From 5th to 7th April, the Wales International Documentary Festival (WIDF) will return to Blackwood! The first edition of the festival ran only last year, yet it became a smart success. Using the storied history and unique atmosphere of its location to its advantage, it brought industry professionals, filmmakers, and audiences from all over the world to a small Welsh-Valleys town that wouldn’t otherwise be the first place you’d think of for a film festival.
It’s not exactly the golden beaches of Cannes or the glamour and glitz of Venice, but Blackwood was the birthplace of the Chartists’ March in 1839—arguably the start of the worker’s rights movement in the UK—and the birthplace of the Manic Street Preachers, one of the most iconoclastic and politically outspoken of Welsh bands. The Welsh Valleys have a cultural and radical history that goes well beyond the stereotypical, two-dimensional image that gets plastered over TV shows like ‘The Valleys’, and it’s fully deserving of an international film festival.
The juried feature film competition looks strong. Amongst the judges you’ll find Andre Singer, an Oscar-nominated producer who has worked with Werner Herzog since the 90's, and on The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, alongside his own acclaimed work such as Night Will Fall. There's also Kimberly Warner, the Oscar-nominated producer of Claude Lanzmann: Shadows of the Shoah.
The ten feature documentaries premiering at the festival — festival screenings are split between Blackwood’s newly-opened Maxime Cinema and its historic Miner’s Institute — do more than justify the festival’s international name. Stories from Palestine, Ecuador, New Jersey, Porthcawl, and Serbia are just a few of the places the festival touches upon.
That international outlook is also backed up with a series of talks, discussions and networking events aimed at connecting Welsh filmmakers, particularly those in colleges and universities, with industry professionals and the wider world of filmmaking. Film is, ultimately perhaps, the most collaborative of all the arts. Without human connections and relationships, it struggles to grow, and getting young filmmakers to be a part of the wider film world is of utmost importance.
The importance of a sense of connection and empathy is invaluable to the act of storytelling. Take An Eye for an Eye as an example (Wednesday 5th April, 5pm, Maxime Cinema). It tells the story of Mark Stroman who in the aftermath of 9/11 went on a racially-motivated killing spree in Texas, murdering two men and seriously injuring another, believing them to be Middle-Eastern Arabs. During his years on death row, he ruminates on his actions, slowly realising the graveness what he has done and coming to renounce his previous self.
As director Ilan Ziv slowly tracks Stroman’s transformation, the sole surviving victim Rais Bhuiyan, now partially-sighted, finds out about Stroman’s change. A Bangladeshi-American Muslim, Bhuiyan decides to spearhead a campaign to have Stroman’s death sentence appealed, quoting the Qur’an: “to save one life is to save all of mankind.” In these divided times, in the aftermath of Brexit and Donald Trump’s Presidency, An Eye for an Eye’s powerful message of peace, compassion, and forgiveness is of utmost importance. To follow an individual’s transformation from a violent figure of hate to one of openness, self-realisation, and sorrow is a courageous act in and of itself.
Not all documentaries have to be as heavy however. There’s space in WIDF too for lighter, endearing work: portraits of family life, and engrossing stories of plain ordinariness. Two Worlds, directed by Maciej Adamek (Thursday 6th April, 3pm, Maxime Cinema), and Why Dragan Gathered His Band, directed by Nikola Spasić (Wednesday 5th April, 7pm, Maxime Cinema) tell stories about two very different families. What one notices, however, is how both stories are inflected with optimism, warmth, and good humour.
Two Worlds tells the story of 12-year-old Laura, whose parents are both deaf. Acting as their guide to the outside world, interpreting and communicating for them, she has to take on a lot more responsibility than the average 12-year-old, but of course, she is still only 12 years old. She likes to play with her friends, ride her bike, and avoid working too hard at school.
Why Dragan Gathered His Band tells the story of a Roma musician in Serbia: a single parent trying to raise his three sons. All four of them are musicians and it provides the family’s main source of income. Dragan’s dream is to send them to a conservatoire so they become professionals. It’s drenched in the passion and innate sadness inherent to folk music from the Balkans, but what also comes through is Dragan’s sunny optimism, the talents of his children, and the family’s laid-back vibe.
This is just a smidgen of what will be available at WIDF this year. The problem with quality cinema today is not its production, but its distribution. The films at WIDF deserve to be seen; the crucial part is seeing them.