Intimate and insightful cinema at the IFI Documentary Film Festival 2023

The IFI Documentary Film Festival kicks off this week, with the city centre cinema offering five days of features and short films, ‘from personal stories beautifully told, to a shocking investigative exploration of mysterious disappearances, from a unique viewpoint of those experiencing life behind the headlines of war, to shining a light on untold histories and discovering ordinary people’s extraordinary lives.’

This 27 Sept – 1 Oct, intriguing docs from Ireland and beyond will be shown at the Irish Film Institute, including a debut feature from an Irish filmmaker sharing a particularly personal story.

One of the films screening at the Documentary Festival, My Lost Russian Mother tells an intimate tale of secrets and lies, family and ethnicity and one young man’s odyssey from America to Russia, searching for his birth mother.

Irish filmmaker Sam Jones, in his first feature documentary follows US citizen Gabe, trying to trace the mother he and his sister were taken from in childhood when they were adopted into America. Gabe arrives in Russia high on expectation. He wants to know who he is and the truth about his childhood. What he finds is not the loving parent he hoped for, but an alcoholic, a woman steeped in lies, darkness and death.

Recorded over ten years, Jones recorded deeply personal moments in Gabe’s life, becoming entwined with the man and his own struggles and complexities. The film screened earlier this year at the Galway Film Fleadh, and Jones told us what it’s been like sharing this story with audiences.

This is a film that has been ten years in the making, it is not often that you become entwined in a story that takes you to a place you could never have imagined. I set out on this journey after a chat over a beer with a young American in South Russia not even sure if I could fully believe what he had told me. I stuck with it and finished it because I knew that it was extraordinary, the incredulity of a young Americans coming of age in rural Russia. When it World Premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh the response from the audience was incredible but what moved me most was how personally effected some of the people who spoke to me afterwards were. 

The film goes to personal, complex, dark and tragic places. Documentaries can shift gears owing to the winding, unclear paths that real lives lurch through. Gabe’s life is a difficult one to take in, but Jones hopes audiences approach it with understanding.

For me viewers needed to identify with Gabe, they may be shocked at his responses at times but what a feature film gives you is the space to gain an understanding of the characters. As film critic Donald Clarke put it ‘A fascinating, troubling story that reminds us to avoid hasty judgments.’ This is what my self and editor Vince Murry had worked towards as your drawn into the film your feelings towards characters such as Gabe may not be what you first thought. I tried to be truthful to what I became a part of and be empathetic to all involved, what comes out can often have more to tell us than I could ever say. 

13 features will be screened at the IFI as part of this year’s Documentary Film Festival. It will open with the world premiere of an exploration into how five young boys went missing from the streets of Belfast and were never seen again, and why five decades on, the families still have no answers. From there, the festival will travel from the war-torn streets of Mariupol to the daily struggles of a community of sheep farmers on the Beara Peninsula. From a sanctuary for transgender women and cross-dressing men in 1950s/ 60s US, to the smoke saunas of Estonia where women gather to cleanse their bodies and their souls, in a wide-ranging exploration of human lives. With a documentarian’s eye on interesting stories, Jones outlines other films at the festival that have caught his attention.

It’s a pleasure to be screening at the IFI as they show such incredible films. IN THE SHADOW OF BEIRUT is a film I saw at Galway, it takes place over an extended period as an incredibly personal story is woven between families struggling to survive. You witness the intimate vulnerability of the family’s lives set in the stunning cinematically filmed backdrop of Beirut. LOST BOYS: BELFAST’S MISSING CHILDREN is a film I want to get to see and have heard much about the making of it. It’s one of those stories that leaves you reeling from a sense of injustice and one that has to be told and is World Premiering at the IFI. 

My Lost Russian Mother screens as part of the IFI Documentary Film Festival on Saturday 30 September at 3.20pm. Tickets for the festival are available now, with Multi-film bundles available: 3 films for €30; 5 films for €50; full 5-day festival pass for €110.

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