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This year’s film festival was a rather more spread out affair than it usually is, which for me had one main impact: it meant that although there were more than double the number of documentaries showing than there were last year, I could see almost all of them! Despite being minorly thwarted by a screening copy not turning up in time, I still managed to see a pretty varied selection of documentaries this year. If this year’s documentaries had a theme, it was telling stories that were more complex than they initially appeared. Documentaries that let you think you knew where they were going – that you knew these stories or recognised these archetypes – and then turned around and showed you that they were much messier and complex then they at first appeared.

The Cave

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve seen too many documentaries about Syria in the last few years. This one is about an underground hospital in Ghouta – near Damascus – and the film follows hospital manager (and mostly trained paediatrician) Dr Amani and her mostly female staff as they fight against the odds to tend to their patients and avoid getting blown up. It’s a fascinating concept – the full blown engineering works going on underground in the early parts of the film does more to demonstrate the organisation and extent of the rebellion than any claims or stats could – with likeable protagonists that you can really get behind and emphasise with, told in a compelling way.

I’ve seen dramatic, beautifully shot, drone footage of destroyed cities – of Raqqa, Homs, Aleppo and now Damascus – and the question that fills my head afterwards is no longer, how can the people possibly survive this? Nor even if the rebels still think the uprising was worth it. Instead I have to ask: what on earth Assad thinks he’s going to win at the end of this? Sure, he may win the war but at what cost, what will be left for him to rule over at the end of all this?

Scheme Birds

Often in a film like this the synopsis would say that Gemma dreams of something more than her estate, but Gemma doesn’t. Gemma is happy, Gemma belongs, Gemma loves and is loved, and she can’t imagine leaving this place. Gemma is fundamentally really young, barely more than a kid when she has her own baby. Yet in a way it is that same baby that makes her grow up and look beyond the world she’s always known. We learn early on that her own mother was a drug addict and hasn’t been part of her life since she was about 18 months old. Oddly enough having the baby makes her less, rather than more, empathetic towards her mother because she can’t imagine walking away from him. It’s wanting more for that little boy – more than fighting and drinking and prison and teen parenthood – that motivates her to change things.

(As a side note, there’s something about Amy that unnerves me. I recognise her, not her specifically – her mum’s probably my age – but she looks like someone else, someone I knew years ago. Someone I was at school with, or worked a summer job with, or a friend of a friend. There’s something about the structure of her face, the mannerisms, we never see her cry on screen but I can picture just how she’d look when she does.)

Be Natural

‘Be Natural’ was the instruction that pioneering film director Alice Guy-Blanche gave to her actors so often that she had it put on a sign on the wall of her studio in two foot high letters. Naturalism is in fact the thread that ties all her films together, despite being one of the first filmmakers to use film to tell stories rather than simply documenting activities, there is none of the stage-y overacting we now associate with early films. Her films exemplify the experimental and daring nature of early filmmaking along with the demonstrating the opportunities available to women in cinema before it was taken seriously as an art form.

The film is a systematic and detailed attempt to re-insert Guy-Blache back into the narrative that she has been systematically removed from. The film does an excellent job of illustrating a story that is by its very nature mostly about dusty archives and long-distance phone-calls in a compelling manner. The use of map graphics to fill in the gaps, really helps illustrate how often both the researchers (and Guy-Blache herself) criss-crossed the US and Europe trying to track down her films. The film has clearly been a labour of love for it’s own director, but the finished object is a compelling and convincing argument in it’s own right.

Shooting the Mafia

This was by far my favourite documentary of all those shown at this year’s festival. Photographer Letizia Battaglia is such a compelling presence that the viewer is drawn further and further into the story of her life and work. Having come to photography later in life – she took it up at the age of 40 in the midst of getting a divorce – her life experience straddles considerable political and social change in Italy and in Sicily in particular. Despite being in her eighties, Battaglia remains an intensely charismatic person – with such passion and rage lurking just under the surface – that it is no surprise that she still draws people to her with a fierce devotion. Through both her words and her pictures, she paints a vivid picture of what it was like to live in Palermo under Mafia rule.

The photos themselves have a stark and compelling beauty to them. They confront the viewer with the impact of the Mafia’s crimes. Not only in the photographs of crime scenes but also in the faces of the people around the bodies. The pictures of poverty, deprivation and grief tell their own story too. This is no Hollywood glamourized view of the Mafia, but a messy story of a messy world. One thing that Battaglia seems at pains to point out is that it is a mistake to think of her work as merely a historical artefact. Certainly things are much better in Palermo, but the fight against the Mafia goes on.