Film

Rethinking Villains in Documentary Film

At the 2019 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, the programming strand “The Villain” looked for new ways to depict unsavory subjects.

From The Brink (all images courtesy International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam)

Presenting “bad guys” onscreen poses certain ontological dilemmas for documentary filmmakers. The form’s relationships with truth and drama become muddied at the hands of subjects notorious for fabrication, and filmmakers often have to come to terms with the void created by certain questions going ultimately unaddressed. The 2019 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam provided an insightful look at this issue through its program The Villain. Setting aside classics like The Look of Silence (2014), The Fog of War (2003), and General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (1974), the newer films in the strand face pressure to distinguish themselves amid a media landscape heavily populated by true crime, which inundates podcasting, journalism, and television. Their clichéd, often sensationalist approach to criminality leaves a vacuum for works that consider the broader sociopolitical factors and implications of their subjects.

On the surface, this year’s festival hit The Brink (previously reviewed on this site here) might have easily fallen to the banal constructions of the true crime mode, but instead exceeds the sum of its parts. Director Alison Klayman accompanies former Trump administration strategist Steve Bannon on his journey to build a nationalist movement in Europe, and repeatedly challenges Bannon’s easygoing persona, which he uses to shrug off trying questions. In one sequence, Guardian journalist Paul Lewis bravely stands his ground when probing Bannon’s attempts to normalize fascism. Such moments feel like sandpaper grinding against a stubborn layer of paint, and that conflict is exactly what makes the film so stirring. Some viewers may feel frustrated by the film’s lack of definitive conclusions, but Klayman knows that she is in a unique position to capture an unfolding situation, and that her access to Bannon is highly volatile.

From The Kingmaker

The clash between truth and the public persona also drives Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker. It is a profile of Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines, widow of the infamously corrupt Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country for over two decades (more than half of that time through martial law). The family fled the country after Marcos was ousted in the ‘80s, but Imelda Marcos has since returned, and the film follows her attempts to return her family to power. The image Marcos presents of herself is troublingly out of touch with the reality Greenfield investigates, to the point where the documentary acquires dual narratives. She is utterly shameless, whether she’s talking about a hastily acquired zoo which displaced native islanders or denying her involvement in the all-too-opportune assassination of a political enemy. A powerful, accessible film, it will hopefully raise awareness of the complicated politics of Philippines.

From This Film is About Me

Alexis Delgado Búrdalo’s This Film is About Me presents a different formal approach to portraying a criminal’s persona. Jailed for killing a man who was infatuated with her, Renata is often framed closely in a 4:3 aspect ratio through a series of gentle tableaus — singing, reciting poems, posing with different outfits. Though its pacing might put off those unable to grasp an immediate point of friction, the time Búrdalo invests to create such a portrait (and establish Renata’s willingness to take the spotlight) gives more weight to his later efforts to ascertain the full story. It might not satisfy everyone, but the film’s experimentation with the barrier between subject and criminality (he doesn’t even show a prison-like location until later on) creates an interesting formal proposition for prioritizing character over history.

From Adriana’s Pact

Though Búrdalo highlights one potential strategy other films can emulate, it’s Chilean director Lisette Orozco’s Adriana’s Pact (2017) that potentially foreshadows a future movement. After the filmmaker’s beloved aunt is arrested for her involvement in Pinochet’s secret police and subsequently flees the country, Orozco films their correspondence, challenging her denials over the course of several years via video calls, at the same time conducting her own research on the subject. The ordeal wholly disrupts Orozco’s 20s, but as she muses at the end, these pieces need to be found, regardless of how much it hurts. At a time when Chile again finds itself in civil unrest, her call for other filmmakers to investigate the past is pertinent. These films show the untapped potential for ways that documentary can address unsavory individuals. And given the kind of forces their subjects are part of, they might be all too relevant in the near future.

The 2019 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam took place November 20 through December 1.

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