Never mind Greeks bearing gifts, filmmakers bearing ‘true stories’ are the real threat!

P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958) is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.


Karlovy Vary 2019: We need a new expression for the march of non-fiction in a post-factual world and you heard it here first (maybe): ‘hostile film’. It’s the new site of political struggle and antagonism, of moving images at their most invasive: in your face, tracking your movements, documenting your shortcomings. Fact-finding filmmakers everywhere are revealing what you’re really up to, and it is their dubious claim to being fiction (or fabrication) free that makes them so dangerous.

So really, beware of filmmakers bearing ‘true stories’. Martin Maracek is just such a filmmaker and Over the Hills (2019) is just such a story, premiered this month at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF). It’s the story of Vít, whose wife found God and fled to her native Russia, taking their daughter with her, and leaving him to play single parent to his son, Grisha, ever since. Now they are bound for Russia themselves, to try and reconnect with their lost family. It emerges that the destination is less important than the journey, especially the metaphorical journey of the evolving father-son relationship as, stuck in a car together, they deal with each other with humour and no little acrimony. It’s a tale of everyday lives in motion, unremarkable yet appealing. You would hardly say it was dangerous!

It does seems strange – to the point of paranoia – to suggest we should be wary of true stories like this one. What could be more innocuous? Who can object to the truth? The trouble is we’re talking apparent truth (also known as lies) in all its apparent innocuousness, and brought to us by actual filmmakers, in all their unvarnished reality. You know the type – Michael Moore, Werner Herzog – and you know they cannot be trusted! I hope you’d have enough sense to run for the hills – and never look back – if ever one of these guys – film-crew in tow – should come calling for you. Never mind that most Greek and horsey of them all, Sacha Baron Cohen, assuming you see through his latest disguise! Take a good look at a picture of the actor; commit it to memory; ‘be afraid – be very afraid’ (apologies to Aaron Sorkin).

Photo: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary.

The threat may be a lot more subtle than the trappings of Baron Cohen’s latest persona, of course. It’s a lot harder to pick apart the workings of a genuine stealth attack. In fact, it requires us to think about film in a different way. Let us consider for a moment how the film that prompted the tirade you have just endured – Over the Hills – would usually be treated, for example by a typical Montages contributor, myself included. She would most likely submit it to a little formal analysis, starting, I would imagine, by noting its use, as a documentary, of the fiction-genre conventions of the ‘road movie’. The key questions driving the discussion would be: What does it mean, how is such meaning conveyed through various filmic devices, and even, to some extent (maybe), how does it feel: boring, scintillating, etc? Over the Hills is far from boring, at any rate. It tells a sophisticated, albeit understated story, assisted, rightly enough, by judicious use of ‘road movie’ conventions. But wait: There’s another way of looking at this…

There’s another level and I don’t mean the poetic one, though this is another ‘other’, worthy of consideration, certainly, but hardly neglected – certainly not by Montages. There is a level even more obscure level than this. Indeed, its workings may be so well hidden that it will take considerable educated guesswork to uncover even a trace of their existence. This level, I would say, does suffer from some neglect and requires us to consider an entirely different set of questions: Who made the film, how, where, and for what purpose?

Sometimes, by the deliberate act of filmmakers, such a process rises, like a ghostly apparition, to the surface – or screen. It even constitutes a sort of genre of its own, we call ‘the making of’. One of the best examples is Fax Bahr’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, from 1991, which took us behind the scenes to witness the chaos and heartbreak (not to mention heart disease) at the ‘heart’ of that (equally masterful) fiction feature, Apocalypse Now (from 1979), directed by the redoubtable Francis Ford Coppola.

Francis Ford Coppola in «Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse».

Note that the making-of genre turns its attention exclusively to fiction. Its rationale is to tell the true story behind the made-up one. Any social scientist worth her salt will tell you the key to social phenomena often lies, paradoxically, in what is missing. Conspicuous by their absence in this regard is the ‘making of’ Malik Benjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man (2012), say, or Michael Moore’s Roger & Me (1989). Such ‘true stories’ tend to get a free ride, their veracity taken for granted, their constitutive workings left well alone. We may occasionally make documentaries about fiction features, but never about other documentaries.

Hence, the making of Over the Hills is a film-project that will surely never see the light of day. That need not prevent us taking our own look at how it was made, however, to consider it, for a moment, not so much as text or speech, but as speech-act. Our words and our pictures as they are uttered or transmitted are also actions. As such, they affect others: both their witnesses, as they sit in the intimate darkness of a movie theatre for example, and – not least – those upon whom the cameras are actually trained. So what is a movie like Over the Hills not just saying but doing?

There is nothing overtly hostile about the film, but that could be all the more reason to be on guard. Acts of cultural violence invariably depend on deception, deliberate or otherwise. The charade played out in Larry Charles’s Borat (2006) or Brüno (2009) is plain as day – for its audiences if not its victims. It is the rather more subtle acts of deception we must be at pains to uncover. To do so we must take the ‘true story’ Maracek tells us and attempt to read another between the lines – or images. We must consider what is absent yet implied in the story of Vít and Grisha.

«Over the Hills».

Take the film’s essential plot. Vít and Grisha travel to a small Russian town to see their wife/mother and daughter/sister, only to find they have somehow disappeared. So Vit and Grisha search for them, conducting enquiries in the small community like a father-son detective team. They never find their ‘fugitives’ however. They leave disappointed, then, but with a better understanding and rapport between each other, at least. Thus, they set off for home in better spirits than one might have expected. It’s not exactly a happy ending but the audience nonetheless leaves satisfied: It’s been a journey, you might say. Now, let us take a step back with a metaphorical camera in hand, and consider the making of Over the Hills.

Of course, we don’t actually have a camera and much of the filmmaking process will remain unknown. Nevertheless, some things can be deduced from attributes of the film itself. Furthermore, the director answered – albeit guardedly – one question about the process I managed to pose at Q&A in Karlovy Vary. I asked him if the estranged wife knew husband and son were travelling in tandem with a film crew. He did not answer the question directly but spoke instead to the general question of balance and fairness, outlining his plan, impossible to implement as it happened, to offer to interview the wife and let her give her side of the story. I believe Maracek avoided the question (though I cannot know this for certain) because Vít, as the film shows, told his wife they were coming but probably neglected to mention the visual documentation in progress. Maracek may well have been avoiding the prickly ethical issue of what sort of informed consent Vít’s estranged spouse enjoyed as an unwitting party to the project.

«Over the Hills».

The story of Vit and Grisha, as depicted, is perfectly self-contained. They travel together, alone, and thus have to relate to one another. The filmmaker has created what documentary specialist Stella Bruzzi in New Documentary (2018) calls a ‘masquerade of spontaneity’, however. The protagonists act as though they are alone, since they pay no heed to the camera or crew behind it. The relations of apparent intimacy are actually performed – more or less consciously – for an audience, most immediately a live one. Vit and Grisha’s interactions are, at any rate, obscurely complicated by the broader, hidden social frame in which they must – in reality – operate. The film is itself a significant intervention into their lives. Its complex consequences are scrupulously cleansed from the filmic narrative, however.

For a film to be hostile it must be capable of hurting someone. Human pain and suffering is not always conspicuous, not always subject to examination, however. Hence, we may have to speculate how someone felt, what sense of pain or loss they may have experienced. In the case of Over the Hills we will have to first speculate about what exactly happened and then how that might have affected the three central figures involved. It is possible Vít’s wife learned somehow somewhere that the trip was part of a filmmaking project, and this was actually her reason for disappearing before their arrival.

Alternatively, wherever she escaped to, and for whatever reason, she is likely to have soon learned the truth from someone, given the conspicuous presence of the film-crew in that relatively small, close-knit community. It seems likely, either way, that the film project per se negatively affected the chances of effecting a family meeting, let alone a reconciliation. Hence, an alternative narrative lurks beneath the heart-warming story intended for audience consumption: Vit’s narcissistic project of misguided self-gratification, aided and abetted by self-serving filmmakers, and imposed on his vulnerable son, succeeded in intimidating his wife and emotionally impoverishing them all by deepening the wedge between them.

«Reindeer Island».

Of course, I have presented an extreme, ‘devil’s advocate’ alternative. It is a story no more true than Maracek’s. The emotional and social dynamics as they must have unfolded are as complex as they are obscure. It is therefore as hard to measure the damage the film may – or may not – have done as it is to gauge its positive effects. It is nevertheless hard to escape the conclusion that films like this at any rate have real effects, for good or ill, not only on their filmed subjects but also their audiences. Films are not innocent. Over the Hills presents not only a story but also a point of view. It celebrates the light hearted secularism, studied in depth, of the father-son pair, at the expense of the supposed religious fervour, scarcely examined, of the mother. In this way, it reinforces our prejudices, and that can hurt people at quite a distance!

Moreover, Over the Hills is not alone. In a way it is a little unfair to single it out for such a cross examination (pun intended) but, by the same token, it helps illustrate a broader issue concerning the generation and imposition of values. Most films express broadly liberal values, like individual affirmation and fulfilment and, as such, they risk running roughshod over everyone in their way, as surely as the most unscrupulous entrepeneur.

Take a recent example a little closer to home, Fridtjof Kjæreng’s Reindeer Island (Reindrømmen), premiered at this year’s Tromsø International Film Festival, and reincarnated as a six-part TV-series on NRK. More conventional and hence less performative than Over the Hills, the film builds its narrative through interviews and observations, though we never see or hear an interviewer or any other member of the film crew. The focus is Reiulf Aleksandersen and his unlikely life’s dream, to become a reindeer herder. We learn that from the age of three or four, he complained that his name should really be “Reinulf,” in honour of his beloved animal. Though herding rights are held exclusively by ethnic Sami, Reiulf gets an unlikely opportunity. He has married to a Sami woman and another, who holds rights for the island of Kvaløya but has been unable to exercise them, is impressed by Reiulf’s enthusiasm and talent. So she grants the rights to his wife.

«Reindeer Island».

The film’s narrative power lies in its dramatic structure. The unlikely prize could be snatched from Reiulf’s hands at its very moment of realisation. The lifelong Sami reindeer herder, Per Kitti, age 70, strenuously objects to the newcomers adding a second herd to the already stretched resources of the increasingly populated island, and goes to court to try and nip their project in the bud. The ensuing conflict provides the driving momentum of the film, powerfully combining shots of the hard life of the reindeer herder with tense and awkward visits to city courtrooms.

Alternating sequences showing Aleksandersen and Kitti at work or talking on camera creates an appearance of balance, but the narrative form reinforces a hierarchy, and one disturbingly consistent with that governing Norwegian society per se. The spectator is encouraged to identify with Aleksandersen’s calling, reinforced by its invocation of the familiar liberal motif of individual self-fulfilment. Moreover, he is presented as, in any case, clearly doing things properly, in contrast to Kitti. Aleksandersen’s animal husbandry is more rational, as indicated by its accordance with law and regulation. The normative superiority of Aleksandersen goes deeper even than this. Implicitly, he becomes a focus of spectator identification in his greater mastery of subtle norms and conventions of conduct. Kitti is framed as the eccentric, outsider figure, at best a source of amusement.

I have much sympathy for a broadly liberal agenda, and the increasing accessibility of video devices certainly has some equalising – even democratising – effects. The police have their CCTV, for example, but increasingly they may themselves be caught ‘red handed’ on some bystander’s smart phone. The practical pursuit of a liberal agenda nevertheless raises some difficult questions of ends and means. We celebrate our collective individualism through our identification with characters like Vít and Reiulf, which is good, as long as actual individuals, embedded in real social situations, are not too badly hurt along the way. Here lies the central paradox and difficulty of liberal film in all its incipient hostility to those who stand in its way.

Spare a thought for Vít and his family. Life goes on, certainly, long after the cameras have stopped running. Perhaps they were even enriched by their very personal and yet public encounter with the modern miracle of cinema – but then again…

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