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‘Balomania,’ ‘KIX’ Filmmakers on Ethics of Filming Protagonists on Society’s Margins

Opening CPH:DOX’s popular “Film:makers in Dialogue” industry section on Monday, the directors of “Balomania” and “KIX,” running in the main Dox and Next:Wave segments respectively, met to discuss the challenges and ethics involved in following protagonists on the margins of society over many years, and the impact they hope to generate.

Shot over more than a decade, “Balomania” by Sissel Morell Dargis is the fascinating and wild story of secret gangs from Brazil’s favelas who make and chase gigantic hot air balloons.

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Dargis came across what she calls the “balloon guys” as a 19-year-old graffiti artist on the streets of Brazil. Fascinated by their art, which is illegal and can land the “baloeiros” in jail because of the threat it poses to public safety, she had to earn their trust in order to follow them on their underground journeys to locations where they build and launch the balloons.

“As I saw the dangers,” she explained, citing one night when a balloon caught fire and she fell, injuring herself and breaking her camera, “I always tried to be like, ‘Guys, I’m on your side, but we can’t deny that it’s dangerous,’ which is a common attitude in the balloon world. That was delicate to navigate.”

Her choice, she said, was to be transparent about the subjective nature of her film – “It isn’t journalism, thank God!” – by showing her own experience and the potential danger, even if the baloeiros would have preferred she hadn’t filmed that scene at all. The ultimate objective being to offer an entirely new perspective of the balloon artists’ work.

“In Brazil there isn’t any content that shows the balloon art as an art. They are only depicted as criminals who are bad for society. I hope that by making a film that shows the beauty of it, it can open up a more positive discussion on the topic,” she said.

For Bálint Révész and Dávid Mikulán, the makers of “KIX,” which chronicles the 12-year journey of Sanyi from a rowdy street kid in Budapest to a disillusioned young adult, their film is as much an ode to childhood as a social study of the society they grew up in.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family in a tiny apartment, Sanyi spent most of his time on the streets. That’s where Mikulán, who was in fine arts school at the time, first met him. He was soon invited back to the apartment and filmed Sanyi, his friends and his family over the years. He chronicled the boy’s mischief but also created opportunities for Sanyi and his friends to express themselves with paint, chalk, or by making short films together.

Questioned on his position as a role model, and asked whether pointing a camera at Sanyi encouraged bad behavior, Mikulán answered that he and his team had had long discussions about the ethics of the film. “It is a legitimate question,” he answered, adding that he believed growing up in poverty and hanging out with the wrong crowd were to blame for the trouble Sanyi got into. [Spoiler alert: As a teenage, Sanyi and his friends accidentally set fire to a dormitory, killing a man.]

“Even his mother said we had a good influence on him, but at some point we all lost him. In a way, Sanyi is a good person who did a really bad thing, but it was not intentional,” said Mikulán, who is still in contact with Sanyi as he awaits sentencing.

Both Dargis and Mikulán shot their own films, starting with small low-budget handheld cameras as young filmmakers. While she occasionally had to enlist the help of her protagonists, who refused to let her bring anyone else to the secret locations — “the sound engineer later on wanted to kill me,” she joked — the freedom and autonomy offered by the small device is what allowed her to capture the footage she wanted.

“The moments I like are ephemeral, and maybe I’ve got to accept that’s the kind of cinema I like the most — it may not be the perfect aesthetic, with the perfect sound and the right frame, but that becomes the film’s aesthetic and you just have to own it,” she said, adding with a smile: “Though I am not sure I would do it again.”

As far as Mikulán is concerned, while he appreciated being able to invest in higher quality equipment once Révész came onboard and they got funding, “the most interesting things come when you have no money and you have to find solutions.”

Wrapping up the conversation, the filmmakers opened up about the impact they hope their films will have.

Révész explained they were working on using “KIX” as a case study, along with other filmmakers, for an impact campaign to develop an education program together with higher education specialists from non-film related backgrounds in order to better transfer and share knowledge.

On the question of reaching a larger audience, Dargis, who graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in Games and Animation and has developed her own award-winning game using “Balomania” material, said she was keen to see more docs translated into video games in order to reach a much larger, younger audience.

Film:Makers in Dialogues runs as part of CPH:DOX’s industry events until March 21. The festival runs in and around Copenhagen until March 24.

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