City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

EIFF 2014: Documentaries

By Euan Andrews - Posted on 24 June 2014

Chantier A

Edinburgh International Film Festival has long excelled with its annual selection of documentaries offering global perspectives and insights within rapidly changing frames of reference. Yet the concept of the documentary grows ever more vague and nefarious. Is what we are seeing a straight document of reality, a hyper-edited drama constructed from fragments of footage or simply the personal musings of film-makers willing to let their minds wander loose and free for as long as feels necessary?

This year's list of documentaries feel ever more authorial and structured around film-makers pre-conceived notions, while also enabling them to embark on some theoretical voyage, taking the audience with them on a surge of improvised momentum, with no fixed destiny in sight.

A film like "Chantier A" begins with one of its three co-directors, Karim Loualiche, returning to Algeria following ten years away, being warmly greeted by family like a misfit exile suddenly reappearing. Then, following these introductions, the film seems to splinter forward as Loualiche wanders through city and desert, seemingly unable to reconcile himself with his homeland while at the same time disintegrating into the context of his own (along with co-directors Lucie Deche and Tarek Sami) film. He becomes less a human being than a shadowy outline in a country which feels just as alien to him as it might to any outsider.

Also returning to his home country is Pelle Persson in "Displaced Perssons", from Sweden’s Asa Blanck and Johan Palmgren. Pelle left Sweden forty years ago to travel the world, finally settling in Pakistan where he married and raised two daughters. Now, approaching seventy years old and unhappy at the future prospects open to his twenty-something daughters in Pakistan, Pelle uproots his family to bring them back with him to Sweden, the country in which he was born and still has friends and family, yet also a country in which he hasn’t set foot in four decades. At what point does an aged traveller returning home become just another immigrant, in the eyes of the country he left behind seeming lifetimes ago? It’s a bittersweet film, with Pelle and his wife and children proving amiably resilient company as they strive to deal with the bureaucratic nightmare of simply trying to prove they exist to a Swedish state which would clearly rather they had stayed in Pakistan.

One of the most simply observational documentaries showing is "My Name Is Salt", Farida Pacha’s near Cinema Verite depiction of families working the salt marshes of Gujarat, India. Incredibly beautiful vistas, blank and terrifying with endless white surface under gaping blue skies, in which humans toil in primitive servitude to hidden economic uncertainties. Again, the human element becomes important to this film as we become able to latch onto the workers and their families who pursue this rigorous extraction of salt for an eight-month season in forbidding circumstances.

Virtually an action movie by comparison, Orlando von Einsiedel’s "Virunga" begins as a straightforward National Geographic portrait of life in the Congolese Virunga national park. Poachers proliferate and war is always present on the sidelines, but the film is content to follow the park’s keepers and wardens as they do their best to protect the wildlife and help to raise orphaned gorillas (sometimes with the aid of Pringles crisps as rewards). But big money has its gaze set on Virunga, as a British oil company begins aggressive manoeuvres on the territory. Following a French journalist as she investigates the chain of command within this company, as it refuses to take No for an answer, the shocking stench of “civilised” Western bullying and intimidation pervades this increasingly gut-wrenching film.

And then, like a gang of paid-up heavies, one of the Congo’s many militia factions turns up to kick things off right on top of Virunga. The final half-hour is searing, emotional and downright upsetting stuff. One criticism could be that the director here has manipulated footage in order to pull strings in the audience and get people angry. One could also argue that it’s simply using the available tools to sell the story to its greatest advantage. Either way, it works. There is plenty to get angry about in "Virunga", as rich white men decide the fate of the park turned into a war zone, as one charming British mercenary quips in hidden camera footage, “Who gives a fuck about fucking monkeys?”, and as the blatant festering corruption of Western influences prepare once more to rip the world open in search of big bucks. "Virunga" is stunning.

Virunga - Official Trailer 2014 from Grain Media on Vimeo.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival continues til 29th June

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Don't know if you saw, Euan, that the chief warden was shot several times in an ambush after the documentary was made. Thankfully, he made a recovery and is back protecting the gorillas. Haven't seen the film but judging by the trailer and your review it's one to see.