66th DOK Leipzig

The Documentary Segment of the Festival. Report by Bojidar Manov, Member of the Interreligious Jury
White Angel - The End of Marinka (Arndt Ginzel)

White Angel - The End of Marinka (Arndt Ginzel, Germany 2023; © DOK Leipzig)

66 editions of a major international festival of non-fiction films (documentaries and animations) is in itself a sign of significant attention. Leipzig has long established and defended its name as an important centre for world cinema of the two types mentioned, and this holds true especially strongly for the documentary production.

Leipzig, a place of political documentary filmmaking even before the fall of the Wall in November 1989, is also remembered for the beginning of the civil demonstrations which finally led to the “peaceful revolution” of the same year. Since then, the festival has undergone a complex evolution to its current recognized place on the world map of documentary festivals. And now it shares the stage with the most authoritative similar forums such as the festivals in Amsterdam, Nyon, San Francisco, Krakow, Atlanta, Edinburgh and some others.

In the past decades, Leipzig had to overcome difficult transformations in its appearance. And it did it successfully, as in a few years it was able to change the markedly one-way political line of the documentary selection until 1989 to an objectively open outlook to documentaries that are diverse in thematic, problematic, plot and genre terms, as well as with a renewed general artistic characteristic.

This year's documentary selection, presented during the festival week (October 8-15, 2023), leaves just a similar convincing impression. Already the opening film “White Angel – The End of Marinka“ (Germany, 2023, dir. Arndt Ginzel, 103 min.) strongly suggests the direct aim of the film-makers, who, not by chance, have documented the tragic fate of the small town in eastern Ukraine (Donetsk Region). The film was in the Audience Competition and after the festival, in cinemas across Germany from October 19. This direct connection of the festival program (with a total of 225 films from around 60 countries) with the largest possible audience is an undeniable advantage for the festival, as objective statistics report a total of 45.500 attendees at its cinema screenings, panel discussions, industry events and the DOK Neuland XR exhibition. In addition, one film a day was available online for 24 hours throughout Germany in the DOK Stream.

A curious and noteworthy detail is that with such a rich program of films in both segments (documentary and animation), naturally the awards also were not few at all - as many as 24 awards! But only 8 of them (respectively The Golden and Silver Doves in the mentioned 2 segments plus the national German Competition Documentary Film) were awarded by the official festival juries. And the remaining 16 awards, the so-called Partnership awards, by their specialized juries. This is an interesting festival practice, which on the one hand burdens the festival with additional organizational difficulties, but on the other hand democratizes and objectifies the evaluation of the rich and diverse film selection.

And exactly in this interesting and useful ‘evaluation enclave’ participated successfully, authoritatively and convincingly, our Interreligious Jury. Here we must recall that the Ecumenical Jury at DOK Leipzig has been present since 1990. But due to the recent social and political changes in Germany, following the proposal of the festival from 2016, the jury became the so-called Interreligious Jury, including two representatives (on personal invitation) from the Jewish, Muslim or an alternative other faith.

In the composition known from the official information, our 4-member jury focused on the ten titles from the International Feature-length Documentary Film Competition. And after a serious discussion, we unanimously set our award for “Kumva –Which Comes from Silence” (France, 2023, 108 min.) by director Sarah Mallégol. The rationale for the award briefly and clearly sets out the strong arguments for this decision: “The Jury appreciates the film’s subject matter, as the silence not only gives rise to the terrible memories of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, but also to the need for new generations to live together in dialogue and with respect.” But the objective critical commentary must add that the film is structured very well by the young director in two consecutive parts, in which we meet the stories of the children of the victims of the genocide and the other children - of the murderers from the cruel days of the sinister massacre. Today, they are about 35-40-year-old mature men who are unobtrusively situated in peaceful landscapes, with pain, reason and recognized biographical weight.

After all the film suggests the possibility and responsibility towards their future life in an overall social, civil and contemporary political context. The readable thesis of the film is definitely clear; it carries the original humanitarian meaning of existence and at the same time delicately emphasizes the individual responsibility of each individual from the homo sapiens species, because it simply means a reasonable person. Of course, it was by chance that following the given screenings program, we saw the film only 2 days after the start of the horrific tragedy in the Israeli kibbutzim and in Gaza. But it was a painful coincidence which, without unnecessary words, updates the meaning and significance of such documentaries. An undeniably successful and useful feature-length documentary debut for the young director Sarah Mallégol, after the short-length film ‘Sakina’ (2020) made jointly with Clément Postec.

In the discussions within our jury, we intensively debated some other films with indisputable qualities in terms of issues involved and artistic merits. “Beauty and the Lawyer” (Armenia, France, 2023, dir. Hovhaness Ishkhanyan, 105 min.) develops a recent topic, with a very well organized and credible documentary plot: an Armenian wedding of a young woman - a lawyer who defends the rights of the LGBTQIA community and her husband – with a drag performer, who makes his life the subject of an autobiographical theatre performance among the current social struggles. But they both want to provide a normal life for the new born baby, and the father sets out to build a house for the family himself. The director delicately and discretely avoids unnecessary piquancy, and cleverly includes in the soundtrack a melody from the famous chanson “What Makes a Man?” by the famous French Armenian Charles Aznavour - a legible accent from the screen as a kind of bow to the realities of life. A smart and artistic film, deservedly honoured with a "Silver Dove".

Another French film is my second personal favourite – “Suzanne from Day to Day” (France, 2023, dir. Stephane Manchematin, Serge Steyer, 88 min). A heart-warming documentary portrait of a lonely 90-year-old woman who lives in a remote mountain house without the comforts of modern civilization, fending for herself, growing vegetables in a small garden and keeping in touch with the world by rarely driving down to a nearby town in an old car. With every frame, Suzanne radiates incredible vitality, cheerful optimism, a fresh sense of humour and charges the audience with inexhaustible energy. A bright film in today's uncertain world and its unpredictable future.

Of course, the documentary segment of the 66. DOK Leipzig 2023 is much more diverse, multifaceted and provocative. But the full program is extensive even just in terms of physical time, and even if limited and focused on the specific competitive selection.