Among Hot Docs’ short offerings this year is a group of eye-catching and affecting works by filmmakers from Poland. These are shorts whose subjects take us from Ireland to Georgia, from the dramas of domestic life to the romance of living wild. Along the way these films tell us much about the pains of memory, the need to escape the modern world, and the importance of creating bonds with other beings – animals as well as humans.
The subject of Marcin Lesisz’sGoran the Camel Man is a man of craggy appearance and wild ‘tribal’ dress who lives out of an old-fashioned wooden caravan. This nomadic Swiss-born ‘gipsy’ – as the film’s captions describe him – seems to live a life of peace, solitude and natural harmony. Early scenes show him dwelling amidst the rolling landscapes of rural Georgia and enjoying the companionship of his beloved menagerie of animals – dogs, goats, and a camel.
But Goran’s life is not untainted by modern ‘civilization’. Passing motorists stop along a nearby highway to observe and take photos of Goran and his camel as though they were tourist attractions. This brings the sour note of conflict into Goran’s harmonious existence.
Goran the Camel Man is a film of beautiful found imagery and of great respect for those individuals who persevere in following their own paths – literally in this case, as Goran’s aim is to follow the route of the original Silk Road through Europe and Asia.
Paweł Ziemilski’s Urban Cowboys begins with the sight of young men and teenagers riding horses through housing estates and onto large city roads – a striking apparition of nature and pre-modern transport in a grey urban setting. Like Goran the Camel Man, this is a portrait of escapism and of the comforts found in four-legged companions, though it is a harsher, sadder story than Lesisz’s film.
Urban Cowboys deals with the youths of Clondalkin, Dublin who catch and tame horses. This practice is illegal in Ireland, but Ziemilski presents the boys’ interest in horses as something that brings purpose and even redemption to these deprived youths who would otherwise face lives of drug addiction or more serious crime. The film’s central figure is 14-year-old Dylan, whose intense attachment to his horse Shelly is stoked by family bereavement.
This is an uncomfortable film at times – as in one spiky scene when Dylan gets angry with the filmmaker for asking whether he mistreats his horse. But while the film does not lack for social-realist grittiness, its moving shots of galloping horses have a lyrical beauty – a perfect expression of the freedom and solace these urban cowboys find in their steeds.
The French-produced Gusła or the Spirits is a dreamy and magical animation from Adrienne Nowak. A young woman based in France, also called Adrienne, is visiting her relatives in Poland. She hears reminiscences about Poland’s communist past and receives some valuable lessons from her grandmother, who trades in homely recipes for calming angry spirits and conquering our greatest fears.
This is a story about the ghosts and demons of the political past, which threaten to break through into the present and turn a breezy family afternoon into a nightmare. The film’s shifts in tone are served by Nowak’s stunning animation, which mixes delicate, bright-coloured crayon drawing with intrusions of photographic and computer-generated images. Nowak has crafted an original and ultimately soothing tale that blends Lenin and pierogi, politics and folk wisdom, the vivid imagination of the child and the world-weary humour of the survivors of communism.
Reviewed by Jonathan Owen
Goran & the Camel Manpremiers Tuesday May 2 at 530pm. For tickets and other showtimes click here.
Urban Cowboys premiers Tuesday May 2 at 530pm. For tickets and other showtimes click here.
Gusła or the Spirits premiers Friday April 28 at 915pm. For tickets and other showtimes click here.