Leipzig is a beautiful city in the eastern part of Germany and holds a wonderful film festival each year for documentary and animated films called DOK Leipzig. Apart from the competition sections for international and German documentaries and the corresponding ones for animated films, the festival also has (among several other things) a young cinema section – called Generation DOK- and retrospectives dedicated to masters of the medium. In 2009 the festival had a retrospective of documentaries by Joris Ivens (1898-1989) and one for animated films by the Russian director Andrey Khzhanovskiy. Being on the FIPRESCI jury for international documentaries, I did not have much of an opportunity to see many films in the other sections – except for a charming animated film by Khrzhanovskiy based on the cartoons of Federico Fellini.
DOK Leipzig is a major festival and brilliantly organized. The personal touch was much in evidence with the festival director Claas Danielsen whizzing around on a bicycle, finding time to talk to invitees personally, at length and even dwelling on intellectual issues pertaining to cinema! Given the status of the Leipzig festival one can say with some conviction that what one sees there more or less represents worldwide trends in the medium of the documentary. This piece is primarily a reflection on the kind of documentaries being made internationally and what seem to be attitudes of juries worldwide.
Increasingly, it has begun to seem, that the kind of cinema being encouraged around the world is the blandly ‘humanist’ kind. The films that stretch the limits of the medium are either absent or remain unrewarded. 17 August (Alexandr Gutman, Russia) chronicles a day in the life of a prisoner incarcerated for having killed three people. Actors (Tomasz Wolski, Poland) goes to an old people’s home meant for actors and deals with the enjoyment the actors feel when briefly asked to act again for the documentary. Altzaney is a Georgian film (by Nino Orjonkidje and Vano Arsenishvili) about an old woman in a village who becomes mediator in disputes because of her stature. Arrivals (Claudine Bories, Patrice Chagnard, France) is about migrants being screened before they are either granted asylum (for being persecuted in their home countries) or deported. Two of the more interesting films in the competition section were The Living Room of the Nation (Jukka Karkainen, Finland) a hilarious film about unemployed people spending their time in their living rooms in various pursuits and October Country (Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher, USA) about a dysfunctional family in New York State. The father is a war veteran playing bloody games on a computer while his sister tries to photograph ghosts in the neighboring cemetery. The film is perhaps too quirky to be widely appreciated but it has a social commentary about America today with its military engagements and its economy of fierce consumption. While the horribly bland and the anxious-to-please-everyone Arrivals emerged as the favorite – winning several awards – it was strange that the most inventive film of the lot Cooking History (Peter Kerekes, Czech Republic) – about war – received only the FIPRESCI Prize.
War is indispensible as the subject of newsreels, but it does not often find favour as the subject of the creative documentary. The reason is perhaps that it is too difficult a subject for justice to be done to it. There is the danger that tackling war head on – e.g. dealing with it explicitly using archival footage – would turn the effort into some sort of exploitation because stark images of war are readily consumed in themselves – without attention to what the film might actually be wanting to say. The best method of dealing with war is perhaps to focus on smaller but crucial issues relating to it, thereby commenting on the organized violence of war and man’s inhumanity to man in a more covert way. Georges Franju’s Hotel des Invalides (1952), for instance, is a classic short documentary that deals with war by looking at how it is remembered by a museum.
“An army marches on its stomach,” declared Napoleon Bonaparte famously, and the director of Cooking History was perhaps inspired by this because what he does is to look at several modern military engagements through the eyes of military chefs. Peter Kerekes is a young Czech filmmaker and he deals with war with the characteristic lack of solemnity that appears to mark the nation’s outlook when it deals with the subject, Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky,1966) perhaps being the archetypal example – although Menzel’s is a fiction film. Cooking History gets its effects in several ways and its ‘irreverence’ is given emphasis by the mock Wagner on the soundrack, which features as the ‘theme’. The military engagements that Kerekes deals with are the Russian in Chechnya, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Germans in Russia during World War II, the French in Algeria and the fighting between the Serbs and Croatians after Josip Broz Tito’s death and the end of Yugoslavia. Kerekes goes about his task interviewing military chefs on the logistics of providing food (mostly) to invading armies. Many of the chefs are now very old, but Kerekes gets them to eflect on the horrors of war, although their memories are always refracted through the issue of food. What makes Cooking History so inventive are the visual parallels the filmmaker draws, for instance, between the making of ‘Coq au Vin’ by a French chef recollecting Algeria – in which the final touch is administered by the chicken being soaked in wine and set alight – with French soldiers blowing up a rebel hideout. There is also a comparison between what a chef does to a dead chicken – cutting its head off and disembowelling it – to what soldiers on opposite sides do to each other. In one of the final segments, a chef who once worked on a submarine demonstrates what it is like to cook on a sinking sub. The chef is on a beach during the interview – during which he also cooks – and, as the tide rises and submerges the beach, his equipment is gradually floating and the
pieces to meat descend to the bottom of the water to be eaten by crabs. The chef also announces the number of drowned sailors at this moment and we get an almost visceral sense of how the same crabs might once have treated dead sailors. ‘Meat is meat eventually’, the film blandly suggests, whether they belong to a slaughtered cow or to a
One of the key interviewees in the film is Tito’s personal chef who oversaw the nutritional aspects of the Yugoslav leader’s daily life, and the film includes some extraordinary footage of guests being entertained by the leader. Among them are not only leaders of the non-aligned movement like Fidel Castro, but also others like the young
Saddam Hussein who later went on to great infamy and also to historical tragedy. Since this is intercut with the almost banal outpourings of the nutritionist, the film also becomes an acid commentary on how those who play a part in the actual workings of history – like providing food at the most crucial moments – often have no clue as to what history is all about or about how it is being created under their very noses – with the smaller people being completely oblivious to everything except their given tasks. All these things just written about are put together by Kerekes as a series of distinct chapters with a summary presented at the conclusion of each one – as a bill for food materials – so many tons of port, so much papika and so on, with each summary concluding with ‘a pinch of
What makes Cooking History such a welcome addition to the documentary
film is perhaps its understanding that, regardless of the seriousness
of the subject matter, a film’s primary obligation is to cinema. Documentary filmmakers dealing with war may decide on the moralist’s approach to the subject, but it is perhaps the cineaste’s view that will be more helpful to cinema. And it can be asserted without
hesitation that Peter Kerekes’ Cooking History will take the genre of
the war documentary forward because of its intelligence and creative
‘Humanism’ is a philosophy that can be enlisted on behalf of virtually any cause. It would seem to me that any film that stretches the possibilities of the medium should get many more rewards from experts – which are what juries are expected to be. The disquieting thing about jury decisions is that they also favor the blandest kind of ‘humanism’.
The Film Society Movement in India
Complied and Edited by HN Narahari Rao
(Published by the Asian Film Foundation, 2009)
The film society movement in India is important to students of cinema
for a number of reasons. The foremost one is that it is the movement
through which Indians became acquainted with international cinema.
Serious filmmakers from Satyajit Ray to Shyam Benegal became
interested in cinema through the movement and Indian art cinema is
still deeply indebted to it. Film criticism as a discipline also owes
much to it. The history of the film society movement in India is
therefore something that has long needed chronicling.
Sri HN Narahari Rao, as once one of the guiding spirits of Suchitra
Film Society, the foremost film club in Karnataka, is a pioneer of the
film society movement in the State. It is only fitting that he should
have been chosen to officially document and chronicle the history of
the movement. The Film Society Movement in India is an ambitious
volume that brings together a huge amount of material written by
people associated with the movement both in India and outside – and
profusely illustrated with rare pictures that bear witness to the
happenings commencing from the earliest years of the movement.
The film society movement in India perhaps owed to similar movements
in Britain and France and the individual who contributed more than any
other to initiating it in India was Marie Seton, who later wrote a
famous biography of Satyajit Ray. The book provides evidence of her
involvement in the project, the commencement of film appreciation as a
legitimate discipline, the first FA Courses conducted at the FTII with
cultural stalwarts like KV Subbanna being among the first students.
Among the various articles and essays collected are those by
Chidananda Das Gupta (a survey of the FS movement written in 1965), a
nostalgic account of cinephilia in Bombay by Darius Cooper, a note on
teaching film appreciation by Prof. Satish Bahadur, an assessment of
film societies today by Gaston Roberge and numerous accounts of the
actual experiences of film societies across India. The book also
includes several useful annexures – from ‘How to start a film society
(along with a specimen constitution) to histories of the movement in
areas like Britain and Latin America. An unusual addition – which
could be useful to persons beginning film appreciation – is a list of
great filmmakers from world cinema along with their selected
It is not often that one sees the possibility of a book surviving in
time but The Film Society Movement in India – which bears evidence of
monumental effort – has enough documentary material in it to be a
valuable book of reference to those studying the movement in India in
the decades to come.