Community Cameras: brought together by images

In the documentaries in IFFR's Community Cameras programme, filmmakers investigate how small groups of people come together to form communities. Former TV pirate Menno Grootveld watched these documentaries and talks about the importance of images for the emancipation of social groups, and how a sense of community can transcend borders and cultures through film and television. 

by Tirza de Fockert

During the 1980s, they were glued to their television sets all over Romania. Little groups of ten or twenty people, crammed together into tiny living rooms. Week after week, watching with tense excitement VHS tapes that had often been recorded over so many times whole scenes from the films on them were just a blur. But this didn't detract from the experience. These tapes contained something of inestimable value: illegal Hollywood films, prohibited by the Communist regime and dubbed by the bright, slightly shrill but highly expressive voice of Irina Nistor. "People were yearning for a society that was forbidden", says one of the interviewees in the documentary Chuck Norris vs Communism, screening at IFFR in the Community Cameras section. Rambo, Rocky, Chuck Norris and the ever-present Nistor brought people together through a glimpse of the world outside the stifling Romania of Nicolae Ceaușescu.

People longed for a society that was forbidden

The creative camera

The urge to break through the uniformity of television in the 1980s was not exclusive to the Communist countries. Dissatisfied with what was – and what was not – on offer on the two official channels in the Netherlands, in 1982 Menno Grootveld and a group of friends set up the pirate TV station Rabotnik TV. Through the cable network that had just been laid, they broadcast home-made reports on the world as they experienced it into the living rooms of Amsterdam. Footage from the squatting scene and performances by punk bands. These 'dissidents of the airwaves' appropriated the medium of television and blew it wide open. When they boasted they were even being watched in Siberia, German newspaper Die Zeit reported that: 'Rabotnik TV brings punk to Siberia'. Grootveld didn't find out until later that the station really had brought people together outside of the Netherlands. At a meeting in Moscow in the late 1980s, he met an older dissident poet who knew Rabotnik TV. The fact that alternative viewpoints also existed in the West was encouraging to the Russian dissidents. Grootveld: "I realised then that these elementary forms of recognition and identification, across borders and cultures, are extremely important for the formation of communities."

The documenting camera

Making a social group visible – and seeing it – can strengthen the sense of community. This is a theme frequently reflected in Community Cameras. "El viento sabe que vuelvo a casa, Here Come The Videofreex and Bla cinima all deal with very specific communities", Grootveld says. "The filmmakers try to infiltrate these as deeply as possible to create an authentic impression." Alongside his multi-award-winning feature film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, cinematographer Haskell Wexler (subject of the documentary Rebel Citizen) also made a lot of documentaries. "He gave a voice to communities and their struggles which are largely ignored by mainstream media." According to Grootveld, such documentaries from the outside are of huge value. However, he adds, it is only when a group picks up the camera itself, and itself determines the image, that the camera becomes an instrument of emancipation.

The recording camera

In The Event by filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, a community is formed before our very eyes. Without commentary, without interviews to give context, we are witness to how the residents of Leningrad process the news of the abortive coup of August 1991. A group of Communists attempted to depose President Gorbachev but failed, presaging the end of the Soviet Union. Groups of people who at the beginning of the film are standing listening passively to the latest news on the putsch become ever hungrier for change. During the course of the film, they become a mass, thousands of people out demonstrating in the rain. "They (the organisers of the coup) are used to dealing with large crowds", one of the leaders of the demonstrators adds. "But tonight, we are no longer just a crowd. Tonight, we are a nation." And then, just for a moment, it really feels that way too.

Tirza de Fockert (1981) is an anthropologist and freelance journalist.


The Ukrainian documentary maker Sergei Loznitsa (The Event) will be giving a masterclass based around the question of how filmmakers are influenced, seduced, misled and 'tricked' by the total image of the film. Friday 29 January at 15:00 hrs in Cinerama 1. 

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