Film Festival Review: DOC NYC – Families and Insects

By David D’Arcy

Three first-rate documentaries at DOC NYC that examine the crimes of the past and the fragility of the present.

An unforgettable film in the doc-athon of DOC NYC was The Dmitriev Affair by Jessica Gorter. It’s the tale of a brave determined activist, Yuri Dmitriev, whose mission was to identify the burial sites of victims of the Stalin era in Karelia, near the Finnish border — mostly mass graves — and to give them proper burials that, at the very least, acknowledged who they were. Reporting on why they were killed eventually put Dmitriev in prison.

Besides sifting through archives, the bearded grandfatherly Dmitriev, a religious man, had his own way of operating. He walked through forests with his young adopted daughter, Natasha, and his dog, a German shepherd, as he searched for areas where the ground had settled, often a sign that there were bodies underneath. He found far more atrocities than he imagined he would. Walking through history has a special meaning for him.

The reburials, in which relatives of the victims of Stalin marched in the forests of Karelia by the thousands to mourn and pray, were viewed with suspicion by the Russian government. Vladimir Putin spent his early career in the KGB, the successor to the NKVD, which carried out the killings. A crucial mark against Dmitriev was his work with Memorial, an independent human rights group devoted to honoring Stalin’s victims. (Memorial received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022 and was then shut down because of its connections to “foreign interests.”)

At first, Dmitriev was accused of taking illicit photographs of his daughter — to monitor her health, he insisted. Initially acquitted (but found guilty of possessing the barrel of a shotgun), he was charged again with abuse. This time he was convicted, despite an international campaign to expose the political impulse behind the charge. Dmitriev is now serving a 15-year prison term. His daughter — sent to live with the grandmother who had initially placed her in a state orphanage from which Dmitriev adopted her — is not in contact with his family.

Director Gorter, who is Dutch, has made a number of earlier films in Russia. 900 Days detailed the WWII siege of Leningrad in ways that challenged official tales of heroism, and The Red Soul followed seven Russians reflecting on their country’s history, with varying perspectives on Stalin. (Both of those films, available through Icarus, can be streamed.) Because of Covid, Gorter could not finish filming this documentary herself — local journalist Sergei Markelov took over behind the camera.

Dmitriev’s treks in the Karelian woods with dog and daughter have the gentle look of a fairy tale, until we see the subterranean horror, bones and all. The film also has resonances with the Greek tragedy of Antigone, especially her sense of duty to the dead. Dmitriev’s firm insistence on his moral responsibility to his family — as well as to the thousands of families he mobilized to bury their dead — makes him an enemy of the state. Russian authorities found a way to make paying homage to the dead a crime.

Sometimes traumatic memories are best dealt with indirectly, as we see in another family story at DOC NYC. In The Mother of All Lies, the documentary Morocco selected to be its Best International Film Academy Award this year, director Asmae El Moudir and her parents rebuilt the neighborhood where she was raised in Casablanca as a stage set populated by puppets.

That miniature neighborhood, made to be untidy, or “lived in,” to use an old expression, becomes the back lot for two powerful dramas. The larger tragedy is the bloody 1981 rebellion that became known as the bread riots. The violence was triggered by the rising prices of food, which led to the killing of at least 100 protesters when troops commanded by the Moroccan king crushed massive demonstrations.

A much longer battle rages into the present within the director’s family, headed by a sour grandmother who refused for decades to be photographed and would not allow cameras in the family home. Only one photograph exists of El Moudir as a child. The nasty old woman says that she banned photos for religious reasons. In the film, her granddaughter manages to draw out secrets that fueled the photophobia in the family’s history. Note: The literal translation of the Arabic title is “White Lies.”

Bear in mind that this ingeniously constructed film is a documentary. Does the strategy of miniature reconstruction — designing the décor from scratch — explain how El Moudir manages to restage the brutality ordered by the father of the current king of Morocco — a taboo subject? After all, this is not a country known for championing civil liberties. Her producing partners include Egypt and Saudi Arabia, dictatorships by any standards. The closer El Moudir gets to an Oscar, we’ll find out more about how her film is seen at home — though the doc has already won two prizes at Cannes.

Inevitably, aesthetics are infused with politics here. Memories can be suppressed, but they resurface somehow, not via the literalism of photography but through a choreography of a past rebuilt by hand. When El Moudir moves the camera back, we see her entire family watching the streets of this miniature neighborhood shake with violence, while a conflict rages under the family’s roof.

The Mother of All Lies is too imaginative and too foreign (conceptually, that is) to win the Oscar for which it’s been nominated. No surprise there. But this achievement reminds us that real drama can be produced with improbable elements in the right hands. Director Todd Haynes told Karen Carpenter’s tragic story with Barbie dolls in Superstar (1987), though that was not a documentary. Asmae El Moudir, whose father is a bricklayer, uses her family as theatrical building blocks.

Grasshopper Republic played at DOC NYC after screening at festivals around the world. At first, it seems to be a closely observed nature film reminiscent of Microcosmos and Winged Migration. The initial focus is on the grasshoppers in the hills outside Kampala, Uganda. Urban Ugandans consider the insects to be a delicacy.

Men harvest these grasshoppers when they swarm — a dangerous job. Daniel McCabe’s doc follows a DIY team that assembles home-made machines to attract and trap the creatures. This involves using the bright filaments inside lightbulbs. The latter are smashed to expose the bright insides, which are attached to makeshift rods held up against large corrugated metal sheets placed in the forests where the insects gather. Looking at these filaments can damage human eyes, the men are warned, but they will risk that in order to be paid for the harvest.

McCabe gives us an odd juxtaposition: we see exquisitely graceful insects, often anthropomorphized as he films them in slow motion, pursued by desperate hunters, some barefoot, who hold their rods together with spit and string. We see the grasshoppers trapped by the thousands.

Alive, the grasshoppers have the elegance of ballet dancers. When captured, we see them boiled in fat and hawked by the fistful to motorists in the traffic that chokes Kampala. This makeshift hunting technology, which both feeds and threatens the men who live by it, seems unsustainable. One wonders just how long the grasshoppers, or their hunters, will last in the wild.

David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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