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Documentaries come in all shapes and sizes, and at a festival boasting over 500 titles, like the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam, it can be daunting to cover them. Many of these films will never receive distribution, and many that do will still be invisible to those who rely on Netflix or Amazon algorithms. The competition is stiff, and it can be hard to get noticed.
One way to get noticed is duration. Karel Vachek’s Communism and the Net or the End of Representative Democracy stood out not just for the length and the provocativeness of its name, but also for its six-hour runtime. The film juxtaposes the thoughts of various authorities — historians, academics, politicians, philosophers — and Vachek himself on the differing promises of the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, the corruption of high-profile Czech politicians, and the failings of representative democracy and liberalism. Speakers are often cut off after just a sentence or two, and one also gets the distinct sense that some are included solely to be laughed at. That feeling is accentuated by Vachek’s own aphorisms splashing across the screen (as in Ken Jacobs’s Star Spangled to Death, a similarly sprawling interrogation of a nation).
Vachek envisions a future in which national and then international communities discuss and vote online on referendums, replacing representative democracy with direct democracy, and he aims to show how recent history has made this both likely and necessary. Sprawling, associative, and steeped heavily in Czech politics (seriously, spend some time on Wikipedia beforehand), Communism and the Net is titanic, the kind of work that must be seen to be believed, even if it investigates the past more compellingly than it predicts the future.
Luis López Carrasco’s El Año del Descubrimiento, a penetrating and insightful chronicle of the decline of unionism in Spain and its present-day economic woes as told by Cartagena residents, takes the opposite approach. Where Vachek’s thesis is crypto-anarchist, López Carrasco’s is Marxist. His mic is for current and former union leaders, retirees, teachers, apolitical workers, and anyone else generally referred to as “the people,” rather than journalists and academics. The sequencing is brilliant, placing disparate voices in conversations that only emerge as the film goes on, and each fragment contains many ideas, sometimes disparate and contradictory ones.
The film utilizes a split screen throughout, and although for most of the runtime it provides two perspectives on the same scene or uses one to illustrate events being discussed, at the beginning it is nearly Warholian, with two seemingly unrelated scenes and a soundtrack that is hard to attribute to either. Multiplicity and perspective are ingrained in the film’s fiber, and it allows past and present merge. The archival strike and protest footage look just like any from today, and TV/radio audio from decades gone forms a harmony with present-day speakers. After nearly 3.5 hours, life, struggle, and politics suddenly seems clear. It only takes a bit of time and effort to develop class consciousness.
Of course, it isn’t just long films searching for an audience. Clocking in at a more manageable 70 minutes, Tierra Adentro follows preservationists, immigrants, guerrillas, and indigenous peoples in the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia. Yet its short runtime and broad scope threaten to shortchange director Mauro Colombo’s mission. We never see these groups interact, and we spend enough time with each for only an elevator pitch. Deforestation is taking place this very moment on a scale that can only be accurately described as catastrophic, even apocalyptic. But Tierra Adentro subsumes urgency to mood, and it leaves one wanting more — something closer to what Maya Da-Rin’s fiction film The Fever, about an indigenous security guard living just within the Amazon, offers with its tighter focus and use of non-actors, along with its careful exploration of the contradictions and challenges wrought by modernity.
Indeed, fiction can be as illuminating as reality, as the thoroughness (and the falseness) of Annette Apon’s Leonie, Actrice en Spionne demonstrates. The eponymous Leonie Brandt was a double agent working for Dutch Intelligence against the Gestapo. Before that, she was an actress who, despite early acclaim, never earned the Hollywood invitation she so coveted. Leonie makes no claims to truth; it tells its story through archival and found footage dating back to her time. Like the movie stars of yesteryear, we see in the characters what we project onto them, but reality is more elusive. Brandt’s acquaintances and descendants recall places she went and things she claimed to do, but few can be affirmed, and her diary passages that punctuate the film thereby lose their credibility. Of all the shapes and sizes on display in Rotterdam, the ones you can’t make out are often the most memorable.
The International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 22 through February 2. Keep an eye out for these films at future festivals.