Investigating today’s world with a cinematic feeling: documentary filmmakers Salomé Jashi and Pavel Borecký talking at Visioni del Mondo in Milano
Lampoon review: Milano ‘Visioni dal Mondo’ Festival 2021
‘Unmasking the present to build a better future’. This is the theme of this year’s Visioni dal Mondo Festival, taking place in Milan for the 7th edition. After the pandemic took the sector by storm and forced a digital edition in 2020, this year’s appointment with cinema of reality is back in presence at the Litta Theatre and at the Leonardo da Vinci National Science and Technology Museum from 16th to 19th September.
Faithful to its mission, that is representing today’s world through the indelible memory of the past, ‘Visioni dal Mondo’ aims to investigate the world through the documentation of its many realities, like a scrutinization of contemporary society. From inclusion and diversity, globalization and the ethical issues raised by artificial intelligence, one of the main focuses of this year’s edition is overall the uncertainty of a sustainable future and the consequences carried along with climate change.
Taming the Garden by Salomé Jashi
A majestic century-old tree is boarded on a barge and floats across the sea. What sounds like a surrealist painting is one of the evocative images in Salomé Jashi’s Taming the Garden. The baseline of the film is a hobby of a very rich man, former Georgia Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the Georgian Dream coalition, the then most influential political party in 2011. His hobby was to collect century old large trees, by taking them from villages from the coastline of Georgia and bringing them to his private garden on the Black Sea coast, in Ozurgeti municipality.
«This movie does touch upon the crisis of contemporary society and in particular consumerism. Money and power are the main values in the world right now, and they prevail over other values», explained director Jashi. The story takes place in three regions by the Georgian coast line of the Black Sea: Adjara, Guria and Mingrelia. For months, Ivanishvili kept commissioning the taking of these trees from these areas, where they crossed all the coastline, and ultimately, to make it to his garden, they were carried across the sea using large barges, because it would have taken longer if they had to make it through the mountains.
Environmental and socio-economic impact of moving trees
Ivanishvili first received permission to begin moving the trees in December 2015: when the process started, activist group Guerilla Gardening organised a series of protests in which several activists were detained. At the time, Ivanishvili was moving three one-hundred-year-old trees from Tsikhisdziri and, despite the protests, he managed to take them to his private park. «This procedure had both environmental and socio-economic impacts on the locals» continued Jashi. «When you eradicate an ancient tree from the land, you intrude in its ecosystem. Also, in order to take that tree of huge dimensions, other surrounding trees had been taken down just because they were on its way. The total value of the environmental losses caused by the project is not known».
Georgian regulation prohibits taking down trees because they are protected by law but, in this case, the argument for cutting them down was made up and legalized. For the local communities those trees meant a lot: they were their first source of income, that would have paid for basic education for their children and satisfied their basic needs; they served as a protective shield from the sun and the wind; they were treated as members of their families. The process of the forced displacement of the trees was used by Jashi as a metaphor for migrations: «when a certain group of people is extracted from their lands and moved elsewhere, they are forced to do so according to one’s need. And that eradication is not just physical but also social and cultural. At the end of the uprooting and displacement of the trees, the bigger consequences were in the heart of people, because they were left with an empty hole in their hearts and not just in their yard». Jashi defined this story as a contemporary fairytale about beauty and destruction with multifaceted ambiguities that one day could be turned into a book. Even after stepping down following his year as a Prime Minister in 2012, it has been widely speculated that Ivanishvili still remains the main decision-maker in the country.
Living Water by Pavel Borecký
In Living Water, the feature documentary debut of anthropologist Pavel Borecký, the geopolitical and historical layers of Jordan in balance between tradition and progress are unveiled through the story of the biggest and most expensive infrastructure of the State: a water pipeline running from the South of Jordan – the desert of Wadi Rum and the proximity – to the borderland with Saudi Arabia. The water crisis in Jordan and the resiliency of the Bedouins communities go back decades. When the local communities decided not to give up water, they dug the last underground sandstone aquifer, where limited and unsustainable water is extracted. «There’s a discussion in the professional community» – tells Borecký about the moral behind the movie – «is this the best way to secure water nowadays? Are there other ways? Maybe we can save water elsewhere, and this is what the movie is trying to portrait. What will the future generations have if we take this water now?».
In the early Sixties, there was a change in the lifestyle of the Bedouins of Wadi Rum, as well as their means of sustenance. The ‘sedentarisation’ process, officially launched by the Hashemite Monarchy but gained rightfully from the Bedouins as they tell in their stories, changed their whole economy: while the monarchy wanted to have more control over the locals, the Bedouins were promised water and development from the King so they could stay where they were. Another challenge for the Bedouins regards agriculture which involves approximately 40% of Jordanian water, and production is around 3% of GDP with only 3-4% of the population employed. Borecký visited a lot of farms during his studies in the field, and what he found was a paradox: overproduction of tomatoes in a country with almost no and nonrenewable water.
The issue of the rapid growth of the cities
While the Bedouins are struggling to get enough, private farms are following their own interests. Another variable of the problem is the rapid growth of the cities, and their urbanization, accelerated by the conflicts in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of refugees find homes close to their relatives in the North of Jordan, bringing tensions into the communities and at international level. In the city of Aqaba, approximately six kilometers East from the water pipeline, water is provided constantly. «The King decided to conceive Aqaba as an economic hub, a shiny hotspot for the Middle East. The taxation there is very low to attract investments from the Gulf, because Jordan doesn’t have oil reserves from which to depend on. Instead, they are digging for the ‘blue gold’», explains Borecký. While the interests of everyone are colliding, the looming threat of climate change is also to consider.
«The water mismanagement narrative criticizes the government» – continues the director – «pointing out the need for investments and technologies, blaming nature that is not giving enough back. Jordan needs to question the practices and what the whole economy around water is creating. I’m showing the story mainly from the Bedouins perspective because they are the weakest part of these mechanisms, and because not everyone has to be blamed equally for this environmental crisis». One possible solution to mitigate water emergencies, as shown in the film by engineers, is desalination – technological cleaning of sea water – even though it’s very expensive. In the meantime, Aqaba is building its own residential district using water from the farms, meaning they will soon stop using the one from the desert.
Born in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1981 Salomé Jashi graduated at the State University in Tbilisi and the Caucasian School of Journalism and Media, she worked as a reporter for several years. In 2005 she was awarded a British Council scholarship to study documentary filmmaking at Royal Holloway, University of London. Jashi’s last feature film ‘Taming the Garden’ was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film and won Best Film Category at Docudays UA International Documentary Human Rights Film Festival.
Born in Prague in 1986, Pavel Borecký is a social anthropologist and audio visual ethnographer. Awardee of Swiss Excellence scholarship with a PhD on water scarcity in the Middle East, Borecký has collaborated with Goethe Institute in Germany working as a curator in the program for the connection of Central Europe and Middle East societies. ‘Living Water’ is his first feature documentary film.
Director Lombroso takes us inside the alt-right at Visioni dal Mondo 2021
«My family survived the Holocaust. I experienced the threat of fascism growing up». Director Lombroso at Visioni dal Mondo in Milano on what inspired the movie
Milano Visioni dal Mondo: White Noise by Daniel Lombroso
White Noise is about the rise of nationalism as an international phenomena that affected not only the United States after the election of Trump, but also Europe, South America and Russia. In an open conversation about the documentary White Noise, director Daniel Lombroso explains how the story was developed by gaining access to the three most influential figures in American far-right: Richard Spencer, a white-power ideologue, Mike Cernovich, Twitter troll and founder of Guerrilla Mindset, and Lauren Southern. «I choose to document the rise of nationalism for two main reasons» specifies Lombroso; «the first was from a journalistic point of view, following the coverage that this phenomena was getting. The second was personal: I come from an Eastern European Jewish family, Holocaust survivors. The threat of fascism came to me from the experience that I had growing up». Lombroso spent four years on the topic and three reporting the film, starting with Richard Spencer back before he was well known, then Mike Cernovich, and lastly Lauren Southern, who took eight months to convince. «It’s easy to amplify the message when you’re documenting wrong» continued; «It was on us to understand how they were reaching millions, what is it about their message that resonated with people. We were careful, from shot to scene selection, not to make them look like pop stars. The movie exposes them as hypocrites». Lombroso points out the contradictions between their public and private lives, exposing them as deluded, self-interested people that contradict everything they believe. The documentary gives the audience access to the private sphere of their lives, beyond what we can see on social media. If their narrative is focused on the preservation of white culture, why is Cernovich father to Persian kids? At the end of the movie, Southern reveals that she’s going to give her Asian-Australian fiancée a son, but when she’s asked what role played race in their relationship, she responds that it didn’t really matter. «If you’re a member of the movement and you look at this film, it will destroy your heroes», comments Lombroso.
The role of social media on perpetrating populist propaganda
Populism is far from a recent phenomenon, but it’s safe to say that the appearance of populist movements and leaders has multiplied since the advent of social networks in the new millennium. The direct relationship between nationalist leaders and their followers has always been a prerogative of populism, and in this day and age, social media play an intermediary role between the leaders and their base. Because populists dislike state-controlled media, social media offer a rapid friendly-like alternative that is simpler to understand and to use. If you like what you’re reading on a post online, the only thing you can do is to press a button. If you don’t like that type of content or you have a different opinion, you’re also allowed to say something, because it won’t have any blowback, since you can’t see the person you’re attacking and the asynchrony of communication is eliminating the need for consensus. «Lauren Southern, Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, they all use social media, with high production standards to make things look nice so people will believe them. Lauren of all the three characters understood that well: first, you have to say something shocking, and later, with a professional crew, if you’re adding a drone shot, or an appealing soundtrack that makes the video sound like a film, it will add credibility», affirms the director. Populists revolve their narrative around their status as celebrities, making their audience feel heard, and making them believe the leader is talking to them directly, in a one-to-one conversation. This applies to what psychologists call a parasocial relationship, where viewers or listeners come to consider media personalities as friends, despite having no or limited interactions with them. They’re engaged in an illusionary reciprocal relationship with them.
Political communication and online mobilisation
The discussion around racism and antisemitism has been around for the past one hundred and fifty years. The difference in our times is that people are able to mobilize and spread their ideas online. On this matter, White Noise identifies these three personalities as the ones that have cracked the code, especially Mike Cernovich and Lauren Southern. At a young age they figured out how to make something go viral, by saying the most shocking, racist and misogynistic thing possible. In the third segment of the documentary, far-right filmmaker Caolan Robertson explains how people have left the left wing politics to support the right thanks to the amount of coverage that its topics were getting in social media. The more posts are published, the more videos are streamed and the more platforms are helping you out getting free advertising, by getting referred in other people’s accounts so much that it creates a chain reaction. Southern was only eighteen years old when she started using social media, and she started to get thousands of views right away. A lot of people in the far-right have no access to institutions, they spread their ideas without paying for marketing or without having a full time job, but they have access to social media, a free intermediary tool available to everyone, that helped maximize the effects of political communication.
A history of hate and misinformation: the American alternative-right
It was November 2016 – right after Trump’s victory – when a young reporter at the Atlantic was sent to Washington D.C for the annual conference of the National Policy Institute, a white-supremacist organization whose President and Creative Director Richard Spencer said belonging to the ‘alternative right’ category. The leader – who first described the movement as an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States – after delivering his speech about anti-Semitism and the idea of creating a white ethno-state, he incited his followers by saying ‘Heil Trump! Heil the people! Heil victory!’ and a room full of people broke out into Nazi salutes. This moment – that went viral on social media, reaching over fifty million views – clarified to the world that his was a xenophobic movement. The alt-right segment identifies with a range of ideologies centered on white identity: believing in close borders in terms of the movement of people and goods, relating directly to the base by referring only to white people, especially white men, and embracing racism and intolerance under the guise of preserving the ethnic and cultural origins of their respective counties. The political reflection of the 2008 financial crisis was a rising feeling that neoliberalism, and its organizations, like World Trade, NATO and the European Union had failed, like they didn’t seem to be at service of the people, acting just to protect their own interests. In this worldwide scenario, nationalism offered an alternative narrative opposed to the unsuccessful results given by liberalism, bringing mind to rebellion and anti-establishment thinking. What first was considered to be a fast-fading feeling, it has soon spread to many countries around the world: leaders like Le Pen in France and Salvini in Italy, and even more authoritarian figures like Putin in Russia and Bolsonaro in Brazil all fall into the category of nationalist populists, or else radical traditionalists, who want to preserve what they claim are traditional Christian values but from a uniquely white supremacist perspective.
Director and journalist known for his debut feature film, White Noise (2020), based on his four years long reportage inside the American alt-right, following the lives of Richard Spencer, Lauren Southern and Mike Cernovich. He worked for The Atlantic and The New Yorker.