Whereas once the Edinburgh International Film Festival had a separate strand for documentaries, they’re now spread far and wide across the programme in fitting acknowledgement of the increasing melting boundaries between fact and fiction in cinema.
This year, the New Realities strand is home to a glut of documentary features, though there is also the occasional unclassifiable oddity such as "Yumen", the work of three directors, China’s Xu Ruotao and Huang Xiang as well as Michigan-born J P Sniadecki. Shot on very worn looking 16mm film stock, "Yumen" observes a group of solitary figures wandering the remains of a dilapidated ghost town in Northwest China. They occasionally interact with each other, but generally contain themselves to carrying out strange lone performance pieces in the post-industrial landscape.
Coming with a harsh and jarringly brittle sound design, "Yumen" can’t be anyone’s idea of a good time, but it’s still a thoughtful interpretation of a unique landscape and the sequence of a girl wandering a market within the ruins while badly lip-syncing Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” is oddly affecting. If nothing else, it’s intriguing to see a piece of cinema which will doubtless never receive any form of western distribution.
Another film which carries out a meditation around the aftermath of trauma upon landscape is Massimo D’Anolfi’s "Dark Matter". This focuses upon Sardinia’s Salto di Quirra, a military testing site for sixty years and the resulting effects of the contamination upon the wildlife and farming communities still attempting to live off the polluted land. It resembles an Italian evocation of The Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s "Stalker", rust-blasted army vehicles littering the eerie landscape.
Archive video footage shows the devastating barrage of missile runs and weapon tests upon the countryside, then horribly juxtaposed with contemporary scenes of despairing farmers attempting to save a malformed calf, born sick and unable to suckle its mother before finally being buried back into the contaminated soil which created it.
Landscape of a less apocalyptic nature is represented in Eric Steel’s Kiss The Water. Ostensibly a tribute to Megan Boyd, a solitary and possibly somewhat eccentric Scottish woman who became a legend within fly-fishing circles due to the beautifully crafted and intricate salmon flies she could weave, this BBC Scotland production becomes more an excuse for some beautifully composed landscape images and romantically inclined oil-painted animated representations from Em Cooper.
Boyd herself remains an enigma throughout, despite the avid recollections of former colleagues and customers (all of whom remain frustratingly unnamed) and the film seems unsure as to whether it is biography or wider discussion on the joys of the sport. Still, if you see just one fly-fishing film this year…
Away from New Realities, a documentary which quite simply everyone should see is Cristian Soto and Katalina Vergara’s The Last Station, deservedly running in the International Feature Film Competition. This Chilean film follows the lives and ultimately last days of the residents in a nursing home as they move through their final phase of existence with as much dignity as has been spared them. Many of these people seem to have been abandoned by their family in these homes (the film was actually shot at several establishments and cut down to ninety minutes from a mind-boggling 300 hours of footage), and seem to simply be marking time until the inevitable, the few moments of respite coming from the daily broadcast by a resident DJ who, instead of playing music, produces his own field recordings of the natural world, as though offering solace and the hint of memories to those whose own have been forgotten. This is a beautiful yet stark film, not an easy watch by any means, but essential viewing for anyone who doesn’t plan to die young.
Yumen, 23 June, 13:45 at Cineworld
Kiss The Water, 23 June, 17:30 and 25 June, 18:15 at Cineworld