Reviewing a documentary like Inside the Distance by Elias Grootaers requires brief observations on how spectators approach a movie. Scholars have often attempted to define the ways in which a spectator approaches a movie. Most are only able to judge a film by its success in engaging the spectator in a “question-and-answers” type of interaction. However, this is only one of the ways in which we may interact with a movie. A spectator may also have the opportunity to see each image that appears on the screen as an emerging, phenomenological event that transcends the concept of cinema as a language in which a particular message is being communicated.
Such is the case of Inside the Distance. This is a documentary that eludes such simple categorizations. We may judge the director’s approach as one seeking to capture the essence of its protagonist – Giorgi Shakhsuvarian, a Georgian boxing instructor living in Belgium. However, we may also see this as an attempt to distance the viewer and allow them to focus on whatever aspect of the film, thematic, conceptual, visual or otherwise, in a way that transcends the confinements of a story of even of the traditional way in which films are shot. This is most evident in the sequences in which the camera, firmly planted on a tripod, is present in the room, but does not follow or focus on the action that is taking place within it. We hear voices, conversations, sounds that take place in the space. Yet, our connection to the sound and vision does not necessarily call for a traditional interaction them. We may, of course, choose to focus on Shakhsuvarian’s interesting philosophizing. However, we may also see the shapes and images that occasionally emerge in the frame as some type of expressionist replications of the motions and energy of a boxing match, and the action that takes place in a boxing ring during the bout.
This is only an example. There are many others. Like Shakhsuvarian’s phone conversations with his son, of which we only hear one side of the conversation. Are the words of this conversations more important than the happy timbre in the man’s voice? More generally, the film offers the viewer opportunities to focus on certain aspects of the man’s life and, thus, the many subjects that are dealt with within the structure of the film. All originate from the protagonist himself, and from his complex historical, geographical and intellectual background. Yet, the non-sequential structure of the film creates an interesting distance not only between the protagonist and the viewer, but also between the protagonist and the director or, as we have seen, between the protagonist and the body of the camera – which has been likened to the body of the spectator in phenomenological theories. This allows for another interpretation of the film’s title. The importance of the distance implied in it is not only seen on the screen – as mentioned in other reviews and outlines of the film, distance refers to the time between the beginning and the end of a boxing bout and to the distange between the countries of Shakhsuvarian’s life – but it is created by the process of film production and film viewing itself. It is part of the film experience as a whole, one that defined its very nature.
At the beginning of the film, Shakhsuvarian raises an interesting question, inspired by the words of filmmaker Otar Oiosseliani: is making a film about real people a crime? What this statement takes for granted is that a film can, of course, present us with the type of structured information that may claim to depict a real person. Yet, Grootaers’ film challenges it by claiming that the spectator may occasionally have the option to form their own idea of who Shakhsuvarian is. In other words, Inside the Distance provides us with enough materials with which we may be allowed to mould our own, personal idea of who Shakhsuvarian is.
On the program of the 2017 International Film Festival Rotterdam, where the film was screened, the film was described as a “poetic documentary.” Such labeling is necessary in a world where everything, including films, need to be marketed and sold. However, this type of labeling is inaccurate. Inside the Distance seems more like a film, and a subject, that needs to be assembled, its images are words that require being put into sentences. – ★★★★
INSIDE THE DISTANCE || 2017, Belgium || Documentary || Directed by – Elias Grootaers / Produced by – Emmy Ost / Written by – Elias Grootaers / Cinematography – Elias Grootaers / Edited by – Dieter Diepenadele / Sound designer – Philippe Ciompi / Running time – 97 mins.