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Three film directors reveal what they saw change last year

Sensemaking / Three film directors reveal what they saw change last year

Film critic Marta Owzcarek asks the directors of three documentary films released in the last year about the changes they saw in the world.

By Marta Owzcarek / 16 Apr 2015

“People saw what is possible” – Arman Riahi, Iranian film director

Jolynn Minnaar is the Karoo-born director of ‘Unearthed’, an independent South African feature documentary, in which she investigates what fracking could mean for the semi-arid Karoo and other countries considering its implementation.

What changes did you see in the last year?

For South Africa, 2014 was a big year: 20 years of democracy, 20 years since Mandela became president, and also a year since his death. There has been a lot of introspection and a lot of despondence: we are trying to understand how people are left out in the cold in winter. We haven’t made any real progress in our education system, which is the root of it all. Meanwhile, president Zuma’s luxurious private residence cost the taxpayer 240 million rand. We’re exhausted by the government not focusing on the job in hand. We have people struggling, without food, without adequate schooling, without adequate healthcare, and we have rolling blackouts across the country because of a huge energy problem – a pathetic failure in adequate maintenance and investment.

Do you see this part of a wider problem?

Yes. It seems to me inequality has been increasing – particularly since the financial crisis in 2008. But there has also been an increase in awareness. I started making Unearthed in 2011 and lots of my friends in the US were involved with the Occupy movement. Inequality is being discussed more, but the burning question is whether those discussions are happening quickly enough. Sometimes public discussion is too slow or too polite, so it doesn’t actually see much change. The Eric Garner case is a mind-blowing example of where we are. His death [at the hands of a police officer on 17 July 2014 in Tompkinsville, New York] was tragic, but at least it was captured. Sharing what you see is one way you can be an active citizen.

What direction would you like to see citizen journalism take?

Everyone’s aspiring to make feature films to go into cinema, but I want to encourage documentary storytelling that spans mediums and budgets. I don’t think it has to look 3D and sound like Dolby Surround Sound: it can just be something that you filmed on your iPhone and you make it go viral. Mobile technology has taken off in Africa because we have such appalling traditional communications infrastructure. There are other ways of media creation and distribution. Photos are also very powerful; there’s artwork, graffiti, dance music, poetry…

What’s your next film?

With Unearthed, I never had an agenda, I never had a script: it was an honest journey I took as a concerned citizen, a concerned member of the public, trying to contribute to the conversation. So when people say ‘What’s your next film?’ I say, well, it doesn’t have to be a film: it could be helping other filmmakers. It’s more about responding to issues or topics of concern appropriately in that time and place. I think it’s very important for people like you and I, in a position where we are creating content or information, to be very honest and responsible about that. It’s very scary for me.


Olga Lvoff is a Russian director who in 2014 moved to New York. Her film ‘When people die they sing songs’ is about dealing with the past. For the family it depicts, the impact of 9/11 is a critical release which enables them to talk about the Holocaust. This enables the fraught relationship between the mother, a Holocaust survivor, and her daughter to be re-established.

Why is it important to discuss the past?

Without [the past], the present can’t be discussed. In the film, this burden of the past means the family can’t get closer to one another. That’s a huge problem in Russian society: some of the mistakes, crimes even, were not publicly admitted, and that doesn’t allow the country to move forward and look other countries and their own people honestly in the eye. The Soviet past is engrained in the minds of the people and it prevents positive change.

What changes did you experience over the past year?

For Russia, everything changed: I didn’t anticipate such a radical change. First there was the political situation in the Crimea – I don’t know how to tell that story, I didn’t support it obviously. Then there was the economic crisis. The economy now is tremendously fragile; money is losing value very quickly. People can’t afford to travel: there was a 50% cut on trips abroad to celebrate New Year compared with the year before. Already some of our relatives are in financial difficulties – especially elderly people who already had very little money: retired people in Russia get very little pension and now you can't buy almost anything with it.

What are you most concerned about?

It frightens me that Russia is losing connections with the Western world: not just the economic sanctions but also in a more cultural way. There was a rise of nationalism which divided people in a way I thought a political reason never could. We lost friends. There are very few media where journalists can work honestly and openly. Pretty much the only free radio station is being chased. A lot of people are leaving. The problem, one of the biggest problems, is that it's a non-liberal democracy. A lot of the elections were cheated, but the majority of people still support the current government. It's kind of legitimate; people don’t realise the media is under pressure. In general, the society has this post-tsarist and post-soviet element of looking for a king: for this one governor who will change the world, a positive figure.

Do you think art has a role? Is it a force that can change minds?

In general yes, but I am realistic. In the last five years, I've seen a big growth of interest in documentary film. There’s a new centre where I can show my film; two years ago there wouldn’t have been a theatre. But I know what kind of people will see it: the film-going type… In it, the mother sings, “It’s you who changed, the world hasn’t changed.” Of course, globally the world is changing hugely, but human nature doesn’t really change.


The Iranian brothers Arman and Arash Riahi live in Vienna, and are the directors of ‘Everyday Rebellion’, a film paying tribute to the creativity of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience worldwide. In it, they explore the humour and passion of people from Spain, Iran, Syria, Ukraine, USA, UK and Serbia.

Your film is subtitled ‘The Art of Change’. What does that mean today?

Something changed in the last few years, clearly through social media: people are filming everything and being able to see everything. Now, it is very difficult for a government to do human rights violations without people knowing it. Look at organisations like Witness, who are teaching activists worldwide how to film human rights violations – this is an important thing. Nowadays with mobile phones – of course the police film us – but we can film them and make everything public.

What important changes did you see in the last year?

2014 was important from our point of view because of The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. It’s amazing what they did: how organised they were, how non-violent, how they prepared everything and kept things very clean, their manifesto spread out, their garbage separated out for recycling.... They didn’t leave any reason for the police to attack them. It was a big success from that point of view: that people saw what is possible – they could go on the streets and they could protest.

What’s the next thing to happen for these movements to have greater impact?

These movements are popping up everywhere: now it’s Mexico, now it’s in Romania, in Brazil there’s something, and so on. So the governments have to take it seriously. We think it’s very important, not that one movement survives, but that many people around the world realise the importance of uniting with other people. And they see how these groups are building a global community, and uniting against unjust systems together. How they are waking up from the sleep that everyone is now lulled into, to start something. It’s not that we, as film makers, have the solution, but we show that many people around the world are developing new ideas and solutions for problems in their countries. Most of the time, the successful solutions are the non-violent ones. 

Marta Owzcarek is a writer, campaigner and researcher based in London. 

Image caption: Karoo

Image credit: David Sorich / Flickr

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