Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Babi Yar. Context


Dina Pronicheva

Director Sergei Loznitsa

Babi Yar. Context                   B                                                                                           Ukraine  Netherlands  (121 mi)  2021  d: Sergei Loznitsa

In Ukraine there are no Jews. Nowhere - not in Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, not in Iagotin.  You will not see the black, tear-filled eyes of a little girl, you will not hear the sorrowful drawling voice of an old woman, you will not glimpse the swarthy face of a hungry child in a single city or a single one of hundreds of thousands of shtetls [small towns].

Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered.

Murdered are elderly artisans, well-known masters of trades: tailors, hatmakers, shoemakers, tinsmiths, jewellers, housepainters, furriers, bookbinders; murdered are workers: porters, mechanics, electricians, carpenters, furnace workers, locksmiths; murdered are wagon drivers, tractor drivers, chauffeurs, cabinet makers; murdered are millers, bakers, pastry chefs, cooks; murdered are doctors, therapists, dentists, surgeons, gynecologists; murdered are experts in bacte-riology and biochemistry, directors of university clinics, teachers of history, algebra, trigonometry; murdered are lecturers, department assistants, candidates and doctors of science; murdered are engineers, metallurgists, bridge builders, architects, ship builders; murdered are pavers, agronomists, field-crop growers, land surveyors; murdered are accountants, bookkeepers, store merchants, suppliers, managers, secretaries, night guards; murdered are teachers, dressmakers; murdered are grandmothers who could mend stockings and bake delicious bread, who could cook chicken soup and make strudel with walnuts and apples; and murdered are grandmothers who didn’t know how to do anything except love their children and grandchildren; murdered are women who were faithful to their husbands, and murdered are frivolous women; murdered are beautiful  young women, serious students and happy schoolgirls; murdered are girls who were unattractive and foolish; murdered are hunchbacks; murdered are singers; murdered are blind people; murdered are deaf and mute people; murdered are violinists and pianists; murdered are three- year-old and two-year-old children; murdered are eighty- year-old elders who had cataracts in their dimmed eyes, cold transparent fingers and quiet, rustling voices like parchment; murdered are crying newborns who were greedily sucking at their mothers’ breasts until their final moments. All are murdered, many hundreds of thousands, millions of people.

This is not the death of armed people during the war… This is the murder of a people…of a people’s soul and body. An entire people murdered.

Ukraine without Jews, by Vasily Grossman, 1943, (PDF) Vasily Grossman - Ukraine without Jews (excerpt)

A unique exploration of history, where the director combines the public and private archives in Russia, Germany, and Ukraine, working with the Russian State Archive of Film and Photo documents in Krasnogorsk (RGAKFD), with the Bundesarchiv in Berlin, with several regional archives in Germany, with the Ukrainian State Archive in Kiev and with private archives, including footage from soldiers on the front lines, reels from Die Deutsche Wochenschau, the Nazi propaganda news bulletin that was produced in Germany and distributed throughout the territory occupied by the Third Reich, as well as the help of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, the aim of this documentary is to “plunge the viewer into the atmosphere of the time.”  Yet the origins feel more personal, as Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa grew up in Kiev and went to school there, not far from the Babi Yar ravine, but had no knowledge of what happened there, declaring “Even though I grew up close to Babyn Yar and to the old Jewish cemetery, which was completely destroyed, and as a child I stumbled across the Jewish tombstones many times during my walks, my parents were very reluctant to answer my questions on the subject.”  We now know that on September 29–30, 1941, in a large ravine in Kiev known as Babi Yar, the Nazis slaughtered more Jews in two days than in any other single German massacre, killing 33,771 Jews.  In total, from September 29, 1941, until October 1943, the Nazi forces, with no interference from local residents, killed nearly 100,000 people at Babi Yar.  Nazi authorities banned photo and film cameras from the places of mass executions, however through the use of archival footage, it is possible to reconstruct the surrounding circumstances of what happened.  With the troubling rise of xenophobic far-right groups in Europe, the unlearned lessons of history and the growing seeds of hate and resentment make this time we’re living in dangerous and extremely precarious times.  For instance, less known even to practiced historians is that fact that as many as 500,000 to a million former Soviet citizens were living in Ukraine and actually joined the Third Reich in fighting against the Red Army, as they were hoping the Germans would deliver them from Stalin.  With that in mind, the assembled footage is presented with no narration or talking heads, instead there is frequent use of introductory intertitles that place each historical setting in context, opening with “June 1941. Soviet Ukraine” as bomb blasts are dropped on the city of Lviv, the largest of the westernmost cities of the Ukraine, demolishing a bridge while targeting supply dumps and airfields, as Nazi troops are seen riding in diesel-powered Panzer tanks, rumbling motorcycles, and even horse-drawn vehicles as they move their artillery units in and begin to occupy the town, where a mass square is filled with POW soldiers, the first attack in Operation Barbarossa, a German plan to destroy the Soviet Union.  The city is surrounded by plumes of smoke, while dead bodies are strewn everywhere.  The Soviets left behind murdered prisoners, as corpses lay on the ground swarmed by flies, with bystanders, including many children, stopping to stare, yet Jews are blamed with collaborating with the enemy, ordered to line up by the prison and carry out the bodies, with Nazi soldiers going house to house setting them ablaze, with some seen in the foreground drinking in a celebratory mode, exacly as depicted in Elem Klimov’s Come and See (Idi i smotri) (1985), while citizens are seen bringing flowers to the tanks, openly welcoming them while destroying the posters of Stalin, replacing them with posters of “Hitler, the Liberator,” as children are seen fighting for hand-sized Swastika flags on sticks.    

Using only found and restored archival footage, mostly black and white, the film images were restored by Jonas Zagorskas, a colorist and VFX artist, who colorized some of the images, with Vladimir Golovnitski adding an innovative sound design, adding aural effects and even dubbing voices to what is otherwise silent footage.  Throughout, people inevitably stare at the camera as they walk by, as there are endless scenes of troop movements lugging heavy equipment across muddy terrain, including lines of captured POW Soviet troops walking along in single file, yet there are also lines and lines of soldiers marching, so massive that one wonders where they all sleep, as there couldn’t possibly be adequate accommodations for either group.  Even for prisoners, where could you possibly hold them all?  As it turns out, what we see is unfathomable, a giant expanse of people packed together like sardines for as far as the eye can see, where the number of Red Army POW’s was actually 600,000, most dying of starvation as the Nazis never made provisions to feed them.  A small number of about 10,000 were released if a family member came present and they signed a document swearing to never fight against Germany again, as the films shows scenes of recently freed Ukrainian POW’s being processed, greeted briefly by their smiling wives who take them home.  Yet it’s scenes not normally seen that stand out, like women trying the clean the bodies of the dead with branches and brooms, or hideous footage of people being pulled from their homes and beaten with sticks, stripped naked and paraded through the streets by their neighbors, some dragged by their hair, long lines of trenches are dug, mostly by women, apparently to bury the dead.  By the time the Nazis get to Kiev, there are more explosions, as several days after the Germans took control of the city remote-controlled explosives were detonated by the Soviets, who mined the central streets and planted the bombs, causing mass destruction and many civilian casualties, as buildings burned for days, leaving 25,000 people homeless, drawing the ire of the Nazis who again accused Jews of collaborating with the enemy, posting an ominous public order in Russian, Ukrainian, and German language:  

All Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, 29 September, by 8 o’clock in the morning at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dokterivskaya streets (near the Jewish Viis’kove cemetery).  Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc.  Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot.  Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot.

Expecting 5 or 6,000, nearly 34,000 reported under the false belief they would be resettled, and were taken to the Babi Yar ravine on the outskirts of town where one by one they were systematically stripped, giving up their luggage, then their coats, shoes, clothing and underwear, leaving their valuables in a designated place, before being led into the ravine in groups of ten where they were gunned down by SS police battalions and units of the Ukrainian auxiliary police, who actually walked among the corpses shooting anyone still breathing.  According to testimony afterwards, they were made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot, with bodies placed atop bodies, covering them with a layer of dirt at the end of the night before commencing again the next day.  According to some reports, many were still alive after the shootings, but were in a state of shock, where as many as 10% may have died from suffocation under all the other dead bodies.  As there is no existing footage, still shots are shown of half-buried bodies, discarded coats and a pile of boots and shoes, and a prosthetic leg left behind while an extensive passage of Vasily Grossman’s eloquent memorium Ukraine without Jews is read, (PDF) Vasily Grossman - Ukraine without Jews.  While there may have been some who risked their lives by helping the Jews, thousands of others remained indifferent to their fate, becoming preoccupied with dividing the remaining Jewish property amongst themselves.  What’s truly appalling is the widespread infestation of anti-Semitism, as neighbors reported on their neighbors, acted as informants, and provided lists of residents to the Nazis.  Even after the massacre, a few remaining invalids and elderly Jews who were too frail to walk to Babi Yar were hunted down by the local residents, dragged out of their homes and stoned to death.  Incredibly the locals did this on their own initiative, without any German involvement.  Afterwards local newspapers celebrated, printing the bold headline “Kiev is liberated from oriental barbarians, finally a new life begins,” while the following month they held a big parade, a chillingly indifferent response to the extermination of tens of thousands of people, as life, for all practical purposes, went on as normal.  Despite centuries of Ukrainians and Jews living peacefully together, the extermination of Jews in Lubny, Poltava, Kharkov, Kremchug, Borispol and Lugotin among others, continued shortly afterwards with no public interference.  There is some question about Ukrainian complicity, as Ukrainian nationalists at the time were looking for an independent state protected by the German army, unaware that the Germans planned to kill them as well, but the Nazi priority was to exterminate all the Jews first, Poles and Ukrainians would come afterwards.

The war on the Eastern Front began to take a turn in 1943 when Soviet troops reclaimed Kiev, with Hitler posters once again replaced by Stalin, though by this time the war-weary citizens were too overwhelmed by the exhaustion of war to present flowers to the returning Red Army soldiers, instead they were met with a tired resignation, yet a massive public celebration was held in the town square to promote a united Poland, Ukraine, and Russia behind the Soviet banner.  International journalists, including Americans, traveled to the site of the Babi Yar massacre where details of the atrocity were presented, including an attempted cover-up, as Nazis forced Russian war prisoners to dig up the bodies and burn them in an attempt to conceal the evidence, building two-storied funeral pyres, cremating 1500 bodies with each operation, taking nearly 3 days to burn completely, a process that went on for 40 days.  Afterwards the Nazis turned on those prisoners, spraying them with machine gunfire, yet a dozen out of more than 200 managed to escape.  Actual court testimony is presented in the war crimes tribunals that followed the war, including one woman witness Osmachko who escaped execution in Kharkov by lying in a pile of corpses for eight long hours without moving while the massacre continued all around her, even as soldiers walked around the pit with machine guns searching to shoot anyone showing signs of life, yet none was more riveting than Dina Pronicheva, Testimony of Dina Pronicheva about the Annihilation of the Jews in Babi Yar on September 29-30, 1941, a Soviet Jewish actress from the Kiev Puppet Theatre, who tore up her identity card and claimed she was not Jewish, that she was only there to accompany someone else to the site, but Nazis ordered her death anyway, wanting to eliminate all witnesses, marching her to the ravine, stripping her naked, then as she was about to be shot she jumped onto the pile of corpses and played dead, remaining completely still as the shooting continued all day, with bodies falling all around her, finally covered by a layer of dirt, when she became more afraid of being buried alive than being shot, so she climbed her way out of the massive pit of corpses and a layer of earth, up the side of the ravine and crawled to safety under cover of darkness.  She is among 29 known survivors of Babi Yar, and related her story to Soviet author Anatoly Kuznetsov whose novel Babi Yar was published in 1966, where hardcover copies have been out of print for decades.  Additional court testimony was provided by one of the Nazi sharpshooters, SS Officer Hans Isenmann, whose testimony is brutal, exposing the methodical nonchalance in revealing just how mechanical the entire process is to organize a massacre, expressing no emotion, simply repeating established procedures, exhibiting no regard for human life.  After hearing various testimonies, the director provides rare and macabre footage of the public execution by hanging of 13 Nazi officers in Kiev’s Kalinin Square for “atrocities against the Soviet people,” among them Hans Isenmann.  The square is completely packed by a massive outpouring of 200,000 people completely filling the screen, with Jeeps pulling them into their designated spaces with nooses placed around their necks, and then the Jeeps move away, leaving them dangling in the breeze.  It’s a horrific sight any way you want to look at it, primitive and grotesque, as if that barbaric act can actually eradicate evil from our midst.  About 1.4 million Jews were murdered just in the Ukraine alone, so the execution of a handful of men hardly suffices, but wartime is an entirely different mindset, where this massive extermination of Jews is unprecedented in human history. 

Stalin discouraged placing any emphasis on the Jewish aspect of the Babi Yar tragedy and instead presented these atrocities as crimes committed against the Soviet people, so under the Soviet occupation there was no mention of Jewish genocide at Babi Yar.  Even more astonishing, in 1952 the city council voted to turn the Babi Yar ravine into a reservoir for liquid industrial waste from a nearby brick factory, erecting box-like multistoried apartment buildings nearby, with workers seen wearing no protective covering, standing knee-deep in the industrial waste, and can be seen spreading the waters into the ravine.  The film ends without revealing that after years of filling the ravine with sewage and waste, it eventually ruptured and flooded the city, killing over a thousand people.  Also not mentioned, several attempts were made to erect a memorial commemorating the fate of the Jewish victims, but all attempts were overruled until after Stalin died and was finally denounced by the Party in 1961, when Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote a poem after visiting the site, searching for a sign, a tombstone, some kind of historical marker, but found nothing, so his poem begins with the line, “No monument stands over Babi Yar,” Babi Yar By Yevgeni Yevtushenko - The Holocaust History, a line repeated in Shostakovich’s commemorative 13th Symphony entitled Babi Yar, Shostakovich - Symphony n°13 - Moscow PO / Kondrashin 1962 YouTube (56:35), which is structured around the narrative of the poem.  An official memorial to Soviet citizens shot at Babi Yar was erected in 1976, but it wasn’t until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the Ukrainian government finally allowed a separate memorial specifically identifying the Jewish victims.  It took until the 75th anniversary before a broad international coalition gathered to announce the 5-year plan to construct the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kiev, which proposes to build a $100 million complex of museums, research centers, works of art, and open-air audio and visual exhibits on more than 320 acres of land.  Yet for all the publicity surrounding the event, there is still ample evidence of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, as anti-Semitic literature is regularly sold on Independence Square in Kiev, the symbolic center of the Orange Revolution, while a pro-Nazi group handed out anti-Semitic fliers at the Babi Yar event, and even Swastika graffiti could be seen entering the walkway to the Jewish Babi Yar memorial, as the filled-in ravine is now a park surrounded by urban sprawl.  Loznitsa attended the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK, the celebrated Russian film school) at the same time as Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, the director of the epic and ever evolving DAU (2019) series of films and art installations about life in the Soviet Union.  Khrzhanovskiy is an associate producer of the film, also one of the people that urged Loznitsa to make this film, while also serving as the artistic director of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.  While this is a unique understanding of history, it’s also difficult viewing, with the director relying upon intertitles much more than usual, which still leaves viewers on their own, swamped with historical content, often unaware of just what it is we’re seeing, as the mixed archival content often changes and confuses the narrative.  For instance, multiple early sequences show massive lines of soldiers, yet it’s hard to tell who they are, which side they are on, or whether they are advancing or retreating, a sequence of Ukrainian women digging a ditch is unclear if they are being forced to do this, or why, also in the trial testimony they edited war crimes at Babi Yar with atrocities occurring in other areas, which was not immediately apparent.  Overall this can feel a bit overwhelming.  It’s a bit ironic that the word context is in the title, as without any explanation, context is often precisely what’s missing, despite elaborate measures to assemble footage in a comprehensible fashion.  Much in the same vein as Romanian Radu Jude’s I Don't Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians (Îmi este indiferent daca în istorie vom intra ca barbari) (2018), these filmmakers are holding their own countrymen accountable for what happened during the war, yet they’re viewed as elitists among the intelligentsia, as the majority of the modern era populace would prefer to overlook the incriminating details, opening the door for more far-right nationalists to push hate speech among their xenophobic rhetoric, as neo-Nazi organizations are now considered commonplace.  While this film is like an anguishing cry in the dark, one has to wonder whether anyone is listening.   

2021 Chicago Virtual Film Festival









The Chicago Film Festival was back in theaters mid-October, though in a reduced capacity, reducing the number of screens at the River East to only 4 theaters, while expanding to new theaters, including the Music Box on the north side, the Siskel Film Center downtown, and the Parkway Ballroom on the south side, as well as a Drive-In theater that was used last year when Covid shut theaters down.  While theater availability is down, prices are up, substantially, even for early weekday matinee screenings, which used to be the best deal in town, now doubled in price.  Vaccinations are required to attend, or a recent Covid test, as well as wearing masks at all times except when eating or drinking, in accordance with the Governor’s recent Executive Order.  In addition, a certain amount of films were screened virtually.  Again, for some inexplicable reason, even virtual screenings can sell out, as there is a limited capacity for tickets sold, while reception is only available to the nearby mid-Western states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

Last year the virtual experience was uneven, as some films looked great, while others continually moved in and out of focus, where nothing seemed to change that fact, despite repeated requests to technical support, who blame it on connection issues, as that was simply the reality of the virtual experience.  This year was no different.  Also, while the festival promises a 48-hour window to watch a film once you start, that has been proven untrue, as once you exit the system, it reads time expired when you return, even if it’s only 5-minutes later.  The Box Office crew have an altogether different understanding, claiming the video system allows one complete viewing per code, which apparently includes films stopped near the end, where the system reads it as a complete viewing.  

You had to attend in person to see new films from renowned filmmakers Pedro Almodóvar, Jane Campion, Asghar Farhadi, Mahamet-Saleh Harroun, Hong Sang-soo, Paulo Sorrentino, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Zhang Yimou, while Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has two films showing, where one must be seen in theaters.  While the New York Film Festival dropped the virtual option, requiring in-person attendance, Chicago, thankfully, kept at least some virtual options, which seems like a good idea to maintain even in the future, feeling more inclusive, as it expands handicapped accessibility to those who are less mobile.

While only allowed a small sampling of virtual films, the two best viewing experiences were Joachim Trier’s THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD, completing his Oslo Trilogy, a follow up of Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, but inverting the male perspective to the female, featuring plenty of mocking and self-deprecating humor, along with zany storytelling, beautifully shot in 35mm, and Jacques Audiard’s PARIS, 13th DISTRICT, which features the stand-out star of the year, Lucie Zhang, an utter revelation in a break-out role, who confounds all expectations by being as free-spirited as any character seen in years.  The two are easily among the more original films seen during the pandemic, both cleverly written and profoundly impactful dramas featuring outstanding performances, as there is something exceptional about these films that recalls what films were like pre-Covid and pre-Netflix and streaming.  

Award Winners 

The festival selections for award winners are always somewhat suspect, coming late in the year, oftentimes picking the most provocative, not the best, as if to counter earlier festival choices, yet what’s important is that many of these are American premieres, like the Loznitza and Audiard films, while the festival overall offers a wide variety to choose from. 

While Covid lingers and theaters are slowly refilling, though probably playing to a different audience altogether than before, as many, particularly the elderly clientele, are extremely hesitant to return with significant numbers still refusing to get vaccinated, putting lives at risk. 

Nonetheless, it’s a once a year experience, where the offering is decidedly better than anything else that’s played throughout the entire year. 


Films seen, in order of preference.

A-        The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier                     Norway         (127 mi)          

B+       Paris, 13th District, Jacques Audiard                                    France           (105 mi)    

B         Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi            Japan            (121 mi) 

B         Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma                                             France          (72 mi)            

B         Babi Yar.Context, Sergei Loznitsa                                         Ukraine        (121 mi)          

C-        Cow, Andrea Arnold                                                             Great Britain (94 mi)



Thoughts from Frank Biletz, college history professor

The first thing that was immediately evident this year was the relative lack of bustling crowds of people in the lobbies and halls.  In theaters, only about 20% of the seats were occupied, which was the norm at most of the screenings

During this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, I ultimately saw a total of seventeen films, eight of them in person and nine virtual. Of these, I would recommend all of the films to a degree, though some more mildly and with greater reservations. Of the in-person films that I attended at the AMC River East and Music Box, the most striking aspect of the overall experience was far fewer people in attendance than during normal pre-Covid years. Only The Power of the Dog and Belfast approached or reached being sellouts, with that defined this year as 75-80% capacity. Even so, in screenings of both of those films, I had empty seats on both sides of me.

In the top tier of festival films that I would recommend most highly are: Petit Maman, The Worst Person in the World, The Power of the Dog, and Happening.

Although Petite Maman may initially seem slight and minor compared with Sciamma’s previous film Portrait of a Lady on Fire and, admittedly, lacks the richness and complexity of that work, the relatively brief magical realist fable of a young girl and her mother is a nearly perfectly realized treatment of the mysteries of child-parent relationships, the passage of time, and mortality.

The Worst Person in the World treats the complicated personality and love life of the female central character and her relationships over time with the two central men in her life. Renate Reinsve anchors the film, giving one of the outstanding performances of the year and winning a deserved Best Actress at Cannes.

Jane Campions idiosyncratic “Western” The Power of the Dog, set in the 1920s, is difficult to summarize, as one of its chief pleasures for me was the way in which the narrative unfolded in often unexpected ways. It could certainly be described as a film about “toxic masculinity,” as embodied in the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch, but it becomes much richer and more complicated. There are also some great landscapes, with New Zealand standing in for Montana.

Happening by Audrey Diwan is reminiscent of Eliza Hittmans outstanding film from last year, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, in that both treat young women seeking abortions. But each film is rooted in a very different and distinctively portrayed cultural context. In Diwan’s film, the student protagonist must negotiate the situation in France in 1963 when abortion was illegal. The film gradually builds in intensity, as the woman becomes more desperate. Happening features an impressive performance by Anamaria Vartolomei as the young woman.

Prayers for the Stolen by Tatiano Huezo was not on my original list, but I am glad that I added it, as I found it quite rewarding. The Mexican film treated three girls and their families coping with life in a community that is ruled by a drug gang and in which young girls are regularly abducted. Although the narrative could have been a bit more tightly focused, the depiction of the setting was compelling and the performances by the young leads were very good.

Both Paris, 13th District, by Jacques Audiard, and Fabian, Going to the Dogs, by Dominik Graf, were riveting cinematic experiences, packed with incident and directed with great flare. Paris had gorgeous black and white photography and Fabian effectively used bits of footage from the 1920s to add period flavor. Although well-made and absorbing, however, neither reverberated nearly as much or left me with as much to think about afterwards as the quartet of top films.

The Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy by Ryusuke Hamaguchi represents a less kinetic and more contemplative style of film making than the works by Audiard and Graf. In keeping with his previous work, the film consists largely of extended conversations between two characters (mostly) women at a time. In this case, there were three separate films, linked together loosely by theme.

My response to Belfast was probably the most divided of any film that I saw. Given my background in Irish Studies, it was a “must see” and I was at the same time predisposed to be sympathetic, but also might be more critical of missteps in the portrayal of the Troubles.  Before and after the screening, I greatly enjoyed the personal appearance of director and writer Kenneth Branagh, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award and engaged in a Q & A after the film with Mimi Plauche. He was very gracious in expressing fondness for Chicago, telling anecdotes about previous visits and showing awareness of the Chicago Shakespeare production of As You Like It, and was also informative about the making of Belfast, which was a very personal project conceived, written, and produced during the pandemic.

As for the film, I thought that it was strongest in regard to its somewhat sentimental depiction of family ties and when it found some humor in the midst of the Troubles and weakest in the depiction of the Troubles themselves. Even if regarded as a background for a film focused on family relationships during a crisis, that crisis was depicted in an overly simplistic manner. The depiction of the Loyalist paramilitary who bullies the family to gain their cooperation with his cause is especially unsubtle, as is the portrayal of the “fire and brimstone” of Ulster Protestantism.

When I streamed Costa Brava, Lebanon later in the festival, Belfast suffered by comparison. Although very different in setting, the common theme that both films share is that they treat familes trying to survive amid a national crisis. In the case of the film set in Lebanon, the crisis was not the Lebanese Civil War of the 1990s (an obvious comparison with the Troubles), but the current totally dysfunctional society. The family at the center of the story has departed Beirut to live an idyllic life in the countryside. But then, the government begins to set up a garbage dump on the neighboring property and they find that they cannot escape the problems of their country. I thought that the conflicts between father and mother, as well as the depiction of their distinctive characters, as well as the characters of their children, were all much more fully developed than the comparable characters and situations in Belfast. Whereas Belfast had Ciaran Hinds and Judy Dench playing the older generation, Costa Brava, Lebanon had an eccentric, aging grandmother figure.

Of the documentaries:

The most rewarding of the documentaries overall was Babi-Yar Context by Sergie Loznitsa, which consisted entirely of archival footage from various sources in Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. As the title indicates, the film ranges far beyond the Babi Yar massacres of September 1941, in which an estimated 33,000 Jews were murdered by German forces near Kiev. The sound design especially deserved high praise. Assuming that a substantial part of the newsreel footage was shot silent, the recorded soundtrack was perfectly matched to what would be appropriate for the images, including some snatches of dialogue. Although the style of the film was to avoid narration, the sparse and succinct inter-titles did not always adequately explain what we were seeing I am generally familiar with the sequence of events, including the massive numbers of Soviet troops captured in the initial Nazi invasion, but was still sometimes unsure about what exactly I was seeing. Nevertheless, I found the film to be very rewarding and disturbing, especially the evidence presented of Ukrainian complicity in welcoming the Nazis as liberators from Soviet tyranny and the eloquent post-war testimonies of survivors.

As I have admired Mark Cousins’s previous documentary ventures into film history, Story of Film and Women Make Films, it was preordained that I would want to see the update to the former of these series: Story of Film: A New Generation, which treats global cinema of the past twenty years. As usual, an abundance of clips made me recall films that I had already seen and also make me want to see films that I have not yet seen. While generally absorbing and featuring many well-chosen clips, it was a bit long at three hours, and, despite scattered insights in the commentary along the way, I am not sure that I was left with many connective themes about the new millennium in film.

It is difficult for me to imagine a viewer responding positively to Andrea Arnold’s Cow on a small screen. Although it is hardly an epic and a significant portion of the film is confined to an industrial-size barn, seeing it on the big screen did force one to becomes immersed in the world of the cow at the center of the documentary. Yes, it really is a documentary centered on the life of cow. For the first 15 or 20 minutes, I was wondering what I had gotten myself into: why had.I chosen to spend 90 minutes on a Tuesday evening watching a cow in its barn. But slowly, I did become involved in the cows routine and, insofar as it is possible, began to see the world through the cows perspective. When the cows were finally let out into the fields, it was liberating -- for them and the viewer. This limited identification -- and also because one had premonitions of the inevitable ending -- made the last sequence of the film unexpectedly touching.

Of the two documentaries that I saw in the festival on two notable Chicagoans, Punch 9 for Harold Washington by Joe Winston is especially worth seeing. I moved to Chicago in 1986, so missed the 1983 elections and “council wars,” but participated in the 1987 election and remember vividly the shock at the mayor’s sudden death Although the film does not provide too much personal background on Washington prior to his campaign, it does treat the Daley and Byrne years in some detail and focuses largely on the 1983 campaign and council wars. In regard to the 1983 campaign, even Bernie Epton’s son was appalled that he allowed himself to become the candidate of the white supremacists.

Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter by Sarah Halpern was also interesting. Although I was very familiar with the renowned chef's name, I did not know that much about the story of his rise to prominence in the culinary world and the documentary gave a rounded portrait, showing both his controlling side, as well as his more generous traits.

Citizen Ashe was a decent documentary, though it suffered by comparison with the Ken and Sarah Burns four part series on Muhammad Ali that recently aired on PBS, simply because it’s treatment of another prominent African-American athlete of the 1960s and 1970s seemed relatively cursory. Personally, I was much more of a fan of Ashe’s than Ali’s, but this documentary was ultimately too brief to treat adequately either his tennis career or other accomplishments, such as his book on the history of the African American athlete.

Finally, Nobody Has to Know by Bouli Lanners piqued my interest in the first place because of its setting in the Western Isles of Scotland -- it was filmed on the Isles of Harris and Lewis -- and the landscapes did not disappoint. Michelle Fairley was also very good in one of the two principal roles. However, I never really bought the central plot contrivance of the film, involving memory loss after a stroke and a past love affair that may or may not have actually happened.

Here is a summary of the films in approximate order of preference with ratings:

Petite Maman (France, Celine Sciamma)                                            A

The Worst Person in the World (Norway, Joachim Trier)                  A-

The Power of the Dog (US/New Zealand, Jane Campion)                A-

Happening (France, Audrey Diwan)                                                  A-/B+

Paris: 13th District (France, Jacques Audiard)                                   B+

Costa Brava, Lebanon (Lebanon, Mounia Aki)                                  B+

Prayers for the Stolen (Noche Fuego) (Mexico, Tatiana Huezo)        B+

Babi Yar: Context (Ukraine, Netherlands, Sergei Loznitsa)              B+

Fabian, or Going to the Dogs (Germany, Dominik Graf)                   B+

The Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Japan, Ryusuki Hamaguchi)     B+

Story of Film: A New Generation (UK, Mark Cousins)                    B+

Punch 9 for Harold Washington (US, Joe Winston)                          B+

Cow (UK, Andrea Arnold)                                                                B

Belfast (UK, Kenneth Branagh)                                                         B

Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter (US, Rebecca Halpern)    B

Nobody Has to Know (Belgium/France/UK, Bouli Lanners)            B

Citizen Ashe (Rex Miller and Sam Pollard)                                       B-