30 September 2004 Edition
Better than Fiction - BY CAOILFHIONN NÍ DHONNABHAIN
Film Festival Preview
Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Festival & Market
The Irish Film Institute, Dublin
Thursday 30 September - Sunday 3 October
The third annual Documentary Film Festival Stranger than Fiction starts at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin on Thursday 30 September. Though documentary-style films have become more mainstream of late, with the growing popularity of films such as Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911, along with Morgan Spurdock's recently released Super Size Me, the opportunity to see documentaries at cinemas in Ireland is all too rare. Sometimes described as a subversive art, documentaries have, up until recently, undeservedly been relegated to television.
For anyone sick of being fed the cinematic equivalent of fast food by cinemas, which all show the same tiresome mainstream American blockbusters, the yearly documentary film festival at the IFI is to be treasured. The opportunity to feast on a fascinating array of highly political documentaries is all too rare in a country where alternative cinema remains grossly underdeveloped.
This year's screenings include Checkpoint, which shows the daily humiliations suffered by Palestinians over a two-year period as they daily pass through Israeli checkpoints; Fáilte Mr President, which looks at the protests that greeted Ronald Reagan's visit to Ireland in 1984; Vinny Cunningham's documentary the Battle of the Bogside, which uses previously unseen archive footage and audio recordings of the pirate radio station Radio Free Derry; The Control Room, which examines the workings of Arab television station Al Jazeera; an award winning feature length documentary, Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion; and The Corporation, which examines the influence and power of corporations in the modern world.
The showing of Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, an exposé of Rupert Murdoch and his US network, Fox News, is a potent reminder of the interest that control television channels and the contribution that independent documentary makers can make in a world where the media is controlled by small number of media moguls. However, for this to be successful, independent documentary makers must have outlets to show their films. It is disappointing that small and single screen cinemas, particularly in central Dublin, which could not compete with multiplex cinemas in the delivery of mainstream blockbusters, did not follow the example of small cinemas in other countries — which moved into the niche market for documentary and alternative films - and are instead simply closing down.
The award-winning documentary by Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain, The Revolution Shall not be Televised, was shown as part of last year's festival. Anyone who saw that documentary will undoubtedly be interested in seeing Salvador Allende. There are many similarities between the Venezuelan and Chilean leaders, and the shooting of Allende, a socialist President of Chile on 11 September 1973 and the CIA-led coup d'êtat that led to Pinochet's dictatorship, makes the battle by Chavez to remain in power all the more significant.
The nefarious activities of the US secret service agencies responsible for the overtrow and murder of Allende make another appearance in The Weather Underground, which documents the rise and demise of the Weathermen, later the known as the Weather Underground, a radical left splinter-group from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who vowed to "bring the war home". A product of the reaction against American involvement in Vietnam and national suppression of students and civil rights protest, the Weathermen were less notorious contemporaries of the Red Brigades and the Baader Meinhof gang. The Weathermen were infiltrated and targeted by the FBI's Counter-Intelligence Program, known as COINTELPRO, as were other organisations of the left such as the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King's civil rights' organisation and the SDS.
Another documentary well worth seeing, The Man Who Stole My Mother's Face, tells the story of the documentary maker's mother, a 59-year-old woman who survived rape and disfigurement 15 years earlier. Lorna Henckel, a white South African woman, was raped and her face was smashed beyond recognition when she was attacked in her home by a young white teenager who was never charged and remains a free man. Through the battle of the woman's daughter, filmmaker Cathy Henckel, for justice for her mother, the universal issue of how rape victims are treated by the law and by the community and the shocking prevalence of rape in South Africa is exposed. Cathy Henkel will discuss the film following the screening on Saturday 2 October.
Even those documentaries that are not as manifestly political, such as The Dubs in the Rare Auld Times and Tishe! have strong political undertones. The former tells of the road to all-Ireland victory of the Dublin football team of 1974, against the backdrop of the Dublin bombings, political unrest and repressive right-wing legislation. Tishe!, shot by Victor Kossakovsky over a period of a year out the window of his St Petersburg apartment, chronicles the comings and goings of the inhabitants of one street in post-soviet Russia, showing the depressing reality for ordinary Russians of the fall of communism.
In all, 24 documentaries are shown over the four days of the festival, with short documentaries being shown before main features. A full programme is available at www.ifi.ie