya island, where more than 500 people had gathered for the Labor Party’s annual summer camp. Eight people died in the bombing and 69 were killed on the island. More than 240 were injured. Breivik claimed the killings were “cruel and necessary” to protect his country from being overrun by Muslims.

The documentary follows five people who either narrowly survived the massacre or had a close friend or relative killed in it. Harald, a Norwegian civil servant, had just arrived at the office that morning when the bomb went off, killing several of his colleagues and leaving him partially blind. Ritah, a pregnant woman from Uganda, only decided to go to the summer camp at the very last minute. She escaped by hiding inside a toilet with another two people. One of these was Hakon, who had noticed Breivik on the ferry to the island. Visiting from Georgia, Natia managed to escape, but her friend Tamta was the last person Breivik shot before being arrested by the police. The heartbreaking account of her parents is central to the film.

Convincing his characters to take part in the documentary, especially so soon after the tragic events, was not easy. “Some people did not trust me,” said Appel, adding that people were naturally put off by the sensation-hungry media. With others, he was able to convince them that his motives were different.

“I had to persuade them that I did not wish to exploit the drama. It was not my intention to investigate why the killer acted the way he did. I was not interested in his story, but in the story of the victims that were able to survive,” he said.

Quite fittingly, chance also played a big part in making the film. Appel started filming before he had found any characters or a story. “I was looking for characters and then, during filming really, by chance I met the individuals that appear in the film,” he said.

“I totally could not find the lady from Uganda [Ritah]. I wanted to tell the story of the people who hid inside the toilet but I could only find two of them. I was looking for Ritah in Uganda but I could not find her, and then, thanks to a coincidental contact, I found out she was living in the Netherlands, where she had applied for political asylum,” he said.

“I visited her, the next day I filmed, and the day after that she gave birth to the baby. I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Watching the film, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the way cultural and religious differences affect the way people deal with tragedy. The mother of Tamta, who can be seen praying in an apartment filled with religious icons and family pictures, appears to believe that the fate of her daughter, her only daughter, was sealed in old religious texts. “It was a relief for her. It was a relief to discover the book that had predicted what happened – that is being born on Christmas Day – meant something special and this was in the hand of the gods and she had to die anyway,” said Appel, who is not religious himself.

He says the cold Nordic character is perhaps more suitable to deal with such circumstances. “Look at how they dealt with the court case and Breivik himself. They were extremely civilized. If it had taken place in Greece, maybe people would try to kill him. Norwegians are different,” he said. Judges declared Breivik sane and sentenced him to at least 21 years in prison.

Appel, who has directed more than 30 documentaries for cinema and television, says his next project will be completely coincidental – including the starting point of the film. “If you make a coincidental film, you meet one person that leads you to the next person, and that leads you to another person, and this whole thing will reveal everything life is about,” he said.

Does he think that the realization of this unbearable lightness of being, as it were, should make us treat life a bit less seriously? “Yes, I think so. One of the views I want to express in this film is that life is not controllable. You can try to live as safely as you can, but you never know what is going to happen. You may get sick or get involved in a serious accident,” he said.

“So you should be a little more open to the unexpected and not try to control everything in life. It’s really not worth it.”

Fruit of conflict


By Harry van Versendaal

It’s easy to tell Eyal Sivan likes his craft and that he put lots of heart into it. Sipping coffee and puffing on a roll-up cigarette on top of the hotel’s roof terrace on a sunny Saturday morning, the Israeli filmmaker, a gray curly-haired man in his late forties with a heavy accent that contains traces of French, looks more like a Left Bank intellectual as he chats away about politics, philosophy and his latest project.

Not for the first time, Sivan has made a controversial film. “Jaffa, the Orange’s Clockwork,” a feature-length documentary looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the history of the fabled citrus fruit. Drawing on a huge wealth of material including archive footage, paintings, posters and poems, Sivan tries to deconstruct the history of Jaffa the orange, Jaffa the brand, Jaffa the city and, eventually, of Israel itself – a history which, he claims, is a one of expropriation.

Sivan, who these days shares his time between London and Paris, traveled to Greece for the screening of his movie at the “Middle East” section of the 13th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition, the director talked about capitalism, Stanley Kubrick and why Israel “is one of the biggest advertizing successes in the world.”

I asked a couple of colleagues “what is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘jaffa orange’? And they both said: ‘Israel’. Would you say it’s a sign of the effectiveness of Israel’s spin machine, as it were?

It’s more than a spin machine. It confirms the fact that Israeli colonialism in fact succeeded. It’s not just colonialism of the land, it is colonialism of mentalities. It is also colonialism of mentality, of image. The big success was to erase the memory of Palestine. And it’s more than spin. It’s a whole ideology, an effort, an investment on many levels to transform Palestine and the image of Palestine into what became Israel and to erase Palestine and the memory of Palestine. So, yes, it’s a big success and it’s one of the biggest advertising successes in the world maybe after Coca Cola.

You describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a ‘colonial’ conflict.

Yes, because first of all we are talking about an immigrants’ movement that comes and takes the land from an indigenous society – and it does so in order to create something that is not genuine from that place; in order to create a European country in the Middle East. And in this sense it’s a colonial conflict because the conflict is not just about how much land I will have but it’s also about the fact that we are talking about an occupation – an ongoing occupation and an ongoing process of ethnic cleansing of the land.

Your movie draws heavily on archive footage, paintings, posters, songs, even poetry which suggests a strong interest in the power of imagery and metaphor. Is politics the management of symbols?

Politics is about how you imagine transformation, how you imagine management. Image is by definition a tool of the imaginary. I think it’s interesting in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Zionism and the moving image are born basically at the same time, so there is a very tight link. If there is something that characterizes modernity it’s the moving image. Zionism is a modern movement and modern politics deals not only with symbols but also with the recreation of an image. In this sense, Israel is at the forefront.

In terms of reading and rereading the past and reconstructing it in the present?

Yes, I would say even by reading, rereading and erasing the past in order to allow the establishment of a new image that comes to erase the older one. This is what image is about. Image is about hiding; not about showing. Image has a frame, and the frame is hiding more than it is showing. It’s a permanent game about hiding, showing, hiding again and so on. This is the dynamic.

Your views do not sound very mainstream – not by Israeli standards, at least.

If you think about the history of the twentieth century, horror came from the mainstream, not from the extreme.

Did you have problems making your documentary?

I shot most of my films in the past in Israel or in Palestine but I never had any Israeli support, nor did I ask for any Israeli support. Sometimes you have to avoid what other people want to give you because of their interests. But in the case of the Jaffa project, because I was living in Israel at the time, and it’s a project that started with an Israeli producer who is a friend so we decided to apply for a grant in Israel, which I got. But it was canceled because of a campaign that was started by a journalist from a popular newspaper. More than that it was a kind of blasphemy and a campaign against me and against the project, which did not allow the Israeli people to see the film as a film but only to watch it through what was already said about it.

What was the reason you picked this specific topic?

I read an article in the 1990s about the privatization of Jaffa oranges. Until the 1990s they were controlled by the Israeli citrus board which was a government agency but after the Oslo agreements, there was a move to privatize different elements of the state and the economy. I read this article about the privatization of Jaffa and I thought that it was a fantastic metaphor about this idea of taking a national symbol and transforming it into a product. But there is one more reason. One of the key things in documentary cinema is to find the structuring device of the film. So you have a lot of films that deal with a main character or with a space and so on. I thought that the orange is a fantastic structuring device. It can play as a permanent metaphorical element.

Why did you choose to invert the title of Stanley Kubrick’s famous film “A Clockwork Orange” to provide the title for your documentary?

For years we were working on the project under the title “Jaffa, Story of a Brand.” While editing, my editor of 15 years said that the whole thing was in fact about the mechanics of the orange. In French Kubrick’s title is “Orange Mecanique” – mechanical orange, and this is what my film tries to do: to dismantle the image, watching it again, showing it to people, analyzing and dismantling the process. Meanwhile, I was also thinking about Walter Benjamin’s ideas on the mechanical duplication of the image found in his famous article about photography. So by translating it into English it became the inversion of Kubrick’s title. We are talking about the mechanics of violence using image – so I found it just perfect.

How has the movie been received so far in Israel and outside?

The movie has been beautifully received. But that does not mean that we can sell it to television networks. Even for European channels, it’s a controversial film. Sure, many films critical of Israel are shown but they usually don’t ask this deep rooted question about colonialism. Which is not an Israeli question, it’s a European question. The film is a lot about how Europe built the image of Palestine through image. The film is all over the world in festivals and in some countries, like France, Germany and Belgium, it was released in cinemas. It’s a surprise to many people of course. Jaffa is a well-known brand. People in countries like the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries are familiar with Jaffa oranges but suddenly discover that behind this innocent thing, which is the nice, sweet orange that comes from the sun, there is a history of expropriation. It can be quite a shock. Many people don’t know that Jaffa oranges are in fact Palestinian. In Israel the film got a few specific screenings, and it was shown on a cable documentary channel.

You have said that you don’t believe in “objective” films – a rather controversial statement for many documakers, at least. I mean, many may actually admit that they cannot achieve it, but this is the goal they are striving for. Can you elaborate on this?

If the goal is to make objective documentary, I don’t understand why make documentary in the first place. The only point of being a creator or an artist is to try to give a vision, your own subjective vision, of reality. The idea that we can all see the same thing is a totalitarian idea. This is exactly what totalitarian and fascist regimes have tried to do. This is television. Television news pretends to be objective. This is rubbish. The fact that there is one person with one identity, with his own story, that is doing and watching the world and deciding what to put inside the frame and what to leave outside the frame this is what makes it subjective and this is the fantastic thing about documentary; that it is subjective. I am not interested in objective documentary. Objectivity is not a notion that is linked to any form of individual creation or art. Objectivity is for science.

I guess it’s a philosophical question – whether you actually believe in truth with a capital T.

I think that it comes from the idea that objective is good and subjective is bad. But this is what capitalism is about. Capitalism is about the attempt to annihilate any subjectivity. There is no individual, no people, just segments of consumers. And here is a struggle; a struggle against this attempt for objectivity. Objectivity is simply not interesting. This festival has a program about disabled people that features some 50 films. If there are 50 films about disabled people, it’s because there are 50 different persons that are thinking they have 50 different visions. What makes plurality, what makes the richness of us all is that we are the accumulation of subjectivities. But I think that all this discussion about subjective and objective is a bad discussion. It implies that there is this idea of good and bad.

It’s Plato’s fault.

Yes, it’s Plato’s fault. Exactly.

Preparing for D-day

By Harry van Versendaal

It was 1995 when Juul Bovenberg’s father became seriously ill. After a short but painful spell on his sickbed, Mr Bovenberg asked his GP to take away his suffering by taking away his life. The family and the doctor agreed to the man’s final wish to choose a dignified death over endless, unavoidable pain.

When the GP visited the house to carry out the euthanasia, for once Bovenberg’s attention was not focused on her ill father. In fact, the 23-year-old Juul could not help stare at the man who had come to end her father’s life.

“I noticed how nervous he was. His whole body was shivering, and I saw his relief after he was done. As his car left the driveway, I realized how difficult this must have been for him. He was the one to actually pull the trigger. I asked myself: How will he return home; what does he feel right now?” she explains now.

But it would be years before Bovenberg, a Dutch filmmaker in her late 30s, would begin to search for an answer. In 2009, she made a documentary inspired by that incident. “A Deadly Dilemma: Euthanasia from a Doctor’s Perspective” – which was screened last week at the 2nd International Health Film Festival on Kos – follows three Dutch GPs during each of their preparations for and the sequel to performing euthanasia on one of their patients. The movie, which won the jury’s second prize for medium-length films, came after last year’s screening of John Zaritsky’s “The Suicide Tourist,” a compelling documentary about an American Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patient’s decision to make use of assisted suicide in a Swiss clinic.

Voluntary euthanasia has been legal in the Netherlands since 2002. Doctors are allowed to help terminally ill patients to die, provided they follow a set of strict regulations designed to prevent abuse. Patients must be terminally ill adults facing a future of “unbearable” suffering. They must have made a voluntary, considered and persistent request to die, while a second, independent physician must give the green light before the procedure is carried out. Holland was one of the first countries to legalize mercy killing, although the practice had been unofficially tolerated for decades.

Voluntary euthanasia and/or assisted suicide, which has also been legalized in Belgium, Luxemburg, Switzerland and the US states of Oregon and Washington, is still very much the subject of controversy involving moral, medical, religious and philosophical questions. Notwithstanding the title of Bovenberg’s documentary, the doctors featuring in it seem to have no second thoughts about the ethics of the practice. What they do seem to carry is the mammoth emotional burden about being the ones to shut down the circuit. “You are not trained to kill someone,” one of them says in the movie. An ethical decision is not necessarily an easy decision.

“I didn’t want to make a film about the moral aspect of euthanasia,” Bovenberg says. “It is about the feelings of GPs in a country where euthanasia is legal. Even for doctors that morally accept euthanasia, it remains a heavy subject, having to apply it. A lot of people have the wrong idea about euthanasia in the Netherlands, as if this does not mean anything to a doctor. But a doctor has feelings too.”

In the movie, we see the doctors holding their regular meetings with their terminally ill patients, discussing with them and their relatives as they regress. The process is emotionally difficult and, in some cases, practically almost impossible. A heavily paralyzed woman suffering from ALS struggles to communicate with the doctor by moving her thumb and, when this becomes impossible, with slight nods of her head. Her husband sits alone in the backyard. The doctor is worried that her rapidly deteriorating patient will soon no longer be able to give her (legally required) consent. In the end, she doesn’t have to, as the woman dies of natural causes.

Another doctor frequents the gym to sweat out his stress. He chats with colleagues and takes care of “normal” patients. And then comes D-day. He prepares the lethal potion. Driving his car to the house of his patient, a shockingly calm and cool-headed man suffering from a hereditary metabolic disease, the poison sitting in a brown bag on the back seat, he wonders about his patient’s feelings about physical contact. “Is he the type to hug and embrace?”

Bovenberg, who lives on a houseboat in Amsterdam, studied documentary and production at the Dutch Film and Television Academy (NFTVA) in Amsterdam. She is the winner of the prestigious Nipkowschijf award for the VPRO Dutch television series “Veldpost.” Her “Looking for Loedertje” was nominated for the Dutch Academy Award while “Laura is my Father” was nominated at the Cinekid Festival. “A Deadly Dilemma” is her twelfth movie.

“Why do you do it?” the director asks the third doctor, who is preparing to end the life of a young woman who has cancer. “In the end, because of my love for my patients,” he replies.

Ultimately, they all feel they have done the right thing; they all feel relieved. But don’t get the wrong impression. “You never get used to it. It’s the hardest thing to do.”

Crossing a desert for dates

By Harry van Versendaal

“European women are not beautiful. They have small noses,” jokes an African woman watching a Western soap opera with her friends in Bilma, an oasis town in northeast Niger. There is a lot in Belgian director Nathalie Borgers’s latest film to suggest that everything in life is relative. But, again, there’s even more to suggest it is not.

“Winds of Sand, Women of Rock,” which was screened this week at a packed theater at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, follows three women of the Toubou tribe, in south Sahara, as they undertake their annual, 1,500-kilometer on-foot journey across the desert to collect dates and earn money for their families. Domagali, Amina and Mariama must guide a caravan of children, camels and goats through extremely inhospitable terrain braving draught, heat and sandstorms.

Looking back on the exhausting and perilous three-week journey, Borgers, a striking figure in her mid-40s, keeps no secret of her admiration of these female nomads.

“I was struck by the self-empowerment, their capacity to resist different things like their social system, the patriarchal structure, the adverse environment,” she said during an interview with Athens Plus in the northern port town. Borgers flew to Thessaloniki from Paris, where she has lived for the past 10 years, to present her documentary which is screened here as part of the festival’s Africa section.

Living in a culture where men are camel breeders, while they are reduced to their household routine, the annual caravan is these women’s only chance to break a rather suffocating, male-dominated pattern. In a place where camels are the measure for all things, women are apparently worth just half the price of men. The strenuous path to Bilma is also a path to economic independence, pride and self-confidence. Money collected from the dates will allow them to feed their families for a year and they can spend some of it to treat themselves some with some womanly stuff like new clothes and jewelry.

But first they have to get there. We watch them walking in the desert, taming the rebellious camels, praying, cooking, educating their kids, resting. And then back on their feet.

Beautifully crafted (excellent panoramic landscape shots – kudos to director of photography Jean Paul Meurisse), the movie also does a good job in exposing the women’s daily stresses and hopes. Amina dreams of a less arduous life in the city, while Mariama, who has run away from her husband whom she married in an arranged wedding, wants to go back to school and become a nurse.

Were the Toubou women as interested in the Belgian as she was in them? “Probably not,” Borgers said, describing how the protagonists were rather skeptical of the pant-wearing female crew members. “They don’t understand why we dress like men. They just don’t get it. They don’t envy us that much. They want to have a bit more comfort in their life, material comfort, but they are not so eager to look like us in any way,” she said.

Few would blame the Toubou women, however, for having felt a bit envious under the particular circumstances. The mainly-Austrian crew was traveling in five cars and a truck so that they could carry their 1 ton of equipment, which included everything from film cameras and lights to coolers for the rolls of the film. Despite previous agreement, the nomads were soon tempted to rid themselves some of the load.

“We said: ‘Sorry but this is our deal: We do our thing, you do yours. If we start doing this [helping you out], we will no longer be filming what this is for you,’” Borgers said.

Involvement with the subjects is a very delicate issue for doc makers but in a few rare cases the crew found it hard to resist. “If someone got sick and we needed to run or when there would be a delay because of us and they were lacking water, then we would give some to them. But that only happened once or twice,” Borgers said.

“It’s not 100 percent pure in that sense. It is a complicated situation because you have more means than they do,” she said.

This is where bourgeois guilt usually kicks in with the privileged western observer. Although Borgers couldn’t help it when she first visited the place in a Jeep to do research before the actual shooting, the uncomfortable feeling gradually faded.

“You can hardly feel bourgeois when you do all that work. We carried a lot of equipment but we hardly carried any equipment for ourselves. We had one cook with us but there was not much to eat anyway. Nor did we have better conditions to sleep. We were in the heat, working as hard as they did.”

“Winds of Sand” is an interesting, even inspiring movie. But is it a feminist one?

“In a way I would say ‘yes’ but it’s not made in a holding-up-your-fist kind of fashion,” Borgers said.

”For me it’s more like ‘let’s look at these women, see what we can learn from them’. I don’t know if this is feministic.”

Seven years in Tibet

By Harry van Versendaal

Seven years in the making, Dirk Simon’s controversial film “When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun” made its international premiere this week at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Based on 800 hours of footage shot in India, Beijing and Chinese-occupied Lhasa, the German-born director deftly unfolds the story-within-the-story of Tibet’s liberation movement: a damaging split between followers of the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent, middle-way policy and Tibetan radicals who have come to see violence as the only way to shake off Chinese domination. Beijing claims Tibet is part of China.

With the countdown to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the Olympic Torch route fiasco as a backdrop, Simon presents exclusive interviews, rare archival material and breathtaking imagery – all wrapped up in a super soundtrack crafted by Philip Glass, Thom Yorke and Damien Rice. The morning after his movie earned the thunderous applause of the Thessaloniki audience, the Colorado-based filmmaker spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the making of and his expectations for this groundbreaking project.

Why did it take seven years to complete this movie?

I never intended to spend seven years making this film. First, it was a question of budget: From the beginning, I knew I wanted a movie that would be intriguing from a cinematographic and a musical point of view, and I knew this was not going to come cheap. Then it was the story and the research. For every answer, we would find ourselves with three more questions. For three or four years, the story just became bigger and more complicated.

How did things work out for you in terms of funding?

We didn’t get any support really. We applied for funding in the USA but we didn’t get any. Nor did we get any in Germany, part of the reason being that you have to spend some of that money in the country. We talked to a few German production companies but for them it was too expensive and too political. So we borrowed the money we didn’t have.

What other problems did you have to overcome?

There were many logistical problems. We had a lot of overseas shooting, remote locations, and getting the equipment on top of a mountain was a challenge.

Of course, shooting in China and Tibet was a big question mark. We couldn’t apply for any permits; just mentioning the name of Tibet would raise enough flags in China. Once you put yourself out there with a project like this, you risk jeopardizing the entire project. They might not give you visas or could even try to stop you from doing anything at all.

So you opted to lay low.

Yes, we tried to keep a low profile but also to gain the trust of individuals and support groups. I believe we were the only media group, if you like, who knew that the protest on San Francisco’s Golden Gate would take place and that’s how we were able to put a helicopter on standby [to film the protest]. Gaining their trust was a process of several years. Obviously, they had to be very secretive and gaining their trust was not easy.

The movie features no statements by Chinese officials. Does that not affect the neutrality of the movie?

No, I don’t think so. It’s almost like a general rule: “You have to have all sides in there.” In the beginning, I wanted to [include them] but then I realized that it wasn’t going to help the project and wasn’t going to help the Chinese either. They weren’t going to look better. They were only going to look worse.

But there must be Chinese intellectuals or activists who object to the official line.

This is true. After the uprising of March 2008 [the 49th anniversary of the failed uprising against Beijing in 1959] there was a group of about 20 intellectuals and dissidents who wrote an open letter to their government and some got arrested over that. But it was risky. I was trying to contact one well-known person but we kept missing each other. We had to be very secretive, it was like an undercover operation. It all happened in Beijing during the Olympics; she was watched constantly and we had to assume that we were too. Rather than have some Chinese showing that they are compassionate to the Tibetans, I tried a different approach, which was showing these contemporary artists, basically showing Chinese who also care about humanity and freedom. I did not want to make it a one-dimensional movie, so to speak. I wanted it to have many facets.

You take a clear stand on the China-Tibet standoff but you don’t take an equally clear stance on the division within the Tibet liberation movement. Was that done on purpose, was it because you had not made up your mind, or did you want the audience to draw their own conclusions?

All of the above, in a way. I knew I was not going to find the final answer, so it was more important to raise the right questions. For me personally, it’s very hard to make a decision as to which is the right way. I have a personal history of growing up under communism and escaping. I can see myself picking up a stone at some point and throwing it.

Even so, I intellectually understand the concept of nonviolence and that this should be the right way. I feel torn too. I think the only way to come to a solution is to discuss, but not in the way that it has been done over the past 20 years, where people just keep going back and forth. [Tibetans need] leadership and inspiration and to become united again. The real Achilles heel for the Tibetan movement right now is that lack of unity and that lack of leadership. They haven’t gone anywhere for 20 years.

Did growing up in a divided Germany influence you in making this movie?

Absolutely. I was a teenager when this started to affect me, this growing desire for freedom. And I started to realize that something was wrong in my own country, which eventually led me to leave everything behind, family, friends, all belongings. Freedom has ever since been a very important topic to me.

Has making this movie made you more or less upbeat about a solution?

It’s a roller-coaster ride, really. [After the San Francisco Torch fiasco], everyone was celebrating that the party didn’t happen and they were so happy. What I felt was actually sadness. After all this shouting and yelling, I felt there will never be a dialogue; it’s impossible. They are so entrenched and there is so much hatred, it seemed like they will never overcome it. All we saw was a huge triumph for the Chinese government. At the end, we all joined in and we clapped our hands and said that this was such an amazing opening ceremony. But there is not much hope left.

I am actually happy but also surprised that audiences have said they found the movie “inspiring.” People truly understand that what I really meant to say is: “This is about to fail. We are on the verge of failure. The most famous nonviolent movement is on the verge of failure and not just because China is so dominant but also because we are not supporting it; we are allowing the Chinese to do what they want.”

Near the end of the movie, an interviewee draws a comparison between Nazi Germany’s extermination of the Jews and China’s crackdown on the Tibetans. Don’t you think that statement was over the top?

That is probably the point we discussed the most in the 15-month editing process. I knew it was provocative in many ways. We discussed it with many people. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the Americans found it bold but accepted it, it was easy to get the image. Germans were very, very nervous. They thought we were crossing a line here. But my concern was also the Jewish community, how they would feel if we allowed the Tibetans to say this on film. And, of course, I was concerned about the Chinese, because the film also reaches out to them. In the end, we left the statement because I felt “What if he is right?” I mean, imagine if someone at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin had made a film predicting the Holocaust.

Even if we might not experience a Holocaust like that of the last century, what we are seeing is a society that is not even hiding its aspiration for dominance and one that is going not just for Asia but global domination. It is not even hiding it. We all believe that Tibet is something far, far away while the Chinese are, politically speaking, already knocking very heavily on our door.

Click here to watch the official video.


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