BAFF 2011 Review: Farewell

How to make a documentary about more than its subjects.

The pseudo documentary Farewell by director Ditteke Mensink and researcher Gerard Nijssen is an immediate achievement because of its construction entirely from archival footage. Taking both men nine years to research, the film centres on the first round-the-world flight of a commercial airship but creates an engaging narrative through the on-board “romance” and its look into the era in which this event occurred.

Farewell follows the journey of the Graf Zeppelin in 1929, which flew around the world, and Lady Grace Hay, a British journalist hired by William Randolph Hurst who was the female on board. As the zeppelin makes its twenty-one day flight through Germany, Russia, Poland and Japan, Hay’s diary reveals her romantic relationship with fellow traveller and journalist, Karl von Wiegand, and an in-depth look at the politics surrounding them.

The Graf Zeppelin was a beacon of hope for the world, particularly Germany, after the destructive events of World War I. The inclusion of a female on board was an illusionary idea of social progression. The political significance, however, was that the zeppelin was financed by the German people but was only able to complete its trip with help from Hurst. The diplomatic relations between America, Germany, Russia and Japan looked to be mending at the start of the journey.

Yet each stop on the trip acts as a marker to the changing attitudes around the world. Stalinist Russia and the emergence of Nazis in Germany are unsettling reminders that this achievement in human will was almost lost in the larger context of the events that would occur after its landing. So why does Hay’s relationship with von Wiegand become so crucial? It’s because their relationship is the emotional parallel for each stop on the trip. Karl von Wiegand was Hay’s mentor, the journalist she looked to for inspiration in her occupation, but he’s a former love and Hay’s emotional conflict is a metaphor for the tension arising in each country.

Mensink’s documentary is a subtly executed visual feast that always illustrates its story but is never obtrusive. Narration by Poppy Elliot is done well (despite reminding the viewer of an audio book) and the visual material is generally in good condition. While the shots of the zeppelin are awe-inspiring, it is the images of Stalin’s prisons for dissenters and the Great Depression that began fifty five days of the completion of the Graf Zeppelin’s journey that leave the viewer stunned. More than a documentary on the Zeppelin, Farewell is a distinct look at an era.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Farewell screens again at the Bigpond Adelaide Film Festival at 1:00pm on 2nd March.