Line to Line: Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival 2021
Lines are a bit of a theme at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival. There are those you expect, greeting you in front of screening halls, pop-up food stands, restaurants and the wobbly information desks in the cramped festival center—all reminders that this quaint Czech town of 50,000 people was not built to play host to a film festival of international renown. Then there are lines of the less obvious sort, like the swirling white chalk marks on the pavement that connect the various festival locations—an act of “environmental installation,” created annually since 2005 by local artist Vit Kraus using a sports line maker, which is meant to guide, and maybe also confound, visitors as they navigate the picturesque streets of Jihlava’s historic old town.
And then there’s Lines the film, which deservedly emerged as the big winner of Jihlava when the festival’s 25th edition wrapped on 31 October, taking home Best World Documentary, Best Debut and Best Sound Design awards in the Opus Bonum section, the IDFF’s main competition. Directed by Slovak first-timer Barbara Sliepková, the heavily stylized observational documentary turns its spotlight on a small cast of individuals living in the ever-expanding Slovak capital of Bratislava and dealing with varying shades of solitude. There’s a woman in her 50s who is both proudly “unsociable” and yearns for the human connection a romantic relationship affords a person. There’s a slightly buttoned-up idealist running for district council on a platform of socially and environmentally responsible urban development; a middle-aged bachelor waxing nostalgic about the pre-free market Bratislava of his childhood; a yuppie real-estate agent crisscrossing the city alone in his car; a group of builders drawing parking lots and road markings with a slightly more high-tech device than the one Vit Kraus uses year after year.
While in terms of content, Lines has all the trappings of a run-of-the-mill festival documentary—from faux-fly-on-the-wall narration to vaguely forlorn-seeming protagonists—it is Sliepková’s assured sense of visual style and sly prodding of her title’s metaphorical potential that ultimately makes this a major entry into the contemporary cinematic canon of urban explorations. Canny black-and-white compositions prominently foreground the titular lines—contrails, tower blocks, blinds, ballot box slits—as do intermittent scenes of traffic marking creation in progress. In concert with the protagonists’ subjective testimonies, this yields an arrestingly evocative portrait of a modern European city and lines that serve to guide, connect and divide its people.
Elsewhere in Opus Bonum, railway lines were on the mind of Mexican filmmaker Tin Dirdamal, whose impressionistic travelogue Dark Light Voyage walked away with the festival’s Best Editing award. Part of the “Hanoi Dogma” he helped mastermind—a manifesto seeking to champion the ephemerality of filmic expression by, among other things, pulling its participant films from all circulation two years after their respective premieres—Dirdamal’s latest sees him take a 1,700-kilometer southward train journey through Vietnam in order to cope with the revelation that a local friend has been committed to a mental institution following a violent outburst. Travelling with his young daughter Eva Cardena, with whom he shares a directing credit, Dirdamal, through voiceover, engages in quite a bit of tedious auteurist navel-gazing, where rather pedestrian musings on parenthood and childlike curiosity intermingle with fragmented memories of his institutionalized friend. If it weren’t for the intriguing montage and camerawork—whose colorful mixture of grainy home movie footage and lo-fi vérité-style train footage would not have looked out of place in the festival’s crowded experimental sections—the eventual removal of Dark Light Voyage from the public record would not be a tragedy of the highest order.
This is definitely not the case for Tell Me, which, along with Lines, is probably the best new release to play at this year’s Jihlava IDFF, and certainly the one with the highest likelihood of capturing widespread global attention. The film—spearheaded and supervised by Estonian director Marta Pulk, but which lists no fewer than 20 co-directors—is something of an inverted companion piece to the Emmy-winning 76 Days, Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and an anonymous co-director’s 2020 dispatch from inside a Wuhan hospital during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Near the beginning of said pandemic, Pulk and her co-conspirators, most fellow alumni of a Werner Herzog masterclass, published the phone numbers of helplines that invited people to anonymously share their thoughts and worries brought on by the advent of the novel coronavirus and ensuing lockdowns. Furnishing these voicemail confessionals with images shot by the 21 directors in their respective home countries—some opting for documentary staples like CCTV footage and phantom rides, others, like German director Sonja Ortiz, taking inspiration from performance art—Tell Me creates a fascinatingly transnational record of the COVID era, where conspiratorial ramblings clash with visions of divine punishment, people fretting about their family members’ health, and sheepishly privileged admissions that there is something to be said for the enforced cosiness of a pandemic-induced lockdown. If there is an overarching point Pulk et al. try to draw from their global polyphony, it seems to be contained within one succinct voicemail statement: “Don’t think it won’t be easy to forget all of this, very soon”—hence the need for a chronicle like Tell Me.
That such a current, ambitious and accomplished entry was ignored entirely by the Jihlava jury is not a little surprising, though it might suggest that, almost two years into the pandemic, we may be seeing some fatigue regarding COVID as a documentary topic. Indeed, none of the other main section winners have an explicit COVID bend to them. Best Central and Eastern European Documentary and Best Cinematography honoree You Are Ceaușescu to Me is a dramatically uneven but thematically potent attempt on the part of director Sebastian Mihăilescu to use Brechtian performance to reflect on the legacy, or lack thereof, of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu among the generation of Romanians who came of age long after the fall of Communism. While somewhat bland stylistically, Laura Viezzoli’s When You Are Close to Me, recipient of a special mention, is a winning, broadly accessible charmer chronicling the everyday routine in a Tuscan home for deafblind people. Meanwhile, No Desire to Hide saw director Rikun Zhu receive a jury commendation lauding his “original approach” to storytelling—specifically his use of extensive long takes and scenes featuring lengthy introspective dialogues and monologues, although at a runtime of 94 minutes, this approach slightly outstays its welcome. Zhu still manages to paint a vivid picture of a young Chinese couple, their open relationship and how it chafes against their individual dreams of succeeding abroad and the traditional attitudes they, for all their countercultural bravado, seem to have internalized.
Outside of the main section, the multi-pronged experimental side of Jihlava primarily caught the eye this year. Both the international and domestic side of the experimentation-focused Fascinations competition delivered memorable forays into cinematic abstraction, such as Testuya Maruyama’s Antfilm, whose oppressively droning soundscape and decelerated strobe-light flashes of ant silhouettes successfully manage to simulate life in an anthill. In Arnheim in Anaheim, another striking international section entry, Hungarian director Péter Lichter remixes webcam footage from Disneyland with screen captures of his own editing process, chopped-up passages from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and Rudolf Arnheim’s seminal Film as Art, raising the troubling question of whether classical theories of film and reality still hold true in the face of the fundamental unreality of the digital age. This concern also cropped up on the Czech side of Fascinations, where Lea Petříková’s playfully messy, anecdote-heavy black-and-white short History of Shrouded Screen wrestled with cinema’s propensity to only capture surfaces instead of essences.
The most rewarding experimental piece at Jihlava 2021, however, was found in the retrospective dedicated to the Romanian avant-garde of the Communist era. Lifted from the Romanian Film Archive and celebrating a belated international premiere, Mircea Săucan’s 1967 film The Alert! is, in the words of section curator Andrea Slováková, perhaps the sole Romanian contribution to the new waves of the ’60s. Functionally a series of four 15-minute instructional films on chemical plant safety, complete with on-screen captions about proper resuscitation protocol, The Alert! doubles as an abstract love story between two factory workers trying to escape the dehumanizing machinery that surrounds them. Told in circular camera movements and stark low-angle shots of metal tubes and industrial chimneys, every other scene recalling Mikhail Kalatozov and early Andrei Tarkovsky, Săucan’s film is at once politically subversive and joyously tongue-in-cheek. Like the feet of Jihlava’s attendees gradually reduce Vit Kraus’ pavement lines to hazy smudges, The Alert! gleefully blurs the lines between commissioned documentary, high drama and absurdist comedy, collectivism and capitalist exploitation, passionate romance and the emotional detachment necessary to conscientiously perform CPR. Line-savvy Jihlava could not have found a more fitting pièce de résistance to cap its 25-year anniversary.