Documentary as a tool of change / VERZIO - International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival
The 13th VERZIO - International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival starts tonight. The audience can choose from a wide range of panel discussions, Q&A meetings, concerts and screenings: 62 movies from 36 countries. We talked with Oksana Sarkisova festival director about the structure of the festival, the different thematic blocks and the significance of human rights documentaries.
Can you tell me how the festival program was developed this year?
Even though the festival is different every year there are some pillars which are more or less stable, two of them are International Panorama and Hungarian Panorama which present an overview of the recent creative documentary films in the world and in the country. Some of these films are already well known, they have been to many festivals and won multiple awards, having been screened for audiences across the globe. Some of them are just freshly released, we even have international premieres at Verzio.
Is there a theme for the festival?
The films in the International Panorama do not have a single theme. We are focusing on human rights in a broad sense. We include films which address human rights issues directly but also films of an anthropological nature, observing the cultural context or a particular economic phenomenon. Some people think that a human rights festival is about just painful things, depressing films after which you don’t want to live anymore. In fact it is not the case, and also now in the International Panorama we have a couple of films which have a very difficult subject, but they also give you hope, point towards a way out. For example Mallory, Helena Třeštíková’s documentary. The director has a longitudinal method of working with her protagonists, in this case she has been following Mallory for 13 years as she was trying to get rid of her drug addiction, and find a stable job following the birth of her child. In addition to showing the troubles she faced along this road the film also has a very positive message because it is about a person who manages in the end to pull through all the difficult circumstances.
We also have films which are observational research films, for example the Chinese film The Road where the director Zhang Zanbo is following the construction of the road in one of the provinces which is part of a large-scale investment of the Chinese government. This is the province where Chairman Mao was born so it also has a symbolic significance and importance in the state. What does this road construction actually mean for those who live in that area, for those who work on this construction, for those who manage it? It is a very complex story with many layers in which there is no one single protagonist. We get an insight into the workings of the economy and we can also follow the different interests that are entangled in that story.
In our program there are a lot of character-driven stories, that tell you a strong narrative from the beginning to the end, it might be a coming of age story, or a struggle with a particularly challenging situation in one’s life. It could also be a survey on how the society functions, for example if we look at the film Democracy. This is a film about how the law is being negotiated and passed in the European Parliament. This is something which is very hard to imagine as a subject for a documentary film because it is all about kinds of behind-the-scenes negotiations. It requires a lot of attention and patience from both the filmmaker and the viewer. But in the end you realize that even such an abstract theme as a law passed somewhere out there affects each of us because our personal private data is being collected, stored, sold, and recycled. So this is also something which we found to be very important as one of the recurrent themes presented and discussed at the festival: what is happening with our lives and how a documentary film can work as a tool of knowledge.
And also in the opening film, Sonita we can see that the role of the documentary filmmaker, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, played in the whole story is not just a passive observer but a very active participant who changes the course of events with her intervention while making the film and then at a later stage when the film itself becomes part of a larger campaign for women’s rights. That is also an important part of our whole festival mission – to show how documentaries can work as a tool of change.
The Hungarian Panorama was selected by film scholar György Báron who emphasized that many of the Hungarian documentaries in this year’s program focus on the past and offer lessons for the present. For example Márta Mészáros documentary My Mother’s Letters to Stalin. Despite the traumatic times of the Stalinist purges, this film is also a story of hope and love, about a woman who remained faithful to her husband.
This year the thematic blocks are: On the move – Migrant tales, Arctic rights and wrongs, Focus on Ukraine, 1956 as Media Revolution – The Hungarian Revolution in Socialist Newsreels. Can you tell me a few words about them?
The blocks are different every year. The reason why we continue with the topic of refugees and integration is because it still remains a very acute problem. We could not possibly exhaust the theme with the last year’s selection and also new films are coming out that are worth attention and discussion. The problem with refugees is not only a local problem, it is not even a European problem but a global one. On this program we cooperate with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee on organizing additional discussions and bringing more attention not just to the films themselves but to the issues raised in those films. In addition to the screening there will be three panel discussions.
The documentary films in this thematic block offer a balanced alternative to conventional reportages which do not really go deeply into individual stories and do not give you enough time to understand who are the people who are being filmed, what are their personalities, their stories, the milieu they are coming from. The documentary film is a very powerful tool which can provide information and also help build empathy, which is missing from the short and fleeting news reports. They do not have enough capacity to look for details.
The other thematic block this year, Arctic Rights and Wrongs was developed in cooperation with film scholars Scott Mackenzie and Anna Westerståhl. It is designed to address both a professional scholarly community as well as the broader audiences. We screen a selection of films on indigenous populations and global climate change that targets a wide audience. We also organize a panel discussion focusing on the issues of representation, on how documentaries and the visual media more broadly shape our understanding and beliefs about climate change and indigenous populations.
We also combine screenings with discussions for the thematic block on the Hungarian 1956 revolution and its representation in the socialist newsreels. This program was put together by Balázs Varga, film scholar. It includes little-known footage assembled from five different film archives, some of which were for the first time digitized and were not screened publicly after the year of their release. The western newsreels about the 1956 are better known, many of them are accessible online, and they also have a very clear and straightforward narrative. In the socialist block the censorship was imposed over the interpretation of the events which could not be called revolution, all of the newsreels editors had to find a way to fit the official socialist ideological framework but at the time the differences among them allow to better expose the mechanisms of propaganda machinery, which makes a close reading and comparison a worthy and exciting exercise.
Another thematic block focuses on Ukraine and shows the everyday life and experiences both in the war zone and other areas in Ukraine. How life goes on in a country which is struggling with conflicts in many different ways. It raises questions of identity and questions of future directions and also challenges the propaganda accounts that circulate on the TV channels.
Verzio has an extensive program, not just screenings but also a lot of opportunities for students and documentary filmmakers.
Yes, we have a student competition this year, and I think it’s very important to see in which direction documentary filmmaking is going. It is a new phenomenon that filmmaking is becoming also a kind of interdisciplinary activity. People from different fields are starting to use film as a tool of research and means of expression. This year we received over 80 films from different film schools and individual students. Our selection committee reviewed all submissions and selected films trying to preserve thematic, geographical, and visual variety. And I think we have 11 strong and very different student works many of which are fully on a par with the films by established filmmakers.
We also have a production workshop, DocLab focusing on integration and challenges of integration. With the guidance of international tutors, young directors and people who are interested in filmmaking can work with their footage making short films that will be screened and discussed at the festival. We host DunaDock Pitching Forum and Masterclasses. This year the workshop organized for film professionals focuses primarily on the trailer; in addition there are three masterclasses and a pitching forum which is open to the public. And finally we have screenings with follow-up discussions for high-school students. This year there is a very high interest, altogether over 700 students are coming to the cinemas to watch and discuss documentary films.
And finally, we are very happy that for the first time this year a selection of Verzio films will be screened in three other cities in Hungary within the outreach framework Verzio+. We have already had a productive cooperation with Apolló cinema in Pécs in the past, and this year we also screen Verzio films in Barátság cinema in Székesfehérvár and in Grand Café in Szeged.