Eternal Return

Left: Philip Scheffner, Revision, 2012, color, 106 minutes. Right: Ilian Metev, Sofia’s Last Ambulance, 2012, color, 75 minutes.

ONE MORNING IN 1992, in a cornfield in northeastern Germany just over the Polish border, two Romany men, illegal immigrants from Romania, were shot and killed by local hunters who supposedly mistook them for wild boar. Investigation of the case was shoddy. Neither of the victims’ families was informed that a trial took place. The two killers were deemed innocent. Twenty years later—in a time when the two would be considered citizens of the European Union—director Philip Scheffner carried out his own investigation, resulting in Revision, one of the highlights of this year’s DocLisboa. Scheffner uses a brilliant technique, allowing each of his subjects to listen to an audio playback of his or her testimony and approve or revise it in front of the camera. As the film probes, a picture of a racist and xenophobic region emerges. Around the same time, a nearby refugee center had to be evacuated after it was burned down by Molotov cocktail–wielding neo-Nazis supported by local residents—an event that the police didn’t feel compelled to stop. None of those participants was even arrested, let alone brought to justice.

I’m not sure which idiot on the Nobel committee came up with the idea of awarding this year’s Peace Prize to the EU. Revision underscores the absurdity of the decision—it’s a bit like offering Switzerland an award for financial transparency. Speaking of money and the EU, Bulgarians might like to know when the infrastructural funds are going to show up. Sofia, the country’s capital, has a pitiful total of thirteen ambulances to serve its two million inhabitants and, as evidenced by Sofia’s Last Ambulance, which won a special mention from the jury at the DocLisboa awards ceremony, the roads are laced with potholes. In his second film, Ilian Metev put together an affecting portrayal of a doctor, nurse, and driver’s battle against the morale-draining forces of an inefficient system that lacks the resources to enable them to perform the basic functions of their job.

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) established Thom Andersen as one the most important cinematic essayists of his time. This year, he returns with Reconversion, an exploration (and, in many instances, excavation) of the work of the Pritzker Prize–winning Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, whose lifelong obsession with ruins merges effortlessly with a modernist aesthetic. His buildings in Portugal give us a whole other perspective on the meetings of Europas Old and New that parallel the confrontations evoked by Revision and Sofia’s Last Ambulance.

Moving away from this relatively tiny and troubled continent (which any Portuguese will tell you is collapsing under the weight of the current financial crisis), Xu Xin’s Dao Lu (Pathway) gave us the simple story of one man’s life—which also happens to be the story of China in the twentieth century. And while I was sad to miss Wang Bing’s Three Sisters, which won the jury prize in the features competition, I felt lucky to revel in the joyful pageantry of People’s Park. Libbie D. Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki filmed the single-shot feature from a handheld camera in a wheelchair as they moved through the eponymous locale in Chengdu on a Saturday afternoon in July 2011.

The tenth edition of DocLisboa was a triumphant one for the festival, which opened several new sections despite a 20 percent budget cut thanks to the Portuguese government’s decimation of the Ministry of Culture. It is now under a fierce and vibrant all-female directorship—sadly an idiosyncrasy in the festival circuit—and its closing ceremony speeches affirmed the fighting spirit necessary to sustain intellectual and artistic rigor in an environment of political and economic repugnance. DocLisboa gave us a model for a festival that is not merely a showcase for films, but a zone in which polemic can flow freely and—who knows?—maybe even change something along the way.

The 10th DocLisboa festival ran through Sunday, October 28.