Postcard from DocsBarcelona

Last year I had the great privilege to live and work in Barcelona, a city that has regenerated itself in spectacular ways since I first visited in 1986 to present my debut documentary Before Stonewall. One notable addition is the well-programmed and well-run DocsBarcelona International Documentary Film Festival which was launched with support from the EU Media Commission 16 years ago by Joan Gonzàlez.

Spread over six days, this documentary film festival bills itself as “a selection of current and most relevant documentaries in the international scene.” I attended this year and can confirm: it does not disappoint.

The opening night film, Approved for Adoption (France, Belgium) is a beautifully animated story. I’m not sure why it’s called a documentary rather than an autobiographical film, as several scenes were clearly the imaginings of an angry young boy torn from his country of birth and raised in a culture with no interest in “diversity.” In fact, the category of documentary was blurred in several films, including the experimental and haunting First Cousin Once Removed by Alan Berliner, one of only two American docs in the program. Like the exceptional ways that Barcelona integrates modern and classic architecture often in the same building, the criterion for what is a documentary at this festival could be summarized by asking, Does it work?

An all day conference with case studies of the current buzz—interactive web-based storytelling—was a great introduction to this new and increasingly important sector. The highlight was Alma: A Tale of Violence which features a survivor of Guatemalan gang culture who tells her story in first person while gripping still images fade in and out above her head. I thought I knew something about gang violence until I saw this.

With the main slate films, which used a potpourri of story-telling strategies, I found an undercurrent of violence across many sectors of society. The Act Of Killing (Denmark), which takes place in Indonesia and “stars” thugs who killed for political glory, is very difficult to watch. (The Independent wrote about it previously here.) It would be extraordinary for a Freudian psychoanalyst to examine the disconnect these characters feel from humanity and their astounding ability to compartmentalize their actions. This film deservedly took the top jury award here, as it has at other festivals. Another example of violence as norm can be found in The Mayor (Mexico) in which the protagonist displays extraordinary arrogance in his defense of using paid private informants to track down and murder suspects under the guise of security for his wealthy town. Fallen City (China) is an observational film that follows three families as they struggle to put their lives together after the Sichuan earthquake destroyed their town. Every shot is composed as though for still photography, making for a slow and steady exposé of the ultimate violence of the Chinese regime against its people as they seek to profit from the earthquake’s devastation. The quiet dignity of the three families forms the heart and soul of this devastating documentary.

In a more traditional documentary style, Google and The World Brain (Catalonia, UK) builds a steady exposé of a mega-corporation’s efforts to violate copyright protections, and offend European leaders along the way. Google’s insidious campaign against creators’ right to earn a living for their work, and their corporate dream of controlling the world’s knowledge, are another kind of violence against humanity. One interviewee says Google has somehow convinced itself that it is an NGO that just happens to make lots of money.

I caught up with Carles Brugeres, one of the film’s producers, to ask him about the state of documentary production in Barcelona. He said, “The festival and pitch sessions have raised awareness about documentaries in the press and public. It gives Spanish producers a space to present their projects to an international pitching panel.” A vivid community has coalesced into the 32-members strong producers association, which he says is a consequence of the festival and pitch sessions.

Observing the pitches was a great way to see what’s in the pipeline from European, Russian, and Latin American producers. With reality TV and game shows dominating the airwaves, TV around the world is pretty dismal so these pitches to the few international TV commissioners who can help get actual docs made is a treat. Cynthia Lopez of POV represented PBS. She displayed a spectacular knowledge of what already exists to those filmmakers who thought they were the first to pitch a film on whatever subject. My favorite pitch was a stark web documentary proposal by a young Russian, Maria Morina. In Grozny: Nine Cities, the main protagonists are the web users themselves. It is based on Morina’s award-winning photos of the world’s most destroyed city. She is already the recipient of a Magnum Emergency Grant; I hope the international community steps in to support her project.

For those readers who love rock music as well as documentary, I highly recommend a trip to Barcelona in the spring, book-ended by the Primavera Sound music festival and DocsBarcelona.

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