LIFF 2020 Highlights: Kachalka

Programme: Where Were We? Documentary Shorts

Director: Gar O’Rourke

Length: 9 minutes

Country: Ireland

Documentary filmmaking offers us the chance to glimpse a different world. It broadens our horizons, reminding us of both the wonders and injustices that exist outside our comfort zones and social bubbles. Documentary shorts do just the same, but in miniature. A program of short docs like Where Were We? at the Leeds International Film Festival 2020 is priceless in its ability to take us on a whistle-stop tour of the world, pointing out things we either didn’t know or hadn’t noticed. These aren’t always big, far-reaching stories, just little nuggets of truth that our lives are richer for having seen.

Every work in this collection is deserving of praise and well worth a watch, but there’s something I found oddly satisfying and calming about Gar O’Rourke’s Kachalka. His film shines a light on an outdoor public gym in Kiev that is made entirely out of scrap metal. Nobody seems to know exactly when it started but the tradition of old polls, chains and girders being used to construct workout materials is still going strong in Ukraine’s capital.

There’s not a lot else to this subtly absorbing mini-doc than the very existence of this place, but there is a great pleasure in watching people young and old make use of the giant gymnasium. Especially fascinating is when O’Rourke lets us just sit and watch the interactions between workout buddies and strangers. The director understands that one of the most basic appeals of documentary is the chance to observe human nature, and the opportunity to spend time in a world that is not your own but resonates with you nevertheless.

Kachalka is well-suited to its short format, as there isn’t really an awful lot for it to say. It simply shows us a marvel of community and social conscience that we can appreciate and feed into our own lives. There’s no backstory or wider political ramifications to this one, just a near-whimsical look at an unseen (to many British audiences at least) pocket of the world. What makes O’Rourke’s filmmaking stand out within this collection is how he goes into his documentary with the least material of the bunch, but does a lot with it.

For the most part, his aesthetic approach is similar to that of the other films, which is to say that it is low-key and simple, letting the subject do the talking. The opening of Kachalka, however, has an invention which does a good job of drawing the audience in. Very early on we are presented with an extreme close-up of a hairy chest as someone undertakes their workout. The heavy breathing and clanging of metal in the background slowly morph into a rhythm that is oddly entrancing and by the time the short properly begins, O’Rourke has pulled his audience into this world.

As we progress, everything is narrated by just one subject, giving us his personal feelings about the gym and relaying his limited knowledge of its history. What he says feels universal, however, and O’Rourke uses the clever technique of layering this narration over footage of various other people working out. It is easy to imagine, therefore, that what we are being told of the gym’s importance is applicable to each and every one of its users. Despite the fact that many of the gym-goers are alone, there is a real sense of community conjured by Kachalka, one that brings to the fore the simple pleasures of exercise and its benefits to all members of society.

Despite its images largely showing big piles of scrap metal, there is a sunny joy to watching Kachalka, something that I needed at this stage in LIFF 2020. The quality of filmmaking so far has been admirably high but there have been some very tough watches so far. Given the utter state of the real world it would be reasonable to assume that a collection of documentary shorts would pile on the misery, but in fact there are more than a couple of optimistic moments in Where Were We?. Chief among them is the irresistibly sweet story of Charlie Surfer, in which we glimpse a whole world of love and support shared between one family.

A mention must also be given to the admittedly less sunny Motherland. Ellen Evans’ film tells the story of the Windrush scandal through three men who have been deported from the UK to Jamaica. Hearing their stories, and realising that their lives and pain are real, is a sobering experience, and it is all very well-judged and well-handled by Evans. The same goes across the board here.

Where Were We? Documentary Shorts is available to stream on the Leeds Film Player until the end of the festival on 19th November.

Andrew Young