‘The Building’ Filmmakers Ask Questions With Film About Soviet-Era ‘Palace’

A characteristic of many documentaries at Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival, says festival director Marek Hovorka, is that they don’t necessarily provide answers but provoke questions.

That’s certainly true of “The Building,” a poetic, lyrical and stunningly shot biopic of a vast, communist era building in Ukraine. “The Building” is one of nine films in the First Lights competition devoted to first features from new filmmakers.

Constructed in the 1920s, the Derzhprom Palace in Kharkov was, at the time, the largest building in Europe, designed to house Ukraine’s state industry bodies and to act as a symbol for a modern, communist era. Part affectionate portrait of an avant-garde building and part gentle critique of an ageing edifice that is struggling to adapt to life nearly 100 years on, the documentary presents the building and some of its inhabitants in all their fascinating complexity.

The German-Ukrainian film is directed by Matilda Mester and Tatjana Kononenko, with photography by Mester and Bruno Derksen.

Kononenko says the idea was “not to make a film with one point of view, but always to be a bit in-between – to make the questions, but not to give the answers.”

It would, after all, have been easy for the film to use the building as the basis for a cautionary tale about communism, contrasting energetic Soviet-era propaganda films with the reality of the building today. It would also have been easy to make it as a traditional historical documentary, says Mester, “the authoritarian way where you explain from above and you have a perspective saying that we understand everything and now we tell you how it is.”

Instead, “The Building” is more of a collage, where archive overlaps with contemporary footage, shot on digital cameras and 16mm film – a technique which makes the viewer feel like they are swimming effortlessly between past and present.

“The Building” is one of several world premieres in the First Lights competition section.

Other world premieres include “Dopamine,” from South American director Natalia Imery Almario, a portrait of the filmmaker’s family as it falls into crisis when her father is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, at the same time as she is coming out to her parents. Hovorka describes it as a personal family film with many different layers. “It’s about the life of one family, but goes deeper and deeper so that it really reflects the issues in our societies.”

Another world premiere is “Frem,” which Hovorka bills as “a requiem for homo sapiens.” A Czech and Slovakian co-production by Viera Čákanyová, it is shot in Antarctica and questions what the planet would look like after a catastrophe, devoid of humanity.

Meanwhile, international premieres include “In My Skin,” directed by Anna-Sophia Richard, which focuses on domestic violence. Hovorka calls it a smartly shot film that deals with a tough issue with sensitivity and seriousness.

Popular on Variety