DOK.fest Munich puts spotlight on Ukraine

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, the documentary film festival is once again held in cinemas. A political thriller about Alexei Navalny opens the event.


The film 'Navalny' opens the festival

DOK.fest Munich opens this year with secret footage taken in an airplane. It is the very plane in which Russian politician Alexei Navalny was almost killed by the nerve agent Novichok in August 2020.

The documentary film "Navalny," which opens the festival, then takes viewers to Berlin's Charité hospital, where Navalny, Valdimir Putin's main opponent, wakes up from an induced coma.

After his release from the hospital, Navaly is accompanied by Bulgarian journalist Christo Grozev. He spends time recovering in the Black Forest area. Together with his family and Grozev, he finally succeeds in exposing his poisoning as an attempted murder.

"Navalny" is a documentary by Canadian Daniel Roher, which will have its German premiere at DOK.fest Munich, a festival showcasing documentary films from around the world.

"The film is like a political thriller," festival director Daniel Sponsel tells DW. "It's often not the case in documentary film that we can get so close and have the events told so directly." The film is also extremely relevant, he adds, because it gives insight into the background of Russian politics. 

 'Trenches' shows the lives of young people fighting in the trenches in eastern Ukraine
Life in war: Films from the Donbas
The war in Ukraine is also present in other films that will be shown at DOK.fest Munich. Four movies illustrate the years-long war over the Donbas region.

"Trenches," for example, shows the lives of young eastern Ukrainian servicemen and women who fight in the trenches against separatists backed by Russia.

The documentary film "Donbas Days" tells the story of a 19-year-old Czech circus performer, Kuba, who travels to Ukraine to distract children from the horrors of war with juggling lessons.

"A House Made Of Splinters" tells of the consequences of the war in eastern Ukraine from the perspective of children who tell stories of alcoholic and abusive parents.

"Pushing Boundaries," meanwhile, follows five athletes as they try to continue training after their training center was taken away from them in 2014 when the Crimean peninsula was annexed.

"The most important thing you learn from these films is also the most obvious thing," says Daniel Sponsel of DOK.fest Munich: "A society that is in war or war-like conditions is a deeply unhappy and fractured society."

Guest country: Spain
The official guest country of this year's DOK.fest, however, is Spain. The country will be examined from different angles in the DOK.guest series. "Spain is a very exciting country," says Daniel Sponsel. "It's nowhere near as familiar to us as Italy or France, for example, so there's really something to discover."

 'Franco on Trial?' features archival footage from the period of the Franco dictatorship in Spain
"Magaluf Ghost Town" documents how the excessive partying of British tourists shapes the lives of the people in a small coastal town on Mallorca.

In "El Círculo," a group of men ponder feminism and wonder what happened to "good old machismo."

Spain was ruled by dictator Francisco Franco until the 1970s, meaning Spain was ruled by a dictator longer than any other European country in the 20th century. One film that tackles the legacy of Franco's dictatorship is "Franco On Trial: The Spanish Nuremberg?" The film documents a trial in an Argentine court against members of the regime who are still alive.

 The film 'Pornfluencer' tells the story of a young couple who decide to film porn to make money quickly.
Thematic series: 'Brave New Work'
This year's thematic series "Brave New Work" is dedicated to the modern labor market and features seven films.

"Pornfluencer," for example, tells the story of how a young couple wants to make money quickly and films porn to put online.

"The Happy Worker" is a satire on modern office life, featuring endless meetings, pointless debates, constantly stressed employees, which hold up a mirror to neoliberal society.

This year, the festival will once again focus on documentaries from Africa. The series "African Encounters" looks at the topic of migration from an African perspective.

The film "African Moot" documents a competition in which best law students from all over Africa meet annually. The film by Shamila Seedat follows a simulated court hearing before the African Court of Human Rights where the next generation of lawyers show their skills.

 In 'African Moot' a mock trial shows what the next generation of African lawyers can do
In cinemas at last
After a two-year break due to COVID-19, DOK.fest Munich is once again taking place in person. Yet, it is to be a hybrid format — the festival's 124 documentaries from 55 countries can also be seen online. "This way we can reach the largest possible audience," says festival director Daniel Sponsel. The films will first be shown in theaters in Munich and then online for a limited amount of time.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been more submissions this year than ever before, Sponsel says. "We were at 1,050 submissions last time, and this year it was around 1,150." There's no sign of a pandemic-related slump yet, he says. "That gives us hope that there will be no shortage of good documentaries."

DOK.fest Munich runs May 4 to May 15 in theaters, and May 9 to May 22 online.

This article was originally written in German.