A documentary film festival like no other; over the years Guth Gafa has moved from Buncrana to Malin in Donegal and is now very much at home in Headford House, Kells, for the past four years. Closer to The Pale than before, the festival continues to showcase contemporary documentary films, with stories of lives lived on the edge. Held over the August bank holiday this year, the festival continues to impress beyond its exclusive claim to being Ireland’s only independent documentary film festival.
In previous years, a large proportion of films screened at Guth Gafa have dealt with a broad array of sustainability-related issues. Films portraying eccentric organic farmers in the US and Denmark; the challenges of rural life in Cambodia, Greenland and Bhutan; Ethics around food production in the Netherlands and South Africa.
In contrast to previous years, sustainability is not as recurring a theme in the most recent program. While this is a small disappointment, the film selection does not lack salience in posing challenging questions on life in the Anthropocene, in particular around place, belonging and home. One fine example is A Cambodian Spring (2017), documenting land-dispossession in contemporary Cambodia. Irish filmmaker and journalist Chris Kelly presents a long, but highly engaging and rewarding history of the present, combining religion, corporate power, international, national and local politics, land rights and social mobilisation in the de-facto one-party state.
In the capital, Phnon Penh, local activist Tep Vanny and her female neighbours in the Boeung Kak Lake communities campaign vigorously to stop the destruction of their homes from re-development as the lake they live on is filled with sand as part of a World Bank funded building project. When their houses are destroyed and they begin to demand adequate rehousing, they are interned. Iit is left to their courageous children to demand their eventual release. Vanny travels to the UN, attracting recognition from Hillary Clinton among others and is championed for her activism. Overtime one of Vanny’s friends and comrades abandons the cause, suggesting a split between the two over Vanny disproportionate international recognition. This demonstrates the complexities of identifying heroes and leaders for a cause.
Meanwhile, Luon Sovath, a Buddhist Monk, is leaving his pagoda to fight for the rights of people dispossessed of their land. Breaking with traditions, Sovath mixes politics and religion, much to the indignation of both religious and political authorities. His determination demonstrates a refusal to be complacent, as he defies norms in order to strive towards justice.
The film ultimately serves as a warning of a recently democratised state that is quickly heading towards level of corruption, injustice and authoritarianism not seen, some would feel, since the Khmer Rouge.
There were a handful of documentaries looking at the role of music in shaping the lives of young people. Singing With Angry Birds (2016), documents the successes of the Banana Choir in Pune, India, a choir formed by non-profit organisation Worldsharp and the Korean opera singer Kim Jae-Chang, who travels to Pune twice a year to bring music to children and their parents. The film leaves gaps in the history and context of the project, which as it is presented raises some concerns about the management of power dynamics. Over 30% of the population of Pune live in so-called slums and it is in one such community that Kim leads the Banana Choir. He instills a strict work ethics, with little or no apparent concern for liberal notions of community development. When parents of one choir member decide their teenage daughter can no longer participate due to her need to focus on education, Kim dismisses this as a ‘slum mentality.’ He gives the impression of treating singing as a noble art superior to economic struggles. This is jarring to watch through a western liberal lens. But when Kim insists on the children’s parents joining the choir, the unspoken emotional connection that develops between parent and child is extremely moving. When one mother sings Amazing Grace with tears streaming down her face, there isn’t a dry eye in the house. The choir participants are visibly transformed by the experience. What legacy this might have or how it will affect poverty alleviation is not the point of the film or the project, but this is not easy to take.
A more well-rounded narrative in Landfill Harmonics (2015) charts the achievements of the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra in Asunción, Paraguay. This project developed when Favio Chavez, an environmental technician working on improving waste management skills for gancheros (landfill workers), moved to the area. Realising that the real solution to better waste management lies at the source of the waste creation, Chavez adapted to teach classical music to local children and form an orchestra as a more meaningful intervention. In a socioeconomic context where a violin costs more than a house, it is the ingenuity of a ganchero, who makes musical instruments from waste produce that facilitates this vision. Materials including oil cans, metal and wooden crockery, plumbing fittings and the heels of a shoe, assembled with passion and an eye for detail, create bespoke instruments for the youth orchestra.
Chavez encourages his students and they achieve impressive results, as he explains to the camera the importance of solidarity, cooperation, respect and community. Even as the orchestra plays at the Rio+20 Earth Summit and concerts with Megadeath and Metallica, these values are still maintained. The film leaves the impression that many in the orchestra will go on to teach music, demonstrating a scalability to the project as more and more people may benefit.
The narrative of rising out of poverty and situations of adversity is a common feature in film at the festival, but none is without its fair share of complexity. In Gaza Surf Club (2016), Ibrahim, a Palestinian Surfer is granted a visa to travel to the aquamarine blue waters of Hawaii leaving behind the polluted Gazan Mediterranean and the oppression of Israeli occupation and Hamas. Traveling initially with the intentions of returning to Gaza with unique knowledge of surf board making and production, the film’s co-director, Mickey Yamine, explains that Ibrahim is still in the US, longer than planned, completing a university degree. However, Yamine maintains that Ibrahim still wishes to return. With much of the film unfolding prior to the inauguration of Trump, Ibrahim is no doubt torn between the relative comforts of US life and opportunities, and his attachment to his friends and surf club at home. This is the price of overcoming adversity for Ibrahim, balancing fraternal obligation in the face of violence and oppression.
In contrast, When God Sleeps (2017) follows Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi in his new found life in Germany. Having received a severe sentence from the Iranian government over controversial lyrics, his life is at stake with a price on his head. Najafi’s conflicting paranoia and obstinate perseverance to perform and proliferate controversial music to the rising indignation of Iran, demonstrate how, it is often impossible to leave a place and its contexts behind.
Some other notable films at Guth Gafa this year include, School Life (2016) directed by Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane, the festival directors. This was by far the audience highlight of the festival, with repeat sold out screenings. The film explores life in the Headford School, the location of Guth Gafa, which during term times is a private boarding prep school. The private school with small class numbers and a bespoke curriculum feels like a Utopian vision from the past, but is in fact a modern education for seemly privileged pupils.
My Mother is Pink (2017) follows a Danish mother, Malou, and her transvestite son, Michael, across Denmark and Germany. Malou revisits her previous homes, while Michael begins to discover himself through his mother’s mysterious and troubling past.
Guth Gafa is a unique festival. Portraying very specific and well observed lives in local contexts, the festival plays homage to the complexities and challenges faced by various communities. This year’s focus on sense of place, demonstrates a struggle for belonging. It is both the commonality and the uniqueness of each story that resonates. Such plurality of lived experiences is essential to addressing and understanding lives in the Anthropocene. A failure to appreciate local nuances is detrimental to any attempt towards global sustainable futures.
A more in-depth paper on the 2014 edition of Guth Gafa is available here.