COVID-19-set documentaries can run into dull patches and are inherently risky. Despite the ample human appeal lodged in their folds, the textures of such films may get deflated in adherence to encapsulating the fatally unpredictable rhythms of life in those times. The commitment to recording a factuality of events is loaded with potential damage to a brighter, vivid transmutation into moments that can rise above the mundane.

Does the filmmaker side with a faithful recreation of experiences and feelings in those times, replete with a bundle of uncertainties and constant apprehension, or go hunting for a dramatic pull? Would the former suffice in just its elemental form, unvarnished and without being conveniently modulated to suit a satisfying series of ‘cinematic’ events? This is a fundamental decision that underpins the entire film right from the outset. To get swayed by dramatic licensing in order to extract the cinematically compelling may be a grievous disservice to the very spirit that runs deep through such circumstances. Goran Devic’s documentary “Pavilion 6” immediately makes its operating principles clear.

There are no elevated techniques, no swishing effects of displaying a filmmaker’s free hand, and no palpable impatience with the stories and anecdotes we are being beckoned to listen to. The distance between us and the subjects keeps varying, but the respectfulness and eagerness of attention stay intact throughout. Devic is an earnest observer whose inquisitive eye doesn’t impose or intervene, rather allowing whoever his camera frames to determine the trajectory of conversations and interactions as they would prefer. The director cedes space to those his camera’s gaze wanders on.

The film opens with a long queue at a vaccine center. The management is weak, exacerbating the waiting exponentially. People are restless, and disaffection with the government runs high. Everyone’s pissed, the queue is tardy, and there’s barely any progress. The reassurance of the authorities doesn’t offer any relief. The Croatian citizens talk of how the health minister, plucked from the medical sector, is essentially a pawn in the designs of the prime minister, who is ill-equipped to handle the leviathan crisis. Information is scarce. What is continually reiterated is an immediate need for vaccination. Rumors around its frequency are ever-changing. Some state one requires three shots, others rebut that one has to take a shot annually. Nobody knows anything with any firm confidence.

Pavilion 6 (2024) ‘Sheffield DocFest’ Movie Review
A still from “Pavilion 6” (2024)

Precarity and anxiety characterized life in the face of the virus. The film taps the everyday fears that took over in such times when people found themselves staring at circumstances when they might be sick, and there would be no one to look after either old parents or young kids. How does one mentally prepare for such situations? As people of all ages wait inside the center for their turn, they turn to each other and forge friendships at a time that denies them the very fundamental impulse to connect.

As someone later in the film says, man is a social animal, and it’s not possible to keep him locked away from fellow kin. The waiting lounge becomes a space of bonding, where they articulate their niggling anguish and reach for warmth. The film doesn’t dwell on a conversation to a great, ponderous, and drawn-out degree. It chugs ahead without seeming vaguely interested and yet according to privacy to the conversations. The balance between distance and intimacy is key to “Pavilion 6.” Every peek we get into a fleeting individual doesn’t demand an elaborate layout; it is sufficient in itself to convey a singular anxiety that resonates on a broader level.

“Pavilion 6” is a compelling, modest series of fragmentary snapshots evoking the groundswell of opinion and mood in the pandemic. The exchange of fears and hopes among strangers became a connective thread at a time of isolation. Unexpected friendships could blossom as one found a kindred soul in the other maybe while waiting for the shot. Goran Devic establishes this unifying spirit with grace and economy, pulling off a film that is resoundingly honest and clear-eyed in scope and detail.

Pavilion 6 premiered at Sheffield DocFest 2024.

Pavilion 6 (2024) Movie Link: IMDb, MUBI

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