The Shutka Book of Records

The Shutka Book of Records

The Shutka Book of Records (Director: Aleksandar Manic, Czech Republic, 78 minutes): This month’s Doc Soup screening was one that I’d heard absolutely nothing about beforehand. Shutka is a small town in Macedonia that boasts that it is the unofficial capital of the Roma (Gypsy) people. Though not rich in material goods, its inhabitants are rich in imagination, and almost everyone proclaims himself a “champion” of something. Obscure pursuits such as hunting vampires, training geese to fight, and collecting obscure cassettes of Turkish music are all fair game in the townspeople’s constant quest for one-upmanship.

I had some issues with the film’s tone. Even though the film was made in 2005, it was uncannily close to some of the scenes of the “Kazakh” village in Borat. This film, ostensibly a documentary, also used a slightly comical “narrator” (actually actor Bajram Severdzan, from Emir Kusturica’s Black Cat, White Cat) and the abundant humour brought it so close to parody at times that I felt that perhaps the whole thing was a put-on. According to the reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, (aptly-named) director Manic has called it an “acted documentary,” which only muddies the water.

As well, and as another reviewer noted, there is an unspoken undertone of grinding poverty. These people, although indomitable and at times charming, are the sort of uneducated, superstitious bumpkins who would rather spend their welfare money on a lavish party for their son’s circumcision ceremony than on his school fees. Though there is a discernible Roma culture evident, one wonders whether it thrives only because of a lack of any alternative. Without meaningful work or future prospects, people are bound to end up spending all of their waking hours boasting, stealing, arguing and worrying about evil genies. It’s entertaining, but it somehow felt wrong to be entertained. The few attempts made by the director to get us to empathize with many of the residents’ desire to “fly away” to the riches in the West felt buried under the weight of the jaunty anthropological style (including faux-archival black and white footage). At the end of the film, I felt somewhat like I’d emerged from a carnival sideshow. (7/10)


Lost Children

Lost Children

Lost Children (Germany/Uganda, 2005, Directors: Ali Samadi Ahadi, Oliver Stoltz, 98 minutes): All three of the films I saw today were about “children in peril” but none were more horrifying than this one. Northern Uganda has been caught up in civil war for almost twenty years. The rebels of the “Lord’s Resistance Army” make it their primary tactic to kidnap children from local villages, forcing them to fight in their army. Children as young as 8 are taught to kill with guns and knives, and those who don’t share in the atrocities are killed themselves, often by other conscripted children.

Catholic relief agency Caritas is running a reintegration centre for those children who manage to escape the rebel army. It is a formidable challenge. Often the children have physical injuries, either sustained in battle or in their harrowing escapes. The mental damage is much harder to repair. They often have nightmares, and are terrified of being reabducted. Their families are suspicious of them, and are also afraid of being targetted again by the rebels. In these circumstances, the social workers and doctors at the centre have their hands full.

We meet Jennifer, 14, who spent five years with the Lord’s Resistance Army, fighting government troops and terrorizing civilians, all the while being raped regularly as a commander’s concubine. And Opio, just 8 years old, describing how he bashed in a man’s skull with a rifle butt. Then there is sensitive Kelama, 13, who was forced to kill a woman in front of her child and who now can’t stop dreaming about her. All these children have a long road ahead of them, first reintegrating with their families and communities, and then hoping that the rebels don’t return for them.

It’s difficult to “rate” films like this, because they don’t really function as pieces of art. Instead, they fulfill another aspect of the documentary’s role, that of bearing witness. In that sense, this film is a clear-eyed look at some of the most horrifying crimes against children ever perpetrated. By making children do their killing for them, the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army” have killed the childhoods of these children. As they piece together the shreds of their humanity, they are no longer children. What they will become is a mystery.

Information on helping the children here.

Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers


Bunso (The Youngest)

Bunso (The Youngest) (Philippines/United Kingdom, 2004, Directors: Ditsi Carolino, Nana Buxani, 64 minutes): Tony is 13, Diosel and Bunso are 11. They are in prison for stealing. All around them are hundreds of other inmates, both minors and adults. The directors had unprecedented access to one of Manila’s prisons where the population are pretty much left to their own devices. Guards are rarely seen, and there are few private cells. Instead, the prisoners seem to feed, clothe and shelter themselves. The children are nominally part of the “Minor’s Ward”, but with over 150 crowded into one room, and exposed to the elements, many of them find somewhere else to sleep. Though violence and rape are only hinted at, it’s clear these tiny boys are in danger. A few of the adult inmates try to protect them, but wonder where their parents are. In many cases, the parents forced the kids onto the street in the first place, where many of them begged or stole out of hunger. For some, prison may actually be safer.

The filmmakers were working with UNICEF to document conditions in support of an overhaul of the juvenile justice system in the Philippines. The law has been ready since 1997, but getting any action from politicians has taken this long. There are signs that it might not be too much longer before children this young are spared the horrors of an adult prison. Unfortunately, it’s too late for those who have become hardened by their prison experience and end up back on the street to sniff glue and get into trouble with the law again.


Xiara’s Song

Xiara’s Song (USA, 2004, Director: Liz Garbus, 36 minutes): Xiara is a precocious 7-year-old whose beloved father is in prison. She is not alone. More than 10 million children in the US have a parent incarcerated. This film examines the effect on the life of young Xiara. It’s clear that she idolizes her rapper father, and tries to stay connected with him by writing her own songs that she can sing to him over the phone. But she’s also angry and takes her frustration out on her mother, who has broken up with Xiara’s father. At one point, she admits that she started stealing, hoping that she would be caught and sent to the same prison as her dad. Despite his attempts to steer her clear of trouble, it’s unclear whether this bright and beautiful little girl will be able to hold her life together without his presence.


The Swenkas

The Swenkas

The Swenkas (Denmark, 2004, Director: Jeppe Rønde, 72 minutes): This film was really unlike any other documentary I’ve ever seen. The Swenkas are a group of about 20 Zulu men who gather each weekend to “swank”: they dress up in fancy suits and jewellery and compete before a judge to see who is the most stylish. Sort of a “Lord of the Bling” (ooh, couldn’t resist!). But it’s more than just fun for them. Swanking represents self-respect, and these men emphasize certain values such as cleanliness and sobriety. It’s as if the old adage “Clothes make the man” has come to life. Even though some may think these men are spending far too much money on their clothes, it seems to have given them the pride they need to be successful in life. Certainly no one in their families complains. Besides, sometimes they compete for large sums of money (or even, now and then, a cow.)

The reason the film stands out is the way it has been crafted. Director Rønde uses the framing device of a fictional narrator, an old Zulu vagabond who tells us a bit about the group, but also sets up the dramatic arc of the story: the leader of the Swenkas has just died, and his son is grieving and thinking about abandoning the group. This storyline gives the film the feeling of a fictional film, and at times it’s hard to believe that the whole thing isn’t carefully scripted.

The director explained afterwards that he never told the participants what to say, but that since Zulu culture is built around storytelling and the Swenkas were all used to performing, each participant had no trouble “performing” in the film. But they really were working through a difficult time in the life of their group.

The result is a beautifully shot, and even more beautifully edited film that feels more like a fable. The recurring themes are hope and the relationship between fathers and sons. The director actually told us that this film is the second in a trilogy about faith, hope and love, and I found myself really eager to see the other films. A standard documentary approach, with interviews and such, would have made an interesting film. Jeppe Rønde’s unorthodox approach has given us a transcendent one.

More information on the film here.