Pietra Bretkelly. (Photo: Ric Wasserman)

Pietra Bretkelly. (Photo: Ric Wasserman)

Celebrating its 17th year, the Tempo International Documentary Film festival chose ‘power’ as its theme. One of this year’s finest efforts looks at China through the eyes of a once patriotic young man now filled with uncertainty. We also come to see how the treasure trove of vintage afghan films was saved from the Taliban for posterity.

Ric Wasserman has the story.

The five venues for the Tempo Documentary Film Festival in Stockholm have been packed all week. It’s clear documentaries can now vie with fiction tales in terms of quality storytelling. Of the 130 films, a score of them from Asia, two in particular are worth looking out for.

In the film A Young Patriot we follow 18-year-old Zhao Chantong, who spends his time parading on the streets of his town in Shanxii province, dressed in red army fatigues and Mao cap, waving the Chinese flag. He’s part of the so-called post 1990’s generation, unaware of the Tiananmen Square student revolt and massacre in 1989.

But we see the gradual metamorphosis in the young man Zhao as he turns from fiery patriot to an anguished and harsh critic of government policy…a troubled youth, deep in the throes of a severe identity crisis.

To capture that process the director Haibin Du, followed Zhao for five years. 

“We saw a determined teenager who called himself a patriot,” he says, “I suppose he started to change his thinking when he saw what was really happening around him. That reality was stronger than the rhetoric he spouted.  Over a few years he began to lose his faith in authority.”

Zhao gets angrier, especially when his parent’s home starts to get demolished to be replaced by towering high rises. Now he shouts the government down.

Haibin Du’s film A Young Patriot has been shown in Hong Kong and though his previous film Umbrella won prizes in Cannes and Venice they were refused distribution in China. 

Haibin Du says he doesn’t expect authorities will permit A Young Patriot to be seen in theatres or on TV in China.

“We can now make documentary films that show all aspects of society, but we really need to reach out to our local audience if we want to promote discussion and change,” he adds, 

“Unfortunately we expect a hard time in getting my film distributed in China.”

A dusty canister opens, exposing a reel of celluloid that’s been hidden away for years. We’re in the archive of Afghan films:  a treasure trove of afghan history, art and culture.

Pietra Brettkelly has made a beautiful and poetic film on the people who risked their lives to save Afghanistan’s film archives from the Taliban. In a dusty garage the cleanup work begins. 

The gardener wraps some old film several times around his neck: 

After burning two truckloads of film the Taliban told me if they found any more they would wrap film around my neck and hang me with it.

Director Pietra Brettkelly says she traveled to Afghanistan in 2012 in search of a story.

“I heard about this mythical place where the films of Afghanistan were stored. People said to me, “You’ll never get in, you don’t even know what’s in there.’ The doors were shut, the guards had guns. I said ‘I’ve come all the way from New Zealand,’ and someone eventually came out and said: ’Come in and meet the new director,” explains Brettkelly.

Afghan film director Ibrahim Arify becomes the central character who leads the difficult restoration of the archives. 

The film shows the determination of Arafy and the 60 Afghan Films’ workers to reclaim their history - preserved on film.

After restoring, the goal is to get the films out and seen in the countryside. The Taliban are never far away. The film follows this dangerous undertaking. Seeing the joy on the rural people’s faces, most have never seen a film, seems to make it, in spite of the huge risk, all worthwhile.

Theatregoer Richard Remberg saw the film A Flickering Truth as a chronicle of modern Afghan history.

“The monarchy, and then the soviet invasion, the Taliban era and today - you got a glimpse, a sense of it and that was the most important thing,” he says.

The film has so many components, gathered from 7 trips and almost 3 years of filming - an amazing collage that is still unfolding as we speak, says director Pietra Brettkelly.

“There’s drama, documentary, uncut footage, unprocessed footage and as you see in the film it’s discovered practically every day,” she says.

 

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