I was honored to be a member of the jury for the 2014 Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival’s F:ACT Award. CPH:DOX describes the films in competition as “in-depth documentary meets journalism…films that want to change the world they exist in”. It was my first time on a jury, and I completely fell in love with the deliberation process as well as my fellow jurors. We spent four very intense days together watching films, teasing out themes, and critiquing story structure and visual elements — all over copious amounts of delicious food and wine. Yes, I died and went to cinephile heaven.
It was a challenge to select just one great film of the 13 we saw last week. So we chose two: Virunga was given an honorable mention while E-Team took the top prize. The CPH:DOX site published an abridged version of our jury statement. However, I’m proud of our critique so I’m sharing the full version here below. Very special thanks to our jury secretary Sofie Theill Larsen, aka Mama Bear, who took such great care of us and made CPH:DOX my best festival experience to date, hands down.
JURY STATEMENT FOR THE CPH:DOX 2014 F:ACT AWARD
It is an exciting moment for documentary film. Filmmakers, programmers, critics and others are declaring a new golden age for the genre, and many attribute this resurgence to the decline of traditional forms of investigative journalism. Of contemporary journalism Robert Redford said documentary film is “probably a better form of truth”. The F:ACT Award recognizes and celebrates this convergence. In deliberating, the jury considered three key characteristics:
Of the thirteen, two films stood out for us.
Our honorable mention, Virunga, was dazzling in its visual artistry. The camera work paralleled that of blockbuster fiction, with the slow build to the film’s climax serving up an edge-of-your-seat viewing experience. The undercover detective work of French journalist Melanie Gouby exposed a stomach churning combination of racism and greed: the hallmarks of a mindset that sadly has remained consistent through hundreds of years of colonial plunder. Perhaps the most interesting storytelling technique was the director’s use of gorilla reaction shots throughout the film. Visual imagery linking Blacks to gorillas and other primates has long been used to dehumanize. Yet director von Einsiedel manages to flip this racist symbolism on its head. Rodrigue Katembo’s pledge to protect the gorillas even at the cost of his own life, contrasted with the crass materialism of SOCO’s mercenaries, makes it clear whose humanity we should question.
Our winner is the dynamic verite E-Team. On every front we found it to be a nearly perfect film. Tightly constructed, the film’s editing leads the viewer through a seamless narrative. There is no extraneous footage or content that unnecessarily bloats the story. This makes for an engrossing 90 minutes that fly by. Directors Chevigny and Kaufman capture little moments of dialogue or action that give viewers meaningful insight into the characters’ personalities, no matter how much time they occupy on screen. A 30-second interaction in a cab between two expecting fathers provides the viewer layers of information: our female protagonist Anna Neistat is a formidable woman whose career defines her as much if not more than her family life. The cultural context in which she lives her personal life is vastly different from where she often works. Yet if it is a source of tension it is not one she or her husband brings home. They let those questions about a woman’s proper place rest firmly at others’ feet. It was refreshing to see this woman with real agency driving the heart of the film’s narrative.
E-Team also thankfully manages to avoid the timeworn trope of the Western savior striding into a poverty-stricken, third world country of voiceless victims. Survivors are given time on camera to speak for themselves – to share their pain, anger, sadness – as well as their determination to live on.
Finally, watching the documentation of human rights violations was perhaps more significant than the actual content of the stories uncovered in the film. The nature of human rights work makes the investigative process itself subject to propaganda and the political manipulation of bad actors. Violators will do all they can to cast doubt on the extent of their cruelty, and avoid censure or prosecution. At a time when the public’s trust in mainstream news media is at an all time low, perhaps only a film as powerfully constructed as E-Team could remind us of the true value of investigative reporting. Journalism, when done right, can and does save lives.
Jennifer MacArthur is the founder and principal of Borderline Media, and the co-founder of the Impact Producers Group and Impact Socials.
CPH:DOX E-Team F:ACT Award film festivals journalism Virunga