Fourteen films competed for the Big Golden Nanook award, the prize awarded at the Flahertiana documentary film festival at Perm, in the Russian Urals, named after Robert Flaherty (1884-1951), a pioneer of world documentary cinema and maker of the classic Nanook of the North. By nationality, the great majority of these films derived from East-Central Europe or the Middle East. Either as sole producer or co-producer, companies from Israel and Switzerland were involved in four films each and Germany in three. An Israeli-German co-production was set entirely in Jenin, on the West Bank. Other countries involved included Iraq, Russia (twice), Serbia and the Czech Republic. One American and one Portuguese film competed, but neither Britain nor France featured, except in minor co-production roles, and Asia (apart from Siberia) was represented solely by a film screened out of competition.
The festival's selection committee apply strict criteria for eligibility: no archive material, no reconstructions, no interviews, only footage shot by the director in person — what committee chairman Boris Karadzhev calls "real documentary." The policy effectively rules out historical subjects and limits the scope for current affairs documentaries with the result that the great majority of the films in competition — selected after more than 400 viewings — can be slotted into one of two main caegories: man-in-nature and man-in-society.
Prime examples of the first category were the (out of competition) festival opener, Old Partner by Chung-Ryoul Lee of South Korea, and The Tundra Book by Alexei Vakhrushev of Russia. Lee's film recounts the working relationship between a 40-year-old ox and his owner, a farmer in his 80s, while the Russian entry — which is set in Siberia's frozen far north and could have been signed by Flaherty himself — portrays the ancient culture of the nomadic Chuchki people and their year-round struggle for survival as deer-herders in the Chukotka peninsula.
In the latter category could be counted Dan and Noit Geva's Noise, about a chronic sufferer from the subject indicated in the title, Jeff Daniel Silva's Ivan & Ivana, about a young Serbian couple's failure to adapt to the American dream, Alexandre Goetschmann's Carte Blanche (portrait of a trauma surgeon), and Veronica Castro and Helena Inverno's Jesus for a Day (prison inmates enact the Crucifixion).
Straddling the categories was the film that would take both the FIPRESCI award and the festival's main prize, Giovanni Giommi's Bad Weather, an essay that stands at once as a collective portrait of a community of sex-workers living on a tiny island in the Bay of Bengal and a warning of the dangers of climate change.
A striking feature of the 2012 Flahertiana (the festival's 12th edition) was the distance travelled by many filmmakers to find their subject. Apart from Giommi's shuttling between Italy and the Bay of Bengal, there was Serbian director Goran Radovanovic's foray to Cuba to shoot With Fidel Whatever Happens, a visual poem about Castro's Revolution, Antoine Cattin's commute between Switzerland and St-Petersburg for Playback, his multi-layered view of an Alexei German film project, and Martin Maracek's expedition from Prague to Zambia for his reportage Solar Eclipse, on bringing new technology to an African village.
The numerous sidebar programmes included a "Russian Flahertiana" section, a selection of the best foreign documentaries, and a screening of works by members of the main jury.
A sense of perspective was brought to the festival on the opening day when the president of the main jury, Finnish producer-director Iikka Vehkalanti, fell seriously ill with appendicitis. By festival end he was said to be out of danger but was required to remain in hospital for a total of 10 days. (Bernard Besserglik)
Perm Flahertiana - International Documentary Film Festival: www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae