By Tara Judah
Winding our way through the verdant folds of a mountainous range that conceals the border between Macedonia and Kosovo, I listen with eager intent to a weathered Liverpudlian named Paul. After the usual polite chit-chat, and with miles of winding road before us, we start to talk in earnest. Paul is a natural storyteller and a charismatic character who must have an inner switch that is permanently set to: endear and entertain. As time, and what seems like endless tree-lined roads pass he regales his captive audience of three female film critics with stories that span a great breadth of emotion and astonishment, from when borders were checkpoints to how he came to meet Marie Colvin, and why he is now the subject of a documentary screening at the very fest we are en route to attend.
Once we arrive in Prizren, a small town amidst a stunning mountain range, with water as clear and as cold as ice running right through its centre, I am immediately set at ease. This place is unlike anywhere I have ever been before; beautiful for sure, but willing in a way that I was not prepared for.
Every night, the entire city comes to life, with people from all over Kosovo flooding to its festive streets. In addition to pop-up screens everywhere from atop castle ruins to in the riverbed itself, the town’s many bars and restaurants are all brimming, and DokuNights brings international DJs to a lively late night/early morning stage.
I find DokuFest accommodating in a manner that is, but shouldn’t be, unexpected: I am welcomed with all the warmth of a family hearth, and it moves me, even before its films have had their chance.
I watch my first film on a screen that stands amid the slow rush of river water and against a bed of stones. The sound is not distracting, though. Rather, it serves as a cool companion to the tragi-comedy before me, Playing Men (Matjaz Ivanisin, 2017). From teens to the elderly, the film shows groups of men participating in playfully competitive games that stroke and strike their egos. Masculinity has many players but, the film asks if the rules are fair. Though the game is undeniably entertaining, it’s not clear if anyone actually wins.
Setting the tone for a series of films that, in the coming days, will really wonder what winning in our world means, Playing Men is a bittersweet introduction to so many Balkan docs I will see. The trouble with trying to win is not so much that the odds are stacked against you – though they undoubtedly are – but that the rules are foolish, set for the foolhardy. The real question, then, lies in how we might stop, challenge or change the rules around us.
For Paul, a man of great compassion, kind and earnest in a rare way, the obvious answer is to participate in change through capturing the ugly and unfair on film. Sharing with the world horrors that eyes and ears should not have to, yet must bear witness to, Paul very literally lived a life until now of putting himself in direct danger in the noble pursuit of trying, not playing.
Meeting the man and listening to his stories, remains more insightful for me than the documentary in which he stars. Under the Wire (Christopher Martin, 2018) is an admirable doc, even if it doesn’t quite have the material required to effectively tell its story. Martin relies too heavily on direct to camera interviews for information and, though the truly enigmatic Paul Conroy is the subject of these interviews, the formal set up and emotive score mean contrivance outweighs his earnestness.
Fascinatingly, however, the images we do see are constructed from a collective archive, raising questions about how film can or ought to fill in for lost footage. Due to the nature of war, a lot of what Paul captured was lost in the bombing. Martin has assembled a sense of the events, however, through ‘like’ footage, gathered from all over the world. Though all of it is ‘real’ – images shot crawling through underground tunnels in Jordan for example – the authenticity of footage for the events it depicts is far more elastic.
Working with a lack of access to images is a significant issue that a many political filmmakers face. Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) is another example of a film that could not ethically show everything it desired. Following Poh Lin Lee, a trauma counselor for detainee asylum seekers on Christmas Island (an Australian Territory), the film tries to convey something of the deep psychological and physical trauma that asylum seekers experience in their quest to start a better life in Australia.
As an Australian citizen, I am already well aware of the torturous conditions (they have been condemned by the UN) and illegal practices that take place in and serve to protect on and offshore detention centres from international scrutiny. As such, I found the film’s approach to its subject matter, through visual metaphor and with only a few actual interviews, deeply lacking.
But what could filmmaker Gabrielle Brady do when showing interviews with refugees who have not been resettled would genuinely compromise their safety? For however slight some docs might seem, they are doing and showing as best they can.
Poh Lin’s own statement that, “Two to three years ago, we felt we could make a difference, and now we feel we’re ticking a box of Immigration,” resonated with me as, perhaps, five or ten years ago, I feel this film would have made a difference but, now, feels like it’s merely ticking a box for the political zeitgeist. Of course, this is not true for most viewers. Outside of Australia, the scale and desperation of the situation has barely made the news, even if it has been raging within Australian borders since the early 2000s. I suppose that is testament to just how successful and oppressive the Australian Border Control have been.
But for all of the things some films could not show, there was one that reached out and captured souls well enough to let me feel deeply everything it held within its frame. Distant Constellation (Shevaun Mizrahi, 2017) haunts me still, with its howling wind beating against the windows of a retirement home that holds the final, gasping breaths of a remarkable cast of humans, both brave and afraid, carefully sharing piercing shards of what they know about the past. Outside, there is a new generation tearing down the physical remnants of history and erecting new stories and public remembrances in their place. The juxtaposition of the old and the new, told through breath, laughter and sighs of exhaustion, is as grounded and otherworldly as cinema can ever hope to be.
Leaving Prizren, I pause to think about how Paul would tell the story of everything he saw and felt in Kosovo, not as a war photographer this time, but as the star of a film at a film festival full of joy and revelry. For all of the retelling that’s possible, I realize, only a fraction will ever come through: there are so many moments that one treasures and squirrels away for oneself. It takes time for these to mature and change just enough to be shared. It’s not selfish but builds a sense of self. Those special secrets keep us forever yearning, reaching, trying, and playing the system, perhaps even hoping that our personal stories will one day be told as some kind of win.