Dok.cetera: 5 Documentary Films to Watch This Autumn Festival Season

20 October, 2021

October brings the start of autumn’s festival “season”, especially in the world of non-fiction. This month will see the 19th Doclisboa, 25th Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, 64th DOK Leipzig, and many others. Last month, Dok.cetera looked at some of these festivals’ early programs, but here we are going more in-depth and looking at 5 films that will screen prominently across the next two months. Festival favorites already, these five films to catch on the autumn festival circuit are some of the most well-received, impactful, and important documentary films of the year.

1970, a film by Tomasz Wolski

1970 (dir. Tomasz Wolski) – Poland
Before Christmas 1970, workers in Poland’s port cities aggressively protested in an event far outside the norms of the time. The protest, a result of food price hikes, was one of particularly aggressive dissent. When such shows were forbidden, the event resulted in the killing of some 40 people and the injuring of some 1100 more. The Polish hierarchy also drew concern about the Finnish consul who happened to be in the country, and on the scene, at the time. As he departed, members of the Ministry of Internal Affairs realized that he might have photos of the situation and must be stopped. “Maybe a car accident?” asks one member. “If he has a camera or case, steal them,” says another. Among thousands of hours more, these conversations make up the brilliant animation of Tomasz Wolsiy’s stop-motion noir thriller, 1970. Throughout its green-blue-purple palettes, puppet representations of old communist power players smoke and scheme behind heavy office curtains and doors. The ambiance of the time shines through its dial phones and military uniforms while offering a stark and colorful counterpoint to the black-and-white archive footage from the era. Making films like 1970 about civil resistance allows those without agency at the time to claim narratives from the oppressive regimes under which they lived and worked – those seeking to control the populace by determining the official story, for Tomasz Wolski and 1970, better late than never.

World Premiere: Berlinale
Screening at: Ji.hlava IDFF, IDFA

As I Want
As I Want, a film by Samahr Alqadi

As I Want (dir. Samahr Alqadi) – Egypt, France, Germany, Palestine, Norway
The front lines of modern rebellion tend to be misconstrued as a place of feel-good sentiment – a virtuous arena of social activism. The only thing more so is the self-identified selfless who engage with it. But with everything from the ongoing reckoning with racial justice to the struggle for female equality, often, the truth is much more elusive than most make it to be. Of course, the world of activism is much greyer than many are willing to admit. An undeniable billion-euro industry ultimately dictates its message, after all. But aside from economic reasons, deep-seated social and cultural dynamics seep in as well. Think of the famous women’s march, debuting the day after then-US President Donald Trump’s inauguration – hundreds of thousands attended the international event. In subsequent years, one that also descended into internal chaos as credible accusations of anti-Semitism and discrimination against minority represented feminism came to light. Samahr Alqadi’s powerful As I Want lends its narrative within this matter’s dynamic, albeit centered a world away around Egypt’s 2011 ousting (revolution) of Hosni Mubarak. The event was seminal in that year’s Arab Spring, but as the documentary questions: whose revolution was it anyway? What happened on that Spring day was shamefully underreported– a series of violent sexual assaults. These assaults were supported by that patriarchal status quo who went the gamut of victim-blaming, from shrugging off its intensity to overtly blaming the women themselves. In turn, this sparked day’s female-led protests – culminating in feminist consciousness rarely visible anywhere in the region. The resulting documentary layers itself between this macro movement and the micro reality of the director’s own household – one where her aging mother remains firmly under the imposed morality of her tradition. As much as an indictment of traditionalism, As I Want is a cinematic letter to family stands and one of the most powerful documentaries of recent memory and an expose into the internal hypocrisies around defining true “equality” plaguing activism across the world.

World Premiere: Berlinale
Screening at: IDFA

F@ck This Job
F@ck This Job, a film by Vera Krichevskaya

F@ck This Job (dir. Vera Krichevskaya) – UK, Germany, Russia
FUCK this job! We’ve all said it at some point. But when you are Russia’s last independent news outlet, such phrases are probably commonplace. TV Dozhd, the project of 35-year-old Natasha Sindeeva, is very much an anomaly in modern Russia. Though in a different format (now on YouTube), the independent news outlet has been on-air for some ten years. Older, wiser, and more realistic about the future of Russia, TV Dozhd has overcome numerous setbacks in maintaining its mission. Once thriving under then-president Medvedev, the return of Vladimir Putin to (most likely unlimited) power has yielded tough times for the now dubbed “foreign agent” media outlet. Vera Krichevskaya’s film, with assistance from renowned documentary producer Mike Lerner (Hell and Back Again, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer), is a thorough and detailed observation into TV Dozhd’s newsroom – where more than half of its employees identify as LGBTQ (no small feat in ultra-homophobic Russia). Its initial mission of truth-seeking attracted some of the countries top journalists and broadcasters but also put it in a veritable collision course with the Kremlin and its determination to eradicate independent (read: dissenting) voices – airing instances of ballot stuffing or the bloody aftermath of a 2011 suicide bombing, not helping matters. Ultimately, it was the honest coverage of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution and that country’s ousting of pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovyich that was the veritable straw that broke the camel. Its television airing was immediately pulled, nosediving viewership and advertising revenue. From there, F@ck This Job documents the phoenix-like rise of TV Dozhd, the sacrifice incurred to make it so, and the adoption of new digital platforms to continue its mission (as YouTube is a US-based company, the channel is now recognized in Russia as a “foreign agent”). In today’s era of autocratic governments, superpower geopolitics, and misinformation permeations, F@ck This Job is an insightful and intimate look at one of the world’s most difficult countries for journalism and truth.

World Premiere: ArtDocfest Riga
Screening at: IDFA, DOC NYC

Little Palestine Diary of a Siege
Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege), a film by Abdallah Al Khatib

Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege) (dir. Abdallah Al Khatib) – Lebanon, France, Qatar
As they are gradually cut off from supplies and much of the world, residents of the world’s largest Palestinian refugee camp resist despair through organization. This lays the foundations of Abdallah Al Khatib’s document of the Damascus refugee camp Yarmouk, which lies under constant pressure from those loyal to Bashar al-Assad (and his support from the Russian military). Al-Khatib is a well-known figure in the camp, having written 40 Rules of the Siege (which the film is based on). Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege) was nearly a decade in the making, with support coming from Sundance and Cannes (among others). Though it cannot trace back the lengthy history of Yarmouk, which was established in 1957 and, until recently, had been a bustling neighborhood on the south side of Damascus, Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege) also does not claim to be a “war film”. It is not about the Syrian Civil War, per se. Instead, it focuses its gaze on the ever-constant struggle of the Palestinian, who have spent generations living against the odds, seemingly everywhere they end up. Some 160,000 inhabit Yarmouk, packed into a few square kilometers of war-torn apartment buildings, but without the title, it can be anywhere in the world beset with such issues. The siege can come in many forms, and bombs and bullets are only one. In the case of Yarmouk, it comes from a gradual lessening of vital supplies, leading to more death through starvation and disease than overt violence.

World Premiere: Visions du Réel
Screening at: IDFA

Users, a film by Natalia Almada

Users (dir. Natalia Almada) – Mexico, USA
What world will the children of today inhabit in as little time as one decade? With the ubiquity of screens and digital communication, Mexican Director Natalia Almada seeks an answer via her dystopian documentary, Users. Almada’s approach to her subject matter is two-fold: firstly, she overtly questions technological “progress” as a net positive in this era of algorithmic catalyzed late capitalism. Secondly, she draws inward toward her own experience as a new mother in this increasingly unfamiliar world. Throughout Users, the focus lies squarely on the faces of children. From the very start, from a “smart” baby crib to the ever-present blue-green glow of the computer, tablet, phone, watch screen, children’s faces run the gamut of emotion, where fed information affects mood more so than everyday human interaction and stimulation. With this setting, Almada contemplates the possibilities of the future world as, after all, we still lie at the precipice of human/machine hybridization with this next generation increasingly susceptible to early endeavors into cyborg-ization. And, if this does occur, which will be the predominant aspect of the future superhuman? Will it be the man or the machine? A question everyone from German psychiatrist Erich Fromm to philosopher Yuval Noah Harari predicts as inevitable. With its title, Users draws parallels to more traditional “addiction”, that of drugs, sex, gambling. But, as anyone with young children can attest (even in your behavior), the reliance, both psychologically and physically, on screens and digital gadgets is an addiction of its own kind. With its kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of child face close-ups and expansive landscapes, Users is reminiscent of the work of Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi) and Ron Fincke (Baraka) – albeit with the added element of voice-over. By its end, Users becomes something of a visual scrapbook where associative ideas and experiences, fears and questions, all play into its prophetic narrative as today’s children grow into the adults of tomorrow.

World Premiere: Sundance
Screening at: Ji.hlava IDFF, IDFA

"New to Bucharest by way of Amsterdam, Brooklyn, and a few others, Steve is the communications manager/industry editor for Modern Times Review documentary magazine. He was also senior editor for New York-based IndieWood/Hollywoodn’t. At Films in Frame, his documentary column features on the last Wednesday of the month.