‘No Other Land,’ ‘Forest’ Win Big at Millennium Docs Against Gravity Festival

“No Other Land,” a documentary about the resistance of Palestinian activists against forced displacement and settler expansion in the West Bank community of Masafer Yatta, won the Millennium Docs Against Gravity grand prize in the main competition. The jury, comprised of the writer of this article Variety critic Murtada Elfadl, Anna Hints, director of “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood,” and Lauren Greenfield, director of “The Queen of Versailles,” cited its “power in crystallizing grave injustice into a story of friendship and how hope can thrive only when everyone has freedom.”

The filmmakers – the Palestinian and Israeli collective of Basel Adra, Hamdan Ballal, Yuval Abraham and Rachel Szor – could not attend the closing ceremony because of the political situation and the award was accepted on their behalf by the ambassador of the Palestinian Authority in Poland. The jury awarded two special mentions, citing the strength of the 12 films in competition. The first to “Sugarcane,” by directors Emily Kassie and Julian Brave NoiseCat, for its depiction of “the experiences of indigenous communities around the world. Communities whose voices are often muffled but should be heard.” “Agent of Happiness,” about the eternal and cerebral question of what makes people happy, won the other special mention and the award was accepted by filmmaker Dorottya Zurbó, who co-directed with Arun Bhattarai.

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The heartbreakingly meditative Polish documentary “Forest” won several awards including best Polish film and the Amnesty International Poland award. The film, directed by Lidia Duda, tells the story of a nonconformist family living on the border between Poland and Belarus helping refugees unwanted in both countries. The film was lauded for its “haunting rejection of immoral policies, [shown] through the eyes and hearts of unlikely heroes.”

Another Eastern European standout at the festival was the Czech film “I Am Not Everything I Want to Be” by Klára Tasovská. Depicting the life of photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková from late 1960s onwards, through such grave historical events like the Prague Spring of 1968 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Told completely through the artist’s haunting black and white photography and her reading of her diaries, the film won the Chopin Nose Award given to the best documentary about art and music.

Several films which premiered earlier this year at Sundance continued their festival journeys winning more fans in Warsaw. These included the aforementioned “Sugarcane” and “Agent of Happiness” plus Lena Wilson’s “Look Into My Eyes,” Netflix’s “The Remarkable Life of Ibelin,” directed by Benjamin Ree, and Hans Block’s “Eternal You.” All the titles mentioned so far in this article will likely figure into the rest of the documentary festival and award calendar for the year, cementing Millennium Docs Against Gravity’s reputation as a significant stop on that circuit.

However, MDAG’s more lasting impact must be its ability to create and foster an engaged community around documentary films in Poland. The festival runs not just in Warsaw but in six other cities and is supplemented by many events including educational programs for schools and music concerts. All of these add up to an engaged and enthusiastic audience that embraces documentaries in a manner usually reserved to fiction films with movie stars. In Poland during these 10 days, the stars are the documentarians chronicling what’s happening in the world today.

The festival, founded by Artur Liebhart 21 years ago, continues the work of showcasing docs beyond just those 10 days and the online version, which runs through June 3. It has added a distribution arm, which last year had success with “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” in Polish cinemas. Among the films they plan to release this year, and which have already played to audiences at the festival, are “A New Kind of Wilderness” by Silje Evensmo Jacobsen, about a Norwegian family living isolated in a forest, and festival opening night film “The Last Expedition,” about mountain climber Wanda Rutkiewicz, who’s well known in Poland. Also planned for release are “Agent of Happiness” and “Look Into My Eyes.”

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