Programme Review

DOCU/BEST: Ingenious paths to the audience’s hearts

24 May 2024

After a short break, we are bringing back an audience favourite: the DOCU/BEST programme. Usually we select the most high-profile films for it, which have already gained large audiences at various major film festivals.

However, the special magic of this programme this year is that the five films we’ve included in it try to undermine mass stereotypes and audience expectations, each in its own way. The variegated selection of DOCU/BEST invites us to expand our ideas about cinema which captures the attention of big cinema halls.


One of the first of these daring films which undermine our ideas about the formula for success is While the Green Grass Grows by Peter Mettler. It is an almost three-hour-long diary journey through several years of Mettler’s life, during which he ponders the questions which we often do not dare to ask out loud: What is the meaning of our existence? Where does everything go after we die? How does it feel to experience ageing and the loss of your parents? And how does everything start anew? Occasionally, the meditative film does have room for the movement of life, humour, music, and even for spontaneous dancing in the middle of the film. The film won awards at Visions du Réel — Festival international de cinéma, Dok Leipzig, RIDM Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal, and participated in the Signed special programme at IDFA.


A still from the film While the Green Grass Grows

This challenge to the formal and typical “standards” is picked up by a proper detective film that will make you not only follow the stories of its protagonists closely but also think deeply about the boundaries of fiction and reality in it: The Gullspång Miracle by Maria Fredriksson. It participated in Millenium Docs Against Gravity, Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, Visions du Réel, DokLeipzig, Sheffield DocFest, Tribeca Festival, where it, among other things, won the Editing award, etc. The film has already been on a long festival journey, collecting great critical feedback on the way. Nearly every other review of the film features phrases such as “a documentary Twin Peaks”, “stranger than fiction,” and “you will be thinking about what you’ve just watched for days.” An investigation of the dark corners of one family’s story involving a sensational reunion of sisters who were unaware of each other’s existence, DNA tests, and even discovery of family secrets from the tragic years of the Nazi occupation of Norway — all of this is just as striking as the mystery of where the boundary between fiction and extraordinary reality lies in this film.

A still from the film Monogamia

The winner of the Critics Week Grand Prix at the Locarno Film Festival, Monogamia by Ohad Milstein brings the question of the boundaries of intimacy in documentary cinema onto a different plane. Letting the camera into the private lives of his parents and his own, the director looks for answers to a complex question of the limits of monogamy, a question that is even taboo in many societies. When does a relationship between two people exhaust itself, how do you bring the spark back, and what is a monogamous union in its essence? Is the answer to these questions that simple and obvious?


A still from the film Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Another of the DOCU/BEST films which strikes us with the intimacy of the space where the camera brings us is Smoke Sauna Sisterhood by Anna Hints. The Estonian-French-Icelandic co-production had its world premiere at Sundance, where it won the Directing award. From then on, it’s hard to recall a major festival where the film wouldn’t be featured. Among others, at IDFA the film was included in the special section of festival hits Best of Fests. Such a roaring success of this film enters into dissonance with the quiet, candid and slow tone in which the protagonists’ frank stories are voiced in the film. The Estonian sauna, whose culture is included in UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, becomes an intimate space in the film where the women’s most intimate stories are revealed and mutual support is built at the same time. From beautiful experiences to trauma and painful memories, this small smoky sauna helps them live through and reflect upon the things which they cannot always say out loud elsewhere.

A still from the film A Picture to Remember

The fifth film in this programme makes me especially happy, because it is a Ukrainian film: A Picture to Remember by Olga Chernykh. It is the film which, for the first time in the history of Ukrainian documentary filmmaking, opened one of the biggest documentary festivals in the world IDFA in November 2023. In an essay-like form, the filmmaker dives into warm memories of her childhood in Donetsk, the life before the war. This tender recalling and family video calls make up an attempt to make sense of the history of her own family, who are experiencing forced separation, and the history of our country in general, a country that has been fighting for its freedom and independence for ten years, particularly on the frontline. Looking through old photos and carefully committing Donetsk to her memory, Olha fills the empty spaces, the spaces of absence with love, and traces a route for returning home at least virtually, from still photos of a road, until the monument with “Donetsk” written on it appears on the screen, from old photos in Google Maps, and from family videos filmed with a regular phone. “We’ll meet again,” sings her most famous sad and at the same time hopeful song Vera Lynn during this return home.

Text: Yulia Kovalenko, the programme director of Docudays UA.

Main photo: a still from the film
The Gullspång Miracle.

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The 21st Docudays UA is held with the support of the Embassy of Sweden in Ukraine, the US Embassy in Ukraine, International Media Support, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Ukraine, the Embassy of Estonia in Ukraine, the Polish Institute in Kyiv, Institut français d'Ukraine, Danish Cultural Institute, the Czech Centre in Kyiv, and the Embassy of Hungary in Kyiv. The opinions, conclusions, or recommendations do not necessarily reflect the views of the governments or organisations of these countries. Responsibility for the content of the publication lies exclusively on the authors of the publication.




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