The paradox of anonymous filmmaking

    It’s March 14, and a new IDFA Bertha Fund selection is out. I eagerly dive into the cascade of names, titles, loglines, stills. Who do we have here? A few directors stand out as instantly recognizable, their projects long anticipated. Others are what you might call fresh talent: filmmakers to watch; the IBF stamp a hopeful sign of their success to come. Of the lot, two are marked simply as ‘Anonymous’. No name. No title. No logline. Nothing. The term gives cause to pause, but only briefly. I scroll past, onto the next.

    In 2021 alone, 13% of the projects supported by the Fund withheld their details from publication due to safety reasons—whether that be risk of imprisonment, violence, or even death. Last year, that amount rose to 15%. Currently, it’s only three months into 2023, and already 20% of the selected projects must remain undisclosed to the public.

    The growing trend, the Fund has pointed out for years now, is a clear indication that artistic freedom is increasingly under threat around the world. A fact that many of us in the documentary industry are inclined to agree with, yet know nothing about. What does it actually mean to make art under threat? Who are these filmmakers in precarious positions, and what repression are they facing?

    Therein lies the bitter paradox of the anonymous project. To go unnamed is to make a selfless statement of imagination; to indicate an original expression amidst a machine of repression; to say, I have a voice and a point of view in the face of a regime who would have you believe otherwise. Such projects promise to be visionary and deserving of our utmost attention. Yet we, on the other side of the divide, cannot hear this voice. Cannot know this point of view. The more we see the term ‘anonymous’, the more desensitized we become. It’s too easy to scroll past, and too difficult to picture the people and stories that must remain concealed. ‘Anonymous project’ starts to sound like one big project. By one imaginary director.

    But the truth is, these unidentified filmmakers represent as many different perspectives and artistic approaches as their publicized peers. Some are young filmmakers, working on their first feature film; it may be their first personal encounter with censorship. For others, behind the word ‘anonymous’ is a lifetime of danger, anxiety, and fear; these are seasoned filmmakers who have dealt with the brutality of repression for decades, yet still persevere in their craft. Some filmmakers may be working on an observational film, others may go poetic, or journalistic, or experimental, or any other genre. Some filmmakers have crossed over from the fiction world; others are documentary directors through and through. Some go out looking for their subjects. For others, the story finds them, sometimes when they least expect it. The point is: despite the reductiveness of the ‘anonymous’ label, these filmmakers can, and should, never be reduced.

    Yet, at least in anecdotal terms, there does seem to be some common ground among this widely varied group. When a filmmaker is forced to remain anonymous, their very being has been politicized, regardless of whether they identify as a political filmmaker or believe their work can have any real political impact. And no matter what, their work—the profound, essential, relentless work of making films—will always be intimately personal. Not only because filmmaking is always personal, on some level, but because many of these filmmakers do not remain anonymous for fear of their own livelihood, but rather out of love for their characters, producers, friends, and family, who are also gravely at risk. In sum, these filmmakers do not have the luxury of choosing between the constructed binary of the personal versus the political; their work will always be both, all the time.

    Documentary holds a unique position in this regard. No matter how and when and why these filmmakers arrived at making a non-fiction film, the high-risk conditions of production point to some important principles about documentary storytelling in itself: The reality framed here is precious. It is precarious. Sometimes, it is dangerous. But also, it is powerful. It is beautiful. It is indispensable. Above all, it is something that must be protected at all costs.

    Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the IDFA Bertha Fund Activity Report. Read the publication here.

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