Document International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival Laura Ager from Film Fringe reviews some of the films in the 2017 festival programme.

The Document Human Rights film festival was founded in 2003 by Paula Larkin and Mona Rai. This is an annual film festival that takes place in Glasgow, which is for me one of the most exciting cities for film in the UK right now.

Document film festival is a member of the Human Rights Film Network, it was created to foster focused and critical thinking on global human rights issues, while offering international documentary filmmakers a platform to reach audiences for their work in Scotland. Like many political film festivals, it is largely volunteer-run and offers really low prices as well as free tickets to disadvantaged groups, including asylum seekers.

The festival emerges from the widely held belief that arts and cultural projects can foster empathy, community, and reflection on human rights topics. It was intially a response to the misunderstanding and discrimination being experienced by people offered asylum in the City of Glasgow, something which remains a problem across most of the UK. While the causes of the movement of unhappy, persecuted and victimised people have not ceased (and are unlikely to do so in the near future) the experiences of those who are affected are still rarely examined with the unflinching rigour that the subject requires. 

At first glance, the film programme at Document looked formiddable, packed with new and exciting films from India, China, Czech Republic, Russia, Papua New Guinea, Serbia and Brazil, as well as those made in USA or Europe, and these films were about communities all over the world. It was hard to know where to begin, but with five of the new films being included in the competition for which I was a jury member, I will focus on those ones first.


I was completely blown away by the unexpected beauty of the opening night film, Zaynê Akyol's Gulîstan, Land of Roses (2016, Canada, Germany), which is a  sensitive depiction of a group of brave PKK fighters in northern Iraq. These fighters are all young women who live and train in the landmine-littered mountains, where they say they prefer to drill in preparation for an ISIS attack, rather than living in a village helplessly waiting to be captured by them.

The film is compiled mainly of testimonies and close observation of the daily routines in the camp, which include washing hair with nettle water, exercising in the forest, sharing food and stories, and disassembling and reassembling their Kalashnikov rifles. You can see a bit of this scene on the trailer. Some of their guns have names and personal histories; this one belonged to a dead fighter, who was the friend of its present owner.

Director Zaynê Akyol is of Kurdish origin, born in Turkey and raised in Quebec. Her reasons for making the film are deeply personal. She sent the festival a brief interview to show before the feature and it becomes apparent during the pre-recorded statement that some of the women we will see in the film are now missing in action. It’s a unique film, one that’s a little flawed in places, but it's a powerful debut, made for a particular reason by a brave young female filmmaker, and I personally felt that it will ‘last’ longer that some of the other new films in the festival programme. I can see people reflecting on it in 10, or 20 years’ time.

Andrea Luka Zimmerman spent over ten years making her new film Erase and Forget (2017, UK) and her extraordinary patience, labour and research has paid off. The film follows the interlocking on and off screen lives of James Gordon “Bo” Gritz, who was one of United States Army Special Forces' most decorated ‘heroes’.

But things are not as straightforward as that might sound. This cleverly arranged documentary reveals the instability of the narrator, Bo himself, whose identity becomes more and more fractured as his biography is disrupted and distorted by the film clips Zimmerman chooses to insert. Her film is a meditation on how memory works, it is peppered with fictional works inspired by Bo's very public persona, and includes a snippet of one of Louis Theroux’s ‘Weird Weekends’.

As the post screening discussion with the director revealed, she has used the long story of James Gordon's life as a way to tackle how 'celebrtity image plus fake news and false history' equates with structural power and structural violence. You have to see it.

Rat Film (Theo Anthony, 2016, USA) also riffs on some philosophical ideas, but the the film's main innovation is to use rats in Baltimore as a device in what is really a film about race and social cleansing in city planning.

From pets to pests, wanted and unwanted, labelled as a problem and a health hazard, what the scientific methods applied to the study and control of these ‘populations’ show up are the effects of segregation in Baltimore neighbourhoods. It's a compelling case study.

Normal Autistic Film (Miroslav Janek, 2016, Czech Republic) is a gentler film, an elegant documentary that reveales the personalities of five young people living with autism, or Asperger's Syndrome. The film's director really seems to have won the trust of his subjects, they rarely notice the camera, and when they do, they seem to instinctively know how to include its gaze into their neurodiverse perspective.

“To society, I’m disabled. To me, society is disabled” says one. Their unique talents, which in this film are mostly nutured and treasured in safe family environments, encourage us to question the usefulness of a term like ‘autism’. Should it simply be interpreted as a different way of thinking?

The closing film (and also the winner of the festival competition) was the poetic 69 Minutes of 86 Days (Egil Haskjold Larsen, 2016, Norway). This is another beautiful film, without interviews or voice-overs, that traces an outline of a long journey made by a Syrian family as they go from Greece to Sweden to meet up with their family. The camera's long gaze is augmented by a beautiful, sparse cello and piano soundtrack by Bugge Wesseltoft and Audun Sandvik.

Long opening shots move over a beach littered with lifejackets, going up the bank to a makeshift refugee camp upon the harbour's edge. This leaves you in no doubt that this will be a harrowing film about the plight of refugees, and there have been many of those screened at festivals over recent years, but when the camera settles on a little girl, Lean, who will be the focus of the rest of the journey, there's a glimmer of hope and happiness.

This makes it a powerful film, which is full of juxtapositions between the personal world of the nuclear family, the unsettling anonymity of strangers and the relentless tiresomeness and anxiety of travelling huge distances by train, car and on foot. Practically anyone can relate to this film and in the context of Document, it is a good example of what the film festival is all about: film as an integral part of advocacy and awareness-raising of contemporary human rights issues. 

The afternoon’s discussion with the other expert jury members (Mona Rai, one of the festival’s founders, documentary film makers Dr Kiki Tianqi Yu and Frances Higson, as well as Hannah McHaffie from Sheffield Doc/Fest) to choose a winner out of this strong selection of films was really enjoyable, and I found that sharing our thoughts like this has deepened my understanding of the documentary form.

Other highlights from this year's festival include a rare opportunity to watch all three parts of The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzmán, 1975-1979), in the splendid surroundings of the Andrew Stewart Cinema, a student cinema hidden away in the University of Glasgow.

This film charts the dramtic events that led to the democratic election of Chile’s first socialist president Salvador Allende and his demise in a bloody coup that saw General Augusto Pinochet take charge of the country which he governed as dictator until 1990.

The screening was organised by David Archibald from University of Glasgow, with two researchers Maria Velez-Serna, from University of Stirling, and Martín Farías, researcher in Chilean cinema at the University of Edinburgh. They facilitated a series of interruptions at pre-determined moments throughout the screening for discussion and interpretation.

And there was a curious treat in the programme in the late night screening of an oddball 'Cult Classic': Kim Jong-Il's Comedy Club (2009, Mads Brügger, Denmark). This event was organised in association with Glasgow's Matchbox cineclub.

Matchbox hold monthly film nights in Glasgow, screening unusual films, cult movies, banned releases and 'some that are just plain weird'. This was what they had this to say about their film choice for Document:

"A journalist with no scruples and two comedians travel to North Korea with a mission – to challenge the conditions of the smile in one of the world’s most notorious regimes. On the pretext of being a small theatre troupe on a cultural exchange visit from Denmark, The Red Chapel was given permission to travel to North Korea with the objective of performing at special events for selected audiences. But in reality the small troupe was comprised of a group who had no such intentions."

So with a little bit of humour, I managed to get another political doc under my belt in a packed three-day weekend, I clocked up 10 hours of viewing in a single day on the Friday and have added most of the films I coulndn't see to my 'to watch' list for later. And there will be a chance to see two of the films mentioned above at this year's Leeds International Film Festival, who are showing both Normal Autistic Film and 69 Minutes of 86 Days between 1st and 15th November.