When average viewers are asked to tell the main difference between documentaries and fiction films, their responses almost always go along the lines that documentaries talk about something that really happened. This realness they mention is related to the impression that, here, everyday life is being recorded, that the events are never staged, rather that it all happens at the point of filming, in a continuous and unique fashion. This realness is generally equated with a more general concept of truth. Such faith in documentary truth (stereo)typically stems from television documentary formats where a linear narration grounded in facts runs the show, in order to make clearer the description and argumentation surrounding certain events or phenomena, and any participants that more credible. Such documentaries—which are similar to investigational reporting or even old film chronicles (i.e. news) once screened in cinemas before film screenings—dissect past events in the light of whatever took place afterwards, i.e. framed by interpretations and repercussions that came only later.
One could say that documentaries are like myths in the way that they relate to the truth, which first and foremost can be considered from two angles: the truthfulness of a myth lies in its allegorical dimension, or somewhere below the layers of real event takes. Documentary films featuring traditional storytelling, though, can be associated with the second point of view regarding the truth in myths: the reality gets perverted due to the very nature of the medium; that is, because of the temporal and spatial distortion integral to editing and, even before that, with every decision made regarding what is filmed. This means that any representation of past events in this sense is necessarily only a recording made by the filmmaker, defined by a specific point of view, which is something that every film student learns in their first year at university.
Why the long introduction, you might wonder, for a few recent national documentaries? Perhaps it stems from my need—formed over many years of evaluating documentaries—to clarify, once more, and primarily to myself, what makes a documentary interesting and valuable with respect to its artistic skills, when judgements are already passed, based on the viewer’s general impression. Besides, when it comes to cinema as practice, there is still much to gather from returning to some fundamental questions.
The two documentaries that garnered most attention, as some like to say, with ‘the public & the media’ in the last year are structured primarily, albeit not completely as typical narrative films. The Diary of Diana B (Dnevnik Diane Budisavljević, Croatia/Slovenia/Serbia, Hulahop/December/This and That Productions, 88’, 2019) by Dana Budisavljević made a grand slam at Pula Film Festival, pulling in, what is for a documentary an extraordinarily large cinema audiences. The plot is to be thanked for this, contemplating current political attitudes regarding the period and protagonists shown in the film, alongside the emotional intensity of the event (it was, after all, a matter of life and death). By combining fictional segments with interviews with people who witnessed the event, as well as an occasional input of archival footage, Budisavljević tells the story in a straightforward, honest manner, with a clear stance, much in the vein of conventional Holocaust films, film that appeared in multitudes in many cinemas around the world, from Claude Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah (France/UK, 1985) onwards. And truly, where old stories of heroism are concerned, which the living need so, there is not much room for ambivalence.
The second film is Andrej Korovljev’s Tusta (Croatia/Serbia/Macedonia, Factum/Wake Up Films/Zagreb Film/Award Film & Video, 2019), a film which was a long time coming and long awaited, particularly by the loyal fanbase of the band KUD Idijoti who Tusta was a member of, but also by his natives from Pula and Istria, by factory workers at the Pula shipyard Uljanik, by punks and rockers and punk rockers alike, as well as everyone who consider Branko Črnac Tusta to be an emblem of certain life values. Although the film was named after the late singer, genre-wise, it is less of a biopic aimed at showing Tusta in a more intimate and formally more complex light than ever before, and more of a rockumentary about the rise and fall of the band, with concurrent episodes from Tusta’s life, informed by the local pop-political context. It is also a trajectory much harder to balance, a trajectory which, for example, not even the much more experienced Jarmusch succeeded at executing in his recent Gimme Danger (USA, 2016) with the (still living) Iggy Pop. This film consolidates the mythology of KUD Idijoti, first of all thanks to their image as politic rebels, thereby expanding their fan circle in a symbolic way, touching even those that never had the chance to hear them live.
The Diary of Diana B and Tusta are, of course, auteur films, but only within the said classification of myths that have accumulated layers of the future.
The second category worth mentioning here, of last year’s documentary films relevant for their allegoric twist of the truth, includes non-professional shorts; namely the student film Closing Time (Fajront, Croatia, Stvaralačka mreža zebra/ADU, 14’, 2019) by David Lušičić and a workshop film Kozibrod (Croatia, Škola dokumentarnog filma – Restart, 11’, 2019) by Barbara Radelja.
Closing Time revolves around a story being told by a person who witnessed a certain unfortunate event, at an unnamed café in Zagreb. The narrative suspense is sustained by the constant ‘beating around the bush’ in a play of perspectives. The witness never fully reveals even the basic information about what truly happened. It serves as a reminder of how we actually take in the world around us, automatically passing judgement and all the while reconstructing the missing parts, until all the obscurities in a certain event are completed. This cinematic event keeps us guessing by incorporating vague visual details and alternating subjective and objective shots, by resorting to a misleading event reconstruction, and coupling it with an intense—nearly muted—and suggestive soundscape. In addition, Closing Time also works as an allegory of fate, a tale of consequences triggered by a specific turn of events, and a single misguided moment, which makes the ambivalent, cigarette-smoking narrator almost into a bard figure.
Kozibrod delivers a finely attuned story about the intimate resurfacing of family heritage. With simple and masterfully framed shots, edited together mostly by the power of association, at times even in tune with the ‘homemade’ song playing, the filmmaker seeks to document what only she can, without ever becoming too hermetic. She weaves together a cinematic language so mythical and poetic that it enraptures us as we intuitively recognise our place: in the moments of solitude, in the void, loneliness, loss, look, in our connection to our ancestry, material world and places around us. It is as if our memories are captured in the visuals of the psychological space the film traverses; Kozibrod is a small, oval, cinematic mirror that we stand in front of every time we come back home.
Goran Dević’s film On the Water (Na vodi, Croatia, Petnaesta umjetnost, 79’, 2018)—the most successful Croatian documentary on international festivals around the world, and deservedly so—makes for the third documentary category, one we might call part chronicle, part allegory. It took Dević a fairly long time to finish the film, and it is good that it did, because it is one of his best to date, for sure—attesting his growth as filmmaker. Three powerful storytellers from one community paint a picture of a society in stasis; like a fisherman with no lures, it finds itself stuck in the mud. On the Water’s strands are held together by Dević’s palpable empathy for his subjects; there is a sort of authorial warmth exuding from the frames, one that is impossible to get from the views of the muddy river, but can only be achieved through honest human interaction, supported by a wealth of knowledge about cinema. Dević knows his materials all too well and they are the solace he keeps coming back to. People who he meets there always have interesting things to share even when they simply sit in pregnant silence.
On a final note, for the sake of the mythic memory, we should not fail to mention two supposedly controversial films which reached the very end of their film festival life cycle in the last year, films that were more misguidedly talked about than they were actually seen. In fact, they are also among the best Croatian documentaries in general. One is Nebojša Slijepčević’s award-winning documentary purchased by the HBO, Srbenka (Croatia, Restart, 72’, 2018), a cinematic tour de force that made the filmmaker be hailed as one of the shrewdest documentarians in Croatia today. Furthermore, the second film is the excellent and very topical Chriss the Swiss (Switzerland/Croatia/Germany/Finland, Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion/Nukleus Film/ma.ja.de./IV Films, 90’, 2018) by Anja Kofmel, which got unfairly low traction as it drew a fair share of politically-charged reviews and criticism. Stupidity is indestructible, as Tusta used to say.