In this year's feature-length documentary competition for the WATCH DOCS 2020 Award, we present nine films selected from over a thousand submissions. Only Polish premieres and two titles nominated by us for the WATCH DOCS Award at the 60th Krakow Film Festival. Films from five continents, made in the last two years, appreciated at the world's largest film festivals.
A panorama of contemporary human rights documentaries. Committed filmmakers who ask difficult questions in their films. Topics, people and events in the spotlight of human rights defenders. Check out these films if you want to see what the world really looks like.
The most interesting, little-seen Polish documentaries of the last season on social issues. Some history, sport, two strong Belarusian accents, a Polish film made in Gambia and a subtle story about a difficult family relationship. There are also two newly completed films about this year's street protests.
For over a dozen years we have been presenting propaganda films in this section of the program, or those in various ways facing the problem of propaganda. Until now, they usually concerned communication manipulations by various governments and political movements. However, we live in a time when corporate budgets often exceed those of nation states, and the abuse of persuasion by business giants goes far beyond false advertising of products, services or even politicians. That is why this year we will examine corporate propaganda.
"Influence" is about the extent to which politics has been replaced by political marketing, and features Lord Tim Bell, a key figure connecting the worlds of big politics and advertising. The agency he founded has specialized in aggressive election campaigns and whitewashing corrupt regimes. Two other films reveal the way big business has exploited popular environmental concern for its own ends. The "Green Lie" exposes the behind-the-scenes of corporate and product greenwashing, which usually merely conceals the age-old desire to maximize profits, along with that charade's extremely high socio-political costs. Meanwhile, "Campaign Against the Climate" reveals how oil giants disseminate false information about climate change by employing pseudo-experts to sell us climate lies through alleged think tanks. To what extent do corpo-truths determine our way of thinking about the world, whether we like it or not?
The WATCH DOCS 20th anniversary edition devotes a special section to the intersection of human rights and ecology. In our times, the challenges of environmental protection, climate change mitigation and activism for the planet are undoubtedly among the most important for human rights protection. The films we present reflect the complexity of problems in need of solutions if we are to save the earth.
The first step on this road is acceptance of the fact that human activity impacts global warming. The protagonists of our documentaries undertake the heroic and unequal fight against disinformation, the interests of large corporations and raw material producers, which strive to maximize profits at all costs. Their stories belie the convenient view that environmental commitment can be limited to consumer choices. This fight will require huge sacrifices - but it can still prove victorious.
A run-of-the-mill documentary film replicates what its director, producer or commissioning editor and the average viewer have in mind. Details change, but narrative frames and patterns, basic assumptions and truths about the world are striking in their monotonous repetition. Only outstanding auteurs of the documentary art proffer a sufficiently fresh, unformatted gaze and enough determination to carve out adequate freedom from the uniformizing audiovisual market to grant viewers a pricelessly authentic encounter with reality. Kazuhiro Soda, one of the greatest and most original masters of the observational documentary, is undoubtedly one of them.
Soda obtained a degree in religious studies from Tokyo University and, after moving to New York, a BFA in filmmaking from the School of Visual Arts. As a foreign correspondent for the Japanese NHK TV, he has directed a multitude of documentaries that he does not now include in his filmography. Over the years, he began to realize that the rules imposed by the television production system were the exact opposite of those that he would like to follow as an artist. When Soda learned that his university colleague was running for a post on the Kawasaki local government on behalf of the powerful Liberal Democratic Party, he decided to take a risk and make his own film. Released in 2007, "Campaign" turned out to be one of the most important political documentaries of the 21st century, thoroughly honest and surprising, not fitting into our ideas about democracy or any tradition of character building in nonfiction cinema. From then on, although his style naturally evolved, maturing primarily visually, Soda sticks to the principles he developed, which he summarized succinctly in his "Ten Commandments" of observational filmmaking. He and his wife Kiyoko, life companion and collaborator, work mainly in Japan, looking at people and places as diverse as the famous Tokyo theater company, fishermen and migrant women working in a small oyster "factory," or a veteran of Japanese open psychiatry and his patients.
Unlike many Western authors of the observational documentary, the closest of which seems to be Frederick Wiseman, Soda does not seek to create the illusion of life that appears to unfold in front of the viewer's eyes, the impression of eliminating his mediation between the film's protagonist and the viewer. The essence of his observation is not the distance between the filmmaker and protagonist, but the attention that the filmmaker devotes to the protagonist, full of focus and devoid of preconceptions. It is the readiness to discover, to accept what is yet to be observed. Therefore, among Soda's "Ten Commandments," the first three are 1. No research, 2. No meetings with subjects, and 3. No scripts. Number 4. is Roll the camera yourself, followed by 5. Shoot for as long as possible, 6. Cover small areas deeply, 7. Do not set up a theme or goal before editing, 8. No narration, super-imposed titles, or music, 9. Use long takes, and finally – 10. Pay for the production yourself.
According to Soda, an observational documentary is at the same time one that both enables and encourages the viewer to observe. This is one of the reasons why his commandment number 8 forbids off-frame narration, subtitles and music, i.e. anything that may distract the viewer or restrict his free and unfettered gaze.
To call Soda's observation careful, however, seems an extreme understatement. His uniqueness is that his observation is so deep and so benevolent, both to his characters and to the audience. Although it reveals so much, it never crosses the line into exploitation or manipulation. It is no coincidence that a film as beautiful as "Peace" is his work, showing, on the example of people and cats, that contrary to all appearances, it is a much more interesting and important question, how peace is possible at all, than why wars break out. It is also no coincidence that among the many hours of material Soda shot about Dr. Yamamoto's retirement, the real theme he discovered was the love between the doctor and his wife.
We need the gaze Soda offers us, a little bit the way Dr. Yamamoto's patients need his tranquil presence.
This year's short documentary selection consists of two sets. The first includes three films recently made by Belarusian filmmakers during mass protests after the rigged elections. The second features three brilliant Dutch shorts devoted to hot-button issues - abortion, sex education and the school climate strike.
In the world of film, the USA is famous not only for its features - it is impossible to imagine either the history or the present-day social documentary filmmaking without American non-fiction cinema. The American documentary is almost as diverse as the ethnic structure of American society. Therefore, the selection of "Made in USA" films we have prepared this year is extremely eclectic, both in terms of content and form.
In "Documentary States" we will see observational, investigative, experimental and found footage documentaries. The only common denominator is the subject - human rights. Hundreds of documentaries are made in the USA every year in which filmmakers willingly take up social issues, both domestic and foreign. In The 8th three female directors present the story of Irish women fighting for the right to decide about their own bodies. Produced using home videos, Miracle Fishing is the story of an American family forced by circumstances to play a dangerous game with Colombian narco-guerrillas. A Worm in the Heart draws attention to the tragic situation of the LGBT community in Russia while Current Sea highlights the issue of environmental protection in Southeast Asia. And while American documentary filmmakers are interested in the world, the world is interested in America. The endless plethora of interesting social topics attract foreign filmmakers to the United States. One example is Anthony Baxter, who spent five years documenting the incredibly complex history of an environmental disaster near Detroit. Or, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, whose film returns to the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict although it was made in California. These are our Documentary States - fascinating, varied and always surprising.
20 years of WATCH DOCS has meant over 1,000 very different documentaries: short and long, sad and funny, made by debutants as well as recognized masters of cinema. On the twentieth festival anniversary, we decided to recall a few of them - those that we treat as a kind of WATCH DOCS showcase.
This selection includes documentaries by directors awarded at our festival - such as those by Rithy Panh, Zhao Liang, Maria Ramos or Nima Sarvestani - but also those that have not won awards, although we consider them unique, such as "The Work." We will also recall two short, brilliant Dutch films devoted to globalization seen through the prism of tourism. The anniversary program ends with two Polish documentaries from 2020, devoted to protests against the government that tramples on rule of law and discriminates against its own citizens. The films are so important that we want to present them as widely as possible. All documentaries from the jubilee collection are available free of charge on the vod.pl portal on December 14-30.