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In late March, Mantas Kvedaravičius, the Lithuanian filmmaker whose documentaries Barzakh (2011), shot in the ruins of two Chechen wars, and Mariupolis (2016), showing life assailed by secessionist terror in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, tried to warn us of the impending cataclysm threatened by Putinism, was abducted and murdered by separatist soldiers as he returned to the Donbas to revisit his subjects and bear witness to the Russian invasion. (His footage was retrieved by his partner and edited into Mariupolis 2.) Kvedaravičius’s censorship was tragically final, but he was far from the only filmmaker who fell victim to brutal repression in 2022.
In Iran, Jafar Panahi and Mohamad Rasoulof led a long list of arrestees that included documentary makers Mina Keshavarz, Firouzeh Khosravani, Mostafa Al-Ahmad and many more. In Myanmar, producer Ma Aeint was sentenced to three years’ jail with hard labour for writing a screenplay about life as a filmmaker in Myanmar. In Turkey, producer Çiğdem Mater was sentenced to 18 years in prison for trying to finance a film about the 2013 Gezi Park protests, while editor Erhan Örs was arrested for having edited a documentary for the Migration Monitoring Association in 2017. It seemed tyrants had much to fear from documentary filmmakers.
And perhaps with reason, as several current affairs-adjacent documentaries this year spoke dynamic and powerful truths about different faces of oppression and resistance around the world. Daniel Roher’s Navalny, made on the quiet until its Sundance premiere, gave electrifying demonstration of the ingenuity behind the Russian opposition leader’s unmasking of Kremlin lies, as well as his formidable courage in returning to the tyrant’s lair.
Mila Teshaieva and Marcus Lenz’s When Spring Came to Bucha, which premiered at Amsterdam’s IDFA festival, took in the devastation left after the tyrant’s Ukraine retreat, filming the shocked survivors of the liberated dormitory town as they emerged from hiding to reconstruct what’s left of their community. Alex Pritz’s The Territory showed the inexorable siege of Amazonian indigenous land from both sides of the struggle, notably handing not only screen time but the tools of cinema to the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau subjects. And Laura Poitras’s Venice prize-winner All the Beauty and the Bloodshed wove layers of trauma and defiance around artist Nan Goldin’s story of counter-cultural photography and survival.
Perhaps the year’s longest and loudest furore concerned Jihad Rehab (now renamed The UnRedacted), Meg Smaker’s depiction of former Guantanamo prisoners in a Saudi correctional facility, and its programming at Sundance, which elicited many accusations of bad faith, lack of informed consent or subject safeguarding and other expressions of imbalanced power across the camera that crystallised burgeoning debates about documentary ethics. (At the International Documentary Association’s Getting Real conference in the summer, delegates heard from a number of nonfiction subjects carrying wounds from their documentary exposure. Meanwhile Jihad Rehab’s detractors were accused of ‘cancel culture’ and identity politics fence-building.) Thankfully, counter-examples of expanded documentary voices and authors were also forthcoming. Sundance and Getting Real both showcased Reid Davenport’s autobiographical I Didn’t See You There, which invited the audience into his experience as a disabled person in a wheelchair. Or for a more collective corrective expression, Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta’s Dry Ground Burning made collaborative document-fantasy with Brazilian rebel femmes bootlegging oil and agitating for change.
Like that oil, the film archives kept gushing. Mila Turajlić’s twin Labudović Reels films, Non-Aligned and Cine-Guerillas, opened a window on the lost history of the post-colonial non-aligned movement through the footage and testimony of Stevan Labudović, ‘Tito’s cameraman’. Sergei Loznitsa continued his charge through 20th-century European calamities with The Natural History of Destruction and The Kiev Trial, newly on-the-nose meditations on civilian collateral and war crimes. Adam Curtis evoked Russia’s post-Soviet implosion in TraumaZone, while another IDFA find, Angie Vinchito’s Manifesto, collated recent YouTube evidence of abjection and horror in the Russian high-school system. Mania Akbari essayed a lucid, ferocious j’accuse against Iranian cinema’s misogyny in How Dare You Have Such a Rubbish Wish?. More happily, Brett Morgan mind-mapped David Bowie’s visual archive in Moonage Daydream, while Sara Dosa and Werner Herzog both channelled a volcanologist couple’s spectacular lavatic archive in Fire of Love and The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft, drawn to the passions in the Earth’s belly.
Fires also smouldered in Alexander Abaturov’s Paradise, another visual spectacular immersed in the flames consuming Siberia’s fast-heating polar east. Jacquelyn Mills’ Geographies of Solitude, steeped in the wild nature of Sable Island in the North Atlantic, found even that remote sanctuary lapped by human waste. In Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes, by contrast, the evolutionary race runs on in the new normal of grimy New Delhi, where life teems and struggles and two Muslim brothers offer solidarity with the city’s stricken bird population. Each of these very different films gave due to the power of Earth and nature as collaborator and co-creator.
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