EIFF 2012: Writing the Documentary
Published on July 10th, 2012 | by Eva Kozanecka0
When producer Peter Engel spoke of a non-fiction writer partnering with director Mads Brügger in the development of “The Ambassador,” a feature-length Danish documentary screening out of competition at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, Engel underscored a stronger and continuing trend in the documentary genre—that of writing the documentary.
Documentary development today often resembles the script development phase long reserved for fiction filmmaking. In the case of “The Ambassador,” the writer-director partnership was a means of exploring the possible twists and turns of the story, which in turn was also intended to help better anticipate the security concerns the filmmaker team might face during production.
Of the thirty-three documentary films included at this year’s 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival, which screened uniquely across all categories for the first time this year instead of in a single category, the four films below, though diverse in theme and approach, each speak wonderfully to the process of writing the documentary.
“Future My Love” (Maja Borg, 2012)
Running time: 93 minutes
Swedish director Maja Borg’s first feature documentary follows up ideas initially explored in a 2007 short, “Ottica Zero,” in which she followed her lover, Italian actress Nadya Cazan, across to America in search of new ways of living. Since then, the couple have split and “Future My Love” is Borg’s attempt to use her own broken relationship with Cazan as a backdrop for the broken global economy—or to use the broken global economy as a backdrop for her broken relationship. For many, the film walks a fine line between fiction, documentary, and experimental cinema in part due to a scripted and poetic narration throughout, in which Borg develops and weaves a narrative that transcends her personal story to entertain ways of thinking as diverse as the technocracy movement of the 1920s and Jacque Fresco’s The Venus Project—each of which proposes new economic systems to replace current outmoded ones. Borg’s voice (“we were supposed to change the world together”) and Fresco’s (“we’ve got too many people in high places who are insufficient”) most notably contrast. Are there unclear links in logic or faulty connections? Perhaps, but Borg’s personal footage (often black and white and embued with the personality of film grain), her concern and love (echoed in her Scandinavian accent which also now betrays hints of Scottish brogue) pair beautifully with a powerful score by The New Tango Orquesta, making it very possible to lose oneself in the film’s thinly veiled layer of optimism and hope. The film was in part produced by Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI) Productions, Ltd.
“The Ambassador” (Mads Brügger, 2012)
Running time: 93 minutes
Mads Brügger is the Danish journalist, TV host, author, and filmmaker who in this film buys his way into becoming a Liberian ambassador in order to smuggle blood-diamonds from the Central African Republic (CAR) back to Denmark—all as a means of exposing an underground world of criminal diplomacy. Aside from partnering with a fiction writer early in development, Brügger blurs lines between fiction and documentary by never breaking from his fictional diplomat persona, embracing this new persona to such an extent that he allegedly purchased the brown leather boots that figure so predominantly in his attire nearly one year prior to production. He is enjoyable to watch on screen, and his humility (“To be frank with you, I am not a very skilled diplomat”) is endearing. The remaining ensemble of characters, or subjects, rather, feel like those only a fiction writer could conjure up on page but are indeed real European, local Liberian, and CAR politicians. The stakes are high in this well-crafted film—one insider is murdered during the filming, and Brügger’s paperwork is never quite in place—and tension doesn’t break until Brügger returns. Conversations with the filmmakers post-screening revealed that digital SLRs surprisingly enabled the crew much filming access throughout the country because locals were either ignorant of the camera’s video recording capabilities or assumed such photography gear was reasonably part of a diplomat’s duties (to document his tours of the country). The film was co-produced by Lars von Trier’s production company Zentropa Real and Film I Vaest, a Swedish regional film fund.
“Au Pair” (Nicole N. Horanyi and Heidi Kim Anderson, 2012)
Running time: 59 minutes
Roughly one in three Filipino children is raised in a family with one working parent living abroad. Directing duo Nicole N. Horanyi and Heidi Kim Anderson’s “Au Pair” tells the story of three Filipina women working as au pairs in Denmark. The narrative unravels through in-person conversations with friends or via Skype conversations with family, with only occasional assistance via title cards at each character’s introduction to reveal age or the number of years spent in Denmark to date. Helle Faber, the film’s producer, spoke of the challenge of finding Danish families willing to participate in such a film. One such family was found but their interviews, deemed unnecessary, were scrapped in the editing room. In one conversation, Faber wondered whether the film could have benefited from more conventional talking head interviews (as a means to help secure other distribution deals), but the stories in this feature-length work are nonetheless captivating and moving. Produced by Made in Copenhagen with additional support by the Danish Film Institute, “Au Pair” is also an example of a Danish film produced by filmmakers with journalism, research, and development backgrounds prior to crossing over into film production.
“Siblings – For Better or Worse” (Max Kestner, Mikala Krogh, Laila Hodell, and Aage Rais-Nordentoft, 2011)
Running time: 77 minutes
How does one write a documentary film if the subjects range in age from toddler to sixth-grader? “Siblings” is a collection of four episodes or vignettes on children who are—what else? siblings. In almost each case, the children are the offspring of the filmmaker, which brings a particular sense of intimacy into their lives. Director Max Kestner singularly supplements conversations between his two daughters with curious, interesting narration that’s meant to share insight as to the true meaning of their banter and questions in “Jenni’s Big Sister.” Shot with a backward-facing, fixed camera mounted between the driver’s and front passenger’s seat, the film never allows the narration to detract or take precedent over the sisters’ rambling conversations and shows incredibly well how the arrival of a new sibling physically changes the space between them. The children in all four films—two twin sisters, one middle child, one brother, and a sister duo—fit almost all too neatly (but certainly not intentionally?) within the age-old definitions and tendencies associated with their respective places on the family line: the youngest, the middle-child, and the oldest. Nikolaj, a middle child, whom we follow in “Stuck in the Middle,” sums up this reality beautifully when he assigns each of his brothers and himself a landscape. His elder brother, the ocean; himself, the Danish countryside; and his younger brother, the cliff-face.