We dive straight into a mandatory viewing for the current global political situation: having premiered at the Berlinale Forum and won a special mention, the new film by Israeli director Avi Mograbi (Z32), The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation comes into focus as it does just what the title promises. In this formally challenging documentary, through interviews with dozens of Israeli soldiers and his own argumentative narration, the filmmaker dissects the mechanisms used in the occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967. The Party Film Sales has the international rights for the title available both as a feature and as two 52-minute episodes.
Another Israeli film in the selection, The Pianist from Ramallah by Avida Livny (Murder at Cinema North), tells an intimate story of a young, extremely talented Palestinian-Russian musician. Over four years spent between checkpoints, auditions, and his father's wish that he becomes a doctor, Muhammad "Misha" Alsheikh tries to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional pianist. The documentary is represented by Go2Films.
Also following its young protagonist for an extended period of time, but in a completely different kind of story, Swedish director Engeli Broberg's Gabi, Between Ages 8 and 13 is an engrossing coming-of-age documentary about a child who does not comfortably identify as female or male. This warm and intimate film about identity and belonging world-premiered at CPH:DOX and is handled by House of Real Sweden.
In a different society, another youngster plans to transition to another gender in Hungarian director Alexa Bakonyi's first feature-length film, Colors of Tobi. Living in a small town, the teenage hero experiences the mutability of identity. Although his parents support him, the mother is having a hard time getting separated from her little girl. The touching and thought-provoking documentary is sold internationally by Wide.
Meanwhile, teenagers from Africa deal with life-defining issues of a completely different order in Malian director Ousmane Samassekou's haunting CPH:DOX winner The Last Shelter. Focusing on two girls among many people who go through the House of Migrants in the city of Gao on the edge of the Sahara, the filmmaker tells a poignant and deeply humane story of a place that serves as a refuge to migrants trying to get to Europe or returning from it. Steps has the rights for this South African-French-Malian co-production.
What youngsters who manage to reach Europe go through is viscerally shown in Shadow Game by Dutch directors Els van Driel and Eefje Blankevoort. Partly using footage from the smartphones of ten protagonists from the Middle East and Central Asia as they face violence from the police and many other obstacles across the continent, it is a dramatic account of the consequences of the European asylum policy. This Java Films title has already picked up awards at FIFDH Geneva and Movies That Matter.
On the other side of the globe, teenagers are often the ones who perpetrate violence. Raising a School Shooter, the third US-set film by Danish filmmakers Frida and Lasse Barkfors (Pervert Park), explores the lives and states of mind of three parents whose sons executed armed attacks on their schools. Thanks to fantastic access, this DR Sales documentary captures the deeply personal stories of the protagonists ridden with feelings of sorrow, guilt, and responsibility.
Another characteristically American story comes from director Erika Cohn (The Judge). A shocking investigative documentary on illegal sterilizations in California’s women’s prisons, Belly of the Beast follows an activist lawyer and a former inmate as they wage a near-impossible battle against the Department of Corrections. This devastating legal drama, represented by CAT&Docs, draws attention to the ongoing legacy of eugenics and reproductive injustice in the US.
A much brighter offering comes from Germany's Neufilm in Susanne Kim's Cabinets of Wonder (pictured on top). After the VR experience of the same title which competed at IDFA in 2020, the director brings a feature documentary that immerses the viewer in the inner worlds of four children who don‘t quite fit into the framework of our society, labelled by adults as migrants, autists, or disabled. In a playful mix of live action and animation, the kids show us that they're not weird or different, but unique.
In the Finnish film Lost Boys, Jani and Antti, heroes of the controversial 2010 hit Reindeerspotting, are out of prison after seven years. Their mate, director Joonas Neuvonen follows them to Southeast Asia for an even darker, more intense, and graphic sequel. The extreme drug use, explicit sex and a murder mystery make this Tekele Production documentary, co-directed by Sadri Cetinkaya and sold by First Hand Films, a must-have for late night slots.
Wrapping up the selection in another CAT&Docs title, Swedish master Magnus Gertten's 2020 CPH:DOX entry Only the Devil Lives without Hope is a real-life thriller about love, betrayal, spies, assassins and unbreakable hope. It follows an Uzbek activist living who is trying to find out if her brother, imprisoned for political reasons, is still alive.
In addition to these fresh entries, the 2020 Docs for Sale catalogue is still available until November.