Films Labelled “2016 Documentary”

The 2016 distribution year ushered in eleven films which were labelled as “documentary”. We will pose a simple question when analysing them: How do they extend our experience with film or documentary film as a form of art?

According to John Dewey, art can be defined by the premise that it extends our experience. If we take a closer look at this assertion, we arrive at the perception that anything can be art: a urinal exhibited in a gallery, just like Rothko’s paintings, the fourth part of Transformers or Okhwan’s Mission Impossible (Okhwan na ceste za slobodou). Dewey did not generalise, he did not create distinctions between a lower and higher art, he did not talk about types or genres. The basic condition of his philosophy is simply the extension of experience.

However, if we ask how many films extend our experience and how, we find ourselves in a difficult situation. A film may be “boring” for one person (i.e. it lacks stimuli) while someone else may see an “apparition” in it. That is because each and every one of us evaluates the extension of experience within a different context or narrative. Someone might evaluate the extension of their subjective experience, for instance they can comprehend something in the film which they did not previously know about themselves. Someone else might evaluate the extension of experience with film as a medium – the film may have no interest for them as a viewer but it may play an important role in the development of film aesthetics.

I would like to open the analysis with Okhwan’s Mission Impossible (dir. M. Mackovič) the style of which, paradoxically, is unified by not being unified by anything at all. The simple narrative of the motif of a journey does not form any more pronounced dramatic arc, hence the viewer’s attention is held by constant alteration of the film style. The style frames the perspective from which we observe the main protagonist: slow-motion close-ups of the face alternate with wide shots with many figures, static shots alternate with shaky shots from a hand- -held camera, archived childhood shots alternate with dynamic shots from the GoPro camera. Sound effects at one point illustrate the narrative just to have the image immediately put in sharp contrast with the account. Some shots are just a simple depiction of the word (slow-motion shots of a body while washing during a monologue on sexuality), while others shock with their explicitness (fingernails being pulled out). Okhwan’s Mission Impossible is a film consistent in its variability, it consistently surprises with new stimuli and introduces new contexts within which we repeatedly recognise the main protagonist.

If continual change is the unifying principle of Okhwan, total stylistic coherence is the unifying principle of 5 October (dir. M. Kollar). Just like Okhwan, this film also takes the form of an account of a journey; however, it thematises, in particular, the closeness and ubiquity of death which is represented by the tumour growing within the protagonist. Static very wide shots depicting circling ravens, rain, mud, decomposing potatoes, factories tinted in grey, and all that without any alleviating commentary, immerse the viewers quite indiscriminately in a situation where they have to face up to the following dilemma: without surgery the probability of death is ninety-two percent, with surgery fifty-fifty.

While in 5 October static shots supported the main theme of the film, in Steam on the River (Para nad riekou, dir. R. Kirchhoff, F. Remunda) the style is in conflict with the protagonists. Ageing jazzmen deal with the proximity of death each in their own way: they curse, they are cynical, they demonstrate their spontaneity and defiance whenever the opportunity presents. As viewers we probably suspect that dying, ramshackle hotels and audiences reminiscent of zombies are hardly the most joyous ones; however, in its style the film always adds something – a shot of fish bones, flies, broken walls. The attempt to add seriousness paradoxically decreases the seriousness of the film, it mellows the contrast between the life energy of the protagonists and the situation in which they find themselves.

The documentary IMT Smile and Lúčnica: Made in Slovakia (IMT Smile a Lúčnica: Made in Slovakia, dir. P. Janík) is constructed as a concert recording where performances of IMT Smile alternate with performances of the Lúčnica folk ensemble, and these again with the comments of the organisers. The performances themselves impress with their energy, while Ivan Tásler’s broad smile is disarming. However, the film’s simple dramaturgic prin- ciple is exhausted by continuous repetition; the three levels of the film do not mutually create new meanings nor do they complement each other. For instance, the performances of Lúčnica either literally illustrate the content of IMT Smile’s songs or they altogether fail to correlate with the songs. Moreover, the comments of the organisers remain at a declarative level: Ivan Tásler repeats several times that he was mostly afraid that the connection between the two ensembles would not make sense, and his comments conclude with his assertion that it did make “sense”. Did it?

The problem of unsubstantiated assertions appears more expressively in Tatras: The New Story (Tatry, nový príbeh, dir. M. Romeo Dvořák). It is based on commercial aesthetics of time-lapse shots of clouds, aerials of free-runners leaping over obstacles or on mutually unrelated accounts by respondents who present their unconditionally positive relation to the Tatras. The objective is to present a kaleidoscope of personalities – a sort of “Tatra elite” which, according to the film, should create the new story of the Tatras and that we should want to join: for instance, to leave Canada for the Tatras, just like one of the respondents who the filmmakers consistently present to us as a role model. However, the film itself does not accomplish its objective, as it depicts its respondents with a certain (unintentional) subversive quality. For instance, the commentary claims of the young free-runners: “They don’t suffer from any inferiority complex whatsoever as a result of coming from small villages below the Tatras,” which, however, appears to be quite the opposite based on the tone of the scene. And the respondent who expresses her relation to the Tatras is, in turn, shown in the jacuzzi half-naked, which reduces her to just another untrustworthy advertising object.

Freedom under Load (Sloboda pod nákladom, dir. P. Barabáš) is another film returning to the construction of the “Tatra elite”. It talks about the community of Tatra porters, but it does not restrict itself to interviews – with its structure, the documentary mediates their experience. On the one hand, there are the accounts of the porters and their constant references to numbers – who transported how many kilograms to what altitude – which should demonstrate the exceptionality of this community, but they tend rather to induce smiles on our faces. On the other hand, with its slow progress, framing its respondents in solitude, as they face up to the majesty of the high mountains, the gales and the downpours, the film renders it possible for the viewers to experience the ascent up the high mountains themselves. But, in the end, the intensity of the experience is the greatest winner and, at the same time, the greatest loser of Freedom under Load: the experience of the film is so live that it remains accessible to only a closed group of people. The detachedness, the sweat, the overcoming of one’s own limitations are all within reach, but is that what we want?

Whilst Tatras: The New Story does not accomplish its objective, Acceptance (Akceptácia, dir. J. Matoušek) is emblematic as its makers are unable to set an objective. On the one hand, they want to talk about the mystery of death in the Tatras, on the other hand, they want to tell the story of climbers who have decided to attempt to break a longstanding record – and eventually, they want to allow the audience to experience what it means to teeter along a mountain ridge. However, the dramaturgy of the film does not permit any of that: the filmmakers work with the topic of death at random, the story about breaking the record does not contain the leitmotifs necessary for building tension (for instance, we lack information about the deadlines) and the music, which is largely at odds with what we see, does not allow the audience to become immersed in experiencing the film (the wild music does not allow the viewers to merge with the graceful downhill run, whilst, in turn, a slow composition does not match the experience of an adrenaline- fuelled ascent).

The Final (Finále, dir. P. Korec, D. Milko) finds itself in a similar situation as regards the uncertainty of its objectives: the authors do not know to what extent they would like to render the social situation of older footballers and to what extent to celebrate the younger ones uncritically. With regard to the older protagonists, they highlight only those moments where their social status is manifested in a negative manner: excessive boozing or them being reduced to the need to sell books “door to door”. Conversely, the younger generation is depicted only positively: smooth shots from the steadycam shooting the football players from below imitate the aesthetics of corporate promo-tion videos and give the impression of it being a commercial for a Slovak football team.

The authors of When Land Is Looking for Its Heaven (Zem, ktorá hľadá svoje nebo, dir. E. Praus) work openly with the ambition of social overlapping – they construct the image of a small village in the Upper Hron River Region and let its inhabitants talk about their social situation. Their film should be a synecdoche pars for this, the stories of the individuals aspire to represent the entire “Slovak countryside”. Nostalgic memories of socialism, folklore, racism towards the Roma, the representation of the countryside as a place where people help each other (in contrast with the avaricious inhabitants of the capital, Bratislava), the reluctance to move to a different town for work, shifting the responsibility for one’s own discomfort in life onto the authorities – but all this has long been a part of the Slovak media and film universe. Accordingly, the film just replicates the established media stereotypes, it makes no attempt to examine the allegations of its respondents, it does not make a problem out of them, it assumes their perspective non-critically; however, by doing this, the film does not allow us to understand them. For instance, it displays the Roma as smiling workers in activation jobs. Why does the population of the country then perceive them as a threat? We do not learn which role these stereotypes play in the lives of people and, as the respondents are defined exclusively through the constantly repeated stereotypes, they also lose their uniqueness.

Where When Land Is Looking for Its Heaven noncritically accepts the perspective of its respondents, Difficult Choice (Ťažká voľba, dir. Z. Piussi) assumes the opposite position. The aim of the film is to deconstruct the media campaign of presidential candidates by showing what was going on behind the scenes and how the media images of the individual personalities were created. The film maintains a distance from its respondents, it approaches them as the subject for analysis – however, it fails to keep this distance in the “expository” line where it assumes the perspective of “non-voters” and “experts”, thereby implicitly condemning the management of political campaigns. This is stirring stuff – the deconstruction has been successful – but it does not raise any question or point to any direction we should take and thus leaves the audience in uncertainty. Should we condemn all our politicians? Demand authenticity from them? Or should we cancel political campaigns? Or democracy?

Richard Müller: Unknown (Richard Müller: Nespoznaný, dir. M. Remo) eventually uses the deconstruction potential to completely reframe what we know about the main protagonist; however, the deconstruction itself is not sufficient, the film goes further. Richard Müller: Unknown chooses to ignore the limitations set by the rules of the chosen art form: documentary. It exceeds the common practice of what a film can do with the representation of its protagonist, it creates new rules and opens up new perspectives. After ripping the protagonist out of all known contexts, it creates his new image, new representation, freed of all burdens of the past, with the ambition of creating a new quality, of capturing a sort of general feature, comprehensible to all. While it is common practice that films related to reality draw their strength from the reality in front of the camera, in the case of Richard Müller: Unknown it is the other way round: the film gives a new meaning to the reality itself. It opens up options. 

Marek Urban
When Land Is Looking for Its Heaven. PHOTO: ASFK, Okhwan’s Mission Impossible. PHOTO: ASFK