IDFA, the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, is the biggest festival of its kind. From all over the world filmmakers and film lovers run around town, frantically trying to cramp another film in their schedules. My record this year was a full seven-film-day. With a slight identity crisis, and no clue which day it was, I ended my two week documentary mania with The Wolfpack, a film about a peculiar family living in NY City. Midway I realized that my growing issues with the film were related to similar aspectsin other films I saw on the festival. There seemed to be a theme; filmmakers either excelling at, or struggling with, an appropriate relation towards a very close subject. I found three different films that reflect on the issue of involvement of a filmmaker in his subjects story; The Wolfpack, A Family Affair, and Sonita.


In order to illustrate my problem,I need to first briefly introduce another IDFA documentary; the opening film this year: A Family Affair. In it Tom Fassaert delves deep into the secrets, taboos and pains of his own family. He doesn’t spare his subjects, or himself, and certainly doesn’t leave any pressing questions unasked – no matter how painful or awkward the resulting situation promises to be. The incredible proximity of the filmmaker to his subject demands of him a brave, bold and courageous attitude, which he maintains throughout the entire story. As a result his film has an honestly and power that makes the story stick.

The Wolfpack shows an even more unusual family; The Angulo’s live in a small apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan: father Oscar runs the family like a sect leader, setting rules for his wife and nine children to follow, keeping to himself and dominating them through manipulation and violence. He infuses his pack with ideas of fear and distrust towards the city they live in, and people in general. With an unbelievable calm one of the sons looks out a window and tells us how last year they only went out the apartment 3 times, and some years there was not a single time they left the house. Without going to much into detail about the plot of the film, it is clear that as a result of the fathers big personality, eccentric ideas on education, life and spiritualism, the family is a tense biotope in which his little wolves (all named after Hindu deities; Visnu, Krishna, Bhagavan, Mukunda, etc.) and oppressed wife try to find ways to cope and escape in some way or another. The mom does this by focusing on loving and educating her children, (she is home-tutoring them all) and the kids do this by completely emerging themselves into the characters of popular cinema. Whatever they do, one thing is clearly not an option: ask questions; reflect on why they live their lives the way they do; get to the bottom of things. They seem like the product of perfect brainwashing.

Very briefly a tip of the veil is lifted when we learn that the dad refuses to work – which is his way of revolting against the system his oldest son explains - and thus the kids cant go to public school, as the mom gets an allowance for home tutoring, which is their only income. This is a moment in the film where you might think for the second that the filmmaker is finally getting to the part where she leaves the surface and discovers a bit of substance to explain and understand the madness we have seen so far. Instead she decides to get back to the movie re-enactments, back in the safety of escapism. 

Passed halfway the film I suddenly realized how scary the parallel was between the filmmaker’s attitude and that of her subjects. She seems too, to have been under the eerie spell of the all-knowing Oscar. (The father, who at some point is shown saying his power and knowledge influences All) Never is he asked any interesting questions, he is barely shown and by the time we do get to see him (towards the end of the film) he seems to be absent, shy and regretful over how he ran his household for so long. But he is still not asked to elaborate on any of that. Was Crystal Moselle – the filmmaker – herself intimidated and afraid of this confused and unstable little man? On half a dozen occasions the family members will say things that just scream for further inquiries about what they mean or where those views of the world came from. Never are they asked anything they weren’t already saying. As if the kids themselves were directing the film.    

When the mother of the Wolfpack decides to call up her own mother, a scene unfolds that is shocking and almost feels unreal. After 50 years of no contact she calls up her 88 year old mother and has the most cold and banal conversation with her, hangs up the phone and makes a comment on how the father is mad about her making that call. Very little emotions, no explanations, back to movie re-enactments!

Now this ties into a more interesting debate on a filmmakers duty, or even on how filmmakers can use and abuse their proximity to their films’ subjects. Maybe Moselle made the brilliant plan early on to choose a perspective from within the wolf pack, not interfering with the vibrations in that little apartment? Has the audience got a right to demand answers to questions that possibly completely stir up the world in which the film plays? Is every documentary obliged to find a stinky truth underneath the surface? And if Moselle’s choice to stay at the surface was a conscious one, was that morally wrong, or simply genius film making? In this case I am more inclined to find that strategy rather weak and cowardice. I understand the difficulties but feel the approach lets down the film and the otherwise intriguing subject matter.

A perfect counter example is IDFA’s audience favorite this year: Sonita.

Again, I want to stay away from the details as much as possible and focus on the structure and underlying ideas. However a bit of background is needed to discuss this in any way; Sonita is an Afghan refugee, who was placed in a refugee center/school in Tehran when she was nine. She has thrived in this center and really made huge progress under their guidance. We see some of the therapeutic acting classes the kids get to process some of the traumatic experience they experienced. Now, aged 15, sonata wants to be a rap-star and has very outspoken opinions that she puts into her lyrics. So far so good, but … Sonita’s brothers back in Afghanistan want to get married soon. To do this they need her dowry to pay for their brides. With her friends they talk about how much they are being sold for. It is not right they find! They feel like cattle, objects of trade.

When Sonita’s mother travels to Tehran in order to bring her back to Afghanistan to get married,  both her teacher in the center as well as Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami (the filmmaker) feel the pressure and tension grow. Curled up in a corner Sonita looks up into the lens of the camera and asks the filmmaker if maybe she could give her mom some money so she would go away and leave her in peace. Her answer is given without any hesitation or doubt: I cannot do that. As a filmmaker I have to document the truth, I cannot interfere with it. Hardly ten minutes later a text appears on screen informing us that Sonita’s mother was given 2000 USD by the filmmaker to buy her more time. She now gets to stay unmarried for 6 more months – No explanation given about what made the voice behind the camera change her mind. They even take it a step further: although it is common knowledge that both Iran and Afghanistan don’t allow women to make music, the filmmaker now – on request of Sonita, who knows exactly what she wants – makes a music video for Sonita’s song that speaks out against forced marriage and the inhumanity of dowries. Now Sonita is asked to leave the refugee centre that has been home for almost half of her life. Rokhsareh does all this without ever acknowledging the role she is playing or the risks she is taking. Things fall into place though and after getting Sonita a scholarship in the US they travel to Kabul and get her a passport and visa. It’s a story of success! Made success… made largely by the filmmaker.

More shocking was her answer during the Q&A where I asked the obvious question of why and how she changed her mind, and how she calculated the risks she was taking by interfering so heavily in the life of her subject. I wish I had recorded this, as I will never recreate her answer perfectly here, but her focus in the answer was entirely on the film, not at all on the girl; “it was hard to find a balance, cause I wanted to make a film, so I needed some drama. I had to let drama happen and only interfere when the problem was big enough.” I was still glowing with a warm feeling of inspiration and awe for this incredibly powerful young girl with a vision, but her words just made ruined it a bit for me. I had expected a plea for being a fellow human being over a filmmaker, an answer a long the lines of “how could I not help her”, but never even imagined she would put it this bluntly and cold. Of course I shouldn’t take her answer too serious and ascribe it in part to nerves and clumsiness on stage in front of a packed Melkweg theater. (although it was the final and 5th or even 6th screening of the film though, and the question was the most obvious issue the audience could have had with it?) but her words aside, how does the lack of transparency in her interference influence our experience of seeing this film?

Me personally I can barely believe that the story really unfolded the way it did. Would she really gamble this girl’s livelihood for a film? What if the music video never went viral the way it did? What if she never got her papers for the US and was stuck in Afghanistan? And if all those bets were calculated bets, is it not a bad idea to leave those calculations out of the film?

Errol Morris talked a lot on this IDFA edition. He would have a clear say on this as far as I understand his views on documentary film making. Hunt the truth down! Have a vision, and work for it. Yet he also leaves the obvious unstated and has the audience fill in the blanks. Is that what Wolfpack was doing? Were we supposed to know enough about Oscar to finish the picture in our own heads without the typical interviews? Errol Morris is also the one that admits he wanted to break every possible rule when he set out to make documentaries. Is that what Rokhsareh is doing with Sonita or are there limits to the rules we can go after? It might be a matter of taste, but I prefer the transparency and personal tone of Fassaert when it comes to interference. It takes a master like Morris to interfere in an invisible manner – as he does – and maybe both Moselle and Rokhsareh were just being ambitious in trying to interfere without being transparent about it.

seppe Van GriekenComment