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Highlights from DOK.fest Munich, Germany’s biggest documentary festival

HOME KINO! This excellent festival been held annually since 1985, but the coronavirus pushed this year’s programme online. Our film editor selects two films you need to see.

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Marija Stojnić’s Speak So I Can See You is a captivating Serbian/Croatian experimental documentary that navigates its cameras around Radio Belgrade (Photo supplied by NOISE Film PR.)

Ah, film festivals – remember them? The hustle and bustle of getting your accreditation and securing hot tickets. The nervous excitement of heading into the theatre for a premiere. The joys of post-screening drinks and chats. Great, weren’t they?

Since the lockdown and the closure of kinos – with no set opening date on the horizon – some festivals have chosen to go ahead online, with their programme available to the wide audience via streaming.

This is the case of the International Documentary Film Festival Munich (DOK.fest München), the largest festival for feature-length documentaries in Germany. Held annually since 1985, the festival focuses on socially relevant docs. While this year’s 121 films from 42 countries won’t be seen on the big screen, the 35th edition has rebranded as DOK.fest Munich @Home, and put their films online this month. Festival managers Adele Kohout and Daniel Sponsel wrote a fantastic introduction to this year’s edition, “Cinema is dead, long live cinema! Confessions of a film festival taking place online”, and until the 24th you can head over to their website and purchase tickets for 2020’s stunning batch of documentaries.

We’ve seen a fair few and two must-see docs caught our attention.

The first is Marija Stojnić’s Speak So I Can See You, a captivating Serbian/Croatian experimental doc that navigates its cameras around Radio Belgrade, one of the oldest radio stations in Europe and a historical institution that stands as Serbia’s last bastion of cultural programming. It’s title – taken from the sentence attributed to Socrates (“Speak, so that I may see you”) – is apt on several levels. Speak So I Can See You is a unique sensory trip and a thought-provoking portrait that blends unobtrusive observational footage of the staff rehearsing and recording with tactile sequences exploring the station’s empty spaces.

Stojnić, her DP Dušan Grubin and sound designer Ivan Zelić work in unison to imbue certain sequences with a palpable sense of eeriness. The documentary sustains a beguiling mood throughout by carefully melding its contemplative force with altogether more abstract audio-visual flourishes. For instance, the ominous start features whistling noises and heavy breathing juxtaposed with the sight of an austere curtain, an opening which will delight horror buffs. Shots of empty corridors, closed recording studios with static sounds intruding in the background, and moodily lit archives are interwoven with footage of shows dedicated to literature, music, philosophical thought and even radio plays. The soundscape, warm and occasionally disorientating, guides the viewer through the living organism of the physical location and invites a mediation on how sound can enrich and transform our perception of everyday life. It also subtly conveys the rich and traumatic history of Yugoslavia and Serbia, thereby revealing the documentary to be both a time-capsule as well as a timeless and beautiful plea to keep history at the forefront in order for us to better understand our daily lives.

It’s undeniable that this textured triumph needs a proper sound system, making it doubly galling that you can’t experience it on a big screen. Still, the 73-minute documentary functions as a synaesthetic valentine to the radiophonic artform, and a transportive homage to the cultural value of public radio recording. Make sure you don’t miss out on this powerful tone poem, best experienced with equally powerful headphones.

The second doc on our radar is the Kenyan drama The Letter, screened as part of the DOK.horizonte competition selection. Maia Lekow and Christopher King’s multilayered feature-documentary debut delves into modern day witch trials, the toxic mix of consumerism and religion, and the inter-generational conflicts in contemporary Kenya.

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Maia Lekow and Christopher King’s The Letter. (Photo supplied by NOISE Film PR.)

The Letter follows Karisa Kamango, a young man who leaves the hustle and bustle of Mombasa to travel to his grandmother’s rural home. He’s learned that she’s been accused of witchcraft and that the threats levelled against her originate from members of her own family. Further intimidation, galvanized by Facebook posts accusing Margaret of murdering children, materialises in a threatening letter she receive.  The ludicrous claims are motivated in part due to “superstition”, but mostly for economic motives. Indeed, the wife-and-husband directing team, who came across this story while exploring the oral history of coastal Kenya, learn that hundreds of persecuted elders are executed every month. The investigation reveals that senior citizens in the region have been branded as witches so that their ancestral land can be stolen from them, and that this pitiless epidemic sees killings over land and religion covered-up by accusations of witchcraft.

Ninety-two-year-old Margaret is mild-mannered and fearless woman who stands resilient in the face of death threats. Through the moving, personal story of this deeply inspiring woman and her grandson, Lekow and King shed light on stories that go underreported in the news cycle. They deliver an insightful film that instigates conversations about how values are disrupted by religion and how traditions are being hijacked by cut-throat capitalism. The directing duo ensure that there is tenderness amidst the malicious harassment: the rapport between grandmother and grandson is touching, and Lekow, who is also a Kenyan musician, composed a stunningly moving original score. This tonal balance means The Letter is a gripping and heartfelt family drama, and by highlighting the unaddressed traumas of colonialism, the filmmakers have made a testament of the importance of women, community, family when faced with violence, generational conflict and greed.

Tickets and information and can be found at DOK.fest’s official site.