Exploring the world through global cinema

Blown By The Wind

'I've Seen Films' gives aspiring film-makers worldwide a voice and a platform for their talents.

World On Film spends the week in Belarus via two documentaries that focus upon the human struggle both in miniature and on a national level. First up:

The I’ve Seen Films International Film Festival is an annual event started by Rutger Hauer with the aim, we are told on the official site, “of promoting and uniting filmmakers, offering them new exposure and fresh and innovative platforms of visibility, where filmmakers are able to face each other on the common ground of the film language.”

An opportunity for independent film-makers worldwide, the beauty of it for the rest of us is that their entries can be viewed online for free. Although I often try to stick to films from each country’s major studios (where possible), here was an opportunity for something really contemporary. From Belarus:

Team or A Toast To Clean Friday or Brigade or Maundy Friday

Director: Sergei Katier

I’ve Seen Films International Film Festival 2010 entry

Type: Documentary

Website outline: They have different small-scale businesses and every Friday they meet in the bath-house. (View the film by searching for it via the link above.)

Although 'Team' is a snapshot of its central characters' lives, camaraderie is by far the main element.

Over a brief 22 minutes, director Sergei Katier brings us into the lives of 14 Belarusian small businessmen who live life to the full. As doctors, real estate agents, builders and bakers, their everyday exploits follow different paths, but they are united in their ambition to achieve greater heights of success and their passion for fun. That they are a close-knit group of friends who like nothing better than each other’s company is most evident in their weekly trips to a banya, or Russian-style bathhouse. There, the problems of life, work and politics melt away like the snow outside the building’s steam-covered walls.

With so many elements of a successful film in place, Team should be a clear winner, but it fails to be the sum of its parts. Production-wise, Katier is a skilled film-maker. Shots are varied and sequences are treated with different filters (some obviously on computer) and lighting to avoid visual stagnation, and the director is keenly aware of his short runtime. Clearly, plenty of effort has been spent in the editing suite to make sure that the best footage is used to good effect and treated to look its best. It has to be said though that certain editing choices muddy the story’s clarity and focus, leading me to wonder if my judgement is affected by my cultural leanings or if the problem is simply one of post-production.

“With so many elements of a successful film in place, Team should be a clear winner, but it fails to be the sum of its parts.”

Work hard, play hard: the men throw themselves into every aspect of their lives.

The human struggle is far and away the strongest element of the documentary, as we learn of the difficulties faced by each members of the group. Alexander, the head of a local hospital, faces a constant battle with chronic underfunding and state bureaucracy. Where many others in the medical profession have succumbed to the near-impossible conditions, Alexander manages to find comfort whenever a sick child is restored to health. Volodya, rather enigmatically described as an ‘oligarch’, attempts to run an alcohol firm despite the fact that alcohol production is heavily controlled by the state. Vitaly, meanwhile, struggles to maintain a bakery despite very obvious ill-health. Simply following the group’s various struggles and successes would have made a strong tale and an inspiring battle for ordinary survival.

Unfortunately, Katier seems far more interested in their downtime, particularly at said bathhouse. Ironically, even one of the members themselves emphasizes that although highly enjoyable, it’s only a small part of their week. It’s fairly clear that everyone looks upon the banya as a rewarding rest at the end of a long week, but the skewed focus gives the impression that each of these middle-aged men spend most of their time in a small heated room naked and slapping each other with branches. Admittedly, disrobed male bonding is a strong facet of many cultures and the fact that I find watching14 men dive-bombing each other in a swimming pool vaguely discomfiting probably says more about me than them. I still think however, that this is more a misguided choice of post-production: that these men enjoy each other’s company and gain strength from their bonding is overemphasized. More time spent showing the rest of their week would better justify the downtime sequences and make for a better film.

Friends and family forge close ties for the group.

Perhaps the best example of how this affects the build-up of genuine drama comes toward the end, where, after 20 minutes spent relating to the viewer how close and strong is the group’s friendship, a personal tragedy strikes that should shake them to their foundations. Yet two minutes later, the clothes are off and the champagne corks are popped. It also doesn’t help that we barely come to know the character thus afflicted, so that his fate lacks the emotional resonance it should have had. To an extent, the problem would have been mitigated by a longer running time, allowing each of the main players’ stories to have developed. However, I can’t help feeling that the director would simply have viewed this as an opportunity for more steam and sauna, which is the last thing Team needs.

“The skewed focus gives the impression that each of these middle-aged men spend most of their time in a small heated room naked and slapping each other with branches.”

Which brings me to the subtitles. I normally don’t comment on subtitles as different releases of cinema see different translations and therefore it isn’t a fair critique of the original film-maker. However, as an ICFilm entry, the producers had to supply their own English dialogue and were in this case responsible for their quality, and Team suffers from both stilted and occasionally incoherent subtitling. For example, when asked to comment on the successes of a recent bowling tournament, a character is heard to say, “Could be better, agitation let us down.” Meanwhile when explaining hospital bureaucracy, Alexander imparts that “There are a lot of regulative documents.

Strength of will gives way to human frailty, even for these men.

Having worked in the t.v post-production industry myself, I can appreciate how hard it is to not only translate between two distinct languages, not to mention cultures. However, proper assessment and appreciation of the film hinges upon being able to properly understand what is being said without having to process every line for its meaning. Plus, simply getting the gist of a line will do nothing for characterization.

However, Team should still be judged principally on its non-English merits. It will be interesting to see how it fares at ICF 2010, but for me, it offers much while falling short of all that it could have been: a tale of triumph over adversity by good friends. Had more emphasis been placed on that adversity and the way in which each businessman faced it before leaping and giggling into the local spa, Team would have been a far stronger effort. Sergei Katier knows that a good film is all about people. Yet in this outing, he has forgotten that taking those people on a journey is the real story.

Belarus Unmasked

Long-serving Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko.

Kalinovski Square is a 2007 documentary looking at the mass protests in October Square, Minsk, following the 2006 re-election of long-time president Alexander Lukashenko. In power since 1994, the incumbent won a massive 80% of the votes according to state authorities, a declaration challenged by thousands of angry locals who called for his resignation. Police were called in and eventually removed everyone present.

Once described as one of the “six outposts of tyranny” by Condoleeza Rice, Belarus has a ‘Soviet’-style state-controlled economy, with freedom of speech severely limited if it dares stray from the party line. Kalinovski Square combines official video footage with secretly-filmed scenes of suppression and dissension among citizens, and the cult of personality surrounding Lukashenko himself, somewhat on par with that of Hugo Chavez.

However, the eye-opening documentary is memorable not only for what it reveals, but also for Yury Khashchavatski’s darkly humorous script, where irony and sarcasm very nearly melt the screen.

“[Lukashenko] has been troubled by enemies for many years. These troubles, penetrating his delicate psyche, generate problems that cannot be examined civilly – he has to sink his teeth into them. That distracts from the most important thing – thoughts about the happiness of the people. After all, he confesses that he is always thinking about it. Yes! Great idea! After all, it really is that simple. The president will take office for the third time (or, even better, forever) and nation-wide happiness shall come!”

“The eye-opening documentary is memorable not only for what it reveals, but also for Yury Khashchavatski’s darkly humorous script, where irony and sarcasm very nearly melt the screen.”

Protesters fill the square decrying the election a farce.

The humour of course is not to draw a veil over the Lukashenko stranglehold of Belarus, rather, it erupts from the sheer madness of the situation, which to the film-makers is so overt and the hallmarks of a dictatorship so blatant, that one can only laugh at the insanity of it. Director Sergey Isakov strikes a good balance between irony, storytelling and reportage. Victims of police brutality and suppression are interviewed, but so are ordinary citizens who were not part of the October Square mélange, and the cameras even travel to the countryside to document the opinions of the villagers, whose world seems not to have changed in a century despite the promise of progress. The action also shifts to official parliamentary sessions, where the president’s attack dogs deal swiftly with any challenging candidates, of which there were several in 2006 – they too give their version of events.

Highly-recommended, Kalinovski Square should be seen by anyone who lives in a society where the scales of justice could at any time be tipped in favour of a small ruling elite, ie – everyone on the planet Earth. It’s free to watch, and can be seen below:

*****

Next Time

A murder victim. A police suspect protesting his innocence. A pact between 5 friends. Lust and betrayal. All are present when World On Film returns next time to discover the truth behind the Belgian thriller, Loft. An unsubtitled trailer will give you the idea below:

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