Leeds Film Festival 2010: Day 16

Russian Lessons (Rus/Geo) (site)

Husband and wife documentary team Andrei Nekrasov and Olga Konskaya, both Russian, decided to make a film exploring the recent escalations between uneasy neighbours Russia and Georgia, and the real goings on not reported - or blatantly misrepresented - by the Russian state media on the 2008 war between them. Splitting up and approaching Georgia from the north and south, they meet in the disputed country of Ossetia, with both their findings differing greatly from what the masses, both in Russia and beyond have been fed.

What was particularly disconcerting was the media coverage that was provided overseas by foreign news - including our highly respected BBC - which appeared to swallow the Russian line without questioning. A particular segment of the film showed Russian newsreel footage against the original source material, showing that more often than not, reports vilifying the Georgian attacks on disputed places like Tskhinvali, were unconnected with the footage actually screened. Scorched bodies and pock-marked buildings were often Georgian, Abkhazian, Tskhinvalian, but not Russian, as had been reported. It was this alleged, massive blatant propaganda that further stirred the Russian people up against the Georgians, to validate their need for counter-invasion, the intention being to punish Georgia for it's arrogance and bring it back under Russian control.

There are many, many images and personal testimonies in this film that are deeply disturbing, but need to be shared. Andrei and his late wife Olga put themselves in considerable danger to extract and collate this information and have created a powerful and comprehensive alternative voice. It should be viewed by as many people as possible, as it is a powerful signal that we have not left behind in our history barbarism of the scale attributed to the Nazis. 8.5/10

Face The Wall (Ger) (site)

In the years leading up to the final act of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, an estimated 72,000 people from East Germany were detained under the most appalling treatment by the Stasi of the former GDR. This film takes 5 volunteers who attempted to defect across the border; Catharina who chose to follow her fleeing boyfriend, Lothar, a farmer who had his land taken away, Andreas, whose ideas were stifled as a young child at school, Mario, a gay man who had contact with his West German friends taken away, and Anne, a teacher at a state school who was required to scrutinize and report any sign of western influence in the children she taught.

Swapping between them, director Stefan Weinert sits patiently as they talk about their pre-detainment lives, the constant surveillance they received every time they left their home, and their capture and imprisonment, often without reason or warning. The middle segment of the film, where each talk about their experience while imprisoned is pretty horrifying. Treated worse than animals, they are tortured both physically and psychologically. Hung upside down with electrical wire, given cells with violent criminals. Sleep deprivation, isolation, and mind games, such as repeated questioning of the smallest details of their lives, or a bunch of interrogators screaming at them in their cells. Sometimes they would be convinced over a period of weeks that their friends and families were turning against them, that their memories were false, or that they put loved ones in danger as a result of their transgressions. Anything to completely annihilate any feeling that they had power over their own minds. Unsurprisingly, many cracked under the pressure and confessed to whatever they were charged.

Several times in the film, the volunteers were taken back to their places of detainment or their old homes, which intensified the memories, and the recollections for the camera. Even when in the relative comfort of their own homes, the distant look in their eyes tells you there are a lot of memories being dredged up, maybe never shared with anyone over the 20 years between.

Though I had become weary from the overwhelming imagery of Russian Lessons, Face the Wall was powerful enough to easily hold my attention some more, this time with only my imagination, rather than pictures, to realise the enormity of the suffering. 8/10

High on Hope (UK) (site)

A low budget and suitably rough and ready documentary (updated from the Director's 2003 film) about the rise of the impromptu Blackburn warehouse parties, at the beginning of the Acid House era that started in the late 80's. Starting small, these grew in size to be thousands of people strong, and consequently moved from small rented rooms in pubs, to abandoned warehouses. For 18 months these parties sprang up in the face of unemployment and misery in the north of England, the huddled masses looking for alternatives to the bouncer-infested, black-tie-no-jeans nightclubs that had become the stifle of creativity and expression they had always been against.

To the delight of the slightly inebriated sell-out audience, the film took them on a nostalgic trip back 20 years, showing how the parties would be announced at the last minute by an individual who could provide a venue, whilst others brought the sound equipment. No dress code, no problem. Fleets of cars would clog up the roads en masse to the party, and the race was on to get everyone in before the police arrived to put an end to it. Cue flaky, grainy footage taken within of the throng moving as one to the insanely cranked up bass. At a time where the future was seen as hopeless, these primal, tribal gatherings satisfied an indescribable need.

Told in the style you might imagine by a group of thirtysomethings looking fondly back on their anarchic youth, High on Hope was much more enjoyable than I expected it to be, having been a delicate and sheltered soul who felt intimidated at the anarchy of it all at the time it was all kicking off. It was funny, and positive, and made me reassess the opinions I formed while looking at the unfavourable news reports from the time. 8/10

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